As the lead product designer at WhatsApp, Charlie Deets makes decisions that affect over 1.5 billion users each month. That means solving some unusual challenges, such as building a chat interface that even illiterate users can navigate. It also means distinguishing WhatsApp's visual "stories" feature from similar features in Snapchat and Instagram.
Photo: Gabriel Valdivia
Previously, Deets worked at Facebook on projects such as Privacy Checkup and the custom gender field. He's also the creator of the beautiful and popular MOON app. We talked to him about how he handles his work day, and how he stays focused when running so many projects.
Deets has discussed his broad design processes in Medium posts such as "One Year Designing at WhatsApp" and "Designing for Privacy on Facebook". For our column, he narrows into his own personal work habits, by the day and by the minute. Like many successful tech professionals, Deets's workflow is built around focusing on one task at a time.
Location: Menlo Park, CA
Current Gig: Product Designer at WhatsApp
One word that best describes how you work: Focused
Current mobile device: Google Pixel 2 XL
Current computer: 15" 2016 MacBook Pro
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
My first real job was at my dad's printing company where I did maintenance on computers in the pre-press. I would work alone at night so I spent a lot of time learning Photoshop and other creative tools while computers were backing up to tape drives. I got exposed to a ton of graphic design through that experience and it stuck with me.
As a young adult, I played music in a band and eventually got an MFA in photography. I created a lot of websites to promote those projects and found I really enjoyed the mixture of technology and design. After school, I got a job working at Wright, an auction house in Chicago doing photo retouching and web design/development. I loved the product work I was doing and came to learn what user experience design is.
I then moved to Electric Pulp to work on responsive websites. They are a great company and they also allowed me to work with them to create side-products, such as Duo, a tool for responsive web development. I joined Facebook next and worked on a variety of projects, on teams focused on privacy, birthdays, sharing and groups before joining WhatsApp.
Take us through a recent workday.
I wake up at about 7AM and make my way to work fairly slowly. I like to start the day slow so I don't end up feeling rushed or burnt out later on. Some days I go for a run before work. I eat breakfast at work by 9AM and go to my desk. It's often pretty quiet in the office at this time, so I do a lot of cleanup tasks, such as checking my email and WhatsApp messages, or catching up stuff I might have not finished from the day before.
By 10AM I have headphones on and I'm designing or prototyping. I'm usually working on projects that are ongoing so I generally know what I need to do. We have minimal meetings at WhatsApp. In fact, we try to follow a no-meeting culture as much as possible. Instead, we message in real time to raise questions, issues or provide status reports on projects. But if I do have a meeting, I try to schedule it mid-afternoon because I'm the most productive with my design work in the morning and late afternoon.
I try to end my day when I stop being productive instead of a set time, but it's usually around 6PM I go home and take a walk with my wife. In the evening, I play video games with friends to unwind.
What apps, gadgets or tools can't you live without?
- Sketch: For static design
- Origami Studio: For prototyping
- Ulysses: For note-taking and writing
- WhatsApp: For messaging
- Spotify: For music
- Transmit: For file transfers
- Sublime Text: For writing code
- Alfred: For launching apps and general productivity
What's your workspace setup like?
I keep my laptop in the centre of my desk. I use the keyboard and trackpad that is built into the laptop, but I have a large external monitor centred above the laptop that I do most of my design work on. I try to keep as little on my desk as possible to help me focus, but I often have a number of mobile phones out for testing and prototyping. I put them away every night so when I get to the desk in the morning it is clear. My desktop background is a flat middle grey and I keep most of my applications full-screen so I can stay focused on what I'm working on. I hide the dock and the menu bar.
What's your best shortcut or life hack?
Using applications full-screen is really important to my work, as it reminds me what I'm doing. I am easily distracted and I take precautions so that I stay on task. I turn my phone face-down and I block all notifications on my MacBook by setting "Do Not Disturb", which is on for the majority of the day. If I do find myself getting distracted I just go with it. If I try to fight it too much I often end up irritable and less productive. There are periods of time where I am naturally in the work zone, and I try to capitalise on those times as much as possible by reducing the unnecessary variables. I also keep my email client shut most of the day. I check email every two hours or so.
Take us through an interesting, unusual or finicky process you have in place at work.
I change between mobile devices very often as we are building and testing new WhatsApp features for different platforms. I tend to use mobile apps that are on both Android and iOS so I can have a similar experience: Pocket Casts for podcasts, Spotify for music, Nike Run Club for running, and VSCO for editing photos.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
My team enables me to get things done. It is the most respectful team I've ever been a part of. We try to not bother each other when we are in our zones. We try to properly form our thoughts before we ask a question. It helps everyone say focused and take care of their tasks. We are patient with each other and there is rarely excessive pressure to get something done "now". We try to create the space to make sure the work gets done right. It helps keep everyone in a good frame of mind to do their best work.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I use Ulysses to track my tasks, writing and general organisation of anything that is text. I keep two main lists favourited: "To Do" and "Work To Do". My "Work To Do" list is usually a bunch of brief words and notes that I know will trigger me to remember what I need to do. I sync those Ulysses markdown files through Dropbox, so I can use iA Writer on my Android phone to access these files since Ulysses is MacOS and iOS only. I keep my "To Do" list separate so I am less likely to think about work issues when I am dealing with my normal life.
What's your least favourite thing to do, and how do you deal with it?
Public speaking. I get very nervous when I feel the pressure of a lot of people listening to me at once. I usually deal with it by over-preparing. It doesn't really help, it still makes me insanely nervous. I always assume that one day I will get over it, but that day has not yet come.
How do you recharge or take a break from work?
For fun I like to play video games, take photographs and make music. Sometimes writing CSS is truly pleasurable for me as well. I've had certain weekends where I felt burnt out and writing a little front-end code made me feel free, easy and recharged. It's weird, I know.
What's your favourite side project?
A few years ago, I wanted to learn how to write Objective-C. So I started making an iOS app to view the current phase of the moon. It turned out pretty well and I got more serious about the project. I add new features as Apple introduces new APIs. I also ended up building it for Android, MacOS and Apple TV. I send custom notifications before each new or full moon, which is a fun challenge to constantly come up with new content. The app recently hit 1M users, which felt like a pretty big accomplishment for a side project.
What are you currently reading, or what's something you'd recommend?
I just finished reading Soonish, which is a playful take on emerging technologies.
Fill in the blank: I'd love to see _________ answer these same questions.
I'd like to see what Daemon Hatfield of IGN has to say.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
I asked a product manager I worked with once, "What is it like working with designers?" They paused for a minute and then said, "They are emotional." I agree. Designers are often passionate about their work and therefore their emotions are entwined with the work they do. As much as possible, I try to remain open to the idea that I am off-base while doing my work. It makes it easier for me to pivot the work if I need to but still remain impassioned with what I am doing. I try to be as open to new possibilities as possible through the whole development process.
Is there anything else you'd like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
We've asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.