Randy J. Hunt, Head of Design at Grab

Randy J. Hunt, Head of Design at Grab

Time. What would you do if you had more of it? Take a trip, visit with family and friends, pick up a new hobby or maybe, just maybe…do nothing at all?

After working as the VP of Design at Etsy and Head of Design at Artsy, Randy J. Hunt recently completed, as he calls it, “a big, deep, multi-month breath.” Taking time for personal projects, reading, reflection and life’s little things, Randy is now in Singapore, working on a super app called Grab.

Tune in to hear about Randy’s journey to product design, Etsy (when it had no designers) and four levels of learning gained through authoring his book, Product Design for the Web. Then we’re off to Singapore for a look at a huge, complex project, and the best place to start when you want to make the best use of everyone’s time.


Show Notes

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Carl Smith: Hey everybody, and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. Today, we have with us somebody who I am excited to get to talk to because, you know, you don't always get to talk about simple. Especially in today's world, with all of the things that we've got going on. I want to welcome the author of Product Design for the Web, former VP of design at Etsy, where he built and ran a team that actually won the National Design Award, the former head of design at Artsy, and currently the king of his own domain, it's Randy J. Hunt. How's it going, Randy?

Randy J Hunt: Going great. I like this king of his own domain. That sounds really adventurous.

Carl Smith: Well, that was the thing. We've talked a little bit and knowing that you're kind of in between, and maybe we'll even get into that, like where you head next. But, I was just like so envious of having that pause. Before we dive in, what are you doing with this break?

Randy J Hunt: Oh gosh, that led me off. What a question. Man, I can give you the boring but satisfying list that looks like watching more movies with my wife, not setting my alarm. These have become like so deeply meaningful. Not directly related to the practice of design, and yet in some ways, very much related to the kind of, the way I'd like to move through the world, and what I hope good design experiences are like, low stress with a sense of sort of agency for the maybe person at the center.

Randy J Hunt: But made me more professionally aligned. I've been doing a lot of reflecting, not in the reflecting so I know what I'm doing next, because I have a pretty clear sense of what's coming next for me, but more reflecting just for the sake of remembering some stuff from the past. I think I've moved, just been doing so much for so long. And I've always been very forward focused.

Randy J Hunt: Just last week I opened up some old directories. They're sitting in kind of an archive, not for the purpose of reorganizing them or putting up a portfolio site or anything like that, really just to remember some of the work. So much has been done and so many choices and interesting people. I mean, I had a moment where I was reminded of a designer who worked at Etsy on our team, who was maybe only on the team for a year or so before he decided to go back to Vietnam, where he was from.

Randy J Hunt: But I had actually forgotten about working with him and the parts of it that I enjoyed, because they're just, I mean, many, many people worked on that team and it was quite sizeable by the end, and many people came and went. And I was so thankful that I just sort of was able to return to that experience of having worked with that person and sort of reflect now with more time about what parts of that I had enjoyed and what value they added. I've been trying to take some time to do that with my own work and then also reading, just reading things that have been stacked up, that I haven't gotten to. All over the place.

Carl Smith: Since you're in this reflective mode, why don't you take us back? How did you get into the industry? And give us kind of that snapshot of the big changes that got you here.

Randy J Hunt: Yeah, sure. Well, I came to design as I think of it today, which I try to cast a very wide net and think of it quite broadly as sort of a very expanded practice, sort of in my own mind. Although professionally, I tend to sit at the intersection between fairly large and complex software products over the last 10 years these have really been around two-sided e-commerce marketplaces and brand as it relates to those same products or services. But I came to that, really through graphic design and communication design.

Randy J Hunt: What sort of set me off on that front, I think, was a very sort of liberal arts friendly, although it didn't identify itself as that, sort of upbringing. And I was super into music. This is not an uncommon story if I talk to other people, and I really got to design through, essentially what punk rock and hip-hop looked like. As a young teenager, mostly wanting to make music and consuming a lot of music, and music culture, and in hindsight also, too some like sports culture, I was super into basketball, and realizing sort of, how much brand and graphic design played a role in like professional sports and things like that.

