Global creative marketplace Etsy, founded in 2005, now sells more than 60 million items, connecting around two million sellers with almost 40 million buyers. So it’s no wonder that the user experience for such a massive platform is crucial, especially on mobile devices.

To find out how Etsy’s UX has evolved over the years, and how the company conducts user research and analyzes data to optimize the experience for its users and increase engagement, we sat down with Etsy’s Catt Small, senior product designer, and Jessica Harllee, staff product designer. Here they give us an exclusive insight into the UX of the biggest ecommerce site for crafts, vintage items, jewelry, and everything handmade.

What was Etsy’s user experience like at the very beginning?

Catt: Jess and I were both heavy Etsy users before we joined the company as designers. I’ve been a buyer since 2007 and started selling in 2016.

Jessica: And I’ve been buying on Etsy since 2008 and opened an Etsy shop in 2014.

Catt: Shopaholics! Etsy was quite minimal at its inception, as most major websites have been. While the site wasn’t at the fidelity it is today, the goal was very clear: to support creative people and connect them to shoppers with a purpose. The user experience spawned from the reason the company existed, and people liked the fact that it wasn’t as sterile or one-note as big-box stores. Gladly, that mission still guides us today. We have continued to retain that raw personality as the company grew: our brand experience is centered around celebrating creativity and the special moments in life.

A screenshot of the Etsy homepage user interface when the site was first launched in 2005.
The Etsy homepage when the platform first launched in 2005.

How has the UX changed over the years?

Catt: Etsy was created by creative people looking for a place to sell handmade goods. As the platform grew, user groups with different needs emerged — full-time sellers and international buyers, for example — but the mission hasn’t changed. We built an in-house user research team in order to learn about the diverse needs of our customers. This helped us understand challenges and reasons for buying and selling on Etsy. We learned that buyers often come to Etsy because they prefer to support small businesses and entrepreneurs. They also often make purchases on Etsy for special occasions. Knowing this kind of information has helped us cater our experience to people who care about Etsy’s mission.

Another major change was technology. Apps didn’t exist when Etsy came out. The company had to adapt as mobile phone usage increased. Now mobile users comprise 55 percent of our gross merchandise sales. We’ve continuously worked to ensure our mobile experiences are as good (if not better) than their larger-screen counterparts. Changes we’ve made include building separate buyer and seller-focused apps, adding mobile-friendly navigation to the website, increasing font sizes, and upping the sizes of tap targets across the experience.

Etsy’s listing page on mobile in 2019. The interface is accessible with high contrast and easily tappable buttons.
Etsy’s listing page on mobile in 2019. The interface is accessible with high contrast and easily tappable buttons.

Jessica: The ways in which we express the brand in the product have also evolved a lot. Etsy’s brand has always been strong, and we’ve always been inspired by the creativity of our sellers and buyers. We’ve worked hard to find the right ways for brand designers and product designers to collaborate and influence each others’ work. And by strengthening that relationship, we’ve been able to take our product experience from one peppered with spot illustrations to one that, as a whole, looks more like how Etsy feels. Our brand is baked into our design systems, our design principles, and our tone of voice, as well as the product decisions that we make. Put simply, our product is our brand.

In 2018, Etsy launched a discovery-centric experience to help buyers find what they didn’t know they were looking for.
Etsy launched a discovery-centric experience to help buyers find what they didn’t know they were looking for.

What design process do you follow to ensure you continually evolve the UX of the service?

Jessica: At Etsy we’ve always had a strong culture of learning; we’re constantly reflecting on our process and evolving the way that we work. And the same goes for the way we approach evolving the customer experience. Every team starts with a customer outcome that expresses the value we want to create for our customers (such as, “As a buyer on Etsy, I can easily find the right information for the item I’m interested in, so I know if it’s right for me”). By starting with an outcome instead of a specific feature, it gives the team the freedom to figure out which solutions are the right ones. Each solution that we have in mind gets framed as a hypothesis, and then we use our amazing research and experimentation tools to validate our hypotheses and decide where to invest.

Catt: In addition to ideating and testing hypotheses often, designers also verify whether or not we’re creating solutions for the right problems. Through collaboration with our cross-functional partners (product managers, engineers, data analysts, and more), we center product ideas around concrete issues our sellers and buyers face. We don’t want to build products based on unrealistic hunches. Our best solutions have been derived from a deep knowledge of our customers’ challenges on and outside of Etsy. We don’t operate in a vacuum, so staying aware of the larger market is important in order to exceed customer expectations. Etsy has stayed relevant by understanding its user base, and the design team is at the forefront of those efforts.

