A Power Packed Design Driven Meetup: First Designer at Twitter, Product Designer at Facebook and VP of Product at Kickstarter

The Design Driven NYC meetup on May 3rd brought an impressive lineup. The speakers were Vítor Lourenço, Partner at Expa and first designer at Twitter, Bradford Shellhammer, Head of Personalization and Engagement at eBay, Jonathan Smiley, Product Designer at Facebook and Deepa Subramaniam, VP of Product at Kickstarter.

In case you missed it, or if you just want a recap, we’ve summarized key takeaways from some of the talks.

Product Designer at Facebook, Jonathan Smiley on Compromising
The designer’s responsibility is to define and design the product, and they are typically reluctant to any changes to what they have so artfully designed. However, the fact is:
“You don’t have all the answers and there will be compromises you need to make.”

It is difficult to create a product that works for everyone and compromises will usually need to be made in 5 different areas:


  • Compromises will be made when designing an all-encompassing product that is visually aesthetic, functional and user-friendly.Technology
  • There will be software dependencies that are difficult to develop or change.Business
  • Compromises will have to be made when making a choice between benefitting the users or the company’s bottom line.Political
  • There will be organizational dynamics and colleagues with different working styles, which will result in compromises that need to be made in design.Ego
  • There will be times when you need to be comfortable with the fact that you may not have created the right design.

While compromising, there will be times when you start to doubt yourself but the solution is for you to be clear about your role. It’s key to figure out when and how to compromise. Over time, you will develop good instincts about what users are looking for and bring key priorities for your environment to the table instead of bringing everything to the table.

VP of Product at Kickstarter, Deepa Subramaniam on Team Dynamics, Testing and Engagement

Though Deepa is currently with Kickstarter, she spoke about her experiences as Director of Product at Hillary for America. Deepa shared with us some tips for building good team dynamics, executing efficient user testing and creating effective engagement.

         Team Dynamics

  • The best outputs will usually be produced under difficult circumstances.
  • Teams which are integrated and focused on their prioritization produce the best results.
  • Collaboration should happen regularly by constantly sharing space physically and where necessary, virtually.
  • Diversity and inclusion are also key to building good rapport within the teams. Creating an inclusive and well-represented team with diverse backgrounds, will result in better outputs through stronger collaboration.Testing
  • Use A/B testing and data-driven testing to drive roadmap prioritization and show impact.
  • Prioritize ideas based on timing instead of significance.
  • Test ideas that are “evergreen”, which are valuable for a lengthy time instead of moment-based ideas.​Engagement
  • Get users to take action by being direct and make one clear ask instead of distracting them with multiple vague questions.
  • Provide a guide for your call-to-actions and justify their significance to users.
Partner at Expa and First Designer of Twitter, Vítor Lourenço on Launching Companies

With experience as the first designer of Twitter and a partner at startup studio, Expa, Vítor explained the lessons he learned from launching more than 10 companies at Expa in 3.6 years.

         ​Find something that sucks

  • You need to find something that you are really upset about before tackling the issue with a solution.Define key metrics for success
  • This keeps you attached to the problem you are about to solve. You will need to figure out one number that really matters and make sure that the number grows over time. During his early days at Twitter, the team based most of their decision on intuition without well defined instrumentation for a metric, which resulted in several changes in direction.Build focused prototypes
  • Instead of doing ten different things, pick one thing to focus on. Product needs to have a strong core and people often spend time working on ideas without a solid core.Tell a great story
  • When possible, invest in a good domain and name right from the beginning. Branding is important and it is not only about the name but how your consumers experience your product and its story.Use the scientific method
  • Carry out multiple tests for product market fit. Create a hypothesis, create your product and test it on users through a/b testing and experiments, review the results and come to a conclusion.
Although all of the speakers had design and product background, it was inspiring to hear their perspectives from a wide variety of industries. Thanks to Firstmark and Buzzfeed for inviting the power packed presenters, we definitely learned a lot and look forward to the next Design Driven NYC event.

