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A Look Inside Design at Zappos

We're tracking down InVision users inside the world's most amazing companies to discover their favorite tools, books, methods, and the philosophy behind what makes them so awesome. This week we interviewed Donny Guy, a User Experience Manager at Zappos in Las Vegas.

What are the top 3 essentials in your workspace?

  1. Whiteboards: At any moment, you can have inspiration and it’s a little easier to have a whiteboard than to carry around a moleskine or something like that. That’s why some of the office’s rooms we have are actually white board painted. You can literally write anywhere.
  2. Collaboration: Definitely need to collaborate with everybody. As a UX designer, you’re really trying to get the whole company to have the same thought process. If you try to lock down the ownership, you’re not doing your company any justice. You want to get to the point where you’re really doing the bigger, deeper dive experiences and thought processes and then let the whole company start figuring out some of the specific experiences themselves based on past history or data.
  3. Open-Mindedness: Designers need to be open-minded because someone might express an idea that sounds like a bad idea at first. You just gotta have an open mind that maybe there’s something new, and maybe there’s a way of being better. Here at Zappos we just re-did a product page that does some things that are out of the e-commerce norm, and InVision played a huge role in the research we did. Based on the research, we found it made more sense to almost hide the product description. It is not the first thing you see because we learned that is not what our customers want. We had to ask ourselves, "Why are we trying to push this description piece when really a huge percentage of orders happen without a person even looking at it?" So we developed a hierarchy of what our customers want: they want images first, then they want to look at videos, and then they’re looking at reviews. And all of these things were higher importance level to the user than the product description, which doesn’t seem like a norm among other e-commerce sites. A lot of that stuff you just need to be open-minded to.

How important is your workspace to your creativity?

I think it’s really important. My desk is located over in what we call Shanty Town. Everyone has spilled into the aisles and a mix of disciplines are all crammed in there but I think the bonus of that is that I don’t have to send an email or walk across a building. We’re all right there, which allows us to collaborate better. Being able to have people really close to each other so they can have these quick interactions is really key. You can solve things much quicker.

Here at Zappos we just re-did a product page that does some things that are out of the e-commerce norm, and InVision played a huge role in the research we did.

For example, on our product teams we have engineers, designers, a product manager, a project manager, QA, and backend guys all right next to each other. If the Check Out group has a problem, each person that has input on making a fix is right next to each other. For me, as you could probably tell looking at my desk, I don’t necessarily need to be around there. I walk over to the different teams, set up meetings, go to the whiteboards, etc. It is more of a mobile working experience where I can move around and collaborate and work anywhere instead of being confined. I want to find a space where we can all feel comfortable and collaborate and be creative.

Do you ever work outside of the office? Where?

Yes, because there is no time off. At lunch time you’re constantly working, and then when you go home, you’re still working. I go home and see my family but then I usually get back on for a couple of hours and answer emails. My team always gives me a hard time because even when I take vacation I still have my phone and I’m answering emails and talking to them. I just can’t help but be connected to it because I love what I do so much.  I'm constantly in design mode, but it doesn’t ever feel like work. Our team jokes that when we go to lunch we usually find at least 10 things that we want to fix, like how the door opens. That’s what I mean when I say I'm constantly working.

What do you do when you hit a creative roadblock?

When we have our all-hands meetings, Tony our CEO does a really good job of bringing speakers to come talk to us after we do all the company stuff. They’re not always related to commerce or shopping or online. For example, a scientist came to talk to us who is really good at helping people remember numbers and how to think. He explained how inspiration usually comes when we are in the car, or the shower, or somewhere trivial. Something suddenly clicks and you’re like, ”Oh yeah, that’s right!” He told us that our subconscious mind is so much stronger than our conscious mind.

So if you’re working on a project and get into it a little bit, take a break, throw it to the back of your mind and work on something else (unless you’re in the zone, obviously). It will bring itself back when you get in the car or maybe you notice something at a restaurant and it keys into a new thought and then all of a sudden you might be thinking about it for 4 or 5 minutes. Then throw it back there again. That way, instead of spending hours struggling, you maybe spent half an hour or an hour total on that thing and you nailed it. Of course you can obviously talk about deadlines and things like that, but get up, walk away, throw it in the back of your mind, go talk to somebody.

Do you do any sketching on paper?

