On Experience Design, Growth, and Working at Airbnb with Tin Kadoić
This episode features Tin Kadoić, an experience designer. We cover topics such as his experience of working at Airbnb, different career paths in such organizations, the power of sharing your knowledge, professional lessons he learned so far, and much more.
Tin Kadoić is a design leader that’s been looking for meaningful ways to create communities, impact how we learn, stay healthy, and create belonging. Throughout his more than fifteen years long career, he’s worked as a Design Lead at Airbnb (which was his title at the time of our conversation), creative director at SYPartners, led an agency in NYC, created the first mobile products for a series of startups and Fortune500 companies, as well as lectured at Zagreb’s School of Design.
"Always be curious and never stop learning."
When he’s not working, he’s been volunteering with the IxDA (Interaction Design Association) in helping new chapters launch and nurture their local communities. Originally from Croatia, he lives in San Francisco’s Mission District with his life-long partner, designer Matea Bronić.
- Tin Kadoić’s Website
- Tin Kadoić’s Instagram
- Tin Kadoić on Medium
- Airbnb Design, Official Website
- IxDA: Interaction Design Association
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
- Carol Dweck: The Power of Believing That You Can (TEDxNorrkoping)
- Christina Wodtke’s OKRs System (Rescuing the Dreaded Weekly Status Email)
- Impostor Syndrome (Wikipedia)
- Introduction [00:00]
- Episode Introduction [00:51]
- Advice for Young Designers [02:19]
- On Improving and Growing As a Designer [07:49]
- What Is Experience Design? [15:34]
- Working As a Design Lead and Manager at Airbnb [19:18]
- Short Episode Break – Support the Podcast [31:51]
- Routines of a Product Designer [32:34]
- The Power of Sharing What You’ve Learned [47:23]
- How to Be a Better Creative Professional [59:35]
- Episode Outro [01:06:09]
Tin: “Dealing a little bit of that anxiety and discomfort is like a very normal and it means that you’re on the right path.”
This is the Creative Voyage Podcast, a long form interview show with the mission to help creative professionals to level up. I’m your host Mario Depicolzuane. I’m a creative professional myself active in the fields of graphic design, art direction, and creative consulting. In this podcast, I present in depth interviews with some of the world’s most inspiring creative professionals revealing the stories that shape their lives and careers, plus actionable strategies to help you take your mindset and skills to the next level. I invite you to join me on this journey.
Mario: In this episode, I talk to an experienced designer.
Tin: I’m Tin Kadoić. I’m an experienced design lead and manager. I’m currently working at Airbnb in San Francisco leading an in-house design team for what I consider what one of the most interesting late stage startups in the world.
Mario: Tin Kadoić is a design leader that has been looking for meaningful ways to create communities, impact how we learn, stay healthy and create belonging. Throughout his more than 15 years loan career, he’s worked as a design lead at Airbnb, which was his title at the time of our conversation, creative director at SYPartners, an agency in New York City. Created the first mobile products for a series of startups and Fortune 500 companies as well as lectured at Zagreb School of Design. His current position in May 2020 is design manager at Airbnb.
When he’s not working, he has been volunteering with the Interaction Design Association in helping new chapters launch and nurture their local communities. Originally from Croatia, he lives in San Francisco’s Mission District with his lifelong partner, designer Matea Bronić.
In this episode, we’re going to listen to the highlights of the conversation I had with Tin in June 2019. We covered topics such as his experience of working at Airbnb, different career paths in such organizations, the power of sharing your knowledge, professional lessons he learned so far and much more.
Tin’s professional journey started early in his life. In high school, he fell in love with design through geocities and partaking in a website building competition. His passion is somewhat rare skills in the early days of digital design get him freelancing at the age of 16. By the time he was 23, he started a studio. At the same time, he was teaching interaction design at the University of Zagreb where he graduated. Until 2014, he was based in Zagreb, but then he got an opportunity to move to the United States where he first worked at an agency and then in-house.
I started my conversation with Tim asking him about some of those early lessons he learned and he would like to share with aspiring and young professionals.
Tin: There is stuff that we indexed on early on versus later. Early on, it’s definitely like, “Okay, what are the core skills?” and we called this making. We like evolved from using a label of craft to a label of making, which then just requires you to know I guess the basic of user experience design and can you do a little bit of research? Can you do the right type of ideation? You really got to be good in like breaking down a problem into like smaller pieces and then just like utilizing the known parts of the design process.
Some of the things that I would like maybe like index on specific to this topic is the trends that I’m seeing that are either below my expectations or like above my expectations, right? Something that’s like below is just prototyping mindset in general. I would encourage everyone to have more a prototyping mindset off, and what I mean by that is even this process that we just now outlined, you can prototype that. You can see what works. What works with your team? Are you in a startup or like in a big company? How do you change that? How do you evolve that in your first job in order to start learning as much as possible? Then obviously it’s really about making prototypes, because there is nothing that’s going to tell a good story or really convey the complexities of a user interface as well as a prototype.
Tin: Don’t just do like your prototype where like you’re switching from like screen A to screen B and do that in a GIF and put that on a slide, because that’s not adding value, but to really like prototype skills in order to like decide on a direction or evolve the direction.
I think there’s something to be said around user research, which is like one of the first and integral steps to design process. A lot of times you’re not going to be in a situation like we are at Airbnb where we have an amazing team of like experienced researchers. You will have to find ways to do snippets of research by yourself and like incorporate endnotes and do lightweight user testing, which is often done on like coffee shops and in parks, and I’ve done that personally a lot.
Find the right way to be driven by your users. This is like a side note, but definitely like be agnostic to tools. Don’t marry yourself to like Photoshop, or Sketch, or Figma or any other tools, because it’s evolving so much. Even in my career, I’ve liked switch five tools, and that’s why like the tools really don’t matter and like the core skills and like understanding design process does, and we’ll be able to like learn new tools in the future easily.
