Charlie Deets

Charlie Deets — WhatsApp

Product designer at WhatsApp. Previously on privacy, groups and sharing at Facebook. Lives in California, originally from Chicago, Illinois.

What led you into design?

When I was a teenager my first job was working in the pre-press of my dad’s printing company. I would work alone at night, mainly backing up the designers’ files from the day and troubleshooting technical issues on the machines. I was exposed to a lot of great graphic design in the process. While the backups were running I often had a lot of time to play with Photoshop. It was an exciting application because there was so much to play with.

In college, I took an interest in writing HTML and creating websites. I loved the idea of creating a place online for my interests. I made many sites to display my photography and music. Even though I was designing the sites, I didn’t really think of myself as a designer yet. My main passion was art and that led me to pursue an MFA in photography at the University of Illinois - Chicago.

My first real design job out of school was at Wright, an auction house in Chicago. They took me on as a retoucher and web designer. I would work on the photography for their catalogs as well as maintain and develop their web presence. It was during this time that I first realized what product design was.

The auction house had an auction every month or so. Between auctions, I would make changes to the site which I thought would make it more usable. Since a lot of the same people came back to the auctions every month, I started to get feedback on what was working and what wasn’t through conversations with the users as well as analytics I was tracking from the site. I fell in love with the experience of having an ongoing relationship with users and trying to identify and fulfill their needs.

It was at that point where I realized I was interested in interaction design as my profession because I could see value in how the design process helped people connect their intentions with successful outcomes.

What does a typical day look like?

When I wake up in the morning, I walk around for a few minutes before I pick up my phone. I attempt to be fairly intentional that I’m ready for the rest of the world before I engage with it. I wish I could say I wait longer, but I’m usually pretty excited to see what’s going on. After I feel like I am caught up I get ready for work.

I usually call my dad on my way to work for some good conversation to start my day. He’s optimistic and gets me in the right mood. I find being a designer can be emotionally challenging sometimes. It puts you in the position of being extremely self-critical and also accepting external criticism all day long. So I find it valuable to have some positive conversation to start my day off right.

When I get to the office I check my work messages and look at my schedule. I determine what I think I can accomplish during what times. I like to be practical about how much I can get done in case someone asks for something unexpected. I find it is helpful to give fare estimates on how long something will take me, rather than stress about being behind on work because I’m too afraid to say good work takes time. The surprising thing is when I set clear boundaries and realistic timelines for my work, people are incredibly supportive and grateful that I gave them accurate estimates.

Coffee is pretty critical to my morning routine as it is often the signal to get started doing design work. At WhatsApp, we try to make a lot of room for focused work. That means the office is pretty quiet which I personally enjoy. My work is often lots of thinking, exploring and iterating on well-defined problems or exploring new ideas. The whole design team sits next to each other so we can easily reach out for feedback during the day.

After work, I usually go for a run or play video games. I love video games because they take up my whole attention and keep me from dwelling on unresolved work thoughts. They also provide me with social activity. I’m in a Discord with a bunch of other designers and friends. It’s a great way to get together often, even when we are all physically apart.

In the evening hours, I hang out and decompress with my wife and cat. It is likely that we watch an episode of Star Trek: Voyager or Star Trek: The Next Generation. We find the shows visions’ of the future inspiring because the characters tend to treat each other with respect, compassion, and understanding.

What’s your setup?

Where do you go to get inspired?

I tend to be most inspired when I realize a pre-existing user problem. It is pretty easy to imagine problems your users may be having or features they might want, but it is often just something you are excited about. Recognizing when a user is blocked from their intent and solving for it tends to be more beneficial.

I find that these problems are not always obvious. People have a funny way of talking around their concerns because they assume they can’t be fixed or ‘it’s just the way it is’.

The ‘swipe to reply’ gesture in WhatsApp is a good example of this. Replying to a message directly helps keep a group conversations easier to follow, but the user needs to take an action to do so. Since the ‘swipe to reply’ gesture feels pleasant to invoke, it gives the illusion of it taking less effort to perform the reply action than not. I find that people who learn the gesture end up using the reply feature more than those who don’t.

We never necessarily heard the problem that ‘I want an easier way to reply’ directly from our users, but by listening to people and how they thought about the effort it took to reply it was clear there was room for improvement.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

I am a huge fan of the FujiFilm X-T2 camera. I mainly take photos for fun, but at the same time, I want access to a camera that unleashes me to do whatever I want.

