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Divergent by Design

By Vlad Zinculescu on 15 Jun 2016

For the first time, I'm giving a behind-the-scenes view into how designers work at There's so much to talk about, so many angles. Too many choices! I had an idea, but it was blurry. I could only imagine how it would feel when I presented it to the world.

I spent around two weeks searching for my focus. Writing in my notebook, planning out the entire talk, then scrapping it and starting from the beginning. Again and again, until it was clear. I wanted to find a coherent and engaging structure for the talk, so I searched far and wide for tips — from South Park to F for Fake and good old TED. The only side effect was that our dining table became a massive storyboard, making dinner a bit… challenging.
So then it was the big moment. Maria had just finished her talk. I thought about how great it was that both presentations shared similar views but had different content. I got up from my seat. The mic was on. 150 people! Ok, here we go. During the next 18 minutes, I shared the most important lesson that taught me. And to illustrate it, I made a parallel between now and my first job. At both companies, I had the privilege of working with very talented colleagues, but the outcome was different. My first job convinced me never to design again. Booking changed my mind and showed me how I could become better.

The big difference was that at Booking, we use data to validate our ideas. And to generate them, for that matter. In the past, it had been such a frustrating experience. I was designing for a client, the sales team, and my manager, but never was I genuinely free to design for the user. And whenever I would push for it, I would get dragged into an endless meeting where we would look at Yahoo! and later Facebook as the Holy Bible of design.

So, what could I share that would be different from your average conference talk and valuable for my audience? Well, while everyone was expecting me to praise Booking and the great design that happens here, I instead focused on all the inconsistencies in our design. It's true everything we do is an A/B test, but what you might not know is that most of them fail. I shared some of these stories, the ones that I found more frustrating and some of the successes that happened when we paid particular attention to our users. I have to admit it's frustrating at times, and it requires radical pragmatism to focus on the right stuff. There's a learning curve, but this is what allows us to be "Planet Earth's number one accommodation website".

Designing for such a global player can have effects, and web designers tend to have big egos. Now, with companies focusing much more on great design, those egos could get even more significant. So when my most important pearl of wisdom encouraged designers to stay humble and not rely solely on their instincts. I was afraid they'd boo me off the stage. The response was beyond my expectations. People were positive about our talks. I spent the next couple of hours in passionate conversation with many designers, and they all seemed eager to work more with data. We finished the talks at 8 pm. The canteen closed at 10 pm, but the conversation was far from over. Even relocating to one of our favorite bars didn't give us enough time to cover everything.

Posted in Talk