Design Driven at Buzzfeed – Lessons Learned From Sylvain Labs, Hello Alfred and Unsplash



Design Driven NYC is a monthly event organized by Firstmark to inspire design enthusiasts through the stories from entrepreneurs and industry leaders in the design community. The organizers believe that “great design is storytelling at its finest, and that it is a critical element to any successful product.”

On 5th April, we attended their 26th Design Driven event held at BuzzFeed’s office. The featured speakers were Alain Sylvain (Founder/CEO of Sylvain Labs), Marcela Sapone (Founder/CEO of Hello Alfred), Luke Chesser (Founder/CPO of Unsplash) and Bonnie Siegler (Founder/CEO of Eight and a Half).

Here’s a recap of what we learned during the engaging exchanges between the presenters and the audience.

Alain Sylvain of Sylvain Labs on User Research
Sylvain Labs, an innovation and brand consultancy, is the brainchild of Alain Sylvain. 7 years ago, he observed that very few companies offered services that catered to both creative and business needs. Inspired to create a company that meets these needs, he started Sylvain Labs and along the way it has helped popular brands such as Nike, Google and Airbnb to launch new products and reinvent their brand positioning through innovative solutions.
“Learn to differentiate the user needs.”

When designing a product for users, we have to understand the complexities of a user’s needs. In short, what drives people to do what they do. During his speech, Alain touched on different solutions to make sense of a user’s needs.

    1. Physical need vs Emotional need: Is the need driven by actions or feelings?
      Eg “I need to go to the restaurant to get my lunch” vs “I need to talk to my boss to tell him how i feel”
    2. Timeless need vs Timely need: Does the need lasts indefinitely or happens immediately? Eg “I need to check up on my loved ones to stay in touch” vs “I need the ATM machine to work now”
    3.  Conscious need vs Unconscious need: Is the user aware or unaware of his or her needs?Eg “I want to get good grades” vs “I need to do well in school to show that i’m smart and capable”


  1.  Using Desire-Motivation-Tension model:
    ​As a user, I need/want ________ so that
     ________ but ________.
    Eg. As a CEO, I want to ensure that all the employees are working diligently and productively so that we can show progress but it is so difficult to keep track of the responsibilities that each employee has at hand and accommodate to different working styles.
Marcela Sapone of Hello Alfred on Design 
Hello Alfred is a service that offers on-demand butler services to help you manage your daily chores. Founders, Marcela Sapone and Jess Beck were the first all woman team to win the Techcrunch Disrupt competition with the Hello Alfred concept and have currently raised $12.5 million in funding.
“Life is too short not to design for what you want.”
Marcela started her speech with one of her favorite design mantras, “Life is too short not to design for what you want” and this was the quote that inspired her to create Hello Alfred. While going about her daily chores, she wished for someone to help her complete them so she could spend her time on more important tasks. With this idea in mind, she built this service to turn the idea into reality.
“Sometimes you want to increase friction to increase trust.”

She believes that when designing for UX of trust, you will need to increase friction to increase trust. Instead of hiring an employee with 1099 form for the role of an Alfred (what the butlers are referred to as), she and her team decided to hire W2 employees. From an employer’s perspective, hiring employees with a 1099 form is usually preferred as they would be able to spend less on staffing since the 1099 form regulations do not require them to cover benefits that a W2 employee would receive.

​However, Marcela views that using W2 employees would be necessary in increasing the users’ trust towards the Alfreds since W2 employees are full-time employees as compared to contractual 1099 employees. Even if this decision increases friction, the company still insists on hiring W2 employees and ensures that they are carefully-screened through background checks (identity, criminal and credit), references, and in-person interviews to build trust between the users and the Alfreds.

“Do not be afraid to do things that are difficult to scale.”
Hiring practices alone are insufficient in building trust with users. They realized that it was important for the Alfreds to leave personalized notes for the users after every session as well. It is more tedious for the Alfreds to do so, but they discovered that this small action translated into increased mutual trust.
“Be really specific and intentional about what you are designing.”
Marcela commented that designing the Alfred application was one of the hardest things she and her team had to do, as Hello Alfred is a category that does not exist. She knew that she needed to build a User Interface that would convey the ability to accomplish multiple things at once, while humanizing the exchange between Alfreds and the users. How does one build an communicative interface for Alfreds and users that could constantly remind the users of the presence of a human being that is constantly doing all of their tasks for them? 


