Tuesday, February 07, 2006

8 Ways to succeed as a designer at a big company like Yahoo

I've worked as a designer inside two big companies, Vodafone and Yahoo. The companies were/are very different but I found that the strategies for success were pretty similar. Here are some of them, roughly in order of importance.
  1. Identify what success is for you.
    For me success at Yahoo was to:
    • make friends and contacts that would last multiple decades
    • design products that would be used by millions of people
    • design products that would make huge piles of money for the company
    • enhance my personal reputation as a designer
    • learn how to manage people
    • have a steady stream of job offers for the next 5 years or so
    If your goals are very different from these goals you might not like the rest of my strategies.
  2. Friends come first; say no to assignments, say yes to favors
    This is what lots of people hate about big companies, and what I really enjoy. I had a policy of initially saying no to any request that I take on work, and always saying yes to a request for a personal favor. (I'd usually take on the work eventually, but it is good to refuse at first and see if the person forgets about it. If they forget it means the work was never worth doing anyway. If they remember and ask again it's worth taking a closer look.) Doing favors for people, and asking for favors in return, got products finished much faster than going through official channels.
  3. Never eat alone, or drink coffee alone, or do anything else alone
    This is true in any kind of business, but I think it may be even more true at big internet companies. On a typical day I would have morning coffee with other designers, have lunch with a product manager, play air hockey at 2:30 with engineers and designers, have afternoon coffee with a product manager or whoever I could manage to run into. I'd go out after work I am a natural schmoozer in (what I think is) a good way; I am genuinely interested in other people. When I meet someone I want to know what their goals are and how I can help.
  4. Promote yourself
    This one might be more important than all the others. I had a joke that in an 8 hour day I'd spend 1 hour working, 3 hours promoting the fact that I did some work, and the other 4 hours reading blogs and playing air hockey. Those numbers are probably backwards, but the point is that at a big company nobody will notice you did good work unless you tell them. Whenever I had a good idea I'd make sure to tell a dozen people. Whenever I finished a piece of design work I'd print it out and hang it in the hall. Wait, that one deserves its own number.
  5. Hang stuff on the wall
    When I started working on Yahoo's Wap site we had a hard time getting much attention. The product had much more usage than other mobile products (like 10x more) and was actually making a good amount of money, but we had trouble getting people to care about it.
    My first task was to figure out what we had and make a full sitemap -- basically grunt work that had to be done before getting started. When I finished the sitemap was too big to put on my cube wall so I hung it on the wall in a hallway. I watched for a while and found that every person who walked by stopped to look at the diagram. One of the executive conference rooms was nearby, so the top Yahoos -- Jerry Yang, David Filo, Irene Au, Sue Decker -- each walked by and took a look at some point. I spotted an opportunity. I printed another sheet that described what the diagram was and invited people to point out problems. I put a cup full of pens and post-it notes nearby. As we fixed the design problems with the Wap site I would cross out the old design with a red marker and hang a print of the new design. That printout was the best self-promotion tool I've ever made.
  6. Use your unfair advantage to frame the debate
    Anyone familiar with American politics should know that framing the debate is more important than having good policy, and anyone in the startup world should know that exploiting unfair advantages is the best way to get ahead. As a designer your unfair advantage is that you can make something look really slick. When a team started talking about a new product or feature the I'd always make a pretty screenshot showing how it would work. This is a bad design strategy -- you should never begin the design process with visual/screen design -- but it is a great marketing strategy. If someone was getting traction with and idea that I thought was stupid I'd just make a screenshot showing a better idea and claim it was the other person's idea. When it worked the team would support my new idea. When it failed I looked a little dumb for not understanding the original idea, but people rarely noticed how tricky I was being.
  7. Make up names for your ideas
    My friends/neighbors/landlords at Adaptive Path know all about this; they coined the term AJAX, which a lot of people latched onto as a new internet technology invented by Adaptive Path. They've tried to shake this idea, and they're sick or hearing about ajax, but they're also famous for it. They get calls all the time from people who are supposed to make their site "more ajaxy".
    At Yahoo I had an idea that making Wap pages longer and including internal anchor links could make the navigation experience faster. Few people really understood what I was talking about until I named the concept. I put together a presentation called "Wap SuperPages: extreme personalization, no navigation, search everywhere." When I visited Yahoo India the next year everyone I met with knew me as the inventor of SuperPages. I won an award for it. I had a lot of other good ideas at Yahoo, but SuperPages was the only one with a catchy name, and it's the one everyone knew about.
  8. Design good stuff
    You'll note that this is the last item on my list. Most people can't tell the difference between good and bad design. You have to make good stuff to make your product useful and impress other designers, but I'm convinced that it doesn't have a big effect on success in a big company. This is sad, and maybe someone can prove me wrong here. I'd love to hear some stories of great design conquering politics at a portal-size company. Sadly I don't have many of my own to tell.


Blogger Jennifer Tharp said...

these are fantastic ideas. a less successful person might say you have no business giving them away....

3:47 PM, February 24, 2006  

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