No Silver Bullets: Etsy’s Randy Hunt on Product Design


While on my Peru Trip earlier this year, I read a great book  called Product Design for the Web: Principles of Designing and Releasing Products for the Web.

As one of two interaction designers who joined Etsy in 2010, Randy Hunt, now creative director, has written the book on best practices of product development for successful modern-day Internet companies. I highly recommend it.

I sat down with Randy recently to learn more about his perspective on product design. But before I jump into that conversation, here’s a brief look at some of the big ideas from the book:

Takeaways From Product Design for The Web By Randy Hunt

Note: these are not direct quotes but pretty close paraphrases

  • Great products are understandable (set expectations and live up to them) and meaningful (help people solve problems or accomplish goals) and, hopefully, delightful
  • It can be helpful to reimagine your product spec as a press release defining what the update is, who it is for and why it matters Continue reading…

Design Teardown of the Genius (YC S11) iPhone App

Disclaimer: Rap Genius was in the YC S11 batch along with Ridejoy. I’m friendly with the founders but have no financial stake in this article nor many details of their future plans (besides world domination of course =D)

On Tuesday, Jan 28, 2014, Rap Genius launched their iPhone app, Genius, a project cofounder Tom Lehman called “the true launch of Rap Genius“.

Having started as an annotation platform for rap lyrics, Rap Genius has since branched into rock, poetry, and even news. Until now, they were only available on the web or via a mobile website. But a native app has been in the works for a LONG time – remember their ad for a “Mobile Czar” way back in October of 2012?

Lehman also says that 50% of Rap Genius traffic is mobile and they only expect it to grow, so Genius is basically represents their first iteration of the future of their product and company. Given how crucial this app is, I thought it’d be valuable to study the app’s design for lessons and ideas.

The Genius Design Teardown

[Click to enlarge]

[Click to enlarge]


Genius takes us through a basic set of explanation screens when you first open the app. The key feature being the reading of annotations, with three secondary features of getting lyrics and annotation of your own music library, playing the actual song of the lyrics you’re reading, and a Shazam-like music recognition feature. You’re then prompted to sign up, sign in or, if you’re reading carefully, use the app without doing either.


I think they’re right to focus on the music annotation as the primary benefit. I assume they are not only trying to satisfy their core user base, but also expand their audience, many of who might not even be aware of their core offering. The other features seem pretty neat though – we’ll see more about them in a second.

Continue reading…

Innovating on the Lecture: How I Got a Crash Course on Design Thinking at DT:DC

Innovating on the Lecture - How I Got a Crash Course on Design Thinking at DTDC

When I moved to Washington DC, one of the few people I knew was Wendi Chiong, a good friend from Stanford who is a co-organizer of a Meetup group called Design Thinking DC (DT:DC).

DT:DC’s mission is to bring together “people from business, design, technology … for radical collaboration on methodologies, practices and experiences to facilitate and deliver innovation in the world.”

Last week I got a crash course in design thinking as a participant in their 22nd Meetup: Co-Designing New Lecture and Talk Experiences

How Can We Innovate on the Lecture?

Design Thinking DC recently surpassed 1400 members, and they’re trying to figure out ways to adapt to their growing ranks. While people tend to prefer smaller events, with so many members, hosting only small group events means most people get shut out from actually attending.

So they did the brave thing and decided to apply design thinking principles to their own problem, and engage their community in solving the problem. In essentially a two-and-a-half hour session, they lead a group of ~50 people through a design challenge focused around creating better ways to engage large groups of people with DT:DC.

Setting the Scene

2013-08-14 19.06.34

We all sat down in tables of 6-12 people with design packets that we would use to work through the exercises. The event was primarily led by Dawan Stanford, who’s the lead organizer at DT:DC. He started with an overview on the history of the group and how they started with smaller, hands-on design-oriented workshops. As the group has grown, it’s become harder to only do small group events – the meetups would fill up in hours, leaving many members high and dry.

On the other hand, they didn’t want to just revert to lecture-style events that are dry and passive. So the point of this event was to use design thinking to craft a better “Large Group Experience” (LGX).

There are a lot of definitions for Design Thinking, but I’d describe it as taking a customer facing mentality and a set of creative processes toward solving key business challenges. Wendi presented a framework developed at the Stanford which goes:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Fortunately for us, they had prepared a lot of materials and a game plan so even if we were new to design thinking, we would still be able to jump right in. Continue reading…

Notes on @acroll’s Lean Analytics presentation to Presidential Innovation Fellows

One of the great things about my current gig is that we bring in smart folks from all over to share their thoughts on innovation within government. Recently, Alistair Croll (@acroll), coauthor of Lean Analytics, flew in from Canada to share some of the highlights of his book and how we could apply a metrics-driven mentality to our projects as Presidential Innovation Fellows.