The phone I carry in my pocket has a very capable camera but allows me very little control. I like that the X-T2 puts control front and center. On top of the camera are physical dials for ISO, shutter speed, and exposure compensation. The lens I use with the camera allows me to adjust aperture with a physical dial as well as manually control the focus. A lot of modern cameras of this size tend to hide some or all of these controls from you, but the X-T2 is designed for people who want to be in control and manually expose their images.

Fuji’s love for classic cameras comes through with the retro styling. There is no reason to design a digital camera to hold the film, but this camera looks like it could. The body reminds me a lot of a Canon AE-1 which was a popular 35mm camera in the 70-80s.

Many would probably view the digital interface of the X-T2 as aesthetically ugly. It is a barebone text-based menu system categorized into pages. It is dense and allows for unrestrained preference. It amuses me because it would likely alienate any casual user who would encounter it.

I have been using digital cameras for a long time, but I was so excited about how deep I could go with this camera that I ended up reading the entire instruction manual in search of strange settings I could change and see what they might do.

I could go on about this camera for a long time, but the main point is Fuji did a great job putting core controls on the camera with a very nice physical interface while simultaneously allowing an incredible depth of control in the digital interface. The reason I carry the camera is because it serves a different purpose than the camera on my phone. This camera is about the process of photography and being a photographer, the camera on my phone is about capturing photos.

The only criticism I can come up with for this device is something I think applies to most cameras that are not phones. I want my camera to automatically upload the photos to a cloud service when I am on a trusted local WiFi network. The process of moving photos from a camera to online storage is silly at this point. It should happen passively and effortlessly. I get no joy out of routinely plugging a Micro SD card into my computer or connecting the camera to manually download images to my phone.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

I live in a state of perpetual criticism over anything I make. I view this as a positive attribute since it keeps me growing and from getting comfortable. That being said, I am most proud of work that I know delivers obvious value and satiates a tangible user need.

I’m happy with the work I’ve done with my moon app. It is a simple app that at face value shows you the current phase of the moon but is actually capable of a lot more.

It has grown to over 1.2 million users mainly by word of mouth. It was recently featured in the App Store. Working on this app has helped me practice and define what my vision of a product should look like. It has also helped me experiment with mixing art and utility.

Another particularly exciting project was creating photo filters for WhatsApp. Because of my interests in photography and retouching, I’ve always dreamed of creating a set of photo filters.

I really loved the constraints we set up for the WhatsApp filters. We wanted a minimal set of filters that were clearly defined from each other. They needed to be beautiful but also small as possible to keep the app size at a minimum.

I learned quite a bit about the technical implementation of filters and how LUTs work. Getting to design the filters and the UI that applies them to photos was really rewarding as I could take a holistic approach to the product. It also felt fairly rare for a single designer to be able to work on something like this for a product that is at such a large scale. That is a testament to the way the WhatsApp design team operates.

The work I did on Facebook privacy remains extremely important to me. I wrote about a lot of the work the team was doing at the time, but I saw first hand the power of design to connect people with their intent. The most important lesson I learned from this work is some interfaces are more effective when presented as conversations.

Privacy Checkup is basically a traditional wizard UI, but it serves as a conversation starter between people using Facebook and their privacy settings.

Sometimes settings need to be delivered in context. For example, if you are ignoring a bunch of friend requests a friend might alert you to the option to limit your friend requests. That’s what the interface should do. It feels good to know the interface has your back.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

When I was younger I struggled with my ability to be focused in my pursuits. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to make music, take photos, create websites, edit videos, make apps, etc. I didn’t know how to define myself.

In some ways, it was frustrating because for a long time I couldn’t amass enough skill in any particular area to be considered an expert. Instead, I had ‘some’ skill in each area which wasn’t very hirable.

In retrospect, I don’t regret it at all. I believe dabbling in many mediums allows you to make connections across the interests and unlocks creativity in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Once when I was working at Wright there was a need to create a video for an auction. I jumped at the opportunity even though I had never done something like that in a professional capacity before. I knew it would push me to create a higher quality video than I was normally capable of and I would learn from it. It went well and I ended up working on lots of videos after that.

I think having varied interests also empowers you to take on ideas and develop them yourself. I don’t think designers should be constrained by creating a design and relying on someone else to produce the product. Just do it yourself. You likely care about it more than anyone.

Sometimes that means writing code, sometimes that means physically building something. Don’t always rely on others, learn from the process of building. It will help you empathize with the complexities of the work being done when you are designing work that others will build.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

The best way to follow me is on Twitter. I write on Medium and my work is available on my website.

We are also hiring at WhatsApp.

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