We do a little of everything. We don’t have a method to the madness here. When we interview people we always ask, "What tools do you like to use?” We do that on purpose just to see what they’ll say, but at the same time we don’t care. We care about getting the project done. We let the people who are good with their tools do their job to their best. Then I can use InVision to present the designs, and the people who are representing that project understand it because it is tangible.

What is your favorite part of the design process?

I just love innovation, and ideation, and creating things. It’s those small, innovative tweaks we do that get me excited because it just makes sense. That’s what I love: the things that the user just does without realizing they did it. They had no clue that they clicked on something small because it was in their normal flow or it just made sense in their mind. And you’re like, “Yep, nailed it.”

I use InVision to present the designs, and the people who are representing that project understand it because it's tangible.

What is the most frustrating aspect of design?

I'm not knocking anybody, but we’re still sort of in a functional, engineering pushed world. It doesn't need to be a design-pushed world, but we need to make sure we are doing things the right way. There are a lot of companies that are very development driven. When the web was first coming up, just trying to build sites was huge. It's not that it's any less today, it's just that people are getting into it more and it's becoming a natural habit. Now people want to make it useful in the way they expect it to work. That’s the value of development and design being together: we really need some awesome functionality, but we need some really good design to make them mesh and be the perfect product. I would guess a really high percentage of companies are still in engineering mode. That's okay: there's a learning curve, but I think there are a lot of executives that are still trying to understand the research part of design, and the stuff before you push it live, that saves so much money.

We have a project we are working on that we have now designed three times. I can tell some people are wondering when we are going to start scheduling the development to happen, but we don’t know when it’s going to happen. If we were to start developing the first version we did, we would have spent so much money getting that live before we realized it was wrong. We’ve learned through research and bringing people on site that it was wrong with barely any money, so we revised the design. And we’re slowly iterating on it. We iterate on it until it's ready and then we develop it. I think that gets missed a lot but it’s starting to come around, especially when you put dollar signs and say, "Look at what we did and how much we saved without having to do this." A/B testing isn’t always the best piece. It’s the final piece, but you can get 70-80% of the answers to the problem from the qualitative side of it.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Design is Everywhere
I have found that the best designers I’ve worked with understand that design is everywhere and inspiration can come from anywhere. There have been times where I have solved a checkout process because of walking through a restaurant and sitting down. All of a sudden your mind is thinking, “Oh, I would have handled the service part of this a little bit better.” They are obviously different entities but you can correlate and pull certain elements together. It’s just knowing that design is everywhere and you can get that inspiration at any time if you really look for it. Don’t force yourself to it, but just let it come and just recognize the beauty of the design that’s around you.

Surf the Web
There are definitely some interesting sites like Dribbble or Pattern Tap or any of those sites that you can get visual elements from. My favorite thing is to take something from a design and put it in something completely different because it makes sense there.

Who do you look up to as a designer?

Obviously there are people I follow like Jared Spool and some of those other kind of UX folks, but I wouldn’t say there is somebody I adore. I just follow the people who I feel have that same open-minded mentality toward investigating a problem and looking at it as something bigger. I actually follow a lot of leaders rather than designers, like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson.

How do you know when you've achieved an understanding of what the client really wants?

When we start a project, we have kick off meetings with all the parties involved. A lot of times the product managers already have requirements, and that’s when we get to ask our questions. The idea is that when you walk out of the kick off  meeting, you understand what the goal of the project is or the problem you’re trying to solve. A lot of those kick off meetings aren’t so much, “Okay here you guys go, do you guys get it?” It’s more an opportunity for the designers and developers to start discussing solutions. Not that we want to solve it right then and there, but we start brainstorming and that’s how when we know we understand it. During these open discussions, we can correct each other if we’re wrong. So if we’re ideating while the product managers are listening then they know we’re on the right track.

We mainly use InVision for user testing. It's very quick to upload the images and really easy to send a link to the research team.

What is your ritual to "get in the zone" when you're working on a project?

  1. Music: I love music. Any time I’m going to design, listening to music is my way of plugging into the matrix, of zoning into what I’m working on. More often than not when I design I like electronic/techno music because it's so upbeat. I’m a huge Dave Matthews fan but if I were to listen to Dave Matthews it would probably be more soothing and I’d be a little bit slower.
  2. Photoshop: When it comes to smaller updates to a page element that you already have the baseline of the function of the page, I’ll take a screenshot and start throwing small chunks from Dribbble or Pattern Tap together in Photoshop.
  3. Moleskine: If i’m thinking of the holistic bigger picture, I like to take my Moleskine and draw it first because there is so much that I'm sketching and scribbling and throwing away.

