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Allan Yu

Svpply, Google-X

Interview by Spencer Fry on February 28, 2015. Edited by Jesse Lamb.

After being friends on the Internet for several years, Allan and I finally met over cocktails and popcorn at my East Village apartment. With his outside-the-box design thinking, fashion sense, and my love for his colorful conversations, we became quick friends.

Allan is best known for his design work at NYC darling Svpply, before moving to Project Florida, then Google-X, where he presides currently. In our one-on-one, Allan walked me through what happened to Svpply, what’s different about being a designer at a big company like Google, and what advice he’d give to young product designers: none at all.

# Photograph by Describe the Fauna
Sweat the Product

Give me a little bit of your background story.

Allan Yu

I studied accounting for the first year and a half of my college career. I worked at Price Waterhouse and I was doing taxes during tax season. I hated my life, so I decided to quit and pursue something I was interested in. I saw my life projected if I stayed there, and that's not the type of life I wanted to live. I was trying to figure out what I should do next. Design was something that was always in me, or that I've always touched on from the outside. It was never apparent as a choice in college, being from an Asian background. But the things I was involved in sort of alluded to design as the field I could actually go into, rather than just have as a hobby. So that's how I got into design. I started going to school for design. I went to a university that offered a design program, not a design college. So it's not the same. And then I got an internship, and then a job, at Gin Lane.

Sweat the Product

What was your process for finding work when coming out of Northeastern? Was Gin Lane your first design job?

It was really lucky for me to have some real pieces in my portfolio. And then, as I got older, I realized, "Oh it doesn't really matter that much".
Allan Yu

Oh, sure. I got the job at Gin Lane when I was still in college. My college was a 5-year program because there's a co-op where you work and study at the same time. So after the first year you do six months of study, six months of work, six months of study, six months of work. The work is based on your area of study. I had a friend, PJ, who knew people running Gin Lane. I was like, "Hey can you put my name out there?" This guy, Eli, saw my portfolio and hired me. After my six months was up, I continued working with them remotely. That went on for like a year, maybe a little less. It was really lucky for me to have some real pieces in my portfolio. And then, as I got older, I realized, "Oh it doesn't really matter that much".

Sweat the Product

Why doesn't it matter?

Allan Yu

Because you're lending your work to the name versus making good work. It doesn't matter if you're doing good work. But as a student it sounds really good. You're touching a big company, but it has nothing to do with your own personal style.

When I was in school, there was a lecture series the school would put up. It was great because you learned a little about what the presenters were doing. But it didn't really help a senior in college, because they're talking about where they'd get their inspiration, but when you're gonna graduate soon, you kinda just want to know how they got to where they are. I was bummed out that no one was talking about that kind of stuff, so I was like, "You know what? I'm gonna make my own lecture series." The school was like, okay, we'll give you rooms and whatever. So I reached out to Ben Pieratt, a really good designer I knew of on the internet.

Sweat the Product

What year was this?

Allan Yu

This is 2010. So I was like, "Hey, Ben. I'm a student at Northeastern, do you want to come here and talk about how you got to where you are today?" He invited me to the Svpply office. I always loved Svpply, and once I met them, we gelled really well. I was like, "Hey can I just come to your office every Friday?" So every Friday after school, I would hang out with them. Ben helped me with my thesis and everything. Soon enough they were like "Hey, we want to hire you." And I'm like, "Cool, I'm in."

Sweat the Product

What was it about Svpply that captivated you and interested you?

Allan Yu

I like fashion, it was well designed, it was exclusive. I was like, "I want in!" It was sick. There are all these small factors but most importantly it was just a very good way to look at cool fashion shit online.

Sweat the Product

What was your role at Svpply? What were you doing?

Allan Yu

I was still in school at the time, I didn't graduate. I was doing my last six-month period before I had to take my last semester of class. When I first got to Svpply, we were just doing web stuff. There was a widget for blogs, some collection stuff, editing the feed, figuring out a better way to do comments, and then a redesign. And during that time, we were paralleling the design of the iPhone app.