Image via Hello Alfred

As such, her team built a task list with toggle buttons and this was an efficient way for  users to manage all their tasks at one go through a familiar interface. A profile image of the Alfred is strategically placed at the top of the application to remind users that a human is completing their tasks for them and an operational tracker is displayed beneath each task. This gives users the ability to see what is happening with all their requests. As the Alfred is out in the field doing things, the tracker stays up to date. Users love watching the progress across their tasks,  engaging users with habit-forming designs.

​The application also included profile and background stories of Alfreds to minimize the transactional nature of their relationship and create a new relationship of trust. Every design was intentionally created to allow the application to be as transparent and human as possible. Every point of contact with the users on the Hello Alfred application was thoughtfully planned to increase trust between users and their Alfreds.

Luke Chesser of Unsplash on Entrepreneurship
Unsplash is a photo sharing service that features free high-resolution photos which are curated by professional photographers. What started out as a Tumblr page to post excess images available became a photolibrary that has more than 1 billion photos viewed per month.
“It’s okay to not have all the answers when you are building your company.”
When Luke created Unsplash with his team, they did not know what they were building. He commented that many companies do not have the answers to everything, such as a well defined long term strategy or a monetization plan. Founders have to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty and need to figure out solutions along the way.
“You should start building things, regardless.”
Many companies tend to share their stories in a way that only highlights their successes and not their problems. Every idea a person has is going to bring a lot of problems, but despite these complications,  they should still work on building their idea. There will be many reasons pulling them back from their ideas but the great thing about designers is that they understand that there will always be solutions. The key takeaway is to be innovative with ideas and solutions, as safe decisions build safe products and mediocre companies.
Through the Design Driven event, we got to learn more about User Research, Design and Entrepreneurship. The founders’ conviction and determination about their companies was truly inspiring. Indeed, it was an evening well spent.

Design Driven at the United Nations

Design Driven hosted their 19th event at the United Nations HQ and attracted almost a thousand attendees. It was a fitting venue for some stellar  speakers who also raised some noteworthy attention:

A fireside chat with Jeffrey Zeldman and Jen Simmons rounded off the wonderful event and we’re thankful to FirstMark for hosting it.

Amber Cartwright kicked it off with a talk on ‘Co-Designing with Machines’. Amber is a Design Manager at Airbnb where she oversees several teams evolving the company’s two-sided marketplace experiences. She has been a designer for over fifteen years, working across several mediums including interactive exhibit design, design agency consulting and video editing in New York, Portland and San Francisco. She has created designs and user experience strategies for companies like Loblaws, Google, Target, American Express and GE Capital. Her passion in product design are finding what inspires and motivates people, then reflecting that back into products that have meaningful impact on their lives.

Amber  discussed the overarching relationship between machinery and design. Both entities in this day and age are constantly changing, and figuring out the dynamics towards integrating them both is something every designer struggles with. However, while Design and Machine work couldn’t contrast more, it’s their unique relationship that brings about great products. She talked about mathematical algorithms and described how everything, not just machinery, requires it.

Her presentation consisted of multiple modern ways design and machinery have learned to coexist including Machine Learning, Augmented Reality (AR), Quality Assurance (QA), The Design/Data Language System (DLS). She spoke about their application to Airbnb as she provided many physical examples and explained some of Airbnb’s machinery in the background such as SmartPrice, an intelligent solution that allows users to set prices based on demand.

​The next speaker was Verena Haller from Equinox Hotels. Verena has long been a major player in the interior design world. She previously had strong interests in architecture and product design but decided to take an interior design role at SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP) as her first career move in New York. Since then, Haller has influenced the hotel design community with her innovative and fresh ideas. Her experience includes a variety of projects at companies like SOM, Ian Schrager Company, and Morgans Hotel Group, and currently is the Senior Vice President of Design at Equinox Hotels. An architectural and interior design background is not the most common among the digital UX/ UI crowd, so her talk brought some fresh perspectives.