For me, two things that I find value in. One is diversifying your portfolio as a young professional. It’s going to be hard to – Like let’s say you’re coming for a job interview at Airbnb and you have one or two or three years of experience. If you have like a singular type of projects, it’s really going to be hard to understand the type of designer that you are. How I would combat that was do you have any personal projects or any interests? The podcast is an example. The personal explorations and prototypes on like how to redesign an OS or an app or whatever it may be.
If you’re doing that, and maybe it’s like working for a startup on your off-time, which like amazing, right? But what would be wise and powerful for numerous reasons and not just for the portfolio appeal, is to do different type of projects in a different way. Again, this is not to make you more marketable. I think it’s about young professionals trying to find their voice and their interest in the field and really – Yeah, be able to like articulate that passion so that they can then pursue it. Where is your heart in? What are you interested in? How do you want to pursue that?
What else? I did this a couple years ago which is just like sketch out the career plan for myself, and this was like okay, “In one and three and five years, I want to do this,” and it’s seemingly a simple exercise if you’re able to get to those like bullets quickly. But then, again, like the power comes later. It comes when you’re looking at it like three months, six months and in a year. I was like, “Okay. I wrote something down a year ago. How close am I to that vision?”
Mario: Yeah, and is it still relevant at all?
Tin: Is it still relevant and do you want to update these milestones and like what has changed? If you’ve like learned or acquired a new skill, that’s great. But I just think that like that sort of north light is valuable and useful for like all of us.
As creative professionals, we to manage both our day-to-day tasks and our development. In other words, we have to stay on top of our game and grow, which can entail specific challenges and struggles. In my initial discussion over email about this topic with Tin, he noted he doesn’t see those things as struggling, but learning. That frames the subject wonderfully and is at the core of what Carol Dweck defined as growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.
Carol Dweck, a pioneer and researcher in the field of motivation and why people succeed or don’t, in her book Mindset writes, “In the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience, but it doesn’t define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with and learned from.”
Here are some things Tin’s is currently exploring and learning.
Tin: One of the things is how do you as a designer make impacts on all the surfaces within a company? What I mean by that is going from the center outwards. I’m designing and influencing the product, which is in my mind, in the center, and then going out, the second layer is like, “Okay, I’m designing this team and this has to be like one of the best teams in the company, or like in the world, or like whatever.”
Then like the third layer, “Okay. How do you actually design an entire organization?” What that means is like how to design the entire design organization that has 500 or 600 people? How do you design a company? How do you do all that?
What I’m interested in as a designer is like how do you cut through all the three layers and how do you show impact even though like you’re going to be focused more like one versus another? How do you show impact across all three? That’s something that has been constantly on my mind in the last two years. What I’m interested in is architecting a great design team that I can like hire in and manage great people and individuals, but then also how do we help the entire function? That’s like one example, but that’s a vector that I think about a lot.
I guess there are many like frameworks in how they present like design, but this is like my abbreviated version of some of those, and I think like if you’re working in an organization, it’s interesting to have that perspective and really think about like what you can do for your team and maybe your organization. That’s one of the challenges that I have on a daily basis.
The other is something that I didn’t need and/or have not encountered before at my agency world, which is let’s say we have 20 teams or like 15 big teams. How do you lead a project that involves five teams? How do you lead a project that involves five teams that all have their specific resourcing challenges, that have their roadmaps? That have their goals? That have their design principles and product design principles and leaders that don’t agree with each other because they have different like working styles, right? When you work on like a horizontal or a platform project, which is what I’ve been focusing on for the last like 7, 8 months. Most of the projects involve 2 to 8 teams.
For me, that’s like fascinating. Again, like as a design exercise, how do you facilitate success? How do you bring in every one at the right time? Don’t overburdened people. Don’t take up like IC’s time, but also if they’re in a lead position in their respective teams, how do you respect and empower that and build on top of that? We’re so much more powerful as a group, as a pack of talented designers, but like there are some processes and challenges in like enabling that to happen.
I think about that a lot. It’s very normal. Again, in our hyper growth, we need to figure a lot of this stuff out and like teams have codified it, but maybe in their own respective spaces. What I think is great, like you as a designer bring in this like research and design process and iterative mindset even to that working style. That’s like a second big struggle that I have on my mind, and God forbid, like you have a project that like takes a year or whatever, because then like it just makes everything complex even more.
Tin: Then I guess like my third interest, which is growing individuals, right? When you manage and lead a team, one of your core goals is helping those professionals like reach their goals and reach their potential and help them do the best work of their careers. All of us are specific and unique and beautiful humans, and like messy humans, and we all have our lives, our partners, our family struggles, all the baggage and complexities that come into work. How do you convert that into a designer that is happy that is doing the type work that they want to do and that just amplifies everyone else on the team and like helps everyone do their best work?
Growing individuals is definitely like something that is on my mind. That becomes even more complex when it’s like super senior people, when it’s like lead. How do you create a path for them when you’re like looking around and there’s not a template that you can just like base your process on?
Mario: Yeah. Is there anything else?
Tin: There is one thing that I can’t think of, and as I’m joining a new team, so that’s been on my mind for the last couple of weeks, which is how do you balance design quality and like product quality and like the experience, like the end-to-end experience with being data-led or data-informed or just like learning and leveraging from all of the data sources that are coming your way? I think this is sometimes like simplified as a topic, like oversimplified and like glanced over. Yeah, I don’t think like we should go like deep into it because it’s like a podcast of its own. But like how do you find balance? In your teams, that can be how do you find the right balance between junior and senior designers? How do you find balance between the right number of like engineers and designers? How do you find the balance between like doing research and balancing intuition and looking at like a big data, which is like what I’m thinking through? It’s a constant balancing act and it’s interesting, like in our world of numbers and scalability where you’re not like the single designer are directing this amazing new coffee shop. Then you can see it all the way through and there’s obviously like tradeoffs with material and whatnot, but there is some sort of ending to it. For us, it’s constant, right?
