Cap Watkins

Sr. Product Design Manager at Etsy. Formerly at Amazon, Formspring and Zoosk. Draws pretty pictures on the Internet all day.

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The Switch from Designer to Manager

Nowadays, when I mention that I manage part of the Etsy design team, the reaction is nearly always the same. First, the person I’m talking to asks how much design work that means I’m doing now. When I tell them the answer (“none”), they scrunch their face a little, as if they just tasted something sour and ask, “How is that? I don’t think I could ever stop designing completely.”

The reaction is pretty familiar to me, since it was also mine until a few short months ago. When I started at Etsy, the design team was about half the size it is now. I actually wasn’t managing anyone at all. And while I did spend some time helping develop processes and structure for the design team, I had plenty of time left to design stuff. In fact, my first year was spent redesigning Etsy’s item reviews system, which was a pretty messy and difficult...

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Show Work Every Day

Most people - if you can imagine this - you can’t draw very well, but even if you can draw very well, suppose you come in, and you’ve got to put together animation or drawings and show it to a famous, world-class animator. Well, you don’t want to show something which is weak or poor. So you want to hold off until you get it to be right. And the trick is, actually, to stop that behavior. We show it every day when it’s incomplete. If everybody does it every day, then you get over the embarrassment. And when you get over the embarrassment, you’re more creative. And that’s - as I say - it’s not obvious to people, but starting down that path helped everything that we did. Show it in its incomplete form. There’s another advantage to doing that, and that is, when you’re done, you’re done. Now, that might seem silly, except that a...

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Scaling Design

As we’ve scaled up to twenty-four designers, I’ve gotten a few questions about the processes we’ve developed to keep the design team connected and to continuously produce high-quality work. And while this is just a snapshot of where we’re at right now, hopefully some of the higher-level ideas will stay with us as we continue to grow.

First of all, everything we do is in service of a single goal: transparency. We’ve discovered over time that most of our difficulties arise when a project becomes murky or goes dark. Design is a holistic practice and we can only truly design for the entire product when we can see across it with ease. In addition to making our own work easier, transparency also gives designers a chance to cross-collaborate on projects that they’re interested in or that impact the thing they’re working on. We frequently have...

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Getting the Most from Critique

When I started my Creative Writing degree, my least favorite weeks were the ones in which I had my work critiqued. I’d toil tirelessly on a short story, edit it multiple times and ensure that every sentence was carefully crafted and conveyed precisely what I meant. Then, in the space of half an hour, my peers would point out countless, gaping holes in my work, tell me I should delete parts of the story I felt were crucial and even, at times, question the integrity of my entire premise. There was really no worse feeling to me than seeing my work get sliced up a hundred different ways. It frustrated me. It made me mad.

A few days later, though, I’d find a few of those comments and suggestions still nagging in my brain. Shortly after, without fail, I’d be heads-down in a rewrite, working on those issues that, earlier, I’d resisted. As I participated in more...

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My Role as a Manager

I’ve been in quite a few conversations lately about the role and questionable necessity of management. From new startups to established companies like Valve, lots of folks are wrestling with the idea of hierarchy vs. flat vs. insert-hot-new-organizational-structure-here. As a result, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my role as a design manager at Etsy and how different it is from the dirtiest-term version that’s come to represent the craft.

What management is not.

The subhead to Valve’s employee handbook reads: “A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do.” We all know the what they’re talking about. I’ve seen many managers make the mistake of hoarding information, being unnecessarily cryptic or, yeah, flat out telling folks on their team what to do. And honestly, I get it, I really do. A lot of company cultures not only accept, but...

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Building a Design Process

How do you break the habit of not doing design thinking properly and jumping right to your tools?

Question from Charles Peters

When I was a kid, I wanted to create a Science Fair project based on using magnetism to float cars. As a part of my project, I decided to build a track of magnets that would carry one of my Hot Wheels cars from one end to the other. I did some research (thanks, Internet), bought some heavy-duty magnets online (thanks, Mom) and pestered my dad to help me build said track (he graciously agreed). The most exciting part, for me, was that I got to see my dad build something in his workshop out in the garage. For as long as I can remember, he’s had an amazing assortment of tools and gadgets that allowed him to do anything: from fixing a doorway to building an entire fence around our property. So when he agreed to help me out, I was ecstatic. I’d finally...

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On Turning 30

My thirtieth birthday was yesterday and, amongst all the well-wishes and high-fives, the same question kept popping up:

So, how does it feel?

It isn’t an uncommon question, especially for milestone birthdays like this one (I’ve asked it myself on more than one occasion). To the people who asked me, I shrugged it off, smiled and told them it feels about the same. But the question lingered with me throughout the day until, now, I’m able to finally articulate exactly how I feel about it.

Looking back at the last ten years is pretty crazy. When I was twenty, I was halfway through college in Los Angeles, thinking I was going to be an English professor or a professional novelist/short story writer. When I was twenty-two, I realized I couldn’t afford graduate school and embarked on a year-long identity crisis. I applied to more graduate schools with better financial...

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Who I Hire

One of the questions I got asked a few times after last week’s post on recruiting was What are the consistent things you find in product designers you hire? In no particular order, here are some traits I care about and what I see in folks we wind up making offers to:

Great designers show the messy bits.

They show it because they know that’s what real design looks like and, honestly, the end result is so much less interesting than the path to get there. As designers, we’re natural storytellers and should look for the narratives in our own work. Awesome designers will show sketches that are full of crossed-out ideas, arrows to bits of UI with text asking “wtf?” They will tell you unabashedly how they started down one road and pivoted either based on data, new information or stakeholder feedback. They’ll talk about flows they were absolutely sure about...

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Recruiting Designers - By the Numbers

For the last six months or so I’ve been leading the charge for recruiting design talent at Etsy. We’ve hired at a brisk pace in that time and I’ve been asked on a few occasions how we’re doing it. And though I’m pretty happy with the results we’ve gotten so far, I think it’s important to share some numbers so that it’s obvious just how insanely hard recruiting great talent is. Some of this is approximated (human error ftl), but I think it paints a pretty accurate picture overall. So! Ripped straight from our totally unscientific Google Doc where we store this stuff:

Since October of 2013…

  • We personally reached out to 103 designers. That’s 17 per month. Nearly one per working day. Also, my educated guess is that we looked at around 10x that number of portfolios, web sites and Dribbble accounts.
  • 28 people either replied as...

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Just Ship*

For years, my career has been centered around one short, simple phrase. When you’re the only designer at a five-person, seed-funded startup, “just ship” is the name of the game. You’re sprinting to launch the product, to get the next feature done, to fix that bug in production. If you stop shipping, someone’s going to beat you. If you stop shipping, you’re dead.

It’s also really easy to get caught up in the act of launching stuff. The high of hitting that deploy button to x-number-of-millions-of-users is addictive as hell. And in a metrics-based world, quantity is a charming indicator. You shipped one thing a month this year? That’s way better than three things all year, right? You must be a really nimble team to ship all of that stuff so quickly. There’s a sense of pride when looking at your product roadmap and joking with your...

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