Verena explained how design concepts and process are integrated in every type of design. She first covered the overarching history of hotel design and how heightened consideration towards this is something novel and the tracks have yet to be laid out. She discussed her inspirations, something every designer has and drives her particularly, and she tied them with a specific analogy to skiing. As an avid skier, she described her passion for design as an adrenaline rush, flowing and relentless. After coming down the ski slope, this exhilaration quickly turns into disappointment, as you want nothing more than to go down it again. 

This analogy is a key example of the type of experience Haller seeks for her clients; the urge to come back for more. It was exciting to see how her inspiration has propagated through to her work, and manifests itself in her hotel designs.

Verena also discussed how many hotels today are found to be overwhelming in terms of design, so she bases a large portion of her design on creating a space where visitors can embrace and prosper in a minimalist and comfortable environment. 

The next speaker was Braden Kowitz,  a designer, storyteller, and self-proclaimed product development geek. He is a Design Partner at Google Ventures where he founded the team’s Design Studio. He also advises startups on UX Design and Product Development. Before joining Google Ventures, Braden led design for several Google Products, including Gmail, Google Buzz, Google Apps for Business, Google Spreadsheets, OpenSocial, and Google Trends. 

Braden’s talk revolved around Design Culture and what’s it’s like to start and be in one. He divided his talk into three main cultural values:

  1. Faith in Quality
  2. Hold Design Accountable
  3. Everyone’s Responsible

Surrounding these three values, he talked about what exactly was required to create good and meaningful design. He emphasized the importance of creating a balanced environment for measurable and unmeasurable design. He provided insights on some aspects all designers could work on such as not to focus on legacy/old habits and to constantly critique their own work since it’s integral to the design process. He also provided a rundown of a the three parts of a designer’s “life span”.

  1. Surface Value- Graphics everyone loves
  2. User Value- Under/ dirty framework
  3. Business Value- Enables surviving start-ups

It was invaluable for the audience to get advice directly from a UX pioneer of his stature.

​The event itself was commendable: Design Driven has provided the NYC Design community with incredible networking opportunities and inspiring speakers. We were grateful for the opportunity to visit  the UN and now feel like true ambassadors of the design arts.

Delightful User Experiences: Great UX Research and UX Design

The smartphone revolution has led to an explosion in digital applications and web experiences. With this, considering the many new digital experiences for users, interaction and design has never been more important. User Exp

erience (UX) refers to the overall experience of a person using a product or service, especially in terms of how easy and even delightful it is to use. UX can broadly be divided into two categories: UX Research and UX Design. While they are related, there are some distinctions between these two disciplines.

UX Research
Focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation, task analysis and other feedback methodologies.

UX Design
Refers to the process of creating a good user experience. In other words, it’s the process used to determine what the experience will be like when a user interacts with your product.

UX Research focuses more on analyzing and understanding user behaviors while UX Design focuses more on using understandings and insights gained in the UX Research phase to design the user’s experience. This doesn’t mean that the two can’t overlap.  Whether you’re focused on the research or the design portion of User Experience, a part of understanding your responsibilities lies in understanding the other side too.

​In some settings, the two are viewed as part of the many hats a designer can wear rather than two independent roles, typically true for startups or environments with limited resources.

Main Activities and Deliverables

UX Research

  • Run Usability tests
  • Define User Personas
  • Create Journey Maps
  • Design A/B test and monitor results
  • Conduct and analyse outcomes of user studies
  • ​Conduct User Interviews

UX Design

  • Create ‘User Stories/ Product Requirements
  • Create low fidelity and high fidelity Wireframes
  • Create Prototypes, templates and (sometimes) front end HTML/CSS
  • Build Task flow diagrams
  • Develop Information Architecture
  • Develop Interface designs and design mock-up
  • ​Define and validate conversion goals and Key Performance Indicators for performance of the product
Tools of the Trade
User Research and User Design can be often integrated which makes it hard to distinguish their characteristics, but we hope this helps shed some light and clears any confusion about the two.