Posts Tagged ‘Product Design Guild’

Social Software Sunday #9 – Product Design Guild #2: Bottling the Magic

by Hang

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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Social Software Sunday #5 – Designing a Design Guild

by Hang

This is the fifth of a weekly series of posts on various aspects of social software design I find interesting, here is the full list. Each of these posts are written over the course of a few hours in a straight shot. Contents may be mildly idiosyncratic.

Chocolate Ice Cream Sundae

Over the last 6 weeks, I’ve been working hard to get the Product Design Guild off the ground. The Product Design Guild is an event for designers where they can bring in work they’re doing in their everyday jobs and engage in collaboration with other designers. We held our inaugural pilot yesterday at pariSoma with the generous support of 500 Startups (with special thanks to Enrique Allen who is a hidden gem on the 500 Startups team). It was immensely gratifying to see that our intuitions were correct and we managed to put on a truly special event. It’s self-aggrandizement of the lowest order for me to explain how my own event was awesome so, instead, I’m going to let pictures do the explaining for me:

I think it’s clear from these shots that people were seriously invested in each other’s work and that deep thought and reflection (as well as fun) were taking place.

I’ve already spilled many words on why the guild exists and what values it operates under. I thought I would spend some time in this post laying out some of the design decisions & principles that went into the formation of the guild, how those worked out in practice and learnings which are going to be applied back in the next iteration. A quick plug, I’ll also be talking about this along with other social experience design stuff at BayCHI on Tuesday, November 9th at Xerox PARC. Please drop by and say hi if you’re interested.

Design Principles

It seems like an eternity since I first sat down with Brian Gupton to map out how something like a Product Design Guild would work. It’s hard to imagine it’s only been 6 weeks to move from conception to reality. Brian was the one who originally set up a meetup group and bought the domain name and started promoting the idea. I thought the basic idea had promise but I could see that if it continued along that path, it would devolve into something not especially compelling. I was already starting to formulate some of my ideas around the Evaporative Cooling phenomena and I wanted to design to support a community that would grow better over time instead of devolve.

The most apt way of summing up my design philosophy is paranoid in the long term but pragmatic in the short term. Operating from a position of extreme ignorance, I don’t believe it’s practical to do anything but idly day dream about features too far into the future. When I was promoting the guild, people would ask me “How often are you holding them?” or “Are you planning on getting your own space someday?” and my answer was always “I’m focused on the first pilot right now. Once we hold it, we’ll know more”. At the same time, many of the flaws I saw that caused communities to fail were baked into the fundamental structure at the very beginning. When designing the guild, I continue to be paranoid about how decisions that are expedient in the short term may end up causing long term harm. Thus, the main design that I was doing was establishing the basic structure and crafting the rules which would start to scaffold the social norms.

My guiding inspiration when designing the Product Design Guild was focused on how we can provide value to the very best designers in the industry. This is a hard problem because the very best designers are hard to even reach, let alone persuade. They are busy, they have a good network and have enormous demands on their time. In order to capture them, we have to figure out how to provide them with enduring value and solve the problems that they care about. While all of the design events I was aware of focused on education or networking or job hunting, the thing that all designers (including the great ones) still cared about the most was work and work was something the design community thus far has failed to grapple with. I figured, if we could make even the best designers more productive at their everyday jobs, then they would find value in that since it gave them more time, not less if they chose participate.

Part of my hypothesis about why work was a difficult area for design communities to crack was that the activation energy was simply too high. Work is assumed to be confidential by default and involves multiple stakeholders, most of whom are risk averse. To get two people, not working at the same company to work on the same problem requires enough red tape that it’s just usually not done. By focusing on startups & freelancers at the start, we simplified the problem by aiming for those who have the least to lose from sharing and the most to gain. At the same time, by collectivizing the agreement, it only had to be made once, at the start of the meeting instead of n^2 times for each pair of participants. This was the impetus behind the last 4 rules that we established:

  • Seek permission from all of your stakeholders before sharing: Don’t sneak work into the guild under your client’s or boss’ nose
  • We operate under the FriendDA: Seek explicit permission before sharing anything you saw outside of the guild
  • Disclose any possible conflicts of interest before collaborating: It’s up to the requester to decide whether to proceed
  • Any guild work you do belongs to the requester: The requester is free to use it however they like without reseeking your consent

Not all work can be shared with the Guild and that’s fine but the hope is that by providing this durable social contract, we can begin to streamline within companies the process of inter-company sharing (for example, work might be split into confidential, OK to share with the Guild & OK to share with everyone). I think we saw at the first pilot that confidentiality was not perceived as that big a deal but I think it’s going to be something that will grow in importance as the guild evolves and grows.

