Cap Watkins has an impressive professional background. Before joining the BuzzFeed team as VP of Design, he held roles at Etsy and Amazon, helping create user experiences that people still love today. Cap is also a keynote speaker at this year’s upcoming Web Directions Conference where he’ll talk about building a design-driven culture.
Today, Cap tells us what he loves (and fears) about his current role, what he looks for when hiring designers, and exactly how BuzzFeed creates such addictive media experiences.
How did you get to where you are today?
I wonder this a lot, honestly. I think a lot of it has to do with being able to identify roles that will push me to learn more and then, at the same time, not being afraid to go all in, even if I super mess up. When I moved on from startup life in San Francisco to Amazon in Seattle, that was pretty scary: it was a big company with lots of bureaucracy to navigate (compared to a five-person startup). When I moved from Amazon to Etsy, being a first-time manager was incredibly frightening and challenging (not to mention figuring out New York). And now, as VP of Design at BuzzFeed, having a more nebulous role with influence over the organization definitely keeps me in a consistent state of “holy crap, am I doing this right?”
I think if your current job isn’t challenging you or freaking you out (at least a little), you should look for a new gig. Fear = growth. It also means that you’ll be conscientious about the job you’re doing, which actually puts you in a better position to succeed. Embrace the fear.
Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, identify people who are way smarter than you and engage with them regularly. At Amazon, I met Aaron Donsbach — and it was immediately obvious that he was the best designer on the entire team. We weren’t sitting in proximity to one another, but every day I made sure to sit down at his desk and just talk with him about what he was working on and ask for help with what I was working on. Eventually, we became pretty close and he became my manager. He taught me so, so much about design and how to think more deeply, as well as how to successfully navigate design discussions with the executive team. We’re still in touch to this day, and I still think of him as the best mentor I’ve ever had. He really shaped who I am now.
What’s a ‘typical’ day as the VP of Design at BuzzFeed like? What has been your biggest challenge in the role so far?
I’m sure this is no surprise, but “typical” isn’t a word I’d use anymore for my day-to-day. I could be recruiting folks to work for us, or meeting with the Design Directors in Editorial, or giving feedback on some Product Design work in Basecamp, or discussing organizational issues with the rest of our Tech Leadership team or even prototyping a new idea I have.
What I really love and fear about the role I’m in now is just how flexible and fungible it is. It’s really up to me to make it whatever I want it to be.
No one is stopping me from doing stuff and, in most of the cases, I’m enabled to do more. For instance, I thought it might be a good idea to do a Hack Week, so I suggested it. It’s been a couple of months and we’re just now finishing up our very first Hack Week. It’s kind of insane and great.
I’d also say this is the biggest challenge so far. BuzzFeed is a gigantic place with a ton of different versions of what “design” means. I’m trying to tie as much of it together as possible, but it’s nebulous and requires a bit of patience and long-term strategic thinking. It’s a process, and you have to look back and take stock of what you’ve accomplished every so often. Otherwise, it’s easy to get discouraged.
You’ve helped shape some incredible media experiences at companies like Etsy and Amazon. How often do you draw on previous experiences and learnings in your current role?
All the time. At Amazon, I learned a lot about systems-thinking and deep UX processes. Etsy was a crash course in using both quantitative and qualitative data as part of the product process. I think about these things all the time at BuzzFeed, and advocate as much as I can for us to adopt the learnings from those previous experiences. Obviously, holistic UX thinking and using data to drive work is valuable regardless of what company you’re at.
A lot of folks ask me what it’s like going from a couple e-commerce companies to a media company, but the truth is that the differences aren’t that big when you abstract them out. We still need to ship good products that measurably improve the user experience. And whether that’s for an online store or a publication, the methodologies are the same.
BuzzFeed is one of the most engaging and addictive media experiences out there. Which critical components are required to keep a visitor’s attention?
Good content. That’s it. We could design the most beautiful and usable experience in the world, but if the content isn’t great, our work doesn’t matter.
Our editorial staff is the real engine that drives BuzzFeed and it’s up to the product team to support our editors in experimenting with new formats and ideas, as well as create a reader experience that set that content up to be as successful as possible.
How do you help build a design-driven culture?
Transparency and collaboration are two primary focuses for us lately. You can’t be design-driven if design is secret alchemy owned entirely by designers. I think that’s a mistake a lot of designers make – they think they need control, when they really need to give it up.
If we can get engineers and product folks to contribute to the design process, and if we can contribute to the product roadmap and code, then whoa, now everyone is a designer/engineer/product person.
What, if any, intentional process do you use to hire designers at Buzzfeed?
We have a pretty straightforward recruiting process that starts with sourcing as owned entirely by the design managers. I love our recruiters to pieces, but I discovered at Etsy that our hit-rate was way higher if we owned sourcing and driving the process as much as possible. Here’s the short version of our process:
- A design manager finds/reaches out to a candidate.
- First phone screen to talk generally about the candidate’s process, the role and BuzzFeed.
- Second screen to walk through a couple projects in detail. Looking for process artifacts and asking questions about what worked/didn’t work.
- Interview Loop: meet with a couple designers, a product person, an engineer.
- That’s it!
What qualities and skills do you look for?
Critical thinking, collaboration, and curiosity. I find that people who possess all three of those things tend to have the hard skills to get done what we need to get done. We require that all our designers write their own html and css, but that doesn’t mean we require all our candidates to be masters at it. We do an html/css live-coding session with one of our engineers during the interview loop, regardless of the candidate’s skill level. The engineer who runs the session is obviously looking at the candidate’s current skill set, but more importantly their ability to learn. We’ve seen these sessions turn into basically the engineer teaching the designer how to write their very first html and css – and then we hire the designer. The enthusiasm and curiosity are critical.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in design and media experience over the last year? Over the last five years?
In design, I feel like I’m seeing more and more people call themselves “designers” while only focusing on making things look good. I think Dribbble and Behance are good things, generally, but their emphasis on visual design has made a lot of young designers think that’s what matters most. I’ve interviewed a lot of folks whose work is beautiful, but falls apart under even the lightest of UX examinations.
My concern with the trend is that I remember our discipline spent years and years convincing our industry that we’re not pixel-pushers, that we should be a part of the entire process. The re-focus on just making things look cool may wind up biting us in the ass at some point (and may already be). It certainly isn’t helping the perception of design, in any case.
What about BuzzFeed do you find most exciting?
The types of content we design for at BuzzFeed are just so varied that I still have trouble wrapping my head around it. When I tell people that the BuzzFeed Videos we make have over a billion views a month, they’re blown away. Or, and I didn’t know this before I started, we have Pulitzer Prize-winning editors on our News staff who lead long-term investigative journalism. And we just built a test kitchen for our Life editors to shoot original recipes and cooking tutorials. It’s a pretty awesome time. Most people think BuzzFeed is all Lists and Quizzes (which we also love!), but it’s so much more than that and you’re really going to hear more and more about those things in the future.
Where can we find you in New York City?
Mostly in Brooklyn (I work in Manhattan, but it’s really not my scene). There are a lot of great restaurants and bars my neighborhood. On a hot summer afternoon I dig hanging out at Gowanus Yacht Club or Swan Dive. For everything food, Frankie’s, Prime Meats, and Buttermilk Channel are my go tos.
Last, how do you like your coffee?
Soy cappuccino all day.
Web Directions is Australia’s longest running digital design, product and engineering conference. Learn more about Cap’s upcoming keynote and register for this year’s event here.