Design Chats

Inside Design:
Rent the Runway

4 min read
Clair Byrd
  •  May 19, 2015
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Rent the Runway, an InVision user, delivers high fashion on demand with a unique ecommerce platform and mobile applications. We sat down with UX lead Jess Brown to discuss design in an aesthetics-focused industry, shifting ingrained user behavior, and building experiences across various media.

How’s the product design team set up at Rent the Runway?

Designers work on cross-functional teams, and each team has its strategic goals. Designers work with product managers, engineers, and analysts to come up with a roadmap. Feature requests come up in various ways, but the team determines the priority.

Day to day, we move between strategic early design work, user experience design, research, and design execution phases. Continuity comes from project ownership more than focusing on a specific phase.

What’s the design culture like?

We’re energized by the fact that we’re pioneers in the industry—there’s no company quite like us.

This excitement has started to reach beyond the design team and into the broader company culture. Techniques familiar to designers—like brainstorming and sprints—are now used across the company.

There’s a real culture of ownership: individual designers handle projects from start to finish and help strategize.Twitter Logo

What’s the mix of designers on the team? How do they report and collaborate?

We’ve struck a nice balance between UX-focused designers and more visual designers. We work together to come up with the best solutions across every stage of the process. We’re always talking through our designs, from the big idea down to the nitty-gritty details of execution.

Does your team have a say in the overall brand?

We have a say in the brand’s direction and execution.

When we rebranded last year, we worked with an agency to come up with an initial concept, but our team dictated how we’d carry that vision forward and apply it.

What inspires you?

Imagining the future.

I love reading magical realism, science fiction, and nonfiction physics texts and thinking about how society and technology will co-evolve. I just finished The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku, which explores how all these seemingly far-fetched technologies—like recording and playing back dreams, or downloading information directly to the brain—are actually grounded in physics and could become reality.

Our design team meets weekly to share inspiration and talk about what we’re playing around with and checking out on Product Hunt—we tend to be early adopters. Lately, we’ve been talking a lot about wearables and their implications for product and UI design.

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened at the office?

I was waiting for a customer to come to our SoHo office for a user testing session, and a girl arrived looking lost. We were in front of the store where customers can come in and try on dresses. I asked her, “Are you Stephanie?” She said yes, so I led her up to the testing lab.

At the end of the session, she asked, “Can I still go try on dresses?”

Yeah. Wrong Stephanie.

The team still laughs about that one.

Are there any design innovations you’re experimenting with internally?

We’re exploring new ways to make our entire experience more seamlessTwitter Logo, to offer new rental products, and to bridge the online and offline worlds in our stores.

Messaging is obviously important to the brand. How do you work with the people in charge of that?

Our team iteratively tests things as we go through the design process, so we can’t do a lot of “lorem ipsum”—we need our messaging to make sense to users whenever they see it.

Designers put time and energy into copy, and we work with our copywriter to make revisions and get a final review.

How important has design been to the success of your product in disrupting the ecommerce and fashion markets?

It’s been essential. We’re a service business, and that service model was what got the company off the ground. I think our initial success had less to do with interactive design and more to do with service design.

Today, 5 years later, consumers expect more convenience than ever. The language of interactive design has evolved to be more dynamic.Twitter Logo

Our design makes renting seamless and delightful, and that’s vital to keeping our customers happy.

How do you guys continue to innovate in the fashion industry?

We’re pushing the envelope on what it means to consume fashion—we counter “fast fashion” by delivering “fashion, fast.”

Last year, we launched Unlimited, which lets customers rent designer accessories for as long as they want, a la Netflix.

Early this year, we made it possible for customers to pick items in their next order.

And we just added clothing to the program. It’s a new way to think about getting dressed.

We also have unique omnichannel experiences that bring digital interactions into our stores. There’s an opportunity to create digital products that build on an in-store experience.

How do you stay engaged and creative while working on the same schedule/brand?

I think creativity is fed by understanding problems deeplyTwitter Logo, not just by working on different problems. As product designers, we want to bring the user’s point of view into strategic conversations, so we get a lot out of owning projects and being able to see our vision through.

What’s your user base like? How have you seen it change since launching?

We’ve seen our customer base shift to a broader group that’s incredibly diverse: women ages 15 to 65 in major cities, as well as more rural areas where designer apparel might be tough to find. Our early adopters were younger, more urban, and less diverse.

Creativity is fed by understanding problems deeply, not just by working on different problems.

You guys have a radically different solution to a very common problem—namely that flat-out purchasing is not the “only way.” How did you address that shift in your product?

When you look at the underlying problem, it’s not someone saying, “I need to buy something.” She’s saying, “I need something to wear.” Our customer recognizes that she wants to wear this dress once, so there’s no point buying it.

When someone visits Rent the Runway, she wants to know what’s available and whether she’ll be able to find something she likes.

We don’t want to get in the way by delivering seemingly helpful “how it works” information up front. Our goal is to help her discover a dress she loves and then provide information about the rental process.

When you look at the underlying problem, it’s not someone saying, “I need to buy something.” She’s saying, “I need something to wear.”

How do you handle objections to your product, and how’s that reflected in your design?

Shopping online is difficult because you can’t try things on. The stakes are even higher with renting online because customers are typically getting something for an important event.

We try to alleviate fit concerns with customer reviews. We have a great community that shares photos, fit details, and experiences using our photo reviews tool. Seeing feedback from real women makes it easier for others to decide on a dress.

We give customers a backup option, too: every dress rental comes with a free backup size and the option to rent another style for a discounted price.

Do you have any insight for designers tasked with disrupting an ingrained user behavior?

Test the front door of your whole process—the landing page, the onboarding process, and any channel-specific marketing—to see how people make sense of your offering. If people can’t understand what your product is, they’ll never get started with itTwitter Logo—no matter how much value it’d provide them.

There’s a question I like to ask with new products: “If a friend asked you what this is about, what would you tell them?” This helps people express themselves in their own words.

It’s also important to have a price on your offering if you intend to charge for it. Users will express enthusiasm at signing up for a hypothetical price of $0, so you want to show a realistic price to understand how they think about the dollar value.

Are there any qualities in your design process that you consider unique or proprietary?

The process has evolved over the last couple of years, but we still say that scrappiness is a virtue.Twitter Logo We’re unique in our mix of scrappy and formal processes for gathering and synthesizing user feedback.

What do you think is the most powerful part of your design process?

We’ve learned how to ask good questions, distill insights, and improve our designs quickly. Our team can watch user testing sessions—that helps inform everyone’s understanding of how to improve.

We use InVision to share prototypes internally and with users. It’s much easier to gather stakeholder feedback and iterate when conversations are on top of mockups. We also love the Sketch integration—it helps us prototype at lightning speed!

What are the most important values you try to see reflected in design changes at Rent the Runway?

On a macro level, our projects should solve user needs. Part of our job as designers is to represent user needs and advocate for them as we plan.Twitter Logo We have to look for the intersection of user needs and business goals to work on things that will be impactful.

On a micro level, we always want to make things easy to understand and consistent. It can be easier to create shiny new things than to make use of existing patterns, but it’ll take a user more time to digest new elements and do what she wants.

“Feature requests come up in various ways, but the team determines the priority.”

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“Techniques familiar to designers—like brainstorming and sprints—are now used across the company.”

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“Designers put time and energy into copy.”

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