At that one, you always like ask the questions like, “Okay. What is our design perspective on this? What is the ethos that we’re bringing into this and how strongly do we feel that we can rely on solely the data to drive the best experience? Because traditionally, like what we’ve seen is that side of the spectrum, it’s really dangerous to go all the way there. I guess we’re in that spectrum. I think a lot of like good companies are in that, like somewhere on that spectrum, which is the ideal of having like an apple level of quality, but then also being research-driven and user-centric and being a little bit more agile and shipping product.
In design industry generally and especially in the booming market of product design, there’s an increasing number of different roles and corresponding titles; digital designer, UXUI designer, interaction designer, to what at some companies such as Airbnb is called experience designer. I’ve asked Tin to explain what experience design is and what experience designers at Airbnb do.
Tin: We call ourselves experience designer. I think this is one of the first things that people from the outside I guess noticed and are like really interested in, because it’s not a common title or a role at least the way it’s like labeled. Most of the designers in the industry are product designers, like you have at companies like Facebook and Uber, and then maybe like UX designers, companies like Google. Airbnb is different and I love that we A, are different, and B, like make a stance on communicating why and how we’re different.
Katie Dill was one of our first design leaders and when she was basically creating the design org, she made an intentional decision to call our function experience design. She came from a service design background and basically she wanted us to be thoughtful about the end-to-end journey that for us involves a lot of the offline touch points, if you will. We are not measured on screen time or how much you engage with the digital aspects of our platform.
What we really care about is like an amazing guest and host experience. Most of the designers at Airbnb, at least the type of designer that I am are called experience designers. Then we utilize a hybrid model or organization, which is like very typical, which means that like designers are embedded into their product or business unit teams.
What that would mean in the Airbnb world, most of our business is homes, and homes is a dual-sided marketplace. Obviously, two sides of the coin, it’s the guest and the host community. When I joined in 2017, I was on the host side for the first year, which I think like really helped me understand the core business and the core community that without host we wouldn’t be here basically, like Aribnb would not be a viable business. Then last year, at some point, I switched over to the guest side and I’m now leading and managing one of the teams there.
Mario: Cool. How big is your team? Is this organized around a specific project or like a part of the product or like a how do you – How it’s like organized in that sense?
Tin: Most of the teams at Aribnb are organized around product surfaces. We have what we call platform teams that try to like cut across, but I would say like 80% of the teams are organized around a specific surface area.
For us, on the guest team, that’s like everything that you see as you like land on airbnb.com all the way to like looking and considering in-home and then going through the booking flow. It’s kind of like the main guest flow. I guess what’s interesting is that as folks maybe like switch teams or go from teams to teams as their 10-year at Airbnb, they get to experience a lot of like different teams and work styles and like surface areas.
But for me specifically, it’s a team that is focused on like how do you decide on like the ideal home? How do you search for it? How do you get the right and enough signal so that you can actually like make a decision and it’s by no means simple, but that also brings a lot of interesting challenges for like everyone on the team.
I consider Airbnb as one of the most impressive late stage startups into world. When compared to most startups in Silicon Valley, which have a heavy emphasis on engineering, the part of Airbnb’s appeal seems to be their design-driven approach. Two of the cofounders, Brian Chesky and George Gebbia both have design backgrounds. It’s interesting to see the impact of that leadership on its operation.
I was curious to hear about Tin’s first-hand experience of working with a company and if there was anything unique in the way Airbnb’s design departments were structured and led.
Tin: One is just how projects are created and led. That will be like how do you actually like create a strategy on achieving some of the user and business goals? In other companies, especially here in the Bay Area, that can be a heavy engineering-led discussion. You have other companies where it’s product managers or what is commonly referred as product, just like making those decisions, and then everyone else being almost in a role of like execution. So like designers executing on a very detailed maybe like product brief and engineers obviously implementing the designs.
What I think is the most successful model and also the most long-term sustainable model is actually the thing that we try to apply, which is all of the core functions are equally represented. There is this amazing balance within the product teams where obviously how like the three functions, which is like product, engineering and design, it’s like the old metaphor of like the three legs of a stool and basically that’s when you get to like amazing product base.
But then depending on the team, the best teams that I’ve been on a have experience research and have data science and have product specialists, right? Those functions actually go into like this group that we call the lead. Like the guest team will have a group of leadership group that is represented by all the functions and all the functions actually are then able to craft a product strategy that honestly just needs to change and adjust very frequently with us, because we’re just in a hyper growth phase. Alex Schleifer, our VP of design likes to say that we are now in this teenage phase, which is great and obviously has its natural challenges.
The other thing, which is a little more I guess invisible is two out of the three of our founders are designers and one of our founders is our CEO still. Brian Chesky brings an amazing energy and expertise to leading the company and really just like hiring currently like the best people in the industry. When teams want to present an idea or a challenge, like the current status quo, or – I don’t know, I guess like innovate in a meaningful way, Brian rightfully so thinks like a designer very often.
How you present, how you creates your narrative and how you basically tell the story to the CEO is crucial, because that’s going to mean that your project might get funded or might get like prioritized or whatever. It’s a really like storytelling is embedded in our product and I think like that comes from the founders that actually set out to create this amazing company.
Mario: Is there anything else that you would like to highlight regarding Airbnb?
Tin: When I joined as a lead two years ago, I was very interested in trying to understand what does it mean to be elite. I think this term also, like this prefix, if you will, is like very – It just varies between like companies and at some companies it indicates seniority. At other companies, it doesn’t, but it indicates the ability to like leads big initiatives and projects. It really vary and it took me a while to do a couple of things and it was actually to like, A, understand like what does it mean for us especially as we grew our lead community from like 5 people to like 30 people, and then what does it mean to be a lead in some of the other companies again like in the Bay Area?
