Journal


I'm Tony Fonseca, a product and user experience designer. I try to make the world just a little bit better through beautiful and engaging design. Here are some of my stories.

The unicorn product manager

I've worked with a lot of product managers in my career. Some great, others mediocre. While working with the great ones I've tried to take note of what makes them so great. After stewing on this for a while, I finally decided to  compile the traits that make those product managers so awesome.

Though not at all groundbreaking, I've found that these are the ingredients that provide for the most fertile soil from which an awesome product can sprout.

An innate sense of what the right thing is to build. 

This includes, perhaps more importantly, an innate sense of what is NOT the right thing to build. The discipline to say "no, not now” and “no, not ever" is profoundly important. There will always be great ideas on things to add.

Ability to understand and control scope of a project.

A deliberate focus on the projects at hand and not getting caught up in the “but wouldn’t it be cool if it also did x” mindset.

Can reign 'em in.

Related to my first point, but a slightly different nuance. This is the ability to reign in stakeholders who all have great ideas (ideas that would extend scope, time to ship, and perhaps quality). Great ones can do this while still making sure the stakeholders feel like their voice has been heard.

Understands what a primary use case is.

Understanding of primary use cases vs. edge cases, discipline to design for the primary case, and not get caught in the trap of “what if user x does this and this and this” — while it is important to consider edge cases and make sure the system accommodates them, the purebred product manager should not allow the primary case to be disrupted and degraded to more elegantly provide for extreme edge cases.

Deep knowledge.

Deep understanding of the projects in-flight, always aware of who is doing what on the project, what are the dependencies, and a full and complete understanding of the proposed solution, how it will work, and how it will look (this obviously requires close collaboration with designers). Able to give a detailed description of every aspect of the project at a moment's notice.

Persuasive and compelling.

Ability to work with developers, designers, other product managers and stake holders in a way that engenders trust and friendship. Yes, friendship. It’s amazing how much easier it is to build incredible things when everyone actually likes each other. This requires having smart answers to questions, as well as having a novice understanding of how development works, awareness of what can and can’t be built, and gut instincts on how long things take to build.

Details details details.

Focus on details. Not forgetting, neglecting, or glossing over small elements of the product that can make all the difference.

Embraces research.

Sees the value in qualitative research. Loves to sit down and talk with the people who are using the product, understand their goals, and empathize with their struggles. The purebred product manager understands that true innovation doesn't come from data in a spreadsheet, but instead from being out and about in the real world, with real people, discovering the unseen problems. 

Respectful of roles.

Maturity to understand their role vs. the role of the designer. Enough respect for the designer's role to defer to him on matters concerning how the product works and how it looks, even if he disagrees with the designer. This requires an internalization of the idea that he, as the PM, is responsible and accountable for the “what”— meaning what are we building, when are we building it, what are we building first? And the designer is responsible and accountable for the “how” — meaning how should it work, how should it look? In terms of earning trust with the designer, this is of paramount importance.

Occasionally I've even come across a product manager who lives and breathes everything I've listed. This mystical creature is the  unicorn product manager. He builds products that change the world.

Nuevo Vallarta

Nuevo Vallarta

Our anniversary week in Mexico

My beautiful wife and I just hit our one year mark. Celebration was in order. Mexico here we come!

The highlights: snorkeling around Marieta islands, lounging poolside, piña coladas at the swim up bar, and playing on white sand beaches like Playa Careyeros:

Oh and the sunsets.

The water slide at our resort (say hi to Chelsea, my sister in law).

The animal encounters. Turtles came ashore every evening to lay their eggs on the resort’s beach. We found a few creatures at a strange open-air, ungated zoo type setup at a nearby resort. Not pictured: the alligator and chickens (likely the comida for the other animals).

And of course the beach dogs, who are living my dream life.

We spent a few hours exploring downtown Puerto Vallarta. Didn’t love downtown as much as the outlying areas. We were quickly fatigued by the constant barrage of street vendors hawking their wares. Pretty though.

Lisa and Kyle showed us all how to paddleboard in Sayulita. The dogs took interest.

We won’t forget this place. Happy anniversary babe!

2013

2013

Big year. 

Next week, 2014 will dawn on a much different life than the one I was leading 365 days ago. Different in very fun, happy ways. As this year comes to an end, I thought it would be fun to recount some of the big changes.

New home

My new home, mid-construction

In March, I took a big step toward the stereotypical American dream and bought a new home in wide open Saratoga Springs, Utah. It was a new build, so I got to go through the exciting (and somewhat excruciating) process of selecting all the options — carpet, tile, paint, cabinets, door knobs, faucets, all of it. What resulted was a two-story, 2,000 square foot little slice of paradise. 

I loved the home. And I had big plans for it. At the time, the three bedrooms offered way more space than I had anything to do with. Though, as I signed those seemingly endless stacks of papers, I had visions of a family slowly growing to fill those spaces. Of a wife who I would love dearly (had a strong prospect at the time, has since come to pass), of a toddler, taking his first steps on the carpet I so carefully selected, scrawling on the Pavlova-painted walls with his crayons. Maybe of a puppy that we would train to sit by the back door when he needed to take care of business.

I had big plans. But, as I've seen many times in my life, my plans mean pretty much nothing.

