The Grit

David Hoang on managing a world-wide remote team at Webflow & bringing ideas to reality

Juraj MihalikJuraj Mihalik

Welcome, David. Happy to have you on The Grit. Let’s start with a quick introduction. What is your role today?

I tell people all the time that I have the best role at Webflow! I’m currently the Director of Design, where I work with our Brand Studio and Product Design teams. In addition to getting to work with these two great teams, I’ve been focused on getting our user research initiatives started.

In addition to Webflow I teach UXD part-time at General Assembly and do some advising/coaching.

Photo of David’s UXD class at General Assembly.

Cool stuff. Let's go through your design journey. How did it all start?

A common theme in my career is “unexpected journeys”, that’s for sure. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, technology and creativity was always fostered. My parents are Vietnamese refugees and focused on providing my brother and me the opportunities they didn’t have. A lot of this ended up with many extracurricular activities. I partially think they did this so we couldn’t get into trouble because we were so busy with sports, music, martial arts, and art class. With this, I ended up studying Studio Art in college with an emphasis in Drawing and Painting.

My career path was to go to grad school, earn my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in hopes of teaching at a university like my professors taught me. The school I went to encouraged being a generalist, so the curriculum forced us to take things you might ordinarily take in a traditional painting course. Computer Art was one of those courses. I also learned to code as part of a sculpture project (yes, sculpture) that was an interactive project around how people portray themselves on the internet (this was during the MySpace era).

I earned my Bachelor of Fine Arts and graduated before the 2008 recession. In addition to that, there was this emerging platform called iPhone OS that really enabled a new career path for me. At the time, I wasn’t sure if this iPhone would take off, but it gave me the opportunity to start with app design. Since most of the production was still done in Photoshop at the time, I leveraged the skills I learned in Computer Art and working in our school’s Mac lab to get my foot in the door.

After various roles, I got the chance to fulfill the dream of starting a company with one of my best friends. We’ve known each other since we were nine years old and he’s a software engineer. We created our own product company and got to work with some pretty amazing clients. I was doing this in 2012 with him when I was based in New York City, and he was in the mountains in Oregon, so I’ve been doing remote for quite a while.

Running a company and having your own business is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. After several years of doing this together, I had a desire to move back in-house. My mentor Marie took a role at HTC, and I joined her, this time focused on creative and marketing. I joined Black Pixel as the Director of Design and returned back to client services. This was my first director role in my career and worked a lot on mobile applications for some really cool Fortune 500 companies.

After my time was over at Black Pixel, I took a bit of a mini-sabbatical (highly recommend to anybody who can do this) to do some contracting. I started working with One Medical, where I got to work on the design of virtual care services, including video visits. After many months of working with them as a contractor, I felt the opportunity was too great to pass up to join full-time. After my last two jobs being around one year, I wasn’t sure how long I would be at One Medical. It turned out to be my longest tenure at any company, not my own, and spent four amazing years there.

Fast forward to now, where I’m at Webflow!

Wow, what a journey! What has been the most significant learning to date from your career path?

My top advice to designers is do not feel like you have to be contained in a certain mold and to try as many different roles as possible. I spent a year at HTC working with my mentor, who joined there as the creative director. This was a shift from running my own product design company to working in global digital marketing. I remember being worried about how I would be viewed in the job market switching over to marketing. It ended up really helping my career as I then had first-hand experience working in brand, marketing, and product design.

The accumulation of your experience is going to guide your career and what makes you unique as a designer.

I think if I were to go back, I would have spent more time working at startups for the same reason I spent so much of my career in client services. Both startups and agencies are fast-paced environments and give you a lot of variety.

As a liberal arts major, my greatest takeaway is the notion of learning how to learn. In many classes, the work was applied vs. theoretical. Often many projects you aspired to create required you to learn a new skill or concept you were never familiar with. At a certain point, you build your learning framework to develop your own personal growth.

What is the main focus of your design team? How does your creative process look like?

