Etsy’s been around for just 12 years, but in that short time it’s become a leading peer-to-peer ecommerce site used by millions across the world to buy and sell everything from vintage handbags to baby clothes to avocado table clocks.
Millions of artists, entrepreneurs, and creatives from across the world have nearly 50 million items for sale on Etsy. Creating and designing an experience that makes it easy for vendors to list and sell their wares while also making it simple for shoppers to find what they need isn’t easy when your audience is so diverse.
We spoke with Catt Small, a product designer on Etsy’s marketing services team, and Jessica Harllee, a product designer on the core seller platform team, about Etsy’s design culture, the importance of data-driven design, and why they love designing for microentrepreneurs.
What’s the structure of the design team?
Jess: We’re one big design team, but we each have core focuses. Between teams, we have a similar mix of designers, from product designers to brand designers, copywriters, art directors, and project managers. Each focus team has a design system within it.
Catt: We keep things consistent with constant collaboration—we talk to each other a lot. There’s a lot of communication that happens across each group to make sure we are all working together. Our Brooklyn office is our main space, but we also have a few remote designers. Luckily Etsy is a company that as a whole has a lot of remote employees, so the infrastructure for supporting that is great.
“Keep things consistent with constant collaboration.”
Across teams, individual groups will choose their own specific structure, but as an organization we lean toward the agile side of things. We want to make sure we are delivering on projects as quickly as possible.
What’s the design culture like at Etsy?
Catt: Everyone here is kind and supportive, and I think that’s great for creating a deeply communicative design culture. It’s important for us to create ways for designers to connect. We host a weekly gathering called Design Lightning where anyone can come and present what they’re working on for discussion and feedback. We have a Design Family Hour, where we meet up just to hang out and get to know each other, in addition to biweekly lunches. And we have a session called Design Jelly, where you can bring up any challenge or thought for the group to discuss. We even have a book club.
“Create ways for designers at your organization to connect.”
Jess: Here, things are always changing. That’s why it’s so important for us to to have a culture of communication—and for us to find as many different ways as possible for us to connect and collaborate.
Take us through your design process, from idea to launch.
Jess: Initially every project starts with an idea or a customer need. We start off every project with a phrase of information gathering, where we hone in on the data and research we have. Because we are always talking to our customers, we have an incredible amount of data and information to help us paint the picture of the opportunity here.
The designer will collaborate with the project manager for early whiteboarding and to wrap our heads around the problem. And from early on, we will start validating our assumptions, which might include running more research and experiments.
Once the KPIs become more clear and we have a better picture of the problem we’re solving, we bring in engineering and have a formal kickoff.
From there, we’ll get into a rhythm. We’ll run design sprints, building out the solution and iterating on it from there. We go through cycles of research, build, test, and iterating until we hit a point where we feel close to completion. Depending on the scale of what we’re doing, we might launch it as an experiment to see how it does. Or, if it’s a tool for sellers, we’ll beta test it with them so we can get their feedback.
At that point, we’re gathering a lot of feedback on a mostly complete version and incorporating it as needed. Then we’ll ramp up for a big release, with product marketing. And after, we focus on analyzing the impact of the change: did we hit our goals? What follow-up changes do we have to do?
How do you identify and prioritize feature requests?
Jess: We’re lucky to have a ton of inputs for feature requests and feedback. We do an incredible amount of research, surveys, and outreach to help us understand what is important. For prioritizing projects, we also look at our bigger picture roadmap to align with higher level company strategy. It’s always a balance, which is why we do impact analysis post-launch to see what changes we should make and how to balance that against the cost and effort of them.
“InVision helps us get a bigger idea of what something will feel like once it goes live.”
At the end of the day, we’re surveying microentrepreneurs and buyers to help serve as a compass for what we do and why we do it. It’s a fun mix of being creative while also being data driven.
Catt: User experience is something we’re really focused on. So it’s important for us to understand the people we’re creating these solutions for. We want to make sure our design and work is true to the creative spirit of our sellers.
What’s the most powerful part of your design process?
Catt: We have an amazing suite of research tools, active forums for gathering feedback, and an amazing research team and research archive not only for new research, but to see what we’ve learned in the past and to understand why we chose to do something. We also tap into a lot of analytics so we get to see the qualitative side of things as well. We’re always learning and questioning our own assumptions.
“We have to understand the people we’re creating solutions for.”
How does InVision fit into your design process?
Catt: I’ve been using InVision for a long time now. At Etsy, we use InVision in various ways. We’ve been experimenting a lot lately with Craft Library to share design systems across teams. That’s been an incredibly useful way to share things more quickly.
A lot of our team uses Boards to do things like share initial goals and ideas, show the user flow, and capture inspiration. The fact you can comment right on each item is really awesome and helps keep things in context—and allows for engaging conversation
We also use prototypes a lot, to show interactivity, and for user testing too. We’ll test things not just with users, but internally across groups to figure out the best way to structure a particular interaction. Being able to leave comments there too is great, and they’re amazing for getting a bigger idea of what something will feel like once it goes live.
Lastly, we’ve been experimenting lately with Inspect. We’ll share things directly with engineers that we’re collaborating with so they can get an early sense of what we’re trying to create.
We’re constantly looking for more ways InVision can help improve our process. It’s important for us to be sending prototypes and ideas around early and often, and that we’re asking lots of different people so we get a variety of feedback.
How do you stay inspired while working on the same product?
Jess: I’ve been here almost 4 years and I’ve been working in the same space the entire time. For some designers that’s rare, but I love it. I feel like there are endless challenges to solve for our customers, and I’m motivated by solving problems for creative entrepreneurs.
Research is how we uncover those challenges, and since we’re constantly talking to our users, we’re constantly learning about what’s challenging for them, which I find incredibly motivating.
The reality is, though, for some people, you just need a change of scenery to shake things up. That’s why we have rotations—you can join another team for a few weeks or a month or 2, just to get a change of scenery and solve a new set of problems. That’s incredibly refreshing, because you’re looking at the same brand through totally different eyes.
“Always be learning and questioning your assumptions.”
How do you evaluate whether a project has been successful?
Jess: Success starts with making sure you’re solving the right problems for the right group of people. And there are obviously the major business goals we set, the KPIs and such, but we’re also looking for feedback—positive feedback—in forums and on social media. Our audience is very engaged.
Catt: We learn a ton about success by simply reading what our customers think of what we’re doing. We’re impacting their own personal businesses directly. Because the community is so active and open, we have a lot of opportunities to learn from them.
How do you handle designing for such a diverse group?
Jess: One way we manage that is through having a dedicated team focused on Localization and Translation. They’re thinking about translations, and making sure we’re speaking to our different communities in the right way. It goes back to research and usability testing—are we testing things out just here in Brooklyn, or with users all over the world? That’s a huge opportunity for us to understand the differences that might exist among the people we’re building for.
Catt: A lot of the designers here just care a lot about making sure the impact of our design is appropriate for the different countries we’re designing for. Our team is quite diverse, which benefits us in many different ways. Ultimately it comes down to bias, and questioning the assumptions you’re making. It’s important to surround yourself with people from different backgrounds, because by adding that into the conversation, we can create a more inclusive design for everyone.
Do you have any advice for new designers?
Catt: The best designers are always learning and questioning their own assumptions. Things are constantly changing in the design field and in tech at large. We’re all influenced by our biases, so questioning them is important when you’re trying to design and deliver a product for a huge group of people.