Evolving the Design Team: Making, Inventing and Dreaming


Evolving the Design Team: Making, Inventing and Dreaming

Enabling the Team
UXDX Europe 2020
  • Methods for building a design team of diverse minds and perspectives
  • How marrying collaboration and critique creates alternate paths to great design.
  • Transparency vs. debate. Why you may not need a seat at the table.
Lowell Goss

Lowell Goss, Head of Design & UX,Reddit

Thank you to UXDX for inviting me.
Reddit is not exactly synonymous with UX. So, it's nice to be here and have a chance to talk about what we're doing. Sometimes I hear Reddit described as old school Craigslist like nostalgic, I'm pretty sure these people were people trying to be nice but the truth is that Reddit is still hard to use, hard to understand and not very attractive. Despite being a 15-year-old company, UX design and research have been absent for most of the company's history. My understanding is that UX at Reddit really only started about three years ago when my predecessor started the design team and launched the first changes to the Reddit design that had ever happened. Today, we have about 25 people on the team and design is having a huge impact on both the present and future of Reddit.
I'm still pretty new at Reddit. I started about a year and a half ago and it's the 11th UX team that I've built and led since starting my career about 25 years ago. Over that time, I've made a lot of mistakes but also learn some things that seem to work while leading teams to places like Frog Design, Amazon and Yahoo. Today, I'm going to talk about four different things. The first is how we go about building teams. The second is collaboration versus critique. The third is how we learn to create more, talk less and use our design superpowers. And the fourth is the three activities that we do each and every day making, inventing, and dreaming.
So, let's get started. I spend about 50% of my time on recruiting. To me a big part of what we do in design is really about finding great people and giving them the permission and opportunity to do great things. Sometimes I use this corny joke about a designer, the product manager, and an engineer walking into a room. And the way I imagine it is that after an hour, the product manager comes out and is super stoked about having a direction on where they're going to go. The engineer walks out and is excited about where they're going to go, but they're scratching their head about how they're going to do it. And the designer walks out and wonders, ‘I wonder what it is that we're going to do.’
The design process is often one where we are taking information and thinking about how we actually apply a design, not just go ahead and execute on an obvious first step. Design is also about more than just the UI. It's about designing the feeling, the sound and the algorithms that go into modern products. And sometimes those items are owned by other teams and those are things where designers have to work very hard to collaborate and really get into the room. As we look at recruiting, we really try to start by looking at the portfolio and really try to start by looking at the work that someone has done in preference to a name, a photo or a resume and track record. As we look at those portfolios, ideally, what we're trying to do is look for reasons to say yes, as opposed to reasons to say no. And that helps us to identify undervalued talent and really look at four key criteria. We're really looking for smarts. We're looking for creativity, curiosity, and drive.
So, the first thing that we do once we've identified a portfolio that's great is work to build a relationship pre COVID. This was something that we really didn't in person and moving over to working in a COVID era transitioning that to what you see here. Today, I'm doing this sort of formal presence where I'm looking at the camera but when we talk to people face to face, it's no longer face to face. We're still trying to create some sense of a relationship with that person right away. We really try to make it something where that person can get to know Reddit where they can get to know me and the team and we really try to turn the tables on how interviews typically work. Our interview system is different in that it doesn't really work like a video game. Lots of systems seem to be like a video game. You start with the little bosses then you move to the medium bosses until finally you beat the big boss and you get the job. I think that what we're trying to do is instead allow people to build a relationship from the very outset with me as the leader of the team. So, they can get a feel for what it's like to be at Reddit and get excited about coming and joining the company. We also try very hard to build the role around the person rather than the other way around. So, instead of having a box that we're trying to fit people in or instead of tick marks that we're looking to knock people out instead we're trying to look at a person identify really great talent and then think about how do we build a role around this person rather than trying to fit the person into the role.
From that step, the next thing we do is a whiteboard challenge. And I think that we're really looking at four things in that whiteboard challenge. We're looking at people's ability to analyze the problem to then synthesize what it is that they’ve broken down into creative ideas, apply system thinking to understand the impacts possible consequences, premortems and other things to really imagine what's going to happen with their solution and then really understanding whether they demonstrate empathy and an understanding for the world from other people's point of view. We tried really hard to make sure that we have a level playing field. We use the same question. Everyone gets exactly the same amount of time and really what we're looking for from a approach and attitude perspective is people who say, "Yes, I am." People who get excited and dig into a problem. People who want to bounce creative ideas back and forth between themselves and the interviewers and then the last piece and maybe most important is we're really trying to understand whether or not people are accurately observing the world whether they are open and curious and have ideas is that they're trying to apply to the world that they see around them.
At our last stage, is to have someone present their work to our whole design team and doing that storytelling and presenting that work to the design team really is a critical part of the process. Storytelling is a huge part of what we do in design. We create these wonderful designs and then we have to find out how people respond to them, whether they're our users or whether they are our partners and collaborators, the ability to talk about what it is that we have done in a way that is exciting and interesting to people is a critical skill and a huge part of what it is that we do.
