Buzzfeed: Behind the Site with Product Designer Emily Brick

HIDC-600x50-bannerIf you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to work for a company with a wildly popular and incredibly fast-paced product, look no further than BuzzFeed product designer Emily Brick for the answers. Brick works on creating and improving the experience of the CMS for the social news and entertainment company, as well as designing for BuzzFeed News. Her focus is on a collaborative process from idea to execution, and staying empathetic to the user throughout.


Here, she offers a window in into the world of working for Buzzfeed and a snippet of what she’ll be sharing at the HOW Interactive Design Conference October 5 in Chicago.

As a product designer for Buzzfeed, what are your primary responsibilities?

Some primary responsibilities include analyzing current problems in the editors’ workflow at BuzzFeed, and seeing where we can improve and iterate on the tooling that helps them create great content. This includes researching pain points in the early stages of the project, talking to editors, working with a product manager and engineers to think of any constraints and limitations that might cause hurdles along the way, and really just investigating possible solutions.

From there, I’ll usually create some low-fidelity wireframes to get feedback on those early ideas as quickly as possible, and then build out the successful ideas further. Once we feel comfortable with the direction, I’ll begin building the HTML/CSS prototype and start collaborating with an engineer to work out the kinks, iterate, rebuild, etc.

Once it’s built and launched, it remains our responsibility to see how the tool is performing and decide whether we want to run tests against it with different solutions. It’s a really rewarding experience to see a feature through from conception to shipping.

You’ve worked for some pretty cool companies, including Birchbox, Shapeways (a 3D printing service and marketplace) and now Buzzfeed — all with very different audiences and sales strategies. What commonalities have you found in maintaining a collaborative process and cutting-edge CSS among such varied companies.

It’s hard to find a common thread across such different companies, especially given that my role has shifted along the way. However, one thing has been unavoidably consistent: communication. Communication is key. It’s clichè for a reason. When people stop communicating, that’s when surprises happen. I’ve generally found that being surprised tends to cause friction and lack of trust. We want to feel like we’re part of the team, like we’re being included and giving input. In my experience, surprises and miscommunication cause the most bumps in the road. Teams and managers that are steadily cognizant of that ideology are usually more successful.

As far as CSS frameworks, I’m really happy with how far we’ve come at BuzzFeed. At my previous gig (Shapeways), I was one of only three designers. We worked really hard to get a CSS framework out the door simply because it was the most efficient way to design a strong and consistent product. When you’re part of such a small team working on a complex product, you need to be smart about how you spend your resources. In that regard, a reusable CSS framework was a really smart decision for us. When I started at BuzzFeed, we had similar needs at a different scale.

It’s easy to see why a great workflow is vital to Buzzfeed, where you need to be able to rapidly prototype new designs and quickly iterate on existing ones. Can you share a few insights about the process of developing a workflow that ensures visual consistency and allows constant progression?

When I came to BuzzFeed, it was a much larger team of designers than what I was used to. The products themselves were more complex and varied than I anticipated (everything from BuzzFeed News, to BuzzFeed Video, our work with experimental apps such as Cute Or Not, and much more). At such a large scale, it made sense to codify a visual system to allow for consistency while still encouraging innovation. It needs to be super smooth for us to build and iterate on our ideas. One-off custom handcrafted CSS might be an easy “in,” but it’s hard to scale and it tends to slow us down in the long run.

What’s your favorite thing about working at Buzzfeed? Least favorite?

I really love the experimental nature here. Nobody’s afraid to try things, and it really sets a great tone for everyone to be more open about sharing their ideas. We work on the Internet, it’s not a precious place to be scared of shipping something that might not work. It’s a flexible environment. It’s OK and welcome to try something new, because if it doesn’t work, we can afford to change it. That being said, just because it’s a flexible environment doesn’t mean it’s a careless environment. We try things, we measure, we try again. It’s been a really great approach.

Least favorite? Ha. Probably the one-too-many-times I’ve gotten distracted reading a BuzzFeed article while working on a feature.

What are you especially excited about and/or challenged to be working on right now?

I’m really excited about the way we’re distributing content right now. It creates really unique challenges for us. When our editors create content from the CMS, it no longer just goes to The content lives on Facebook Instant Articles, the BuzzFeed app and the BuzzFeed News app, Apple News, even the Apple Watch. It no longer suffices to say something as binary as “make it work for desktop and mobile.” I’m excited to see where media is going, and how to make “platform-agnostic” tools for our editors that ensure compelling reading and sharing experiences across the board.

You’re doing a session called “Design Systems for Editorial Teams” at HIDC Chicago. Can you explain what’s behind that title and what types of takeaways attendees can expect?

The main takeaway, I hope, will be how better collaboration and empathy for the process (product, design and engineering responsibilities) create happier teams, and results in better products, better results and loyal users.

You plan to explore small-team collaboration in your talk. Do you have a lot of experience working on small teams and how has that changed your perspective on collaboration?

I don’t think the size of the company matters, and maybe the size of the team doesn’t really matter either. What I mean by small-team collaboration is really the idea of treating your team like a small family. Be open and honest with your thoughts, don’t be afraid to show a sketch to your teammates that looks like a 3-year-old drew it. Constantly communicate through all stages of the projects, learn how to work with each other as well as you work on the projects.

If you’d like to learn how to creative a workflow that preserves design and team relationships, find new options for design collaboration, and learnhow to create a cutting-edge CSS framework, don’t miss Brick’s session at the HOW Interactive Design Conference in Chicago October 5-7. Register now to reserve your spot!