Design Chats

Making Houzz a home for flexible design

4 min read
Scott Porter  •  Oct 12, 2018
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Houzz is the world’s largest home remodeling and design platform, engaging more than 40 million unique monthly users and over 2.1 million active home professionals.

The company’s approach to design works—the Houzz app has over 500,000 five-star reviews across iOS and Android, and it took home the first-ever Best App prize (for all categories) at the 2016 Google Play awards.

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We spoke with Tom Hacohen, Houzz’s Head of Design, about how the company’s specialized design process supports its growing global staff, how teams can build the kind of trust that empowers building great products, and how designers can prepare for the challenges of the future.

Tom Hacohen, Houzz’s Head of Design

Tell us about the design culture at Houzz and how you set designers up for success.

For us, culture is about empowering people to create and innovate every day. We’re also very product and customer-focused. Designers here truly care about delivering a great product and user experience.

Related: Should you hire for culture fit?

Design at Houzz has a strong influence on strategic planning and product development from the beginning of every project, and we encourage our designers to take an active part in those discussions. As a result, the team feels connected to the projects they work on—there’s a real sense of ownership.

“Culture is about empowering people to create and innovate every day.”
Tom Hacohen, Head of Design at Houzz
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We also believe designers thrive when they work closely with other designers, so we create opportunities for the team to spend time together. For example, all of our designers sit in the same area, though they have the flexibility to work from anywhere in the office. We’ve learned that this creates more opportunities for collaboration and informal design reviews.

We also have dedicated weekly design reviews that are open to everyone on the team where people can showcase ideas and receive feedback.

How is the Houzz design team structured?

Our team currently has more than 30 designers based in Palo Alto and Tel Aviv—and it’s growing fast. We’re grouped into two teams: brand and product.

Our brand team focuses on our visual identity, creating our brand guidelines, and developing marketing campaigns. We create everything in-house, including our TV and social ads, as well as brand marketing materials for all of our international offices.

The product team focuses on our user experience and is divided into three groups: core consumer, marketplace (everything that has to do with the shopping experience on Houzz), and industry solutions (serving our home professional users as well as the homeowners on Houzz who are looking to hire a professional for their project).

We also have a UX research team that works across all of the product teams to provide data and user insights that help to inform design decisions.

On the Houzz blog, you pull the curtain back on the company’s “three-pronged” flexible design process. How did it come about?

In order to best support the company through rapid growth, promote design thinking, and help move ideas from concept to completion, we created different processes for different types of projects, employing a flexible approach that allows us to adapt to the specific needs of each project.

“The Houzz design team has been using InVision from the very beginning.”
Tom Hacohen, Head of Design at Houzz
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This flexible design process keeps things lean and creative. We divide projects into three different types to help us direct our work flows:

  • People-driven projects start with research to identify our community needs, followed by an iterative design process that incorporates user testing to shape our solutions.
  • Technology-driven projects begin with a deep dive into the new technology capabilities. From there we work in-parallel with engineering to build and iterate on product details together.
  • Data-driven projects begin by analyzing products’ usage metrics which drive our hypotheses on how we can improve the experience. We experiment with a few versions which we test with our community, analyze, and repeat.

This allows us to approach diverse and complex projects from different directions while moving quickly—without compromising on design quality. It also helps us to facilitate better communication between teams and gather ideas and solutions from multiple people.

How do you incorporate InVision into Houzz’s flexible design process?

We’ve been using InVision from the very beginning. It’s a great tool for communicating our ideas and collecting feedback from other designers and teams, particularly for big projects where multiple iterations are likely to happen.

We also use InVision for usability testing, especially when we’re working on early concepts.

Based on what you’ve seen work at Houzz, what advice can you share about building trust between teams?

Empathy and transparency build trust. Think about the other team’s perspective. What challenges are they dealing with for each project and what drives their point of view? Always share as much information as you can throughout the process about your own approach and thinking.

“Empathy and transparency build trust.”
Tom Hacohen, Head of Design at Houzz
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It also helps to start each project with a kickoff meeting where everyone involved attends. Those meetings can set the right expectations for each team, get everyone excited about the project, and help teammates get to know each other.

How can we give designers better feedback?

Here, we give designers better feedback by making sure that everyone in the room is aligned on the project goal. Design reviews should be focused on what we know as well as what we’re trying to achieve.

Related: How to give designers feedback they can actually use

I see a lot of cases where designers share their work without providing enough context, and other cases where the feedback is irrelevant to what’s presented. We can prevent that if we consider the type of feedback we want to get and set the right environment for that.

Here are some questions that designers can ask themselves prior to the review:

  • What’s the goal of this design/project?
  • What part are we looking to get feedback on?
  • Do we have enough time to cover all the details we need?
  • Do we have the right people in the room?
  • Are reviewers aware of the goal/history/concept?
  • How much context do we need to give?

How can design teams prepare for the future? You mentioned Houzz has been working on AR projects.

The most important things designers have are their creativity and their ability to problem-solve. Those can be transferred between platforms to design whatever you want. Don’t stay fixed on one platform. Don’t be afraid to use different tools. Don’t dismiss something just because you don’t know much about it.

Our designers faced a unique challenge when we introduced augmented reality (AR) into our app with the View In My Room 3D tool, which allows shoppers to virtually place home products in their space, true to scale, using the camera.

We started by defining the goal and the user needs to brainstorm various flows and entry points, but the real challenge came with designing the camera and tool details. We had to envision how 3D products would appear and move around in the space, so it was really important to understand product sizes and scales and how gestures would work.

We set up short cycles with our engineering team to iterate on real-life implementations. That allowed us to shape our product specs and identify how core functions would work together. The final tool is one that we’re all really proud of.

What makes a great design leader?

Great design leaders can see the future—and they envision a better future. They’re able to see opportunities and inspire others to think beyond obvious solutions, while considering the business goals and needs of other teams.

“Great design leaders can see the future—and they envision a better future.”
Tom Hacohen, Head of Design at Houzz
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Finally, what’s the best advice you can offer up-and-coming designers?

  1. Understand the project and know all the details. If you’re not sure what the goal is, ask more questions.
  2. Own your design and stand behind your work. If you don’t like how the project turned out or you disagree with the creative direction, come up with a better solution that will make you feel proud.
  3. Reach out to people you admire and ask them about their path, process, and adventures. You’d be surprised how much people are willing to share if you buy them a cup of coffee.
  4. Take notes! It might sound trivial, but it’s easy to forget feedback and meeting comments. Writing everything down helps you stay organized, address all the feedback, and experience fewer iterations for everyone involved.
  5. Stay humble, and be nice.