Cap Watkins

VP of Design at BuzzFeed. Formerly at Etsy, Amazon, Formspring and Zoosk. Draws pretty pictures on the Internet all day.

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The Value of Transparency

Over the last few years, I’ve been a big proponent of transparent, inclusive processes, both within design, product development and across whichever company I was working at. Recently, I was asked directly what I think the value of transparency really is. I mean, doesn’t transparency and inclusivity create a Design By Committee-type environment? Isn’t part of my job as a manager to shield my reports from the regular craziness of a complex organization? Surely I’m not transparent about everything, right?

While there are definitely a few scenarios I’ll refrain from sharing designs or information, which I’ll list out a little later, I otherwise try as much as possible to opt for maximum information sharing. And while I’m not perfect at doing so, I’ve noticed benefits to both the projects and the people I manage.

Transparency builds confidence.

This is true for both design and for people...

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Hypothetical Futures & Product Design

I was talking to a few engineers yesterday about implementation details for a project we’re working on at Etsy. At some point, we found ourselves disagreeing over one specific implementation versus another.

But someday we might want things to be this way, someone said, so we should future-proof things now.

Now, I’ve used this exact argument several times in my career, both as a designer and a manager. I’ll be thinking about the road ahead while trying to solve a problem we have right now. The issue is that, most of the time, the future I’m working with is entirely hypothetical. And by “future-proofing” my feature I’m making decisions and compromises based entirely on my own assumptions. And when the roadmap changes (as it nearly always does), the product I designed will be left feeling half-finished or not as well-considered, simply because I optimized for later instead of optimizing...

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More Solutions, More Problems

Recently I stumbled across an old presentation that I and the other two design managers, Kim and Jay, put together in my first few months at Etsy. The topic revolved around the current challenges the design team faced, as well as new ways of looking at ourselves and our roles. I remember so distinctly giving that presentation to the whole team and feeling a sense of pure focus: here are the challenges we face, and here are some things we can do right now to make our lives and products better.

Looking back now, it’s kind of amazing how far we’ve come since that first meeting. The product design team has grown and evolved a metric ton in the last two years. Those challenges we identified in 2012 are, largely, in our rearview mirror. We did it. We achieved.

It turns out, though, that overcoming those first challenges only revealed (and at times created) new ones. Like peeling an onion,...

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The iPhone 6 - A Practical Review

Leading up to purchasing and receiving the iPhone 6, I read a lot of the pre-release reviews from the usual suspects. And while they were certainly interesting and helpful (stress testing the hardware, battery, etc.), I find that there are a lot of small, practical things that aren’t covered (or maybe I miss them) that wind up appearing in my everyday usage. So! Here’s a practical guide to the new parts of the iPhone 6.



It’s Really Beautiful

Seriously, Jony Ive must have discovered, drank from and escaped the Temple of the Crescent Moon or something, because everything that comes out of Apple’s hardware department (besides those weird-ass new Airport Extreme Base Stations) is unbelievable. I don’t understand how they make those silky curves, or how a phone that big can be that light. There’s literally no one else I can think of playing in the same league. The curved sides...

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Sticking a Fork in Passion

When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor.

Unsurprisingly, my parents were in full support of this idea, buying me a kids’ microscope set, lots of books on the human body and, of course, this fantastic CD-ROM set:


I got into a bit of trouble in elementary school, actually, when I brought BodyWorks printouts of the entire human body (both male and female) to class so I could show off my newfound scientific knowledge to my friends. In my defense, it was visuals of the internals, but I guess that was close enough. Until I was sixteen, I really thought I’d wind up as a physician.

Then, at the beginning of my junior year of high school, I got a failing grade on a paper for my English class. Dr. Granger Babcock was having none of this five-paragraph-essay bullshit and, quite appropriately, let me know that my first essay wasn’t going to pass. He explained in detail the power of the written...

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The Boring Designer

Whenever I’m looking at a product designer’s work, I find myself continuously asking the same question: which solution is the boring one? Maybe it’s born out of seeing apps choose flash over function, or trying to understand just one too many indecipherable icons-as-buttons. Whatever the case, here’s an ode to the boring designers among us. The designers who…

Choose obvious over clever every time.

If you haven’t read Randy Hunt’s book on Product Design, you haven’t lived. I’m stealing this first one right out of there. When given the choice between hiding things on hover or displaying them right away, the boring designer always chooses the latter. Sure, it might be harder to achieve that perfect visual balance your graphic design teachers drilled into you, but you love a good challenge, right? You value your users’ experience over your own. Maybe you wince a little at the “compromises...

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Experimentation vs. User Experience

Lately, I’ve noticed that I’m following people on Twitter that I can’t recall actually following. Then last evening, I finally noticed that I’d inadvertently tapped that little person-with-a-plus icon in the bottom right with my thumb while scrolling through posts:


Twitter only adds this button to Retweets and Favorites of stranger’s tweets in your feed to make following new folks more convenient. Checking back through my following list, it seems like I’ve done that quite a few times by accident (and I’m not alone). What’s more, it’s a very subtle action. You get only the tiniest indicator that you actually did something (and no animation):


Not hard to miss if you’re purposefully tapping, perhaps. But incredibly easy to miss if you accidentally tap the icon with your thumb. Additionally, undoing that action is a double-confirm. So even if you notice you accidentally followed a...

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The Fight

I was giving a talk the other night and, during the question and answer session, a designer described a difficult situation he was facing at his company. After he finished, one of the other speakers told him it was probably time to quit, to vote with his feet. His answer was probably right, of course. I’ve definitely been there a couple of times in my career - exhausted and finding no purchase with my company. That’s how so many tenures at companies end. Frustrated, tired.

At the end of the day, though, it’s not simply being tired or frustrated that leads us to move on. Because, spoiler alert, every job at times will be frustrating and leave you exhausted. The kicker is being frustrated and tired and not believing in your team, the product you’re building or the company itself. It’s a feeling that you can’t change things for the better, or that it’s just not worth the effort. I’ve so...

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Should Engineers Design?

Why should I learn to code if engineers don’t have to learn to design?

The last few times I’ve spoken about how Etsy’s product designers are expected to help write the front-end for their features, I’ve gotten that question during each Q&A. And after receiving similar responses on Twitter when I wrote about why designers should code, I’m convinced that the topic seems worth addressing. So, a few thoughts…

That’s a pretty bummer response.

I can’t remember which logical fallacy is being violated by the question, but using a perceived injustice to prevent yourself from acquiring new skills and responsibilities seems like a losing attitude. What other learning experiences are you denying yourself just because you see other people not learning things?

Engineers do design.

In fact, the only way the above question even makes sense to me is if you either a) think design is all about...

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“Good Enough”

This afternoon, I met up with a designer who was in town for a few days. We were catching up and talking shop over drinks, when she brought up an issue near and dear to every designer’s heart (paraphrased).

We ship things sometimes and it’s not how I pictured it. It’s not as great as it could be. We do these two week sprints and people keep saying that it’s good enough, so we ship at the end. But I know it’s not as great as it can be. And we keep saying we’ll go back to fix it, but I know we probably won’t. I look at other products and how well-designed they are and I just don’t see how to reach that level.

We all know that feeling. You’ve got a vision or even a fully-realized design and the end-result that gets shipped seems lacking. There was a corner case that wasn’t totally accounted for and kind of looks weird. A feature that turned out to be more difficult to implement than you...

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