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How Yelp’s design team stepped out of the "black box"

Abstract is an ‘open kitchen’ for the growing team that's hungry for transparency.
How Yelp’s design team stepped out of the "black box"

It wasn’t too long ago that Yelp designers and engineers played the game of Find That File on the regular. “You never knew which file was the most updated. You’d go off the file name — ‘_Final’? ‘_Final Final?’” says Yelp software engineer Theresa Ma. “Engineers always ask about edge cases — that back and forth gets lost. It was hard to keep a straight paper trail.”

In other words, “It was hard to find the source of truth,” says Morgan Gore, Yelp’s marketplace product design manager. Gore manages 14 product designers based in San Francisco and Hamburg, Germany, plus a few remote workers.

The developer handoff process is notoriously bumpy. But when Morgan brought Abstract into the picture, things started to look a lot different.

How Yelp has evolved since the early years of the internet

Launched in 2004, Yelp pioneered its crowdsourced model of connecting people with reviews of local businesses. The company has grown substantially, now employing 5,550 people as of March 2019. In recent years, Yelp has undergone organizational changes, including restructuring of design teams. “I’m one of Yelp’s first design managers,” explains Morgan, who started as a designer herself. “We wanted to grow into a sustainable design team and make design part of the product life cycle,” Morgan says. “We needed to figure out how to collaborate as a growing design team, in the most cohesive way possible.”

Angela Niemi was one of the designers who joined Yelp’s growing team. “I worked in Abstract at my previous organization, and I thought there was no other way to collaborate on design,” she says, adding that she worked on an eight-person team, far smaller than the 35 people she’d collaborate with on Yelp development projects. “I thought, ‘How will I ever find stuff?’”

After spending “a lot of time” trying to figure out a file organization structure to help engineers, designers, and PMs make sure they’re using the latest-and-greatest, Morgan became an agent of change.

“What drives me is clearing out operational inefficiencies. Abstract’s power to make these things non-issues made sense,” Morgan says of using Abstract.

Committing changes early and often in the design process allowed Morgan and her team to get into the mindset of their engineer partners. “We got the hang of it once we all started using Abstract,” Angela says.

“Every time I left my desk or my Sketch file, I could immediately revisit my Commit messages and understand where I was in the process,” Morgan says. That intentionality helped her become clear about what she aimed to achieve.

Coming out of the “black box” of design

Before Abstract, Yelp engineers were accustomed to a disparate design handoff process. “Each designer and their product manager had their own way of delivering their mocks and Sketch files to developers — email, Dropbox, Jira tickets, Google Drive, slide decks,” Theresa says. “There was no unified process for how to share.”

Abstract allows stakeholders to see design in an open kitchen vs. something mystical.

John Salaveria | Designer, Yelp

Inspect and Collections are two of their favorite Abstract features. “There are so many Sketch files, but we only care about a couple during any given project,” says Theresa, who likes using Collections for grouping the most important files in one place. “Abstract results in higher-quality design because engineers can give feedback earlier online — which speeds up the overall development process,” Theresa says.

Yelp designer John Salaveria agrees. “Abstract allows stakeholders to see design in an open kitchen vs. something mystical,” he says. “This allows stakeholders to see which designs we deviated from. It’s easier than communicating over and over why we’ve changed things. Abstract gives more transparency in design.”