That’s almost like internal research project of my own outputted in like to amazing things that like I was focusing on as my like 20% projects in the last year. One of them was bringing all the senior IC’s in the company together and like creating some principles, creating a mission, creating some organizational layers around that group. Creating some forms where we come together where we share work, where we just like amplify each other like the benefit of like the Airbnb. The path towards super senior IC, which is individual contributors, is not super established here. This has been a challenge that kind of the engineering function has been struggling with, and really like what does it mean to be an industry for like 30 years and like being one of those multi-thousand people companies and still be an IC and how much ownership can you have? How much impact should you have and how do you scale that and how do you codify that? All of these things have been of personal interest and really like with the desire to like benefit all, again, like senior IC’s at Airbnb.
One of the things that came out of this work and out of these locations was a project of redoing our career framework, which is something that I’m like really interested in, because it’s like within the organizational design group and like design ops and all of those topics of interest. We have, whatever, like 150 designers. How do we actually like level them? What are the behaviors that we want to like see and incentivize in each level? How do you increase scope? How do you increase complexity? How do you show and demonstrate impact, and basically how do we help you grow in the right ways that fit both your goals and then like the company’s needs? That was also for me super fun project to be a part of interface with leadership on a regular basis and then like really do something that is unique and that only a few company’s peer here have been I guess like forced to do because they have not hit the scale of our design team?
I think what all of these like tells me is – The reason why I am enjoying like Airbnb so much is that, yes, we are all in some like business teams where we own a product surface that we innovate on and iterate on and like make sure it’s fulfilling its true potential. Then on the other side, there’s all these like functional projects, for instance, like involving yourself with like the experiences on function and then just like creating initiatives that like benefit the entire team.
Mario: Yeah. Did you self-initiate that, the research project about the career paths?
Tin: Yeah. I think it started just based on my, A, curiosity, and then B, I just moved obviously to San Francisco. I made the switch of more than a decade in agency life. So now all of a sudden I am in this like 5,000-person company. What does it mean for me to be there and how can I show the impact that I’m interested in doing in my career as a professional? I think like some of those questions organically led to some projects. The research bit, it’s even taking bits and pieces from the design process and then applying it internally.
Mario: Yeah. Could you define IC?
Tin: So the default career framework for older companies here in this side of the world is the following. So you are like a junior designer and then you evolve into like a mid-level designer, and then when you like become a more senior designer, you basically need to choose a path. One of the path is design management and the other path is an IC or an individual contributor. This is like very, very common and that’s just like the basic template that all the companies here are utilizing.
Then per company, there are huge differences. An example being, there is a social network company here that defines a manager like someone that is not involved in strategy or creative direction or product design of any sorts, but the design manager is solely responsible for architecting the team and developing the individuals within that team.
You have companies like ours where a design manager is always considered to be a maker as well of sorts, which means that even when you like manage a team, there is a large portion of your time that goes into being a “creative director” or defining the product strategy and you are basically like accountable for like all the quality that is created by a team.
Basically the main difference is like as a manager you manage people. As an IC, you don’t’ manage anyone. You might leave people. You are obviously expected to mentor a lot and just be like the voice of an amazing designer in the company and really like find your niche or like specialty, but you are not expected to like manage people.
Mario: Okay. What’s kind of the ratio of those positions?
Tin: I think when you reach the senior position, it’s literally like half-and-half. Obviously, when you zoom out and look at like all the design or just because you have like a good distribution off seniority, like with juniors and like mid-level designers, they are all IC’s. But when you get to that like more senior path, then we definitely like see a split, right?
Again, like part of my investigations were, “Okay. What does it mean to become like super senior IC and like still be, A, utilized; and B, happy; and C, challenged. I think our VP of design really cares about this topic and I think he’s trying to figure out like what does it mean to be an IC and be on a director of design or VP of design level? Which is like a whole lot other like topic and challenge. But it’s just like interesting to think about it that way, and the path for management i some ways is established and is just like a little bit more predictable and cleaner in ways. Whereas like path for progressing as like a principal designer or as like staff designer at other companies is very often per individual basis, which just like tells me that it’s hard to like codify and coach these people to get to that stage.
Mario: What would be like an example of an IC? A very clear IC like within Airbnb let’s say?
Tin: Well, one of my biggest inspirations and mentors at Airbnb is actually our only principal designer currently, Roy Stanfield, and he came from Etsy before that in New York. When I joined, again, like I said, it was like starting to understand this topic. Everyone was pointing me towards Roy’s direction, right? To try to I guess like codify what he was able to do, he truly believed that like one of the surface areas needed to be completely redone and like redesign and like re-architected from an engineering standpoint and that we were really like failing our guest community and like one of the aspects. It’s an initiative he started, but that also he was trying to find the right avenues to create a team around that to like get funding, and it was more than six months in the making before he was able to do like the first pieces of work on that.
There’s just this sense of I guess agency and long-term thinking that like only I guess like super senior designers can bring to the table and just like the comfort level of being in such an ambiguous space for quite a long time.
Hey friends. You’re listening to the Creative Voyage podcast. We’re in the middle of this episode, so it’s time for a short break. If you like this podcast, I’m confident you’re going to enjoy the Creative Voyage Monthly Edit, a newsletter for which every month I ask a different creative professional to curate 10 brief recommendations of cool things to inform and inspire including books, articles, products, portfolios, podcasts, and more, and deliver it exclusively to your inbox. It’s a newsletter curated by creatives for creatives. To sign up, visit creative.voyage/newsletter. Thanks, everyone. Let’s get back to the show.
At this point in our conversation, I was curious to hear what are Tin’s work routines and how he manages his schedule. Here’s what he shared with me.