Sweat the Product

Before we get into the iPhone app... take collections, for example. When you know that's something you're looking to design, what is your process?

The process was just a lot of iteration, and how much of a particular interface lends itself to be used in other touchpoints we have, which is like, "Can we use that interface again in the product page itself?"
Allan Yu

My process at the time was different from my process now. The collections stuff isn't that hard in a sense, you kinda just know what it means to collect something. First is to define what it meant. And we want certain items in there, right? We want it to be separate page, and you can have some of these features like a masthead or whatever. So once you decide those points, which for collections is pretty easy, a lot of design went into, "How do you show it..." and the small interfaces of it. And all of those small little intersections of this entire experience sequence is something we were designing for. The process was just a lot of iteration, and how much of a particular interface lends itself to be used in other touchpoints we have, which is like, "Can we use that interface again in the product page itself?" Each touchpoint had different iterations, and we had to streamline those, so it manifested at all the touchpoints necessary for the collections part.

Sweat the Product

You mentioned earlier that your design process has changed since Svpply. What are some of the differences?

Allan Yu

It's a lot looser now, more about quickly getting into it. Most of my thoughts now come while I'm doing it versus like, "Step one: brainstorm. Step two: wireframe. Step three: design a high fidelity wireframe..." It's more like, "Okay, I gotta get enough information and hinge some sort of vision in my head. Once I get that hinge, I just go into it, and I can see all the other problems that arise as I'm tackling it. But I never settle on anything in the moment because if things are too divided into steps, it's hard to go back. I just fucking go at it and see where it takes me. It's a little bit more jazzy than like orchestra, right? That's the best way, but that came from years of working and now being a little bit more confident. I know I can find the answer at one point, I just don't know when. But I trust myself to get there.

Sweat the Product

What are the main kind of product problems that you guys ran into that you weren't able to solve for that led ultimately to Svpply not being a successful company?

Product wise, I think the biggest fault was that there was a lot of pressure and desire to get a lot of users.
Allan Yu

Product wise, I think the biggest fault was that there was a lot of pressure and desire to get a lot of users. But we actually should have spent most of our time on sellers and people who were providing the content. We were just scraping content at the time. So that means that you would see a sick shirt that you want, and clicking it would take you to the site, and that site won't even sell it anymore. That was always the bad part about Svpply. We showed you sick shit, but you couldn't purchase it sometimes. That was really annoying. We should have partnered up with these sellers to get actual products from them that we can sell. We were just too focused on getting the users, but the fundamental value was broken.

Sweat the Product

Was that something that you figured out post-mortem, or was that something you guys knew towards the end?

Allan Yu

I think we knew all along. We were in talks with a bunch of partners at the time, but it was never priority number one. One of my last projects before Svpply was bought, I was designing the backend for a seller to see stats. We were sending out stats emails for if you were a seller. To see like, "What was the most popular thing from your store?" We knew that was one of the things, but there was pressure, beyond probably Ben to just get users, get users, get users. So that's one lesson I learned: Users aren't always the answer to everything.

Sweat the Product

After Svpply was acquired, you later went on to work at Google, which is a bigger company than Svpply. What were the differences in the way that Svpply dealt with product and design compared to Google?

Allan Yu

I think the difference is how scrappy you can get. And I realized that the team matters a lot. At Svpply, there was this bond, this trust, that got rid of a lot of the politics that you normally see in a bigger company. We were able to move a lot faster because we were such a small team. And everyone had a say, everyone had a stake in the company, everyone had an opinion and wasn't afraid to say it. I really liked that.