Marriage (!)

In late April, I proposed to my incredible girlfriend of 1.5 years. The funniest, most laid-back, patient, loving, and of course, beautiful person I've ever known. For some reason, she said yes.

Steps of bliss

Fast forward six months and there we were, legally wed, sealed for time and all eternity, and strolling through a bed of flowers. 

The wedding day and ensuing week in Ohahu were the most incredible days of my life. Never did I think I could hold another person so dear. She absolutely completes me in every way another person can. And she is freaking funny. And hot. Oh and she thinks I'm funny.

And perhaps most important to the coming months, she was excited for adventure.

New job

There are few companies that I esteem with enough regard to almost enjoy handing over my hard-earned cash. Amazon, the ubiquitous everything store, is one of them. One day, they gave me a rang (figuratively speaking). Though I wasn't actively on the prowl, I thought, "sure."

Thus began the marathon interview process, by phone and on-site at their picturesque Seattle campus. Wearying and at times grueling, the interviews revealed to me a company and a group of designers and product managers that were absolutely devoted to building revolutionary products that will change the life of millions. They invited me to come on board. 

Dawson and Ruby, buildings on the Amazon campus

For numerous and varying reasons, I said yes. Among them: opportunity, growth, breadth of experience, diversity, adventure, Seattle. 

When I made the decision, I knew it would be tough to say goodbye to my friends in Utah. Turns out, I had no idea just how tough it would be. I had worked at AtTask for nearly five years. Over that time I developed so many friendships with so many incredible people. So many hilarious, talented, genuine, caring people. Saying goodbye to them was so painful for me. As I left the AtTask building for the final time, I just sat in my car for a few minutes. And cried. 

I miss those good folks. But I'm excited to meet, learn and grow alongside new people here. Early indications are good.

New home, again

Remember how I bought a new home eight months ago? I don't live there anymore. When I decided to come to Amazon, I decided to leave that home.

Lisa and I came up to Seattle a week after our honeymoon to look for a new home. In the spirit of taking this adventure head on, we decided to live in downtown Seattle. The options were expensive and anything but spacious, but we knew this was probably the only time in our life that we could do this.

After an extensive hunt, we decided on a high-rise apartment building at the intersection of Belltown and South Lake Union, a 10-minute walk from the Amazon offices. The foyer in the building is a block long, open air, with a restaurant, market (with all the essentials and then some), and a flower shop. There's a second level with a pool table and shuffleboard tables and TVs abound. A world apart from our home in Utah.

So far, it's been a blast. We are getting used to being able to walk everywhere. I walk to work. We walk to dinner, to the grocery store, to the movies, to shopping (Pacific Place, Westlake Center), all within a half mile of our home.

Luckily, the rental market back in Saratoga Springs is healthy and strong. We had our home rented out before we arrived in Seattle. It went without tenants for two days.

Big year, wouldn't you say.

Via6, North tower. Our home.

Solving the unseen problems

Here's a little sneak peak of my latest post for the AtTask blog, to be posted soon. It's a look into contextual inquiry for the non-designer. Enjoy.

Solving the unseen problems

You can learn a lot from just sitting and watching. (From Kitchen Stories, 2003)

You can learn a lot from just sitting and watching. (From Kitchen Stories, 2003)

I’m a people watcher. I’m fascinated by the things people do and the not-so-obvious reasons why they do them. Even more so, I’m fascinated by the unseen problems you just might discover if you watch closely enough.

How many times, while preparing a scrumptious meal for your family, do you find yourself having to bend over to read measurements on the side of a measuring cup? Pour, bend over, measure. Pour some more, bend over, re-measure. It’s a bit of a hassle, but probably not something you ever thought to complain about, because it’s just, you know, “how it is.”

Well the good folks at one of my favorite companies, OXO, observed this problem while they watched people cook, and decided to fix it. They designed a measuring cup that allows you to read measurements from above, not just from the side. A simple solution to a problem no one ever thought to complain about — an unseen problem.

The AtTask user experience team does this sort of research often. It’s called Contextual Inquiry, and it is one of the major inputs into what we build and how we build it. Here’s some insight into how we do it.

Contextual

We like to sit down with AtTask users (and non-users alike) in their natural work environments, right there in their cube. You’d be amazed at how much you can learn about someone just by looking around their workspace — from stickies on the monitor, calendars and workflows up on the wall, the disorganized stacks of papers everywhere, or the papers neatly tucked away just where they belong.

Teach us

Something we’ll often say when we sit down with people is simply, “teach us how you do work.” Through that process, we can gain insights into the problems that people may not ever think to vocalize. While users walk us though how they work, we can take their behaviors and what they say, in combination with their environment, to get a fuller picture of some of the difficulties they have, and uncover some of those unseen problems.

Goals, not tasks

An overarching theme in our design method is that it’s all about goals, not tasks. Tasks are simply ways to reach ultimate goals. We care why you’re doing what you’re doing. We want to get deep to the core of why you did that, what you’re trying to accomplish. As Nacho might say, we want to get to the “nitty gritty.”

So if in the future you ever hear us asking to come sit down with you and your team to learn how you work, please, let us come by. And let’s get down to the nitty gritty.