Tell us about some of your favorite books.


Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not? In "Great by Choice," Collins and his colleague, Morten T. Hansen, enumerate the principles for building a truly great enterprise in unpredictable, tumultuous, and fast-moving times.

The books I read are not super design-centric. I feel like design books repeat a lot of stuff people already know. I’m more into the leadership books because they're not about managing people but how to apply leadership principles to your design and how you work with others. No great designer has ever produced anything on their own; there are always people who they’ve worked with or that have inspired them in some fashion.

  • Good to Great by Jim Collins
  • Great by Choice by Jim Collins
  • Richard Branson: I’m inspired by the billionaire type people because I like how they think. They look at the world differently. They see the bigger picture and that's why they’re so successful. I like reading them because they don’t get blocked into what society puts into people, and I think the same should be true for the projects you’re working on.

Tell us about some of your favorite tools for the creative process.

  • Photoshop: If it’s something that pertains to elements in a site that we have already defined, I usually just throw it in Photoshop.
  • OmniGraffle:  We do a lot of wireframes for big picture designs in OmniGraffle.
  • Paper/napkins: I use these for drawing early ideas.
  • InVision: A lot of the guys on the UX team are really into using InVision to build prototypes.

Tell us about the equipment you're using.

Now that I think about that question, it sounds really sad. I’m an Apple fan boy. I have everything. It’s not like I’m buying the latest thing on purpose, but I do have:

How important is collaborating with other designers?

Collaboration is the ultimate, the number one thing. We have open brainstorm sessions where we discuss the issues going on and throw up ideas. You get all this great feedback and you can bring it back and soak it in and determine what the next step is. We also sit right next to engineering so we can show them a hand drawn design and say, "Okay, this is what we’re thinking," and then they’ll have design ideas themselves because they’re cooking up in their head how they’re going to develop. That’s the crux of it all, designers and engineers working together. I’m big on trying to talk it through because otherwise your projects just aren’t as good. The more you collaborate the better it is.

We did two usability tests with a bunch of participants using InVision as the prototype. After the second one, we realized we had to think completely different about the design because the way they’re using it is completely different.

How does InVision help you in your design process?

We use InVision internally because it is really easy to put a design up there and create a clickable prototype with the actions we were looking for, but we mainly use InVision for user testing. It's very quick to upload the images and really easy to send a link to the research team. Another benefit is that it doesn’t take much for them to get started with the research. We’re huge on working in lean environment, so it’s very easy to do those Photoshop files, throw them in InVision, and then you’re going.

We did two usability tests with a bunch of participants using InVision as the prototype. After the second one, we realized we had to think completely different about the design because the way they’re using it is completely different. That revised design is live now, but we had to implement it in small chunks just to get it out there. We started by displaying the new design to 5% of our actual users just to see how it would perform. Because we descoped some things, it didn't have all the tools that the old page did, and it was outperforming the original page, even with less tools (less tools meaning showing the item in an outfit, or a fit survey, etc.)! So right now we are on Phase 7 of that page as we are adding in the rest of the updates we had to descope originally. It has only been about 6 months and it’s already outperforming the old page.

We also used InVision for color theory on the product page. We did a color analysis on which color the Add to Cart button should be so the minute you hit Add to Cart on the product page, that color was going to be your button color all the way through checking out so that you were in that same mentality. We researched the colors that worked the best, created some prototypes in InVision, and determined from the testing that the best color was green. It was awesome because we just upload four image files, make them clickable and boom, we can go test it out. When we pushed it live for quantitative testing, the product page did really well.

What music do you listen to when you’re designing?


Armin Van Buuren: Mirage - The Remixes
  1. Armin van Buuren
  2. Daft Punk
  3. Deadmau5
  4. David Guetta
  5. Avicii

What is your beverage of choice?

Arnold Palmer. That’s funny you asked that question. I’ve always joked, but semi-seriously, that I was going to build an Arnold Palmer app for my own amusement. So many people can screw it up and make different ones based on the kind of tea and lemonade they use. Everywhere I go I take a picture of everyone with me and save it with some notes so I can remember for next time.

Zappos Office Photos

About Donny

Donny is a User Experience Manager at Zappos. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

About Zappos

Zappos is an online shoe and apparel shop currently based in Henderson, Nevada. Since its founding in 1999, Zappos has grown to be the largest online shoe store.