This is the ninth of a weekly series of posts on various aspects of social software design I find interesting, here is the full list. If you’re wondering where SSS#8 is, it’s still in the process of being written. Oops. Each of these posts are written over the course of a few hours in a straight shot. Contents may be mildly idiosyncratic.

Forgot the Bananas

Yesterday marked the second Product Design Guild meeting and it’s becoming clear that we’ve managed to hit upon something special with these events. Fortunately, I took some video at this event so I can let the attendees speak for themselves:

For those of you who are not familiar, the Product Design Guild is about having designers come together and bring real work so that they can help each other. At our last two events, we had roughly 30 attendees each time, mostly from small, exciting startups but also the occasional big company like Yahoo & Autodesk. They bring anything from glass bottles for Fijian Rum that they’re working on as a side project to tools to help better manage digital assets within a team to the latest beta version of their new front page. Projects range in maturity from whiteboard sketches to functioning code that gets modified live during the event. We hold an introduction at the start of each event where every person stands up and gives a short spiel about what they brought and I’m always struck each time by the breadth and diversity of projects present in the guild.

After reflecting on this for the better part of a day, I think I’ve managed to uncover just what it is that makes this group “magic”. The world of the technology founder has undergone radical innovation in the last couple of years. Y Combinator, the rise of co-working spaces, hackathons and convertible notes have all radical changed what it means to found & run a company. Meanwhile, the process for workers has remained largely the same. Even at exciting new startups, while the tools might be slightly different, the basic way that work is done hasn’t really changed. The reason why the Product Design Guild feels so fresh & news is that it’s trying to do for employees, what Y Combinator has done for entrepreneurs. It’s changing the bargain of work into a new form which is more radically open, collaborative & cooperative.

The first rule of the Product Design Guild is that you have to bring work. It can be a side project or something you do for fun but we would prefer for it to be your everyday work. We want you to shut off your laptop at your office on Friday at 5pm and then bring that work over to the Guild on Saturday at noon and resume right on working. Already, this is quite a radical concept. For most companies, work never leaks out beyond the walls of the building, at least not without a thicket of contracts and regulations. Sure, you get to see the company website or iPhone app or hardware device. But you never get to see the half finished PSDs, the initial sketches and doodles, the bits of barely working code that has yet to be skinned. To be able to sit down and work with someone who you’ve just met is what I think causes the spark you hear in people’s voices as they describe the guild.

Of course, revolutionizing work is not easy. If it were easy, it would have been done a long time ago. Right now, we’ve captured the magic but the main challenges still lie ahead, in trying to keep that magical spark alive. To do that, I think we need to focus on five key elements we’ve managed to nail:

  • The quality of the people: One of the themes that was repeated in the video was how just being around smart and talented designers made this event special. From the start, we were determined to keep quality high and for to only get higher over time. This means not only lots of time spent on the back end, filtering for candidates who met our standards, but also time on the front end, personally selling the guild so that high quality candidates actually applied. This relentless focus on quality is something we’re committed to keeping to over time.
  • An attitude of helpfulness: While I expected quality to be an important factor, it surprised me how much the attitude of intense helpfulness that we’ve managed to develop in the Guild has, in many ways, been even more important. You go to a typical networking event or mixer and everyone you talk to is only half paying attention to you while trying to figure out who else in the room they should be connecting with. You might exchange pleasantries or generalities but it’s mostly surface level conversation. After experiencing that, there’s really something indescribably about coming to the Guilt and having another person giving you their full attention. Your problem suddenly becomes the most important thing in their lives. Such an attitude is infectious. At both of the events we’ve held, it was clear that everyone in the room was more concerned about giving help than taking it. Thus far, it’s been a happy accident but, moving forward, it’s also something we’re going to be taking very seriously.
  • Supporting confidentiality: Part of the reason why it’s so satisfying to participate in the Guild is because you feel like your help has impact. People there are working on real products that affect real users and you can help make real improvements to those products. Confidentiality is a major part of making this work. This is why fully half of our rules and all of our policy is designed around respecting confidentiality to the fullest extent possible.That being said, confidentiality being violated at the guild is a matter of when, not if. Some designer will bring in early versions of a new product launch and they’ll wake up tomorrow to find the details splashed over the pages of TechCrunch. There is nothing we can ever do to eliminate these breaches in confidentiality, only to mitigate them as best we can.
  • Managed serendipity: In my last Guild meeting write up, I talked a lot about the Human Expertise Routing Network and this was the meeting which saw it pop up into existence. Over and over again, during the event, I walked into a conversation and figured out that I could add value by dragging in the right person. This was so evident that people actually explicitly commented on it at the end of the day as significantly enhancing their experience. It’s this type of serendipity that really leverages the true strengths of the Guild format.
  • A commitment to offering value: Our mission for the guild has been very clear from day one; we serve designers and the profession of design. While we may try and help out other interest groups like engineers, CEOs or investors, it’s never at the expense of designers. Over time, this means figuring out ways of supporting designers with creative and helpful services.

    This Guild meeting marked the beginning of our “in Residence” program. Drake Martinet from the Wall Street Journal’s AllThingsD because our first “Journalist in Residence” and added immense value by providing design insight from a journalistic perspective. Over the course of time, we’ll be adding other “in Residence” partners from Engineering, Investment, Marketing & HR.

    The next Guild meeting will be the beginning of our “Bring a friend usability session”, a program designed to get startups onto the usability testing bandwagon in as quick & efficient a way as possible.

    Beyond that, we have other exciting projects coming down the pike that are still too early to talk about. Part of why designers are so willing to give to us is because we’re so willing to give to them. It’s only be demonstrating this commitment to offering value that we can keep that enthusiasm alive.

It’s still very early days and so these are just a tiny fraction of the lessons yet to be learned. That being said, I think this provides a pretty robust framework that captures the essence of our experience and allows us to “bottle the magic”. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be actively talking with people about setting up sister groups and so this serves as some useful documentation about how this will happen. Here’s to hoping for future success!

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