Carl Smith: Oh yeah.

Randy J Hunt: That's where I sort of started to love the, what stuff looked like and how it behaved, and how it was packaged up and presented, in addition to what it, the core of what it was itself.

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Randy J Hunt: I think I often loved what bands looked like, and what they named their record, you know, as much as I loved the band. And so I really aspired to somehow be involved in that, and that's how I got to graphic design. And then from there, I think a series of kind of seeds that have probably been planted in my childhood, you know my dad was a software engineer after being an electrical engineer, and there was always computers around, we had internet fairly early, and I tended to be the more technology-forward person in the circumstances I was in.

Carl Smith: Okay.

Randy J Hunt: For many of my formative years, I would say through high school and then in college, and early professional situations. Which as I started to get more professional, being technology-forward at that time basically meant like, you were the internet guy.

Carl Smith Yeah.

Randy J Hunt: So like, we've got this client, they've got all the stuff, and also, a web page, which was no more sophisticated than brochure-ware at the time.

Carl Smith: Right.

Randy J Hunt: But was the person most comfortable and capable of doing that work, like reasonably quickly, of reasonably good quality, you know, and that sort of set me down the path I think, of always kind of having technology and the execution of the, at some degree of depth, the software side of the experience, sitting right alongside. What, even then I thought of as mostly graphic design, we might have called it like the interface or something, but I wasn't thinking about it in a user-centric way.

Carl Smith: Right.

Randy J Hunt: Or in a behavioral way. It was mostly making the navigation look better, you know? But those things sat alongside-

Carl Smith: What do you mean we can't have a slanted header? Where are my beveled edges? I need this to be feather.

Randy J Hunt: I mean I did those.

Carl Smith: Those were the days.

Randy J Hunt: Yeah, gosh, you know it was probably, I remember one of our, kind of this like pop-punk band we had in high school and this was, what a funny little moment in time, but we made a Winamp skin themed around the band. We had hired this illustrator that had drawn these characters, these kind of like cartoon characters, almost.

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Randy J Hunt: That we used in alum artwork and stuff, and there was this Winamp skin that you could download from our like, this would've been just after Geocities, you know, I think it was, you know, we were paying for hosting somewhere. And you could download our Winamp skin. Like what a funny little blip of time, in the like, history of the internet.

Carl Smith: Yeah. It was glorious, I apologize to no one.

Randy J Hunt: More and more, I really do feel that way, too. I mean, those little artifacts are fun, and you know, ha-ha you look back at how kind of bad the design was or something, but there is definitely a spirit of frontier exploration, that I didn't totally appreciate at the time. I mean, it was obvious we were doing something new, you know, and not everyone was participating in it. But the, it feels different now. Some things are much easier. But some things are also much more complicated. In fact, one thing that I've been doing on my downtime is just kind of revisiting my personal site as we do, for whatever reason. Mostly for myself.

Randy J Hunt: And I've begun executing it, to begin with, I mean, in full content and all kind of functional, but HTML only. Not even styling it, just sitting down in HTML documents with the proper dom structure. Just building the thing out. And it's so interesting how, if you can unstyle HTML documents, and then open it up in mobile Safari, on your phone, it's like, it's ugly and weird, but the actual reading experience, if you have like a few paragraphs of text, it's pretty darn good, and it's responsive. Without having to like, like those line lengths just expand, if you turn your phone sideways, they're still narrow enough to read comfortably. It's kind of this amazing, like we've added layers and layers and layers of abstraction to accomplish certain things, or, you know, scale production, make something faster, do certain behaviors, but the really core elemental building blocks that I got exposed to, you know, not long after I was making some Winamp skin, still work at some level.

Carl Smith: It's interesting. I think it was Jeremy Keith, at Clearleft, he made this comment that we were losing the digital cave walls that we had scratched our drawings on. Right, he was talking about Geocities going away, things like this and how, that stuff was important, that it was history, yeah some of it was absolutely horrible, but it was us learning.

Carl Smith: So how do you, how do you go from that, to writing product design for the web?