Tin: One of the things that I love about living in San Francisco is I bike to work every day, and I bike to and from work obviously, and the weather here is so nice that you can like easily do that every single day. What I tend to do is wake up around seven and grab coffee with my partner at a local coffee shop and basically hop on my bike around like 9 AM and head to work. I live in the Mission in San Francisco and our office is seven minutes ride from here. It’s super nice and super convenient.
Airbnb has what we call an urban campus, which means that we currently have three buildings in San Francisco doing a lot of work on our fourth one, and I working like one of those three buildings. I actually work in the HQ building which is like one of our most iconic buildings if you like Google. Airbnb San Francisco is the one that like comes up that has this beautiful atrium and there is still old like railroad tracks that are coming in.
I prefer to like reserve time in the morning to, A, plan out my like an entire week or day. On like Monday mornings, I basically created a plan for that week and I use this thing by Christina Wodtke, which is like her weekly OKRs. It’s like three or four things that you did last week. Two or three big things or like medium things that you’re focusing on the current week. Then just like in a moment of inspiration or what I need help with.
What I do, I do this primarily for myself obviously, but I distribute it to a list that I call Tin’s Weekly, and its use Google Groups to distribute this, because it’s an easy way to like add more people or like remove people when they like leave teams or whatever. Primarily, this is like going out to my manager so that they see what I’m focusing on and maybe they can provide commentary and/or feedback on like how to reprioritize.
That is like one of my big routines, and I’ve hyped this up to a lot of designers around me. I don’t know how many people like utilize, but I find it really successful. That’s a good time machine. It’s a good diary. It’s a good like accountability in terms of how do you set expectations for your current week.
Mario: Yeah. Could you explain a bit further about the system you use?
Tin: The system I use is very simple. It’s like the things that I was able to achieve last week, the things that I’m focusing this week, and then if I need help on anything regarding the things that I just mentioned. It’s like it’s super simple, but I think it’s the rhythm and the transparency that gives this power I guess. Maybe when you get one email, you’re like, “Oh, cool.” But after you start doing this as a habit, like from our sender and a receiver end, it really like brings a lot alike value and comfort. Again, as my manager comes in on a Monday morning, he doesn’t have to like chat with me your check with me. He actually can just like check this email.
I do this for like my team and like my manager or managers or whatever, and I think like it’s a really powerful thing. I think even if you’re like working in a studio or working with like a single freelance partner that’s like across the globe. It’s just like a good thing to do, and I prefer like the email format for this even though like we use Slack for basically everything else.
Mario: Yeah. I this sounds quite interesting actually.
Tin: I mean, what’s cool is you can just like link to all the stuff that you’re working through. For us, because we leverage tools like Figma where everything is shared in like real-time and accessible when you just like link to your work in progress and you link to all the documents and like the strategy pieces that you’re writing. It’s just very easy to access if one needs to.
Mario: Yeah. Then, from then on?
Tin: From then on, we would have – If this is like a Monday, we will have like an hour-long sprint planning where we actually sprint out our next two weeks. So that’s how my current team works. We have like all the functions in the room and basically go through like a plan for that week. What we try to do is also – I mean, there is a bunch of tactical stuff that is happening and that one can accomplish and execute and like potentially even ship within the two weeks. But there’s a lot of just like long-term thinking. There’re a lot of projects that like carryover for months. So it’s about like, “Okay. What is the phase that I am able to complete in the next like two weeks?”
When I say this, you can obviously like find similarities and some very well-documented product design processes. But for us, it’s like it’s super simple. We just like plan out our next two weeks. We set priorities within that. We try to over plan like everyone should ideally, if you’re successful, you hit 70% of the things that you set out to do and basically just like have a good kickoff as a team. For that, it means like, “Okay, what are the milestones? Is there anything that I can capture in this current like sprint planning? Maybe I’m running a workshop this week. Maybe next week I have five working sessions with three designers from completely different teams that I need to align with and just like jam on some like good designs on.
I think there’s a little bit of art and science in like how do you break down like a long project. I think the point is like to give other functions like visibility and also like confidence that it’s moving along, because like all of these projects, are you going to hit engineering in one point? That’s key, like how do we move them in from day one? We love to like co-create with like all the functions. So it’s not like design is in a room isolated and then like we come back after three months and just hand things over. We invest a lot in like kind of the cross-functional mix of POV’s and experiences and just like perspectives. That’s why like even as like early on, maybe like we’re doing the audits. Maybe I’m going to share that audit with all of my team and for everyone on the engineering side.
What’s cool with tools like Figma that’s really like streamline basically the process and what we’ve wasted a lot of time previously, like everyone is there. It’s always up-to-date, and you can use it as like a specking tool. You can use it as a prototyping tool and you can also just use it to be super transparent. You bring in the engineers even after like three weeks for like a three-month project. They can jump in. They can like leave comments and just like highlights complexities or feasibility challenges or whatnot.
Mario: When you say like – So you meet with your team, like how many people is on the team?
Tin: The current guest team is around 200 people, let’s say, but we are all in specific smaller teams that might range from like 15 to like 30 people I think is like a good makeup. In that sense, we are a bunch of super small companies and/or startups, if you will, playing with and this Airbnb universe, and we all have our goals, we all have our budgets. We all have our like specific headcounts for like people that we can hire and like win. We all have our like quarterly or H1 and H2 plans for what we want to do.
It’s usually like whenever we have something like sprint planning. It’s, let’s say, all the 30 people. But then obviously like even that is broken down into like projects. A project might include a designer, a content strategist, a researcher. You obviously have a PM that’s like overseeing that’s doing a lot that’s spread thin across the projects. Then you might have maybe one engineer or maybe like 10. You might have like a backend engineer, a web and an Android and an iOS engineer because like all the platforms like requires specific skills and skillsets, right?
Tin: Then like data science, product specialist, which is like for us part of the research function and it actually like analyzes all of the feedback that we’re getting from customers, and they’re extremely powerful allies in actually like understanding kind of the pulse of our guest and host community. That will be like a makeup of the good and healthy team just with like all the functions represented.
