Design Chats

A Look Inside the Design Team at Lyft

4 min read
Amanda Hackwith
  •  Jun 17, 2014
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We’re tracking down InVision users inside the world’s most amazing companies to discover their favorite tools, inspirations, workspace must-haves and the philosophy behind what makes them so awesome. Today we’re talking to Frank Yoo, director of product design at Lyft.

Frank Yoo is director of product design at Lyft, a peer-to-peer transportation community available in 66 U.S. cities and known for the distinctive pink mustache that adorns all of its cars. The San Francisco-based company is definitely in growth-mode, and on his LinkedIn page, Frank says he’s looking for designers to add to his current three-person crew.

Here’s Frank’s take on everything from his days starting out at Yahoo! to Lyft’s secret “library”:

How did you get your start in design and end up at Lyft?

My career in web and mobile design started in earnest at Yahoo! back in 2005. I worked with some really amazing people there, as I did several years later at LinkedIn. I gained some really valuable experience designing for huge user bases and I got to dig into the finer points of UX design and mobile UI. Through these networks, I also got in touch with the startup community, which is how I ultimately arrived at Lyft. When I first started at Lyft, I was the product manager for the mobile team, but in my current role as director of product design, I’m able to be laser-focused on elevating our design output and scaling our stellar design team. To build a world-class organization, it’s essential that you focus on the designers.Twitter Logo That’s my current charter.

Can you tell me a little bit about your team?

We’re pretty small and nimble right now as a design team. We’re a crew of three. I’d say we have a broad range of skills, from ideation to UX flows, visual design expertise, prototyping and strong graphic design skills. But we’re definitely looking to grow because our engineering team is expanding rapidly and we want to make sure we’re staying ahead of the curve.

What are the biggest challenges for your team right now?

Measuring the success of our design decisions has always been a constant challenge. Numbers & metrics can tell you a lot, but they can’t tell you about the “why.”Twitter Logo You don’t always know why a user was able to discover one feature but not another, or why they tapped this widget and not that one. Design is subjective by nature, but if there were better tools to get a read on that, not just from a business perspective but also on more long-term brand perception and customer loyalty aspects, I would be excited about that.

Lyft is about community, and that sense seems to be built into the app design. How does the idea of community really affect your design decisions?

We strive to keep things pretty spare and simple and really focus on functionality and user experience. Much of the community aspect comes together when you’re in the car, when you’re face-to-face with that other person – the driver or the passenger – so the more we can enable that magic without adding friction, the better. That said, I think there’s more we can do to blow out the social experience in the app, so we’re giving that some thought.

What is the most inspiring thing about working at Lyft?

I am most inspired by the people that I work with.Twitter Logo These are incredibly smart and creative people to be around, and we have co-founders with strong convictions who get people to rally behind their vision. When I was first interviewing at Lyft, I spoke to an advisor and he told me to think about the people: Could I stand spending time with them outside the office? Would I want to hang out with them even if we didn’t work together day in and day out? Because these are the people you’re in the trenches with. You’ll move mountains if you can get behind a shared vision and support each other as a team.Twitter Logo

You’ll move mountains if you can get behind a shared vision and support each other as a team.

What do you need to be a great designer at Lyft?

A great designer is a master of his tools.Twitter Logo You also need to take time to learn new skills, but having control of your design tools helps you create freely, without technical constraints. The last thing you need when a fire drill lands on your lap or a new deadline looms close is struggling with a rounded corner or an opacity mask or whatever.

Something else that’s crucial is to be able to communicate effectively across different functional teams. You’ve got to cultivate a mutual understanding between your team and another to get things done and to put out a great product. In a design team, we all rely on each other’s expertise.Twitter Logo

As designers it’s our responsibility to be shepherds of the user experience. It’s crucial that we empathise with our users, and understand their needs. The approach is more of an art than a science, but you have to keep putting yourself in your users’ shoes – You can’t lose sight of that.

Are there any designers whose work you follow right now?

One person in particular is Julie Zhuo, a product design director at Facebook. I read her posts on Medium; her experience is very inspiring and relevant to me. She’s someone I personally look up to.

What tools do you use for your workflow at Lyft?

We’re heavy whiteboard users – the design team in particular, but they’re also getting a ton of use by the engineering team. Then there’s my iPhone, it never leaves my side. I use it to take pictures of the whiteboards so we don’t lose the work, and I’m constantly perusing apps for inspiration. Of course, there are the more technical tools: We’re super heavy users of Illustrator and Sketch and now we’re looking at various prototyping solutions, like InVision, so that’s become an important tool in our quiver.

How does using InVision help your team?