Randy J Hunt: Well in some, I mean there's a bunch of steps in between, so sort of software and technology-forward, um, I was running a small design studio that at most had like four employees on payroll or something. And that was for eight months or something, you know, so it was very modestly sized, but it was, this was in Brooklyn, New York, and we felt like we were, you know, we had health insurance, like that was, felt like we were winning.

Carl Smith: Wow, that's a real company.

Randy J Hunt: Yeah, yeah. Pretty modest sized projects and things, but I would say at least half the projects at a certain point, we kind of like had our stride, were somewhere between small Rails applications, and fairly advanced customizations of like WordPress themes. And that somehow lived in the context of other work, we've sort of gone beyond that brochure-ware to more like, there's some operational parts of your business, your marketing, how you want to represent your content, that demands a level of integration between the designed output a customer or audience would see, and how you go about delivering that to them, and so, there was a lot of kind of, creating web apps, and again, these were small.

Randy J Hunt: You know, these weren't big complex applications, but they were specialized, you know there was, we probably did four or five different Rails apps that were effectively very specialized portfolio websites for different, like architect, or author, or educator who had a very particular point-of-view about how they wanted to represent themselves. And so we really built the, like, idea of how they wanted to structure their data, and built that into the idea of how the data was stored in the database, what kind of meta information was like collected and displayed, you know.

Randy J Hunt: And so that really, those experiences turned into the sort of, not just like build websites, but kind of think about a software product, and then with a client that had that design studio, we actually went into business together and formed this two-sided e-commerce marketplace, it was called Supermarket. And similarly, we were, you know, at the time we were three people and we built this Rails application in the fairly early days of Rails that powered this two-sided marketplace.

Randy J Hunt: And that had a lot more complexity to it. We were managing inventory, we were collecting and distributing payments, we had a messaging system, which means we had inboxes, and we were searching across thousands of products, and yeah, there's quite a lot more happening. And that's when I really started to develop some methods and practices that later would fit under what I would call product design.

Randy J Hunt: And it was because of that experience, the product we built, and sort of the customers we were serving, that we caught the attention of some people at Etsy. Etsy was also in Brooklyn, and I joined Etsy, actually I parted ways with the company we'd started, very amicably, and my co-founder Ryan kept running the Supermarket for another couple years. I joined Etsy in January of 2010, there was about sixty employees. There was myself and another designer, who had joined. There had been some designers previously, both in-house and, you know, small agencies and worked on Etsy and stuff. But, when we joined, there were no designers, they hadn't cycled out, or been part of kind of a previous wave of leadership, and so there was some, just evolution inside the company.

Randy J Hunt: Then I was there for almost eight years. A little over seven and a half years, and product design for the web, in some ways, was capturing the learnings of probably the first two years at Etsy. And what, either had worked, or we were trying to make work and wanted to kind of put in some kind of, um, document. I was going to say canon, that's far too formal, far too official [crosstalk 00:14:34] wanted to put down somewhere, and I'd put down a lot of things and names, and revise them and moved them through conversations and processes internally, over those couple of years, then I started to feel I could have conversations. Maybe not on like what we were having, not that they were on podcasts, but visit this company, go to this meet-up, do a Q&A with another design team, all asking similar questions about how we were doing, or had accomplished things at Etsy.

Randy J Hunt: And I decided it would good to kind of compile some of those things and put into a form that would be more charitable, and be more durable, and the output of that is the book Product Design for the Web.

Carl Smith: And so you go through that process. First of all, writing a book is extremely difficult, in my experience. I have not done it. But I may have started once without a publisher, and I just went, yeah, this isn't going to happen. When you get through the book, and you look back, do you find that you're a little bit in shock, or in awe, of the amount that you've learned?

Randy J Hunt: Yes. I think both, think of a few levels. One, what I've learned that was in the book, maybe it was like four levels. What I've learned that was in the book, what I learned by making the book, what I learned sort of, about that as a medium, in a way, you know, less about the product design part of it, but just that sort of like booky part of it, and then also now what I've learned since.