Mario: Yeah. Okay. So then, from then on, then how does like your week, let’s say, develops?
Tin: There are team meetings, which take a portion like maybe 30 minutes or an hour every day. There are one-on-ones, which I have obviously with like all designers on my team, and then my manager and all my like cross-functional leaders. That’s takes another portion of one’s time.
Then there is functional things, and what I mean by functional is that there are meetings and forums that are specific to experience design. Just yesterday we had what we call and XD standup, which is a meeting that last 45 minutes where you have every single designer in the company present their work through one or two or three slides and it takes 10 or 45 seconds. It’s just like, yeah, powering through like all the work that’s happening and only design can do this in terms of like capturing that in a deck. This is a powerful like artifact that’s I guess old product and all of engineering sometimes references, because nothing else brings in like all the teams together.
We have stuff like that. We have design crits, or like critique sessions like every week, which are one of my favorite things where people are intended to come in, share work in progress. It’s not meant to be a review by any means. It’s meant to really help the designers by sharing other’s perspectives and really kind of helping like amplify like the good work that usually happens. You might have crits that are on your team. You might have one for like all of guests. You might be invited to a crits for a different team, because like you’re the domain expert in something or you’re closely working with this individual.
Yeah, it’s just like an amazing ritual that is like key in producing high-quality work. Then like obviously for ICs, what key is like having enough dedicated blocked-off making and thinking time. That’s key and that’s what I think a lot of people just have challenges with, because you might get invited to a lot of meetings. It takes a while to calibrate and understand like what you should be going to where you actually add to the meeting or the discourse and how you can like evolve that, versus using muscle memory and just like RSVPing to everything. That’s key for like our IC’s.
Obviously on the management side, you’re going to have much more of the strategy meetings, alignment meetings, facilitation, opportunities and whatnot. The goal for like IC’s is the have 50% or 60% or 70% of IC time that is often challenging. One of the decisions that we have to like combat that with is having a no meeting Wednesday, which means that is very sacred for some people. It’s like, “Okay. I’ve heard from a lot of ICs. Wednesdays are like basically like the only days where I can get a lot of work done, because it provides me with a space, with a time, with the momentum.”
I do this thing whenever I need like making or thinking time I actually block that off on my calendar. I really think that’s important and powerful because it helps you visualize the time that you need to create. Let’s say a meeting comes in or you have to leave work early or whatever, it doesn’t matter. That means you have to move this block, right? Which is like on a calendar, but like it’s like this physical thing that you need to move from like one set of table to another. Then the question is, “Well, is there like null, like too many things on that side of the table? Is something going to fall off the table?” Then you have to just like I guess have a higher conversation with yourself and balance out the workload and ask for help. Yeah, the visualization really helps in that regards.
Tin: I could not imagine living without my calendar, and that might sound sad for some people, but it’s like really a powerful tool that helps me be organized and productive. Yeah, when I want to schedule a coffee chat with you, I’ll obviously see if I’m like looking over your meeting or your working time or your like free at that moment. Again, I think like this notion of like transparency, all of our folks have visibility on, which means that you can actually see who their meetings are with. What they’re meeting about? If there’s any like agenda items. Really perpetrating this core value of I guess like transparency.
Then just to like end it off on a fun note. What happens Fridays is there is quite a few of the teams that have happy hours, which I always find interesting especially when there’s like more than one happening like in the same building. My first theme, which is like the host team, host success team, really like did an amazing job. Basically, like we had a couple of people that were very excited about crafting an amazing experience for everyone. There was a bar. There were like bespoke cocktails every week that had some pun internal names that like we would all like laugh to and stuff like that. But I guess really like perpetuating the right type of culture, and I didn’t like mentioned this a lot in my work routines, but for me, that is core to who we are an even more powerful that is like one of the things that we have not lost as we scaled. I think a lot of companies struggle with that, is like how do you actually scale that culture? You do that through like work ethics and like core values and things like off-sites and happy hours like I mentioned. But a lot of times it means like hiring good people, exciting them to do great work and then creating forums where people can actually meet each other, connect and do fun stuff together.
Even though most of us have knowledge that can contribute to our peers, community and culture, it can be hard to do that. Early on, we might feel we don’t know enough and we might be right. Of course, there’s almost always somebody who knows less and could benefit from learning from relatable source. In the later stages, even with seeming professional confidence, we might find ourselves paralyzed by imposter syndrome, a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has persistent internalized fear of being exposed as “fraud”. How could we even dare to teach?
However, there are many benefits of doing precisely that for all involved parties. The learning by teaching effect has been demonstrated in many studies. Students who spent time teaching what they’ve learned go on to show better understanding and knowledge retention than those who don’t. It is the so-called protégé effect of psychological phenomenon for teaching, pretending to teach or preparing to explain information to others helps a person learn that information. As Joseph Joubert remarked, “To teach is to learn twice over.”
From lecturing at the university organizing community and mentoring, to facilitating design sprints, speaking at conferences around the world, and writing, there’s a threat of Tin’s regular contribution to the design community. I wanted to hear what drives his efforts into a domain and if he ever feels a resistance towards those contributions.
Tin: What I think might be one of the I guess internal triggers for me is like a true love for like what I’m doing, and like you could call this like passion or like whatever you want to label it, but I am honestly so in love with design and so excited about learning more myself that like all these activities basically perpetuate these two things. It’s like I love it, so I want to help others get to know it and like fall in love with it like I did and like get to realize like the full potential.
Then by me wanting to learn, it’s like all my students have basically like forced me to like learn something. All of my speaking, all of my writing, all of my meet-up organizing is benefiting everyone involved. Like me, I’m not excluding myself from this. Obviously, would be the happiest if I was just able to like do amazing design work and never stop learning and sharing that with others until the rest of my life. I think I got into this kind like organically.