Even pre-COVID-19, our Design team was pretty remote, to begin with. Our designers span from being in the local San Francisco office and over in Moscow. Our team is currently 14 (9 on product design and 5 on brand design), and we try to collaborate pretty often as a team.

Webflow Team Tapestry activity at a remote offsite.

One of the biggest challenges of remote is you have to try your best to create serendipity. Sarah, one of our product design managers, created a great idea called Design Studio on Friday’s. It’s an optional Zoom session for the entire day where designers can join to work quietly “next to each other”, get feedback, and ideate. The team is constantly thinking of different ways to find ways to foster collaboration to have the best of both worlds of synchronous and asynchronous work.

What projects are you currently working on at Webflow?

We’re at a pretty exciting time at Webflow where we’re embarking on some interesting problems. We’re currently focusing on expanding our capabilities for our customers and working on how we can provide multiple offerings for them to do what they do best, which is to innovate with our product. In addition to these new capabilities, we believe that continuous improvement is important. We’re looking at existing features and finding ways to improve to ensure previous features do not get lost.

Design has this great opportunity where we can do some deep research on what we’re prioritizing for years to come. One of the funnest challenges I see is to figure out how we can increase the ease of use for new people on the platform while not sacrificing the power and flexibility of it.

How do you use Webflow in your design process?

One of the things I’ve been pushing since at Webflow is finding ways to innovate by using our own product on a daily basis. There are so many reasons and opportunities for us to do this. I think the most important one is it truly builds empathy with our customers. Any time we can, we use the product like our customers would, not simply for quality assurance and testing. For example, I send weekly announcements to the design team. Initially, they were Slack messages I’d send and now have since evolved it into building it as an internal blog using our CMS.

Webflow CMS interface.

We have a few designers who use Webflow as their primary prototyping tool. It’s always funny to see the frame of our designer in the frame of our designer.

What's been the most significant hidden benefit to using Webflow, in your opinion?

You learn a lot about how to code through the osmosis of using Webflow. With no code, you can know code! I believe what makes Webflow’s experience unique is it very much respects the best practices of software creation and web development. Even before joining the company, I was always impressed with how good the code is when you export projects. With that, it allows people to learn about code as they’re developing visually.

As an educator, I use Webflow to teach students how to build software. It’s so powerful for people to visualize how they build. As someone who learned through many visual programming tools such as Dreamweaver, HyperCard, and Quartz Composer, I think it’s a great way to get started whether you continue to learn code or not.

Screenshot of HyperCard

Should front-end developers use Webflow despite they already know how to code?

Absolutely! Would you still use autopilot in a car despite knowing how to drive? I think the conversation about No Code can be somewhat polarizing. People often feel like you have to pick a side. I often like to remind people that Webflow itself is built on code (gasp) and that the goal is to break the barrier from needing to know how to in order to create, build, and express on the internet. Whether you know front end code or not, I highly encourage people to use Webflow to ship their ideas. Also, how many times have we had the paradox of choice of what front end framework to use as if we’re browsing titles on Netflix?

Witnessing how seamlessly our customers can get an idea shipped has been truly amazing. When COVID-19 hit, we saw so many people from the community rapidly create and deploy ideas, varying from tips on how to prevent the spread of the Corona Virus or resources helping people job-seeking as a result of layoffs. To me, that’s the power of Webflow. If you have an idea, you can design it, publish it, and iterate extremely quickly.

Last one about Webflow, what should young designers know when they want to work in your team?

I look for are people who like to learn, play, and have fun! Especially during times like this, it’s important to have that environment you look forward to going to every day with people whose company you enjoy. I think in addition, if you like bridging disciplines, I think Webflow is a great place for you. Many of our product managers used to be designers or engineers, and some of our designers are product-centric. When you’re working on an experience that bridges the gap between design and engineering, it’s great to have people who like to think deeply about this space.

You offer 1:1 coaching on design management, experience prototyping, and org design. How did you come up with this idea, and how is it going for you?

Similar to many things in my career, this happened unexpectedly! I do this with only a few people at a time to be fully involved in their journey.