Randy J Hunt: You know, I really, I had hoped to write something that I felt that would be durable, and I don't quite mean like timeless in some epic sense, but rather that it didn't focus on specific technologies, it avoided any specific kind of contemporary methodology as much as possible. It doesn't talk about like Agile very much, even though it refers to the Agile manifesto and so, 'cause those things, their meaning changes over time, gets co-opted, you know, I wanted to feel like it could last, and I think that many, many, many of the core concepts still hold up. So I feel good about that, I still feel like I accomplished that reasonably well, but I think there's a lot more, like now I see missing things.

Randy J Hunt: You know, 'cause it was published in 2013. And I've learned a lot, the product design space has changed a lot, the world has changed a lot, customers have changed on some levels, in that, I think there's more in there that deserves to also have a similar treatment, whether by me or someone else, you know?

Carl Smith: I mean, especially if you go back to 2013, user experience wasn't really something that was talked about as much. There was talk of users, there was talk of research, there was talk of things like that, but you didn't look at, you know, trying to create that thoughtful, complete experience. It wasn't a thing.

Randy J Hunt: Yeah. It's true. I mean, it, hm, it wasn't nearly as much of a thing, I think it existed, and I wouldn't feel, it wouldn't feel complete or authentic to me to kind of, things pre-existed, you know, I think there was like, the IDXA and that community, you know-

Carl Smith: Right, right, right.

Randy J Hunt: Wait IXDA. Yeah, the Interaction Design Association or whatever, that I had, I had gone to some events, I certainly knew people who were part of that community, but I never felt personally like I was deeply part of that community. And yet, they were reasonably sizeable community that preached a lot of, you know, content for themselves and others, and advocated for standards. They were really a bridge to the web standards community, there was lots of stuff happening there that was definitely like, mid and late aughts. You know, the sort of pre-dates the time we're talking about, and I think that there's, and even like Jared's school and some of the, like, Rosenfeld media and some of the sort of O'Reilly things, or The Pragmatic Programmer.

Carl Smith: Right.

Randy J Hunt: You're in The Pragmatic Bookshelf. There was, they were primarily, you know, all the O'Reilly stuff, it all started in the software, but they were starting to hint into things that felt more user-centric as part of what they were putting out in the world, or what they were interested in. But it was definitely not to the place it is today, and as broadly accepted as today.

Randy J Hunt: You know, I think I remember a time and building a team at Etsy, so see it would have been 2010, speaking to some designers who were, as I saw, from a potential standpoint, just very strong overall. Like overall designers. Very, the potential to be multi-disciplinary, sort of understood design intuitively, at a very like fundamental level, who were primarily interested in executing graphic design or branding. And did not see, um, or somewhat, I don't know if they were skeptical, obviously the technology was happening around us, but they were just kind of, that other, that stuff's for some other people, and I'd love to work with them, or how cool that that software stuff is happening.

Randy J Hunt: By the time I was leaving Etsy, so let's call it like mid-2017 or so, I would talk to students, you know, or a room of students, who were in a communication design program. And it would be the anomalous sort of hold out two or three people who were like, I want to be a graphic designer. Everyone else was like, how do I do product design? How do I get a career in product design? And I think there's a ton of factors that come in there, like, they're experiencing those products more and more, they're, there's more material out in the world, talking about it from a professional discipline, there's the stories of designers getting compensated really well at like tech companies. You know, there's a bunch of vectors in there. But that felt like it happened fairly quickly, you know, over the course of maybe thirty-six months or something. Which I found really exciting. I don't know it just seemed super dynamic, and made me also realize that changes like that probably happened in the past, you know, and we just tend to view the past as more static.

Carl Smith: Right, we weren't as clued in. I mean, and that's, especially if we look at what's here now, and it's just progressing in these incredibly complex systems, right?

Randy J Hunt: Yep.

Carl Smith: And so, if you want to talk about it, I'm just curious, where are you going next, because I think it really plays into this idea of large complex systems.