The university that I lectured at for five years was the same university that I graduated from, and basically what ended up happening is this very traditional Bauhaus-like education that was going in the beginning of 2000s. It was like undergoing this transition into like, “Okay. What is this digital design? What is this multimedia interactive now? Like UIIX product space?” I guess my professors and mentors just like recognize that I am doing this work on the side as a freelancer. So I’m bringing like real-life experience into it, and they just started looping me in, and I was a TA for maybe the first two years and then basically got a chance to like lead my own class and like multiple classes. It was hard, because the amount of hours that the students actually got to like dedicate to this topic of interaction design was really small and minute. It wasn’t like they were like majoring in the interaction design.
What ends up happening, you have a group of 30 students per year, but then you had like a split between like visual communications, industrial design. You have a lot of people that are still interested in print as the main medium. There are people that are then like interested in topography design. It broke down into like having a couple of really interesting students, and like some of those relationships I still like nurtured to this day. One of my students and now good friends since moved to like Berlin and he works as a product designer. To imagine that I even had a 1% impact to that trajectory and interest is rewarding on its own.
I guess that was like a little bit of the teaching at the university and it wasn’t until I moved to the states that I realized how much I miss that and how much that was a core part of me and I obviously felt like I was into the early, early days of being a lecturer of any kind, but I have to like I guess like put a brake on it temporarily.
Then one of the things that I think was actually provoked by like all these teaching was my desire to like travel the world and meet designers and like use the interaction design conference as a vehicle to like achieve that. Basically when I realized that there was this thing called IxDA, which stands for Interaction Design Association and they have hundreds of small chapters and teams all across the globe, but there wasn’t anything similar in Croatia. I basically decided to start that in 2014. Yeah, like that community had like a meet-up just last week. Now it’s run by other leader and a lot of countries. Absolutely like an amazing leader of the IxDA Croatia, and all the meet-ups just bring people from the design community from Zagreb and beyond and everyone just shares their passion, their case studies, their thinking process. Obviously, the benefits from something like this are exponential, right?
Mario: Yeah, exactly. There’s like one thing which I’m kind of curious if you have thoughts on, which kind of goes into this teaching, sharing or like writing something, like asserting something on your blog or on medium or can like kind of hard to like do those things, like kind of go over yourself and over your like fear of like judged or rejected or like not being good enough or not good enough yet. Why would I teach now? There is much smarter people than me and they’re not doing it yet or maybe I should wait for another 10 or 20 years or like there’s all these different like excuses to not do it.
I’m curious. If you have that and if you do, then how do you overcome that, because obviously you are overcoming it? If you don’t, maybe like if you’re even like thought about that topic, like how would you like advice or mentor somebody who has things to share, but they’re just like too shy, too introvert, not – blah-blah-blah.
Tin: I guess with some like more junior designers at Airbnb and like other places, I do hear that a lot. I don’t have a unique perspective that I’m like bringing into this. It’s like the most common thing that I hear. I think like all the not excuses, but all the thoughts that you mentioned are valid. I think there’s a couple of things in my world that I guess can change perception or maybe like move things along. One is just my core principle of not saying no, and what it means is like if anyone wants to like have a chat or like has an interesting idea or like wants to offer you something. You say yes and you just like take the minimum amount of time to like to invest, but you I guess don’t assume or don’t judge. What that meant was that, “Yeah, I was like offered this thing or helping out my university with the International Design Program and like obviously I was terrified, but I was like, “Yeah.” So more inclined into like saying yes and like taking a challenge is one thing.
The other thing that like really drives me again is this topic of continuous learning. I honestly think that there are like the moments that I have like learned the most is either by being in a really powerful, creative, additive team that it just like gave me a lot and I gave a lot back. That’s like a common environment that you can like create or co-create.
But then the other thing is whenever you need to like write something, whenever you need to present on a stage, which is like what I did like in April of this year. I was like creating a new talk. Whenever you’re like creating a new program, you need to do’s so much research, and so much – If it’s not research, if it’s like a case study, then there’s like so much work that goes into actual like clarifying your thoughts and clarifying and clarifying and just like revisiting this and like editing the things that you have like over and over again.
For me, like whenever I think of this challenge, A, it’s exciting to be able to like share something if it’s like well-done. Whenever you have to put something in writing, you need to like clarify it for yourself. You might need to like research and like connected holistically with some system in a place that exists out there in the world, like the invisible systems of this world, the invisible patterns. Like there’s some middle pattern recognition that happens.
Then more often than not, you’re actually going to get like positive responses. I think for me the driver was like the second or third article I had, just like 10,000 views and a lot of like comments coming over like Twitter and whatnot and it just gave me a little bit of like a boost and like momentum to keep on. I don’t necessarily think like those things should be like measured on the number of like claps or likes or like whatever, but the student example, right? If you’re able to like move one person, but like in a significant way, I don’t think there’s like many, many things that I like more powerful than that.
Writing, like when people think about, “Well, I don’t have anything to write about.” I think I’m a little bit strict around this topic, because I think sometimes it’s about like putting in the work and it’s just about doing five minutes a day and, “Okay. I’m just going to like do a brain dump of 30 bad bullet ideas and I’m going to like invest as little time as possible today on it. Okay. Cool. Tomorrow or like three days from now, I’m going to open it up and like have a little bit more critical eye. Maybe still be in like the generation space.” Then if you do like literally like the one step at a time, like all of a sudden there’s like momentum that starts happening. All of a sudden you like hear someone in the office that like really is good with like writing or maybe they’re a writer and they were like an editor in their previous job, right?
So then what you do is like, “Oh!” then you have like coffee with them, but then you use that time to actually like talk about these topics, like what do you think? It could actually like evolve into a meaningful piece that like brings a unique perspective. Yeah. I think it’s about like persistence and process and being inspired by learning yourself and learning others. If you find like the right functioning model for yourself because it’s like I really like can’t prescribe it. I know that whenever things are uncomfortable, they’re uncomfortable because you’re growing in some ways, and you shouldn’t be growing in like painful ways, but feeling a little bit of that anxiety and discomfort is like very normal and it means that you’re on the right path.