It’s awesome. The key is being able to validate your designs and interaction flows on device. If you want a feel for how your UI will perform in the real world, it’s important to prototype.Twitter Logo

InVision also also helps us tell a richer story when we’re trying to pitch a concept or communicate a flow to teammates and other stakeholders on a project.

InVision also also helps us tell a richer story when we’re trying to pitch a concept or communicate a flow to teammates and other stakeholders on a project. Instead of spending days trying to describe a flow through mocks, multiple emails, and several meetings, you can throw a prototype together in 15 minutes. Then, you can just walk over to your co-worker and hand him your phone and be like, “Dude, check this out, this is what I mean.” And you can see this instant light of recognition like, “Ah, now I get it. This totally makes sense.”

What do you love about your workspace at Lyft?

Our standing desks are pretty amazing to keep the blood flowing, which helps us feel less stagnant while we’re heads down. Conference rooms are a big deal, too. You’d think they’d be a given at a startup, but before we moved to our new space they were very hard to come by. So now that we have them, we’re in conference room heaven.

We also have a roof deck which is a great place to get out. You get a 360-degree panoramic view of The Mission district and some of the big hills in San Francisco. Then there’s the super secret library room, which has a dimly lit oak table with some lounge-y furniture and old books, that has become the go-to place on Friday afternoons to wind down, have a glass of scotch and talk about the week’s triumphs. You actually have to enter through a hidden door masquerading as a painting of Willy Wonka!

Best of all, we’re literally across the street from a brewery and 2 blocks away from some of the best coffee in San Francisco, it’s pretty ideal.

What are the wider industry trends that you think are changing the way you’ll work in the future?

The emergence of simple prototyping tools, like InVision, has been a huge change. When I was at Yahoo!, we had dedicated prototypers, but they were more akin to front-end developers. Then the whole discipline of prototyping went dormant for a while and now it’s coming back in a big way with these designer-focused tools. Better prototyping tools allow you to tell the story more effectively.Twitter Logo That’s huge, and it’s something we weren’t able to do with static mocks and spec documents.

Better prototyping tools allow you to tell the story more effectively.

Do you have any creative projects outside of work?

I’m really into music, particularly house music and old vinyl, so I like to collect and spin records to wind down. But I’m a new dad, so a lot of my free time is dedicated to figuring out how to get a better seal on my daughter’s diapers. So, parenting is a creative project in itself.Twitter Logo

What do you wish you’d known when you started designing?

I wish I had gotten out to meet my peers more often. Especially when you’re getting started, you have to be careful not to isolate yourself from other designers.Twitter Logo Being too shy prevented me from accessing this wealth of information from these amazing people. The best way to get insights into new tools, processes and trends is to put yourself out there.Twitter Logo I do it more frequently now and I get a ton of value from that, even if it’s just a casual coffee meeting with someone I met on Quora, which has happened several times now and have turned into really valuable relationships.

Also, I would have armed myself with some foundational coding skills earlier on. I was more into visual details and interaction design, but it’s very useful to understand the subtleties and pitfalls of implementing UI and what it takes to make your design functional all the way down to the performance implications and speed of use. Besides helping you make informed choices as a designer, it helps you communicate more effectively with your engineering peers. Engineers will respect you more if you can empathise with their process and implementation pain points.Twitter Logo

If you’re hungry for it, just dive in and go for it. Build something.

Do you remember one of the first things you designed that you were really proud of when you first started out?

Definitely. I was at Yahoo! and it wasn’t even a product, it was a mood board I created as part of a redesign for the old-school Personals. This was kind of the original online dating service before Match or Tinder existed.

It was based on persona research and back then, as a super-young and hungry designer, I just poured my whole heart and soul into this project and it got the attention of my design manager at the time. Passion always helps sell a design.Twitter Logo It actually set my career in a different direction from that point forward, so that experience has always stuck with me as a formative time in my career. And, I still keep that file around because it’s a reminder of my love for our craft and something that still inspires me to this day.

What do you think is the best way to prepare to become a designer? Do you need a degree?

Well, I don’t have a design degree but then again, HCI & UI design degrees didn’t really exist in earnest when I was going to Berkeley. More recently I’ve noticed them popping up all over the place and I do think they’re valuable. Had they existed when I knew this was something I wanted to do, I would have definitely gone that route.

But I don’t think you have to go to design school or obtain a design degree. If you’re hungry for it, just dive in and go for it. Build something.Twitter Logo Either teach yourself or go ask somebody for help – whatever it takes, figure it out. Do things for free to get some projects under your belt – the experience is invaluable. Be humble & ego-free, soak in the experience, and gain confidence with the tools so your imagination can run free of any obstacles.

  • Read more: Inside design at Lyft

Photography by Peter Prato.

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