The next decision I made was that the event should be exclusive rather than free-for-all. Exclusivity was not so much about increasing the average quality of the group so much as the minimum. Because each member in the group was hand selected, people started off knowing that any random person they were talking to possessed some minimum degree of design insight and that they could start from a platform of mutual respect. Design conversations could proceed at a high level rather than starting off by feeling out how much expertise the other person had. I call this the difference between “literate” and “illiterate” cultures and it’s something I plan on expanding upon in a later post. Of course, exclusivity is easier said than done. In order to get the 30 people who were at the first pilot, we had to drive over 100 people to sign up and then cull the list down to 50 people who we considered good enough for the pilot. This involved lunches, dinners, drinks, emails, phone calls and many hours of me tapping into my own personal network and cashing in favors.

As a sidenote, it really demonstrates the unique, meritocratic nature of Silicon Valley that someone like me, a newcomer who’s only been here for less than 6 months was able to build up such a strong and wide network. During the months that I was on the job hunt, I spent a lot of that time meeting as many people as I could and trying to be helpful to whoever I was able to, without expecting anything back. This phase has paid itself back in spades as virtually the entire pilot was spread due to word of mouth recommendations from friends I had personally sold. I don’t think there are many cities where such a thing could have been started by such a newcomer.

The other thing I really focused on baking into the system from the start was the appropriate “social gatings”. Social gates are factors about the community that allow other people to self-select as to whether they want to be members or not. Of the people who become aware of your community, who decides to join is largely a factor of the social gates you put in place. For the Guild, there are currently 3 explicit social gates in place:

  • You need to bring work: This is a place for work to be done. There is no room for tourists
  • Give before you receive: We want this to be a community for contribution, not a resource for exploitation
  • Be articulate about what you can offer: We are looking for people who can contribute to the education of fellow designers

If you’re a great designer, you can mentally list out the types of people that you would dread running into at an event like this. They are the social parasites that end up sucking value out of the community rather than contributing. Each of these rules was designed as a way to gate the community such that these people would feel unwelcome even considering applying. Looking at the people who signed up for the pilot, our social gating appears to have been pretty effective. The quality of the submissions was almost universally high and only about 10% of our list were people who we clearly were not looking for. Even the people that we wait-listed were all very high quality designers who we only excluded due to lack of space in the first pilot. What I also thought was really interesting was that we got roughly 6x the number of Facebook “Likes” for the guild compared to tweets. What I believe is that the social gates managed to give off the correct air of exclusivity & intimacy that caused people to want to share with their closest friends rather than everyone in the world.


There were a couple of things that came out from the pilot that we’re going to feed back into the next iteration. Probably the biggest one is what I call the “ramp-up” phase. Before two designers can start working together, there’s a good 20 minutes where the outsider needs to be brought up to speed before any productive contribution can be made. After 20 minutes, only the most shallow advice can be given at the highest level. Truly ramping up to being on the same page about a problem could take weeks for a particularly intricate problem. The ramp-up is necessary for collaboration but it’s purely non-productive time. Not only was ramping up time consuming, adding a new member to the group meant you had to re-ramp up the group which took even more productive time away from working. This made it hard to leave & join other groups because the act of joining a group would cause a productivity hit.

At the first pilot, everyone spent a significant amount of their time just ramping up because all of the projects and people were new. This is OK for the first pilot but, for the PDG to be sustainable and scalable, we need to figure out ways of more efficiently ramping people up. One thing I definitely want to do for next time is to allow people to demo rather than just explain the work they brought during the first intro period. Another idea I want to explore is to push the ramping up period into the pre-event phase by having people post what they’re working on online and allowing others to find people they should be connecting with. Finally, since explaining your work is a relatively scalable task, a designated “show & tell” phase during lunch and opportunities for everyone to switch around could also help.

Another really powerful pattern we saw was what I call “Human expertise routing”. The most helpful thing I think I did at the Guild was not directly helping someone but recognizing that their need matched the expertise of another member and introducing the two. I want to explore different ways of encouraging people to serve as this human expertise routing network as something that provides real value.