As an individual contributor in my career, my emphasis was on research and prototyping. I found it to be the thing that continued to follow me no matter where I went. I found that it was something people didn’t really teach or foster and found an opportunity to do workshops around experience prototyping. In addition to that, I really love working with people thinking of going into management or are first-time managers. Being a people manager can often be pretty isolated and I felt it was important to provide a service where people can train and learn outside of their organizations.

This question takes me back down memory lane!

I feel so fortunate to work on three apps that were featured by Apple, especially in the early days. The first one was Paper’d (One Jamie Varon actually designed, and I helped with some production). This was so early in the iOS days when there was only one screen size (shout out to 320x480!). It was such a surreal moment early in my career to be a part of an app that was featured by Apple. I’ll never forget that feeling.

Vowch was an app focused on empowering tastemakers to share the latest swag, items, and trends on mobile. I worked with the co-founders on taking their v1 of their app to the next phase. This also coincided with the switch from iOS 6 to iOS 7, when the skeuomorphic design language was de-emphasized. I am vividly remembering flattening a lot of things during that time!

My favorite app featured by Apple has to be Shelby’s Quest. This was an iPad app developed by my company with an occupational therapist (who has a dog named Shelby, in case you’re wondering). Her vision was to build an experience for children with autism to practice their motor skills on the iPad. I loved this project because of the impact it made on learning and education. In addition, it was the most collaborative project I had with a client, working with her on coming up with the concept, our team creating the illustration language, and getting it featured by Apple.

Screenshot of the salmon run on Shelby’s Quest back in 2012
Source: whidbeynewstimes.com

What is Avocode?

It’s an all-in-one tool for teams that want to code and collaborate on UI design files 2x faster.

How do you think that your career and job will evolve in the next 5 years?

I think in the next 5 years, designers will need to go even deeper on end-to-end customer experience, extensibility for users, and really contribute to company initiatives such as org design and people experience. Customer experiences are becoming more integrated, and the channels aren’t as separate they used to be. It’s not uncommon for a customer to have multiple touchpoints on a daily basis on different surfaces (whether it’s mobile, in-office, or email). I believe designers who are attuned to CX will do really well.

Extensibility is something products even outside of no code will have to consider. Now more than ever, customers are going to have options on how they build out their tech stack. Products that have the ability to integrate and expand capabilities for customers provide scale and flexibility. I’m also hoping designers will continue to play a bigger role in contributing to company initiatives. For example, the onboarding experience for any company has so many design decisions, and having people apply design to it adds a tremendous amount of value.

For my own career, I honestly feel like I’m living the dream now. I want to keep doing what I’m doing at a higher level and more expansive. I really enjoy what I do and have some long-term ambitions I’m hoping to build towards. In addition to design leadership, I really want to focus on angel investing and education, plenty to work on for many years to come!

Why do you do what you do? What makes it worth it and meaningful to you?

I essentially view my life purpose to be helping people take an idea and bring it to reality in this world, and design is such a great vehicle for that. There have been times I’ve pondered what else I’d want to do and I can’t think of anything else. I’m very grateful that I get to work with design and designers on a daily basis in various parts of their career journeys (whether it’s at Webflow or teaching).

What excites/worries you about design in 2020?

Oh, where to start with 2020…it’s been, a year, that’s for sure.

I think what both excites and worries me is where designers will take a stand on ethics and impact. Designers have often talked about wanting to influence and have a seat at the table, and now is the time to really make an impact. We’re seeing the conversation about systemic racism and injustice. The system is not broken; it’s working as designed. Someone designed it in this way, and the next generation of designers have the opportunity to be on the right side of history in what they design and influence.

Where is the best place for people to connect with you online?

I’m making a greater effort to post more content on my personal website (built on Webflow of course). You can find it at davidhoang.com. If not on my website, I’m often on Twitter and can be found @davidhoang and a newsletter I work on called Proof of Concept.

Bonus Question: What's your favorite way to eat an avocado?

Simple….on a sushi roll!

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