AMA: I'm Cap Watkins, Product Design Manager at Etsy

almost 9 years ago from , VP of Design @ BuzzFeed

Hi hi,

For those of you (most of you) asking yourselves, "Who?", a quick bio. I'm currently a Product Design Manager at Etsy (handmade and vintage goods, yay!), leading the Buyer Experience and Seller Experience design teams and generally trying to make product design a solid and awesome group to work with.

Prior to that: I graduated from USC (California, not Carolina) with a degree in Creative Writing and was offered a job designing for some friends who'd just gotten their startup funded (The Nethernet). Afterward, I was the first designer at Zoosk from when they were less than 10 people, as well as the first designer at Formspring.

After that, I did a stint at Amazon as a UX designer on stuff I'm unsure I'm allowed to discuss publicly (so I probably won't here, sorry). And now you're all caught up! Etsy.com!

I live in Brooklyn with my amazing designer-wife Kim Bost, my dog and a growing mountain of cookbooks. I'm @cap on Twitter and I write stuff now and then on my Internet Web Log:


Thanks so much to the LayerVault folks for asking me to answer some questions. :)

Let's rock.

Let's Rock


  • Matt AchariamMatt Achariam, almost 9 years ago

    Hello Cap, thank you for taking the time to join us. Your writing on design and management is often insightful and has proven valuable to the community. I’d like to kick things off with a few questions.

    1. Given the myriad of design problems to solve at any given time, how do you and your team at Etsy decide what to focus on?
    2. Being a designer in a managerial role, how do you reconcile not being able to practice your craft? Do you have any other creative outlets?
    3. What do you think is the most underserved field in design today?
    7 points
    • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago

      Hi Matt! Thanks for those softball questions (I kid, I could write entire blog posts on all of those).

      1. At Etsy we take some time at the end of each year to evaluate what we're going to continue/start working on next year (we're actually in the middle of that right now). It's a bottoms-up process that has product teams (PMs, engineers and designers) getting together and brainstorming/strategizing together. We can't work on everything, but the teams are great at figuring out what will be most impactful.

      2. I find management to be a lot like being a designer (more UX, really). I do find time on the weekends to work on side projects, but mostly I just really enjoy helping and enabling great designers do great work. I'm comfortable having hired people way better than I am at design and just being the person that unblocks them and helps them when they need a whiteboarding partner or a second pair of eyes.

      3. User Research. Any time a company experiences it they can't get enough. Yet every company isn't fully dedicating resources to expanding those teams. Etsy's research team is amazing and expanding and giving us pretty awesome data to work from. Come on, people. It's about the users. Let's talk to them all the time as much as possible forever.

      4 points
  • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago

    Hey all, done for now! If you have more questions, post them and I'll check in tonight and answer more!

    Thanks for all the questions. Hope this has been as helpful for you as it's been fun times for me!


    5 points
  • Mike D.Mike D., almost 9 years ago

    Hello Cap. What is the secret to a full healthy beard?

    3 points
  • Cameron MollCameron Moll, almost 9 years ago

    Cap! Great to see you here. I'll ask the same question I asked you in Chicago, as I'm sure others may appreciate the answer.

    Etsy has two audiences, buyers and sellers. Does it create conflict for the design team and/or management trying to satisfy both audiences? If so, how do you manage this?

    2 points
    • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )


      http://i.imgur.com/8ZozHvN.gif :)

      You know, I thought it might when I first started at Etsy. But what I've found is that, 99% of the time, the needs and concerns of our sellers and buyers align. Sellers want better tooling and features to better serve their customers, and their customers want better features and tools to help them find shops and items to purchase. It's pretty awesome that those things align so closely most of the time

      And on the odd occasions it doesn't, we're aware of that internally and work together to navigate it. We're pretty connected with our community (and getting more and more connected with both buyers and sellers as our User Research team gets more amazing), which helps us out a lot when considering how new features and products may affect both sides of our marketplace.

      I don't want to make it sound like it's always super easy or perfect, because it's not always. But hey, that's product design and development. We didn't sign up for easy!

      1 point
  • Daniel EdenDaniel Eden, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )


    I have a couple of (hopefully quick & relevant) questions:

    1. Etsy no doubt deals with some interesting transactional stuff. I work a lot with the payments team and know it can be tough to get designers excited about the sorts of challenges involved there*. Have you found the same to be true at Etsy?
    2. It seems like you guys are doing a grand job at hiring and maintaining a fairly diverse team. We’re trying hard to grow sustainably and diversely, and I’d love to hear any quick thoughts you might have on what you’ve done to make the Etsy design team such a universally appealing place to be.

    *Not me—I freaking love transaction design.

    2 points
    • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago

      What's up, Daniel!

      1. I haven't, really. Transactional stuff is just so meaty a UX problem that I feel like I can easily sell that challenge to any designer.

      2. It's honestly been a huge happy accident. I reach out to a lot of talented folks (a lot) and some of them say they'd like to work here. It's a ton of legwork, a ton of things not working out and a few super happy moments when things do.