Randy J Hunt: Yeah, yeah, it certainly does. So, I'm joining a company called Grab, which is headquartered in Singapore, and works across all of Southeast Asia, well really, eight countries right now, and a couple hundred cities. Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and they are the largest tech company in Southeast Asia. That's not a multi-national like Google or you know, IBM or something.

Randy J Hunt: And they're only five years old, they started in Malaysia five years ago, so just super rapid growth, but they've become essentially an everyday app. It's not quite right to compare them to WhatsApp, or I mean, WeChat, sorry, but it's in that vein. And what I mean is, people are using them daily for transportation, when they started, sort of ride hailing, but also package delivery, meal delivery, so I wanted to get my dinner, but also grocery delivery, so I'd like my food ingredients for the week. Logistics, moving packages around at various scales for the sort of, you know, commercial, kind of document delivery, to you know, quite sizeable sort of logistics operations. But then payments, so essentially stored value, like walk into a, you know, coffee shop in Vietnam and pay for coffee with GrabPay.

Randy J Hunt: And actually just recently have announced more sort of expansive integration system. Much more platform approach, they've partnered with the largest healthcare provider in China, which is called Ping An Good Doctor, to essentially book healthcare services in the app.

Carl Smith: Where do you start? Where do you start with this? You've got Uber meets Grubhub meets Instacart meets, oh my goodness.

Randy J Hunt: Yeah, it's a great question. I mean I think the, my intuition is to start with the customer, and that's an easy answer.

Carl Smith: The one constant you've got, right?

Randy J Hunt: But one of the reasons it's so, they're such an exciting organization to me is that straight to their founders and CEO's, they feel the same way. When I spoke with their CEO, one of the things he said to meet in our first sort of interview was, you know, if this moves forward, don't get stuck in the office, when you start. He's like, I want you on the ground, talking to customers, and told, don't let yourself get stuck in the pattern of, the sort of office culture, until you've sort of established a habit of being with customers on the ground in those different markets. And that just resonated with me really deeply, because I don't, I mean, the real answer to your question about, where do you start, I don't know.

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Randy J Hunt: But I'm sure, I have a high degree of confidence that some of the best signals about really where to start, are going to be revealed by just spending time with the customer.

Carl Smith: It's not going to be in code.

Randy J Hunt: It's not. But then, thankfully, you know, there's already, you know, there's already a team of researchers who are spending time, not only with customers as many of the employees do, but thinking about ways of extracting insights, documenting insights, helping to prioritize and understand user needs. So we're not going to be starting from zero, you know?

Carl Smith: Right.

Randy J Hunt: Thankfully. Yeah.

Carl Smith: And I can only imagine that you're going to get in there, and there's going to be a huge need to simplify. I mean, especially if it's all kind of grown up together, or even if it, if things continued to expand, there's got to be some level of bringing things into a way that you can reach the entire experience, and it feels like a lot of heavy lifting. I know you're enjoying your time off, I swear I'm not trying to [inaudible 00:25:50] on the horizon, but it just, what a challenge, man, what a challenge.

Randy J Hunt: Yeah, it's certainly going to be. And I think one of the things, I mean I have a predisposition to want to simplify things, for a variety of reasons, I think that on a very like, intimate kind of personal level, that's just the kind of experience I want to have in the world. Feels uncomplicated. It doesn't mean that it is not complex underneath, but it doesn't push that complexity on to me.

Carl Smith: Oh wow.

Randy J Hunt: And so I think that, I'm predisposed towards that, but I also am trying to remind myself, so I'm sure this will be an interesting exercise, to not assume that same predisposition will resonate in different cultures the same way. I believe there are some fundamental sort of shared human characteristics and desires, but, you know I was reading, gosh I wish I could remember the woman's name, but she had done some research, I believe for Uber in China, kind of prior to Uber moving, pulling out of China, so this must have been two years or something, that, and I'll send this to you later or something, if you'd like to maybe share it and show notes or something.

Carl Smith: Yeah. Yeah.

Randy J Hunt: But she produced, she was researcher, and then they worked with a filmmaker and produced this brief film, I mean five or six minutes. But essentially around this concept she developed which called, like sort of good friction, like desired friction.