Finally, something I want to explore further is what phases of design is this type of collaboration most ideal for and what is the limit of what this format can provide? Anecdotally, coming up with new feature requests was the most popular design activity but it’s also not that compelling since most products suffer from an excess of features, not a dearth. I think it has value in other areas but we need to push people to move into them.

Failed experiments

The nature of prototyping is that there should be failures and that failures should be used to learn and feed back into the next iteration. There were two ideas that ended up being dismal failures. The first was the idea of using colored dots on nametags to indicate what expertise a person had. Application was inconsistent, it was impossible to remember the color codings and nobody seemed to pay attention to them.

The second was the idea of supporting impromptu “masterclasses” where people could gather to go into more depth about a particular topic. That ended up being a massive bomb from the very beginning. I put down an example masterclass but I couldn’t even get a single person interested. After my very public dismal failure, nobody else even bothered. I think part of it was that the language was intimidating. “masterclass” sounds like this big, sophisticated heavyweight thing that wasn’t really in line with the tenor of the rest of the event. The second was that I think it was thrust on people too quickly. I think people needed some time to figure out what it is that they could offer. Finally, the risk to reward ratio was skewed by my failure. For the next event, we’re going to change the language to “birds of a feather”, allow people to propose and sign up for them ahead of time and explain the entire concept a lot better.

Future experiments

For the next meeting, we’re going to be focusing on learning more about the following areas:

  • How do people work now that they’ve already done the getting to know you stuff?
  • How do we integrate new people into the group? What is their experience?
  • What happens after the “new and fun and shiny” phase? Once you get past the novelty, what is the enduring value we provide?
  • How quickly can we scale? What are the effective mechanisms for doing so?
  • How do we lessen the amount of time spent in ramp up and make teams gel more efficiently?
  • What are the ways clever technology can be used to augment the guild experience?

The design of the second guild meeting is going to be centered around learning from these questions.


This is but the first significant step for the Product Design Guild. It’s been enormously gratifying so far that every early indication seems to be pointing to this becoming a success but there’s still a lot of trials and obstacles along the way. We are currently tentatively scheduling the next event for early December and I’m excited to see this idea evolve.

To be notified of the next Social Software Sunday piece as it’s posted, you can subscribe to the RSS feed, follow me on twitter or subscribe via email:

How should designers best take advantage of the current design shortage?

by Hang

About a month ago, I asked on Quora Why is there such a stunningly short supply of designers in Silicon Valley right now? This question lead to an amazing amount of high quality discussion, both in the answers to the question and in followup questions that it spawned. This question was also what provided sufficient impetus for Brian Gupton & I to start the Product Design Guild. Coming full circle, a followup question was asked today, What are some ways a designer could best take advantage of the short supply of designers? In answering it, I took the time to delve into a lot of the reasoning behind starting the Guild in the first place and also everything I had been learning since then. I thought it would be valuable to replicate this here:

In a market based economy, the most obvious short term tactics for a designer right now are:

  • Ask for more money
  • Ask for more responsibility

I’m going to argue actually that these are actually detrimental moves in the long run and that extreme imbalances in demand can, paradoxically, be bad for both designers and the design profession as a whole.

Demanding more compensation purely due to market conditions and not because you’re getting better as a designer means that you’re increasing the value captured:value delivered ratio. As this ratio approaches 1, you become an increasingly bad deal for smart companies and only companies ignorant enough to be overpaying for design are willing to hire you. This is an ultimately unsustainable practice which sours companies on the value of design and sets back the progress we’ve been making over the last few decades, demonstrating the importance of design as a a competitive business advantage.

You can see this happening already. Enthusiastic but way too junior designers are being offered “Lead (and only) Designer” roles at hot startups for lack of more experienced candidates. This may sound like a fantastic deal to the designer in the short term but they’re ultimately not ready for that role. The design that they produce are unrefined and immature, not delivering value to the company commensurate with their responsibilities. This ends up with both sides being unhappy and delivers a “poor user experience” to the company that impacts how they treat design in the future.

Instead, I counter-intuitively have the following advice: figure out a way to increase the total sum value of design in the world as a whole and your slice of the pie will rise commensurately.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues in the past month as we’ve been setting up the Product Design Guild. I’ve spent time talking to designers, entrepreneurs & investors and trying to understand how the Guild can best serve to help designers flourish.

