If you somehow haven’t heard of it yet, Yelp, one of my favorite InVision customers, is a great way to find businesses and restaurants in your area. It also gives businesses a unique way to interact with and learn from their customers. I recently sat down with 2 of their designers, Taron and Silas, to chat about the challenges of localization, designing for 2 different groups of users, and overcoming backlash gracefully.
How is the design team set up at Yelp?
Taron: We’re integrated into the product team, so we work closely with project managers (PMs), the VP of Product, and the CEO.
The majority of our designers are in the San Francisco office, but we also have a small remote team in Europe.
What’s the design culture like?
Taron: It’s a mix of open design culture and structured processes. We critique each other’s work, but we’re also very systematic with our style guide—we all try to follow and contribute to it.
We each own a specific piece of the product. I work on our web product, and Silas works on Yelp SeatMe, our reservations product. Our team is the loudest one in the office—we’re always discussing new products and design theories.
We really value exploration of new ideas through prototyping and hallway testing. Sometimes I’ll even build complex interactions in HTML and CSS to see if they work.
What does a typical day on your design team look like?
Silas: Generally, we work like small startups within a large organization. The PMs act like CEOs of their product, but communicate with each other to maintain coherence across products.
Designers pair up with a PM and an engineering team, so each morning we’ll have a standup with every team we work with.
Does the design team have a say in the overall brand?
Silas: We decide Yelp’s visual language. If we want to change something in the style guide or the look and feel of the product, it’s up to us to make that happen. We work closely with stakeholders to make sure we’re headed in the right direction.
What’s the biggest challenge with your team structure?
Taron: As the product gets larger, consistency between each platform becomes a challenge. For example, our review writing flow is drastically different on mobile and desktop, but the experience of leaving a Yelp review is the same. InVision helps us here. It’s a great solution for quickly testing assumptions with users and documenting flows for engineers.
Silas: Communication. We talk to the other designers and teams every day, but communicating enough so our ideas are fluid is my biggest challenge.
“InVision’s a great solution for quickly testing assumptions with users and documenting flows for engineers.”
What inspires you and your team?
Taron: I visit Dribbble and various design blogs for daily inspiration. We also look at what other designers are doing and try to figure out the reasoning behind their decisions. That inspires us to do great work.
Silas: We probably each have over 100 apps that we consistently play around with for ideas on what we can bring into our design playbook.
Taron: Being a designer is almost a curse: you don’t get to experience a new app or a new product like a user would. I instantly go into dissection mode.
How has design contributed to Yelp’s success?
Taron: If Yelp wasn’t well designed, people wouldn’t use it.
Silas: In the last couple of years, the visual language has improved significantly—and so has the direction we want to take the user experience. It’s important to us that the experience be flawless.
“Being a designer is almost a curse: you don’t get to experience a new app or a new product like a user would. I instantly go into dissection mode.”
What’s it like to be a “go-to” resource? Is there pressure to keep adding more features?
Taron: We have mostly casual users, but the majority of feature requests come from our Elite users. They’re great suggestions, but they usually add complexity to the product. So we look at how each user group reacts to new features, and then we iterate.
How do you design for business owners?
Taron: We’ve built desktop and mobile products just for them. Through an admin panel, they can respond to Yelpers, update their business’ info, and rearrange photos.
Silas: We’ll always focus on the consumer. So if we build a new business feature based on a consistent request, it needs to help our consumers, too. Anything that benefits the consumer is going to benefit the business.
What big themes have emerged as Yelp’s evolved?
Taron: More users are mobile.
We initially worried there’d be a drop in review quality with mobile reviews. But that doesn’t seem to be an issue—people are more comfortable typing on smaller devices now, so those reviews are getting longer.
Silas: We’re getting quality, short reviews at a much higher rate thanks to mobile. As our mobile user volume grows, it changes the type of content but not the quality. That’s had the biggest impact on design.
There was a big outcry about Yelp taking payment to remove bad reviews, which isn’t true. How did you address that through design?