My coworker Sarah Allen and I pair-captured notes on the talk and Alistair’s given his blessing to share them publicly. Having glanced through the book, there is WAY more depth than even these extensive notes cover and I plan to read the whole thing. Enjoy!

alistair croll PIF

Part 1: What is the Lean Movement?

  • Silicon Valley hates failure more than the alternative: making something nobody needs.
  • Waterfall: Building a Nuclear Reactor: the spec is not going to change months from now
  • Spec – Build – Test – Launch
  • Agile: Requirements change before you launch if you are engineering things like software applications today.
  • Unclear how to satisfy requirements
  • problem – build – test, viable? → (yes) Launch
  •        → (no) Adjust
  • Reality: There is no clear set of requirements

Most startups don’t know what they’ll be when they grow up.

  • Paypal (first built for Palm Pilots)
  • Freshbooks (invoicing for a single web design firm)
  • Wikipedia (was going to be by experts)
  • Mitel (lawnmower company)
  • HotMail was a database company, Flickr (massively multiplayer game), Autodesk (desktop automation)

Consumer demand is the biggest risk

  • Kevin Costner (Field of Dreams) was a LOUSY entrepreneur
  • Reverse the idea: if they come, you should build it
  • You should not sell the thing you can make, you should make the thing you can sell.
  • “build just enough to quantify the biggest risk.”

CASE STUDY: Rubber trees

  • social entrepreneurs want to create rubber tree marketplace, couldn’t wait 20 yrs for rubber trees to grow
  • Risk was not “can rubber trees grow?”
  • Risk WAS “can you build the marketplace if you have rubber trees”
  • Focus on where the RISK is — validate that part. Continue reading…

Design For Non-Designers

I recently sent an email to some peers at my fellowship about “Design Resources” which got some positive responses. I decided to expand on those thoughts and thus this blog post was born. Hope you find it handy and if you are a professional designer, please help me correct my inevitable inaccuracies.

Design for Non-Designers
Photo Credit: NathanaelB via Compfight cc

Everyone does design work, so let’s get better at it

I’m not a designer. I have no formal training in art or design and I have not worked in the design space professionally.

And yet. I have designed. I have designed posters, presentations, websites, marketing collateral, business cards, spreadsheets, blog posts and more.

If you have ever participated in the creation of something that humans would use, read, or otherwise interact with, then you have done design work. In a sense, we are all amateur designers. In a perfect world, we could have professional design resources on hand when producing something important. In practice, that’s often not possible. So it behooves us to learn a bit more about how to design well.

As a non-des- I mean amateur designer – I’m either the worst person, or the best person to be writing an article about helping other amateur designers improve their craft. For what it’s worth, I’ve been told that my work is well-designed “for a non-designer” and I’ve learned tons from designers I’ve worked with like Suelyn Yu, Randy Pang, Al Abut, Seth Warrick, Garry Tan and David Merkoski.

But anyway, it’s my blog so I’ll do what I want. Let’s do it!

Above All Else, Remember Your Audience and Your Purpose

Who is your user/audience and what do you want them to do?

This is the most important question you can ask when designing something. Products are meant to be useful and design enhances it’s usefulness in some way.

  • A resume should highlight your strongest achievements for that specific recruiter and encourage them to contact you for an interview.
  • A targeted landing page for a invoicing software should convince freelance programmers to dive into a case study about the product or try a 30 free trial.
  • A photo sharing app should to help new parents easily and delightfully share photos of their kids with the entire family.

Keeping your purpose in mind allows you to not get bogged down in “what color should this button be” and more about “what will get this set of people to have a particular experience”.

General Guidelines

Some general things to keep in mind when designing most anything.

Focus / Simplicity

Our brains are easily distracted. Sometimes design is used to overwhelm and overstimulate, but I believe the best design is focused. Don’t try to do too much on any one slide, page or even sentence. Keep it simple and it’ll be a lot hard to f*** things up.

White space

Have you ever read an old book where the font is small and the text is really tight? It’s the worst. White space is about creating open space between elements on a page/screen.

Giving elements a lot of white space is good because 1) it forces you to make decisions about what you want to FOCUS on, as per the earlier point and 2) it gives each element “breathing room” to live and establish itself.

Resources for white space Continue reading…