What I think this means for designers in more concrete terms is:

  • Fight for design to have it’s rightful seat at the table. One advantage of designers being a hot commodity is that we can fight for real political change or threaten to walk. Rather than focusing on salary, focus on impact and choose companies which understand and respect design and let designers have the necessary independence & influence to make a meaningful change in the product.
  • Set aside time for education and self-improvement. As more and more responsibilities are piled on designers, it can be tough to carve out “non-productive” educational time. With tight deadlines approaching, it’s easy to efficiently crank out something you already know how to do for this next release and save the long term stuff for a later date. Except that later date is never going to come and you’ll realize that it’s 5 years later and you’re still churning out the exact same designs you were 5 years ago with your now rapidly obsoleting skill set. Designers need to push back against demands on their time and assign equal importance to growth as production. Use the clout you have now to fight against overly aggressive ship dates and over-demanding bosses. Take time to attend design events, read broadly, pursue creative hobbies and generally living an interesting & meaningful existence.
  • Leverage your talent as much as possible. This means focusing on trying to do more with what you have and being as efficient and effective as possible. Part of what differentiates experienced practitioners from novices in any field is a grace of action and conservation of motion. Only the minimum amount of effort is needed to accomplish a task and every action is streamlined down to it’s very essence. Be diligent about figuring out the most effective way to accomplish something. Learn all of the tricks and techniques that most effectively leverage the talent that you have. To this day, the best way of doing this is focused exposure to great talent. Jared Spool talked about this at the Warm Gun conference last month, junior sushi chefs in Japan go to work for master sushi chefs, doing scut work. Even though they never make sushi until very late in their apprenticeship, simply being around and observing master sushi chefs do their work is essential experience for becoming a master sushi chef. Similarly, junior designers should figure out a way to be exposed to experienced designers and simply observe how much more effortless design is when experience is gained. Without this knowledge, junior designers don’t even know what to strive for.
  • Recruit more great designers. It may seem paradoxical that bringing more competition for your job helps you in the long run but the demand for great designers is so extreme right now that even increasing the supply fourfold would not measurably affect your bargaining power. The current market is also extremely inefficient. In talking about this, many people both outside and also inside Silicon Valley are completely unaware of the extreme demand for designers. There are many capable designers locked up in big companies right now or working in other cities that could be persuaded to take the leap if given the right push. Similarly, there are a lot of people in product management, engineering, art & content production that have design aspirations but no clear path to becoming a designer. Recruiting all of these people into the design profession by selling how it’s both satisfying and rewarding can is only going to influence the power of design.
  • Take care of the design ecosystem. Historical trends in the last decade have not been kind to the design ecosystem. Design school education is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the fast paced and unique needs of Silicon Valley. Smaller team sizes means that many designers are now working as the sole designer on a team, without the ability to collaborate or learn from other designers. Even for companies that can still afford to maintain a design team, lower job loyalty means that mentorship becomes a losing economic proposition. Taking away productivity from your senior designers for mentorship only to have your junior designer take off and apply that learning at their next company makes you feel stupid the second or third time it happens. Where are we going to get our next generation of designers if this continues to be the case? The only way to fix this is to take time to contribute back to the design eco-system. If you’re a senior designer, take the time to mentor junior designers, even if you never directly benefit. If you’re a junior designer, work in co-operation with other designers instead of in competition. For designers overall, push to be less proprietary about your work and offer to share what you can with anyone who is interested.
  • Finally, spread the message. One designer, working alone can make an individual difference. One designer, mobilizing a thousand can affect real change. To make companies take notice and effect meaningful reform in the role of designers can only happen if the hear a clear and consistent message, coming from all angles. Designers are in a unique position right now where they hold a lot of potential power due to the extreme demand for designers. We should be taking advantage of this to make design a valued and sustainable profession that can keep us all happily employed in the long run.

The Product Design Guild is our attempt at addressing the issues that I’ve just outlined. Our ambitions are small to begin with but everything I’ve articulated is something that’s very much present in our thoughts as we figure out how to grow and develop the guild. If you’re interested in finding out more or want to participate, I encourage you to visit I believe we’ve managed to strike upon a very compelling concept and I’m passionate to see the Guild affect meaningful positive change in the design ecosystem.

Announcing: The Product Design Guild

by Hang

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a small side project which I’m finally ready to announce:

The Product Design Guild is a space where designers bring in the work they’re doing in their everyday jobs and engage in a collaborative design process with other designers.

To find out more & sign up, please visit:

If you can, I would appreciate it if you could pass this on to any designer friends you may know, especially those in the bay area who are freelancers or working as the sole designer at a startup. We are hoping to making this a resource that improves both the quantity & quality of designers in the Valley.

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