Silas: We let businesses know that they can’t pay to get a bad review removed, and they can’t pay to have good reviews moved to the top. We make sure the consumers know that, too. We’ve tried to signal that everywhere possible.
Has in-app messaging been the best way to do that for your users?
Silas: There’s not a lot we can do other than keep doing what we’re doing: making sure that we have the right product and that we’re not doing anything “sketchy.”
As our product continues to visually match the quality of our content, it’s going to increase trust exponentially. We’re focusing on making a better product, and we’ll let that speak for us.
Tell me about the components of your design workflow.
Taron: We have an email list just for ideas. Anybody in the company can pitch their idea.
For complex features, I start wireframing on paper and translate it to Sketch or Photoshop once the flow’s defined. Creating pixel-perfect mockups is easy thanks to our very detailed style guide.
If the design introduces a new interaction or a pattern, I’ll prototype it in HTML/CSS, Keynote, or After Effects.
Since we know what our users want, we can roll out a new feature to a small number of them to decide the best way to implement it. We only do detailed user testing or persona creation for features we’re not sure about.
How do you go about adjusting or creating new information architecture?
Silas: Until we start putting the product together, we focus on user experience and pushing things in the right direction. We’ll definitely stumble across problems that don’t work with the original architecture.
We have to be able to make decisions on the fly and communicate those decisions quickly. You can’t plan for everything until you get into the product.
How do you encourage people to be active in the community?
Taron: Create tools that encourage engagement with your product.
Sometimes companies forget to consider what users actually need. But if you create the tools for a thriving community, eventually it’s going to thrive.
Silas: Simplify your product.
We’ve been doing what we call “delighting” our customers. We have a full-time illustrator, Stephen, who’s created little Easter eggs that give the product personality and change user perception.
“If you create the tools for a thriving community, eventually it’s going to thrive.”
What new features are you working on?
Taron: I’m improving what the majority of our users interact with—like writing reviews, finding new businesses, and making reservations.
Silas: I’m working closely with our illustrator to make sure that even error pages are fun to look at. For example, if you hit a 404 page, it tells you Darwin’s on the case.
Over the next year we’ll be focusing on flow optimization—making sure we’ve picked the right path for both education and onboarding. If we can get people onboarded and educated quicker, it’s going to decrease churn and increase user happiness.
What’s been more challenging in regards to globalization: behavior or language?
Taron: Behavior. Our American users go to Yelp when they want to share an experience from a local business and when they want to find a new place.
Our global audiences don’t do this just yet, so we’re working on improving education and creating better triggers to get them into the habit of using Yelp.
What values do you want to see in Yelp’s design?
Taron: Consistency. It’s helped us decrease pattern learning, confusion, and frustration in our users—and it’s helped us create a trustworthy product while also minimizing design and engineering time. The style guide has helped us accomplish all this.
Silas: With any large product, there needs to be consistency across teams, the way businesses use the product, and the way consumers use the product.
What’s your advice to designers who want to join a team like Yelp?
Taron: Think about the product holistically while also having a pixel-perfect attitude towards design.
Think about how your design decisions impact user behavior elsewhere in the product. Making an assumption is a great way to start a design, but testing and validating your assumptions are just as important.
And don’t be afraid of ambitious experiments. Preconceived ideas rarely make it to the final product—it’s always the ideas you come up with while exploring something drastic that survive.
“We at Yelp really value exploration of new ideas through prototyping and hallway testing.”
“We decide Yelp’s visual language.”
“Communicating enough so our ideas are fluid is my biggest challenge.”
“Being a designer is almost a curse . . . I instantly go into dissection mode.”
“It’s important to us that the Yelp experience be flawless.”
“The majority of feature requests come from our Elite users.”
“As our mobile user volume grows, it changes the type of content but not the quality.”
“Create tools that encourage engagement with your product.”
“We have to be able to make decisions on the fly and communicate those decisions quickly.”
Photography by Peter Prato.