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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My Design Process, Part 2

Missed part 1? Read it here.


Time to grab your design tool(s) of choice and get designing. This could mean pencil and paper, Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, Balsamiq, html/css, or anything else you prefer. The goal is to get to something clickable as quickly as possible. The great thing about having done all the up front work, is you probably have pretty good ideas for what might be solid directions by the time you get to this step. Try them all as quickly and cheaply as possible. Remember the pros and cons you were listing during the competitive analysis process? Do the same here. Admit where your design is weak and see how that balances with its strengths.

Solicit feedback regularly and consistently. Get eyes on what you’re doing, start tossing what’s clearly a dead-end and iterating on what feels right. Collaboration is definitely your friend at this point. If you’re down a...

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My Design Process, Part 1

When I first got into designing products, my first year or two was spent mostly in Photoshop designing high-fidelity mockups a single screen at a time, showing them to my team, iterating and then getting into code. While I had previous experience with critique from my Creative Writing program, my writing process - just sit down and start writing something, anything - left a lot to be desired. And while the results weren’t terrible, they certainly weren’t as thoughtful and holistic as they could have been.

Luckily, I’ve had a few more jobs and opportunities since then to work with more designers, get some experience, add new tools to my skill set and improve my process. Now, I’m finally in a place where I can repeat the same steps and get fairly solid results. The scope and necessity of each step shifts depending on the size and scope of the project. But, generally, I always follow...

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Why Designers Really Should Learn to Code

There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about whether or not designers should be obligated to learn how to implement what they design. This obviously causes a bit of angst amongst the design community because, of course, not every designer has been in a position to learn to write their own front-end code (and that being a requirement is scary). And, hey, some people just aren’t interested in that part of the product process. That’s what engineers are for, right?

On the other side, the common refrain seems to circle around designers becoming more and more independent. If designers know how to code, we can finally be free of engineers telling us we can’t do something. We can implement our vision for the design and not have to rely on anyone else. We can create complex animations, subtle gradients and shadows with pixel perfection. Never have to submit or defend a design spec...

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The Dark Corners of Your UI

The other day, the engineering manager on my team was testing some stuff and happened upon this heartbreakingly terrible interface:

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 11.22.55 AM.png

He pinged the designers and we obviously filed a design bug immediately to bring that page up to any kind of snuff. However, the discovery of that UI got me thinking about all the dark corners in our software we let sit and rot away. These are the parts of our flows that either aren’t immediately ROI positive or are hidden from us because they’re either edge cases or a part of the product we just don’t see very often. I challenge you to take a fresh look at the following pages/flows in your product:

  • New user on-boarding.
  • Empty states (particularly for new users).
  • Password and email resets.
  • Email confirmation prompts.
  • Emails you’re sending.
  • User Settings.
  • Closing an account.

What I’ve seen time and again is that people gravitate toward working on...

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Free to Be Great

When I first joined Etsy, it was my first job attempting to manage a team of people. In previous jobs, I’d been senior to other designers, and even mentored designers to help improve their processes, but this was the first time I would wind up officially responsible for others. And while I was excited, I was simultaneously pretty terrified. What if I failed? What if I found out I was a terrible manager? What if I hated the role and wanted to design full-time again instead? In my first one-on-one with our Creative Director, Randy, I laid it all out there.

I just want you to know that I could be totally wrong for this role. I’m going to try really hard to be great at it, but the truth is I’ve never managed a team before and might wind up being not very good at it.

Without missing a beat, Randy said something I’ll never forget.

That’s okay, don’t worry about it, he said. If you’re bad at...

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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 problem to sort through. But that was fine because, hey,...

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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 lot of people - they work on something. And they want to hold...

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Scaling a Design Team

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 designers on different teams identify overlapping...

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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 workshops and grew as a...

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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 enforce these...

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