      Also, Etsy as the product/company helps a lot. :)


      1 point
  • Duncan GrahamDuncan Graham, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

    Howdy Cap! Could you solve this for me?

    5(-3x - 2) - (x - 3) = -4(4x + 5) + 13

    1 point
  • Chris FreesChris Frees, almost 9 years ago


    What are your thoughts on college? Do you think it's necessary for UI/web designers?

    Thanks! :)

    1 point
    • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago

      Hi Chris!

      While I don't have a degree in design, I really did enjoy the college experience (also, that's where I met the first founders who hired me - in an English class). So, I don't think college is necessary, but I can say it was an amazing and formative four years of my life that I wouldn't trade back.


      1 point
  • Joel CalifaJoel Califa, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

    Hey Cap, how's life?

    1 point
  • Jonathan ShariatJonathan Shariat, almost 9 years ago

    Hello Cap, I really enjoy your writing!

    My question is: Have you ever been in a position where the environment you were working in as a designer started choking out your passion and creativity? and if so how did you change that, or suggest changing it?

    And heres my GIF offering:


    1 point
    • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

      Hey Jonathan,

      Thanks so much! For the compliment and the gif. :)


      That's a sad question, but I get what you mean and I've certainly been there. I wish I had a better answer than this, but I've found a change of scenery (a new job) to be the best remedy for that feeling. If that's not an option, find The Goonies in your organization (folks with shared values and enthusiasm) and work with them.

      Also, just remember, everything is temporary. Feeling less passionate or creative is simply the state you're currently in. It won't always be that way and shouldn't have to be.

      3 points
  • Florent AlixFlorent Alix, almost 9 years ago

    oh yeah, the Nethernet !

    0 points
  • Sudeep SharmaSudeep Sharma, almost 9 years ago

    Hey! I guess I missed the ama, nonetheless your blog on boring designer really helped me define my own process. Thanks a lot!

    0 points
  • Keira BuiKeira Bui, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

    Hello Cap, thanks for doing an AMA!

    I visited your blog and saw that you are the one who wrote The Boring Designer. Love that piece! I have a few questions:

    1. How is the approval process at Etsy? Is there a time when you get frustrated because there are too many people involved in one project?

    2. What is the design culture like? How is it different from other places you've worked at? (say, Amazon)

    3. Are you hiring summer interns? I would lovee to apply if you are. My portfolio: http://www.keirabui.com (shameless plug)

    0 points
  • Lucas ColussoLucas Colusso, almost 9 years ago

    For me Etsy is about empowering people. It's about giving them a tool to spread their vision, their ideals... made concret by the products they make. Apart from technical aspects of your day to day activity, how you and your team think about the philosophy of the context you are creating for. Do you have design statements or critical discussions of what you build?

    0 points
  • Mindy NamMindy Nam, almost 9 years ago

    Hi Cap, thank you for doing this AMA. Your article "The Boring Designer" made a big impact on my mindset couple of months ago.

    I wasn't planning on asking any questions but I was encouraged to see in your bio above that you don't have a formal design education. So here is a question:

    From your experience working with designers from various backgrounds, do you feel that there are certain things designers without a design degree need to work harder at to catch up to those who do?

    Thanks again!

    0 points
    • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago

      Yes, absolutely. I actually wish I could go back to college (not back in time, just go to college again) and take a bunch of graphic design and design theory classes. Luckily, my wife did that and I'm able to glean a lot from her work and asking her why she makes certain choices. It's super helpful, but also pretty obvious to me how much tighter my work would have been earlier in my career had I had that sort of background.

      It's not something you can't teach yourself or find mentors to help with, it's just different than spending an immersive four years in that sort of training.

      0 points
  • Pete PetrashPete Petrash, almost 9 years ago

    Hi Cap!

    It goes without saying that designers at tech companies are increasingly expected to know HTML and CSS, and sometimes enough Javascript to be dangerous.

    I feel like we're on the verge of a similar trend with native mobile apps, where designers at certain adventurous companies will be getting more familiar with coding native mobile front-ends.

    In another answer you mentioned the product design role at Etsy as end-to-end and I'm very interested how mobile fits into this process. Are a subset of the design team getting their hands dirty in Android Studio and Xcode? If so, are they working alongside engineers in production, or just generating disposable prototypes?

    0 points
    • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago

      Hey Pete,

      Some certainly do. We actually have some designers going through iOS/Android development training right now (of their own volition, but funded/provided by Etsy). It's unclear to me what that will mean for the mobile development process long-term, but at bare minimum designers being able to have informed discussions about code and what's possible will be super important there.

      I'd really like to live in a world where native app development has a presentation layer akin to html/css/js. I'm a crazy-person, though. :)

      1 point
      • Pete PetrashPete Petrash, almost 9 years ago

        Thanks so much for the reply, Cap. Glad to hear some Etsy designers are exploring iOS/Android dev — would love to read more about how this affects the design/development process at Etsy.