An example of a product listing for a handmade necklace listed on Etsy in 2015.
An example of a handmade necklace listed on Etsy in 2015.

How do you conduct user research and analyze the data you collect?

Jessica: Every product team at Etsy has a dedicated research partner and a dedicated data analyst. That way, our research and analytics partners are close to our work and understand the things we’re trying to learn and change.

While we’re in the discovery phase (where we evaluate different solutions), we do a lot of remote and in-person interviews, surveys, and usability testing with buyers and Etsy sellers. Our product managers and designers come to research sessions with specific hypotheses in mind that they want to validate, and reflect at the end of the sessions on whether or not they were validated.

From there, we take any validated hypotheses and get feedback at scale. We run an experiment that tests the simplest possible change that we think could add value to our customers, and work with our analysts to understand the impact. We then use our experiment learnings, plus our qualitative feedback, to decide how we want to continue to iterate.

Catt: Like Jess mentioned, we deploy a variety of methods to conduct both quick and slow forms of user research. This includes regular speed dating-style research, unmoderated research with buyers and sellers, and full-length moderated research sessions that are conducted locally as well as remotely. The moment design ideas are prioritized and visualized, they are tested using one of our many research tools.

During the reporting phase of our research, we frame the data around people rather than our business or its products. Behavior is more impactful in this context because our goal is to align solutions with customers. We have found that teams are ultimately more successful when they center research results around user needs and empower teams to identify potential solutions that satisfy those needs.

What kind of tools do you use to refine the UX?

Jessica: Early on, when we’re trying to get feedback on ideas and hypotheses, we try and keep things really lightweight and low fidelity. We’ll use paper prototypes, lo-fi sketches, and one-sentence summaries of ideas to quickly get feedback on which directions to take.

Catt: In addition to low-fidelity designs, prototypes, and constant iteration, we also have a lot of conversations to move our ideas forward. Feedback from internal and external stakeholders helps make our work better. Designers are required to participate in at least one critique session per week. This constant discussion helps ensure our work is at the caliber necessary to serve our customers’ needs.

On the visual design side, all designers at Etsy use the same design system and brand language. We have a massive set of resources available to guide people who create experiences for the website, apps, and even email. Since the design system is so robust, we are able to design unified experiences with much less work upfront.

Etsy’s design system includes guidelines and CSS classes for animations of all kinds.

Jessica: Before we launch anything user-facing, we’ll turn the feature on for admin and spend some time testing the feature out ourselves. It really helps that many of us are very active buyers and sellers on Etsy! We also have great tools like prototype groups, in which we enable the new feature for a small set of buyers or sellers who opt-in to give us feedback before a full launch. Etsy’s forums and support channels also provide us with a lot of helpful customer feedback after a launch.

How do you increase user engagement?

Jessica: When we approach a project, we start from a place of wanting to solve a specific customer problem rather than trying to increase a specific metric. User engagement is how we measure whether or not we’re providing value. But we have to first understand what our buyers and sellers need.

Catt: Etsy wins when buyers and sellers succeed. That makes it easy to focus on building the experiences our customers both want and need. Buyers visit our marketplace when they want something special and unique. Our goals are centered around those core needs — as well as the needs of our creative sellers — rather than being in conflict with them. When shoppers purchase more on Etsy, our sellers win, too. In other words: we increase engagement by listening to our customers, prioritizing their requests, and delivering upon their most crucial needs in a timely manner. As someone with over a decade of design work experience, I can attest to the rarity of working at a place with positively impactful user engagement goals.

Jessica: One of the best ways that we can understand how our customers use Etsy is through data. Every change that we make gets run as an A/B experiment, and we look at a variety of metrics to understand how different changes impact behavior. Experiments allow us to learn how people use Etsy at scale. We balance this out with lots and lots of qualitative research so that we understand the why behind what our customers are doing (or not doing). If we see that the things we’re doing are helping buyers and sellers, then we continue to invest in those areas.

What’s next for Etsy’s UX?

Jessica: Right now we’re thinking about keeping everyone in the company focused on the customer and thinking in a customer-centric way. We’re also investing more than we ever have in the things that make Etsy special. I’m really excited about what we’re working on and where we’re headed!

Catt: Designing even better experiences will require us to keep listening to our customers’ needs and validating ideas quickly. I am excited to continue iterating on our design and research processes so we can deliver better work faster. This includes further investment in our design system such as a larger focus on creating parity between our web and mobile experiences. Empowering designers and their collaborators to do their best work is the best way to improve a user experience.

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