Mario: Yeah, exactly.
Tin: I think like we think about these terms more so in the art space for some reason and not in the design space or not like in general creator space, but there’s something about like, A, being vulnerable and like being authentic, which means like you’re going to put yourself out there and there’s going to be a lot of interesting thoughts and there’s going to be stuff that you’re uncomfortable with and like people are not going to find value in. But like when you zoom out, there’s going to be hopefully like a transformative experience for like yourself.
That’s why when I was mentioning like the design critiques, like the purpose of that, is to be very open and not afraid of like other people’s thoughts and feedback and comments and just like putting yourself out there, like being uncomfortable. If you’re always like in a mode where like everything needs to be perfectly polished even for your like closest teammates, then maybe that’s something that like you should think about and like how do you change that? Is that like a new behavior that needs to like happen?
We’ve come to last topic I’ve discussed with Tin. I aim to wrap up every episode with actionable or inspirational takeaways from my guests. So I’ve asked Tin to highlight three pieces of advice based on what he learned so far on his professional journey.
Tin: A thing that I would start with, which I think is somewhat related to your question, but it’s also like how do you be a better creative, or a designer, or maker of sorts, or a collaborator? But like in the end, like how do you be a better human is practice the ability to listen.
What I mean by that, I’ve seen how dangerous the lack of that ability can be in my work environment through these like almost like 15 years. Whenever I had team members that didn’t know how to listen, they were not really like team members, right? They were like these like individuals that were not able to like amplify and excite others and really like build on top of each other’s ideas.
If you’ve ever been like in an improv class, that’s basically the basics of it. If you’ve ever been in a design exercise which is yes and, that kind of stuff. It’s just like a tactical example. But it can really be like when people know how to listen, they listen before they speak. They are truly listening and paying attention to like that other like individual or like the group of people. What that would invoke in my mind hopefully is also like a little bit of understanding of like where this person is coming from. Why are they saying the things they are saying? What are they thinking? Are they able to like articulate what they’re trying to say? Then help them out and be like be an amazing partner, right? I mean, the device could be like be an amazing partner, but it’s just like this feels like a little bit more concrete, right? Really listen. I guess amplifying and adding to others is something that drives me. So that’s why I think the listening is key.
Second thing I guess would be something that I mentioned when we were talking about like young professionals and about my own practices, but it’s just about like design your ideal working scenario. Are you really like the person that wants to like work remotely? That is challenging in its own ways. Do you know what that entails? If so, if that’s your idea, like you can make it happen. Don’t worry about it.
If you are someone that is again like energized by 30 amazing professionals around you every single day and you want to get lunch with them and go on a tangent and you’re going to come back like sit down to the computer and like be even better? Great. If you want to start a design studio with your partner and it’s just going to be the two of you and you’re going to be in a shed somewhere out in the wilderness, like do that. Those are like very extremes examples and those are just meant to like exemplify like to design your ideal working environment. You need to first think about it, articulate it, like put it down on paper and then understand the delta between like where you are and where you want to get to.
Most people instinctively know when they get they’re like working mojo or when they’re in the state of the flow or when they are most creative, and just like design, like you do the morning thing. Do the morning thing. You’re up until like 5 AM? Don’t worry about it. Do what’s like best for you. Find those people and you might not be able to do it in a second or in a day. Again, if you know what you’re working towards, you can design it. Don’t give up.
There’s been this amazing trending short clip by an NBA player whose name I don’t know, but I guess like it’s the NBA playoffs right now. He basically like telling the story of how he sees himself as a champion and he envisions coming to the court, giving his best and like winning the game. Basically like what he’s trying to convey is that champions are not made by accident, and obviously like envisioning like you being great and doing amazing work is not going – You have to put a lot of work in. It’s not like imagining it’s not going to like make it so.
But like before you have that like mental capacity of visualizing this future for yourself and this impact that you want to have, it’s probably not going to happen by accident. Maybe it does, but I would bet like the high chances are when you’re actually able to like articulate and envision like the future that you want to create.
Then the last one, if I had to like pick three, is always be curious and never stop learning. I think like that this curiosity is what I get excited about. We have a new designer that joins a team and there’s like a new project and he’s just like curious and he just starts auditing and like digging up stuff and asking questions, like basic questions that like no one else on the team would like to ask because there’s all these like institutional knowledge. But like he asks a really thought-provoking question and it’s like really this like curiosity that constantly gets you to a better problem definition and then like consequently like a better solution creation. It’s like I think we all benefit when we’re curious, but like honestly curious, and we benefit when we constantly are learning and like never stop learning.
Practices like that are codified by someone like European Union that says like, “Oh! Now we have this like lifelong learning cracks because industries change and tools change and like automation comes and entire industries are like redesigned and revamped.” The only thing that can keep us relevant even if our industry doesn’t go away, but even more so if it does, is to like constantly keep learning. Young people, like I don’t know what’s going to happen in like 10 years. I do know if you’re curious and like constantly learning and are a partner and team member and then like design the career path and like the environment that you want to see that those are some like transferable skills that are not necessarily related, like product design or the creative space maybe even and will hopefully like still be true in 5, 10 and 20 years.
Hey, everyone. That’s it for this episode. I hope you find it useful, and if you like this podcast, tell a friend. I want to thank Tin for coming on to the show. He’s a talented designer, a generous impresario in the design community, and a friend. I’m grateful for all of the insights he shared.
Links to Tin’s work as well as some others mentioned during the conversation can be found in the show notes at creative.voyage/podcast. Also, you can follow @creative.voyage on Instagram, join The Monthly Edit newsletter, and if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe. Until next time my friends. Take care.
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