        I'm putting together a couple guides, one for iOS and another for Android, that will help designers get familiar with manipulating the 'front-end'; colors, dimensions, importing assets, etc. It's actually pretty similar to HTML/CSS/JS and I'm trying to leverage the similarities in the guide. Hopefully it will be of use to other design teams interested in exploring these waters.

        0 points
  • Jay AlexJay Alex, almost 9 years ago

    Hello Cap, thanks for the AMA. How is the Etsy Design Team different from the other big companies, such as Amazon, Google, or smaller ones, such as Twitter, Square, etc? And in these different environments, how do designers grow differently (assuming on the individual contributor track)?

    Thank you!

    0 points
  • Tarun ChakravortyTarun Chakravorty, almost 9 years ago

    Hello Cap, thanks for doing this ama, i really enjoy reading your blog posts!

    Can you tell us a bit about how you're scaling out the design team at Etsy? as in, how much importance do you give to end to end designers as compared to people who might have a couple of really strong points (say, high interaction design and user research skills but not-that-good visual design or prototyping, or vice versa)?

    Also at Etsy's size, when you're hiring, do you tend to hire just generally smart people, or people who will fit specific roles that have opened up?

    0 points
    • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago

      Hi Tarun,

      All the product design roles at Etsy are end-to-end (UX, Visual, Front-End). Fortunately, we're at a size now (27) where we can hire folks who are stronger in a couple areas, but not as experienced or confident in others and pair them with a good design counterpart.

      Even then, though, the designers here are expected to contribute and grow in all areas of the product dev process. So if a design candidate comes through and says "I can't code, and I don't want to learn," that's a totally legitimate point of view, but not one that matches up with our hiring criteria.

      As far as specific roles, it kind of depends. When we have a lot of roles open, I'm a bit less targeted in my recruiting efforts (since someone could fit into any number of roles). But as it whittles down throughout the year, I start to get a little more specific. It's all pretty fungible depending on the team, role, etc.

      2 points
      • Victor TranVictor Tran, almost 9 years ago

        Nice answer. Thank you!

        How do you extend this approach to hiring more junior designers who have had less time to master each or all of the skill-sets? Or do they stand no chance? haha.

        0 points
        • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago

          We have rubrics for each level and we hire designers accordingly. The junior designers' rubric isn't as stringent as the levels above it. If we're hiring a junior role, junior designers definitely stand a chance.

          1 point
  • Seah C-BSeah C-B, almost 9 years ago

    Hi Cap. I love Etsy, and I think that you guys have been making a lot of really smart design changes to the site recently. Here are a couple things I've been wondering.

    1. Why do you think that endless scrolling led to less engagement from users? I've read that one blog post, but I was still left with questions about what was really going on in the users' heads while they were using the feature. Related, will you ever create an opt-in endless scroll toggle? (Because I would like to use it)

    2. Why does the New From Your Favorite Shops section say it's "curated" by Etsy? Is it not showing me all the new items from the shops I follow? If this is the case, what's the logic behind that decision?

    0 points
    • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago

      HI Seah,

      I wish I could be more helpful, but:

      1. That was before my time. If I had to guess, part of it is that search results kind of rely on users being able to go to a listing and back to the results and wind up in the same place (I don't know if we were doing that, but I'd wager we weren't). Also, who knows, users' tastes change. It very well could be something we should consider trying again sometime. No promises!

      2. That's using our Lists feature to generate the page. Usually a list will tell you who curated it (in this case, Etsy.com made the list for you). We should probably revisit that wording.


      2 points
  • Zach LansdaleZach Lansdale, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

    Hey Cap!

    Right now the startup I work for is starting to segment into different pods, which is great (means we're growing in the right direction).

    As the Creative Director I'm in the process of defining the culture and structure of the design team. We currently have a design team of four who will be working within different pods of the product. Any words of wisdom as I power on through?


    0 points
    • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago

      Transparency transparency transparency. Moving the design folks to sit with their teams is amazing and enhances collaboration with eng/PM/etc. in incredible ways. The hard part is making sure the design team still knows what's going on so they don't run over each other, make non-holistic style changes, etc.

      It's a difficult problem to solve, but I'd recommend products like Basecamp that can give designers a place to post all their work, get feedback from each other and surface overlaps before things Get Weird.

      I feel you, buddy. It's gonna be awesome, though. http://i.imgur.com/2AiipKU.gif

      0 points
  • Kenny Chen, almost 9 years ago

    Hi Cap,

    What types of tools does your team at Etsy use for wireframing, designing, and prototyping?

    0 points
    • Cap Watkins, almost 9 years ago

      Kenny, my main man. We use all sorts of tools. At Etsy, to be honest, we don't care so much about which tools a designer chooses, but rather that the design process is transparent and collaborative. That said, here's a quick list off the top of my head of programs/apps I've seen in use:

      • Code. For everything.
      • Sketch
      • Adobe CC
      • Invision
      • MS Paint
      • Keynote
      • Google Docs


      I can't think of any more, though I'm sure there are some others I'm not aware of/can't recall right now.

      2 points