Big teams are good in the sense that it's probably a lot easier to work in a bigger company. The duties are spread evenly. If you're falling down, someone can help pick up the slack. You're tackling bigger problems in some ways, but at the end of the day you're a cog in a wheel, versus at a smaller company, you are the wheel. There's no denying that feeling. Unless you're leadership at Google, unless you're leadership at any big company, you're just another gear. No matter all the cultural things they do to make you not feel that way, for me personally, if I really think about it, you are. You feel that way. That is the truth.

Sweat the Product

How do you think that being a cog in a wheel and being the wheel itself affects the quality of your design?

The quality of my design is dependent on my self-worth of my responsibility of a particular project, and how much I'm being held accountable for.
Allan Yu

The quality of my design is dependent on my self-worth of my responsibility of a particular project, and how much I'm being held accountable for. The more I'm accountable for it, the more effort I'll put in, just because I know that if I fuck up, I should be on the line for it. When I feel like I'm responsible, my quality of work goes higher. When you feel like you're in a cog, and you feel like the responsibility's spread out, I can get away with fucking up a little bit, you know? Because they're not going to blame me personally. A manager will take responsibility of that particular thing gone wrong. Also, when you're a cog, the whole car can still run if one cog breaks, it just won't run as smooth. Whereas, if one of your wheels fall off, you're done. So to me, it's about maybe not putting myself in a situation where I could get away with things, because if I'm in a situation where I can get away with things, I probably would. It's human nature.

Sweat the Product

Do you think that design has to look good to be good design?

Allan Yu

No, I think design has to resonate with people to be good design. I think design has to resonate in whatever way it needs to, depending on whichever industry or path you're down. Like, if you're doing a product experience, it has to resonate a bit more than, say, if you're doing a poster where the form factor needs to resonate, the message needs to resonate. It's about, "What's the strongest point?" and working off the medium itself.

Sweat the Product

How would you describe your design aesthetic?

I'm trying to find my own aesthetic now. From all my friends who have aesthetics, they're getting their aesthetics from reading a lot. So now I'm trying to do a lot of weird theoretical reading, which can give you a philosophy to hinge aesthetic ideas on.
Allan Yu

Bad, I don't have a design aesthetic. I honestly don't think I have a good one right now. I'm at a loss for an aesthetic. I can work within people's design paradigms, I can work within a company's design language, I can create a design language for other companies based on a brief, But personally, do I have one right now? No, I don't have one or I don't have a good one. A lot of visual stuff and aesthetics I'm attracted to are that "Yale" aesthetic. That stretched type, that awkward places, awkward spacing of letters. But then, that's also coming from a very grounded European graphic design theories, that I'm only getting into now. So I'm trying to find my own aesthetic now. From all my friends who have aesthetics, they're getting their aesthetics from reading a lot. So now I'm trying to do a lot of weird theoretical reading, which can give you a philosophy to hinge aesthetic ideas on. So next time when you do a "flat design," it's not just following the flavor of the day or the trend of the month. But more, "We are doing this because of this reason." So to me, the importance is putting thought behind the aesthetic. Putting the "why"... "Why does this look that way?" behind the aesthetic versus just the aesthetic itself. Because then it becomes empty.

Sweat the Product

What advice would you give young product designers? What advice would you give them if they were looking to get into product design and startups?

Allan Yu

My advice to them is to not listen to anyone's advice ever. Find mentors and find people in your life who encourage you to think your own thoughts and help you formulate your own opinions. People always want to give advice, right? Let's say you hear two different pieces of advice from two different people that you really respect, but somehow they contradict each other. Well, it's not one or the other. It's that we are complex human beings that can hold opposing thoughts. So you don't have to go with one piece of advice.No one's giving these kids the confidence to say, "Just listen to yourself for a second. What do you think is right?"

And I guess I would say also, don't listen to me. This is just me spewing shit. Maybe I'm just giving bad advice. Fuck it, you know? You should feel encouraged to think and dismiss advice and blog posts and shit like that, and not listen to everything everyone says, because they're not always right.

Sweat the Product

Cool. Thanks very much man.

Allan Yu

Yeah thanks.

The End