The next thing for us to talk about today is collaboration versus critique. Anyone who's gone to art school has become very familiar with critique. The teacher who comes into the room, looks at the work and tears it apart, that's not really what we're trying to do today. Critique is a huge part of being able to hold a high standard but in general, but what we're leaning toward is collaboration. I've got these pictures here that are a little bit funny to me where I see a ladder and a couple of guys on the ladder and it looks like and the fellow below is telling the person above what to do and I imagine that that's what critique looks like and feels like. One person from a top down position really telling you here's what you're doing wrong. And here are the things that you can do to change that. We look at the second picture though, we see this other person below and all of a sudden we see three collaborators all together on the ladder, trying to trim this enormous hedge. As we look at collaboration versus critique. I think that what we see again in this ‘yes I am’ type attitude is really it almost improv comedy approach to how we want to do design.
I was listening to a podcast recently that described the Hollywood writer's room and how people really start with this kernel of an idea coming in to talk to them, the rest of the team and say, here's the beginning of something. The team then plays with that idea. They batted around. They add on to it. Followed by someone then taking it away and turning it into a treatment from there. They'd bring the treatment back and again, people in the room batted around, add onto it and really try to turn it into something that is improvisatory and play. Ultimately, someone then takes it away and turns it into a finished screenplay but we really try to adhere to that kind of a model at Reddit. The idea that you show up with the kernel of something, and then you work with other people on the team both in design and also cross-functionally to turn it into something bigger than what you would do on your own and also bigger than the thing that you were presented to in the very beginning of the process.
Within that, one of the things that we think about is iteration. Iteration is clearly a huge part of the technique that's used all across the industry these days and iteration certainly helps us to quickly and predictably to reach local maximums. But as you see in the illustration here, all you're really doing many times in iteration is taking something that already exists and make small tweaks and changes to it. For reaching a local maximum. That's really terrific. But our goal as a company is also to reach beyond the local maximum and get to a global maximum. And we look at collaboration. Yes, and this should be fun and improvisation as ways of getting there. I love this image here of Key and Peele in that it's a great illustration of how people together are building something bigger than what they're going to do alone. And in the end, the idea is to come out with more than just iterations but options. Creating those lateral options in parallel at key stages helps us to push toward a global maximum something that is bigger than just this idea that had done the best and really trying to find both divergent and convergent ideas to move forward.
The next section in today's talk is really about creating more and talking less and the illustration that I also would like to use here is this idea of orange ice cream. So, if we could for a second, just close your eyes and I'm going to say orange ice cream. Now, the picture I have in my head and the picture you have in your head are very likely, pretty different. Is yours an orange flavor or an orange color? Does it in a cup or a cone? Does it have sprinkles? Is it a sherbet, a sorbet, maybe it's dairy-free? I think that in the end, we all have a different picture of what that ice cream is and we see a similar thing happening with something like specs and requirements.
Here's the ice cream that I was picturing. It was carrot which is probably not what you were thinking of and it's just an orange color. But when we think about things like specs and requirements or even meetings and brainstorms, ultimately, they're hollow of what you're really making. As designers, we have this superpower whether you're testing with users or collaborating with colleagues or most especially presenting to your executive team, you have the ability to make something real, to make a thing that people can taste in the case of the orange ice cream. So, instead of trying to write an enormous document and describe something that the other person can't experience, we can simply make the thing that people can experience and get much higher fidelity feedback from our partners, collaborators, and our users. I think one of the things that's key for that is establishing a back and forth and bi-directional communication. So, many design teams are on the receiving end of information from their product teams or from their engineering teams and there's an expectation that this then becomes a production requirement and expectation. As designers though we can use the orange ice cream type example and the work that we actually produce to really make that a bi-directional conversation where our contribution to the conversation is the designs themselves and is the things that we contribute.
At Reddit that has been hugely successful for us by really working to create a radically transparent design environment where we are producing a weekly email and deck with everything the design team has worked on over the past week. A design wall that in pre COVID times and post COVID, we'll show everything that we're doing in the office that people can walk by and experience it as a part of their day to day life. Frequent publishing in our Slack channels and also sharing in all hands. And most importantly, through the presentations of our executive team where we're putting in design in those and having them share those with the rest of the company. That was extraordinarily helpful in creating a scenario where design is showing the whole breadth of the ideas that we have and that the team represents and allowing the company then to comment, experience, and get, and most importantly, get super excited about the things that we're doing and help to push those out to our users.
When we think about what we do at Reddit, really, there are three different kinds of activities. There's making, inventing and dreaming. We think making, we're really talking about design operations, how do we become super-efficient at the delivery and production of design work with our partners especially in engineering? When we think about inventing, we're moving from a spec to a broader problem and then often back again. The last thing here, we'll talk about today is really about dreaming, how we can use the power of creativity for designed to have a huge strategic impact on what's happening with the business. And we think about the strategic impact, what we're talking about is a big leap, the ability for us to move forward in a way that's not simply about a linear growth but really about exponential growth.
I use the word dreaming in that it's different than something like vision or concept. And I think a vision or a concept is often easily dismissed as something that is cool but that we don't actually intend to use or we don't actually intend to build for our users. In the end, what we're trying to do is illustrate things that are exciting, ambitious but still possible that talk about here's where the future of the company and the product are going to be.
I appreciate everybody looking at my presentation today as I've stumbled through it. I hope everyone out there is healthy and happy and I hope to see you again next year.
Thanks a lot. Bye bye.

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