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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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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The Dribbble Divide

It’s that time of year again. My Twitter feed the last day or two has been alight with folks arguing over the merits of Dribbble. On one side, we have folks deriding Dribbble as design fluff, form over function, a pox on the design profession as a whole. On the other side are people who, quite reasonably, see Dribbble as a fun, supportive community to try out and share new visual design stuff.

Over and over I’ve found myself on the side of the detractors. I’ve used (and heard others use) the term “Dribbble shot” to comment on work I think bypasses the fundamentals of UI and experience design. The product-as-term, Dribbble, has become synonymous with shallow amongst designer friends and I. And only as this recent swell of resentment-and-defense crested have I taken a moment to really evaluate my stance and to take a closer look at what about Dribbble...

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Defeating Email

Before Kim and I got married, my afterwork routine was generally:

  1. Come home.
  2. Check work email.
  3. Cook dinner.
  4. Check work email.
  5. Relax and watch a movie or an episode of television.
  6. Check work email.
  7. Get ready for bed.
  8. Check work email.

Sound familiar? I’d unlock my phone during a moment of downtime, see that little red email badge, open up my email and get sucked in. Sometimes just a quick triage, sometimes a short reply, sometimes a stressful sigh followed by getting out my laptop and composing something more substantial.

Then something magical happened: we went on our honeymoon. Before we left, I deleted my work email from all of my devices. And the following two weeks were so glorious that when we got back, I left it off and haven’t put it back on since. When I tell people that my work email isn’t on my phone I get weird looks followed up with “how’s...

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What Do You Want?

Whenever I’m frustrated by a problem (whether at work, or personally), my wife, Kim, always winds up posing the same question to me:

What outcome do you want?

It’s surprising to me how often I don’t immediately have an answer to that question. Whereas when I’m designing something, I nearly always start with the problems-to-solve and goals-to-achieve, it’s far too easy for me to forget to do that entirely when I’m dealing with people. When Kim asks me what I’m hoping to come away with from a meeting, an email, a phone call, etc. I gain so much clarity and framing my discussions becomes much simpler. And in the end, I get closer to what I want to accomplish because I’m pursuing a goal and not just a vague resolution.

In real life, there are so many opportunities to apply UX process - whether it’s in conversations with co-workers,...

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Skeptical

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere. Skepticism enables us to distinguish fancy from fact, to test our speculations.

from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

There have been a few instances recently when I’ve followed up a tech announcement with critique and skepticism. Most recently, Facebook Paper, which is looking to enter the already-crowded space of personal news apps, seems like yet another instance of Facebook attempting to pull a Microsoft. And unfortunately, history isn’t on Facebook’s side in this regard: Facebook Questions, Gifts, Photo App, Poke App, etc. were all entries into existing spaces with existing incumbents and, while I don’t have access to usage numbers, those apps/features have largely fallen by the wayside (anecdotally, I haven’t seen anyone using a single one of those apps/features...

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Uninformed Redesigns

I was telling this story to someone the other day and thought it might be worthwhile to post it. A few years ago, I found myself on a phone interview with a design manager at Amazon. In the middle of the usual bevy of questions (tell me about your work history, hardest design problem you’ve tackled, etc.), he asked one that younger me was totally unprepared for:

So, what would you change about the Amazon homepage?

Strangely, I’d never been asked about a company’s product in an interview before, probably because I’d been working in early-stage startups my entire career, where companies don’t even really have a product yet. I quickly opened the Amazon homepage up on my laptop and looked it over, feeling pretty overwhelmed by the question. Finally, I gave up and told the design manager so:

Well, I could probably tell you about some odd visual choices here...

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