Carl Smith: Okay.

Randy J Hunt: And was sort of describing how, in this sort of Uber-like experience, that like you or I would be used to domestically, book the car, car would show up, and you were looking at the license plate, or doing something to verify it's the right one, we get in, and there's not a ton of communication. There might be some chit-chat with the driver, but generally the experience is optimized for online. You don't have to touch any money, you don't have to say any words, you know it all just kind of works.

Randy J Hunt: And that, in China, what would happen is the driver would accept the call, or accept the ride, and then immediately call the person to say, I've accepted the ride, there was this layer of extra behavior on top, that at first, from a sort of user experience standpoint, they were like, well this is redundant and somewhat, sort of ridiculous. Like how do we make this unnecessary, and design this side of the experience. And it turns out, that as a sort of, and I don't know the roots of this so I can't speak at a high level of confidence, but at some kind of cultural behavioral level, that was desired and everyone accepted it.

Carl Smith: Right.

Randy J Hunt: It was not seen as a problem. No one was thinking, oh if only we could make this phone call go away. Neither the person calling, nor the recipient. They viewed it, generally positive. And I find that so fascinating. 'Cause if I make a restaurant reservation, and then someone calls to confirm it two hours before, I'm always like, now I've got to return a phone call so I don't lose my reservation.

Carl Smith: It's so annoying.

Randy J Hunt: I'm like, I don't want to do it twice, I already did it.

Carl Smith: I told you I was going to be there.

Randy J Hunt: Yeah, and so to me, it's such a fascinating, just such a fascinating difference. And it's not like, it doesn't stop at, oh that's different, it actually stops at the perception of value, and the desired experience is different. And so I love to think about the sort of holistic experience as their end-state being more about like an emotional resonance.

Carl Smith: Right.

Randy J Hunt: And so, in some way, I was trying to abstract this now as I'm thinking about it, sort of, what's the level of contentment or satisfaction, or certainty, or joy, I feel, when I have these things that feel simple, you know? What does it take to create a similar, kind of emotional satisfaction, for a different customer in a different place with a different background and a different service?

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Randy J Hunt: And so it may or may not look or feel like what I believe simple is now, but I think the intention is to get to that same kind of level of satisfaction or joy, or whatever might be appropriate in that circumstance.

Carl Smith: Yeah. Well I think it leads straight to a saying I heard in the mid-90's, which was attributed to Steve Jobs, but I can never find anywhere that he said this. But, simple is hard. And hard is stupid. So it's this idea that you have to work so hard to make something simple, right? And it sounds like you are on that path, I will tell you, Randy, I'm really excited for you. It sounds like you're heading into the promised land for somebody who is trying to create, just that simple, thoughtful experience.

Randy J Hunt: I appreciate that. Yeah, I appreciate the enthusiasm, too, yeah really excited. I'm still kind of in awe, in a way, of the, just how much feels unknown. It makes me reflect back to other experiences, too, and I tried to operate for a long time with that open mind, you know, of sort of not assuming the answers.

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Randy J Hunt: And this just really puts it into even more extreme focus and makes me think, gosh, how much more open-minded could I have been, you know, three years ago? I don't know, you know. So yeah, excited to have, sort of have those experiences. I'm sure they'll be a million [crosstalk 00:31:42]

Carl Smith: You're also going to be going through your own cultural changes, right? You're going to be moving to Singapore.

Randy J Hunt: Yep.

Carl Smith: And experiencing that, and you know, what would be great is, maybe six months or a year from now, get you back on the show, and talk about how it's going. Would that be good?

Randy J Hunt: Oh, I would love that. What an interesting idea. Yeah. Thank you for thinking of that. Yeah, I love that kind of little before-after, what's the change look like?

Carl Smith: I can't stand for the story to end here, that's no good. I've got to know what happens next. Well thank you so much for being on the Bureau Briefing today, I really appreciate it, Randy.

Randy J Hunt: Oh, yeah, thanks for having me, really enjoyable.

Carl Smith: You got it. And for everybody listening, so glad you made it, and we'll talk to you again soon. All the best.

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