Insights from Digital Design Leaders at Airbnb, GV and Instagram

Apr 18, 2018 · Design

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an interesting interview series with different digital design leaders from Airbnb, Google, Facebook, and many other companies. For some of them, I took some notes, which I want to share here. In my eyes, there are some valuable insights, ideas, and advice.

Katie Dill, Director of Experience @ Airbnb

Design is more than you see, it’s how something works.

Design is solving a problem and thinking about as well as integrating the end user. The iterative toolkit is useful for all kinds of problems. It’s about assumptions and testing them.

Design needs collaboration in an interdisciplinary team.

A problem in Airbnb’s early stages: The designers felt like the UI is at the end of the design process. There was a lack of understanding by the engineers/developers on how the designers should be used in the whole process. Airbnb was looking for Designers, who are able to walk into a meeting, grab a whiteboard marker and providing value for how the conversation is working.

Design is not only about pixels, but it’s also about creating experiences.

When Airbnb is looking for designers, they do not look for people who have a portfolio of nothing but pixels, but they are looking at the ramification of those pixels in the real world.

Airbnb oftentimes uses a storyboard and thinks in terms of pictures and in terms of a comic strip. This helps thinking about what someone is really going through.

Iterating with prototypes helps against unwanted surprises when you’re launching the real product.

Storytelling (in the form of a storyboard) helps to slip into the role of the user and increases empathy. It helps to frame the work, sell the work and execute the work.

The most important point is to have a people problem. Where do people have this problem and where will it take root in that context?

When you want to show people, what design is, show them bad designs. Good design is often not visible.

The Happiness Map: build a storyboard and draw a line for when the customer is happy and when not.

Airbnb includes a lot of data science into the design process.

They rarely launch a complete overhaul of a product at once. The reason why is, because it’s very difficult to learn from. Therefore, oftentimes they take the end vision and break it down into smaller pieces that they can ship, learn from, iterate on and then improve upon.

Daniel Burka, Design Partner @ GV

Designers need to know what the motivations for other people in the company are. Go and sit with people like the head of sales and ask them for their goals or what stresses them out. Those relationships are crucial for designers. All that work outside photoshop, sketch etc. (e.g. meetings) is also important design work.

In order to get your designs accepted, talking about it being better or more efficient than a current solution is not enough. Express the value it produces more clearly with business metrics and measurable improvements.

Another important value of design is bringing ideas, which float around in the company, into shape. Design is very good at faking things. This enables people to have something very concrete to discuss, rather than talking about an abstract concept. This is a very high leverage task for designers.

Ask for forgiveness, rather than permission.

Empathy is a big part of the design. For example, you need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the product manager and understand, what his or her goals are. Judge your designs from their perspective.

If you are in a discussion about two different concepts and you think that your design is better, then prototype both and bring them to the meeting. It’s way easier to show the flaws you see in their design when you have a concrete object to discuss. When you never try someone’s idea, they always think that it was a good idea.

When is the right time to think about the look and feel of something? “Don’t make anything unless it is necessary. But if it is necessary, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.” Be sure to design the right thing. Make sure it achieves the right objective. If it does so, make it beautiful. But take care: making stuff beautiful is only useful if it is important to make it beautiful. E.g. Walmart’s branding looks the way it does because it shows people that there is cheap stuff to buy. Another example: You don’t go to a flea market that is perfectly designed.

Nobody can predict how the customer will use or perceive a product. Prototyping is the only way out. It’s increasing the certainty we can predict the success of a product or service.

Prototyping can create much tighter loops than agile development. This means faster learning.

Ian Spalter, Head of Design @ Instagram

What is clear to you about design, which is not clear to other people? The structure of the company plays a more important role than any process in regard to the quality of your output. It must be on the same level as engineering etc. and the rewards must be based on the quality of the work.

Agency vs. product company: in an agency, you are able to solve many different business problems for different clients which helps with learning/improving. According to him, in the agency world the ideas matter, whereas in the product world the execution and delivery, as well as their impact, matters more.

Learning from fourquare: he focused on bringing more empathy in for the customer. The company was very visionary, but he gave more weight to the voice of the customer (e.g. more ethnographic-style research studies). Moreover, more workshops and co-sketching with the team.

Should a young designer start working at an agency or a product company? He thinks that the agency world is very good at storytelling and communication in comparison to interaction and product. Furthermore, if you are unsure what you really want to do, the variety of work in an agency is much larger (more design challenges), which gives you the opportunity to find what you really like to do.

What is he looking for in a designer? Product sense, product thinking… Most of the time he gives them a problem and wants to see how they solve it – “going down to the pixels”. Moreover, a great sense of craft and detail is important. Heavy prototyping-culture and not too specialized. Self-awareness: know where you are, where you want to go and what you are good/bad at.

Are there skills required by designers that people overlook today? Pitching ideas, which you can learn in the agency world.

How to increase the influence as a designer in a company? Know the customer really well. Be good at storytelling and pitching your work. Being proactive.

Books on improving storytelling: Medium blog post by James Bruckhouse, Scott McClouds books on comics, Creativity Inc.

What was the forcing function for all that innovation in early 2017? The company got more mature and was simply able to do more than one thing at once. Also, there was a recognition that they need to evolve. The act of changing the app icon gave them the confidence to go into new directions (which is absolutely necessary in the social space). He thinks that they picked the right problems to solve and defined them really well. Moreover, from a planning standpoint, they ensured that they do not do too much at once to ensure good execution.

How do they ensure speed while growing? Planning and prioritization are key and unblocks teams. Choose and commit. Leadership on what to focus on is essential.

An important team for him: he structures the week so that the week starts together with the team and ends together with the team.

How do you explain the role of design to people in Instagram? Design research helps to find the right problem to solve. Product design gives the “how” to solving problems.

Tools they use at Instagram: Sketch, Origami Studio

What can you do when you are the only designer at a company? You need to understand the business problems very well and find opportunities to grow the business.

How to present designs? It’s important for designers to understand and breaking down numbers. Use numbers to measure your design as well as to get inspired by them for new ideas.