Designing Discovery at Pinterest

Scott Tong
Jan 16 2016

Scott Tong is a 2004 graduate of the UW Visual Communication Design program, and a Product Designer at Pinterest, a discovery engine. Pinterest is part of a growing group of tech industry “unicorns”—startups valued higher than $1 billion. Pinterest is often described as a “visual search engine”; the site promotes an open-minded search process called “discovery.” Prior to joining Pinterest in 2013, Scott was a Principal Communication Designer at IDEO and a co-founder of the startup IFTTT (If This Then That).

Part One

Finding a Path in Silicon Valley

“At IDEO, I worked on everything from packaging to camera lenses. I did work for nonprofits, financial services, pet food brands, you name it.”

Tell us about the path that brought you to Pinterest.

After graduation, I was lucky to land an opportunity at IDEO, a global design consultancy that focuses on design strategy. This period of my career was pivotal because it expanded my understanding of design’s real capabilities. Up until my time at IDEO, I was almost purely concerned with execution—about good typography or the ability to communicate a message through 2D. I used the skills I learned in school (primarily visual communication design) as a sort of toolkit to get into IDEO. But once I was there, the work I did was no longer just about the visual and the communication value of that visual. It had a holistic focus and was very based on experience. Design can be used as a powerful tool to influence ideas, people, and interactions. It’s service design. It’s experience design. It’s interaction design. It’s industrial design. And all of those things can actually cross-pollinate quite interestingly.

What I learned at IDEO is that design can be used as a powerful tool to influence ideas, people, and interactions.

At IDEO, I worked on everything from packaging to camera lenses. I did work for nonprofits, financial services, pet food brands—you name it. It was a really cool time to sample what different industries had to offer and how design could actually impact, not only the execution, but the business as well. I honed my ability to tap into people’s motivations and mindsets in order to understand—beyond what people say and do—how they think and feel. That’s been incredibly valuable to me moving forward.

The IFTTT team in 2012, decked out in IFTTT socks designed by Scott Tong. Left to right: Scott Tong, Linden Tibbets, Devin Foley, Alan Hogan, Nate Murray, Alexander Tibbets, John Sheehan. Photo: Patrick Kawahara.

What was next for you after IDEO?

On our way home from work, some folks from IDEO and I would throw around ideas we had for new business ventures. In Silicon Valley, there’s always talk about starting your own company. One day, we decided to act. Together, we created a company called IFTTT, which stands for If This, Then That. The idea behind IFTTT was to empower people with little or no programming knowledge to get value out of services that already exist today by a simple conditional statement: If This, Then That. It was a product that allowed people to come up with whatever connections would be valuable to them. For example, a user might be able to control how Facebook photos are managed by stipulating that if he or she is tagged in a Facebook photo, that photo should also save to a Dropbox folder. In the end, you can create a backup system and have all your Facebook images saved to Dropbox. There are a lot of little interesting mashups that can happen with services that already exist–leveraging aspects of a service it wasn’t necessarily designed for.

Starting your own company is no joke. It’s a lot of work and I eventually began to feel burned out. In addition to my design and product development roles, I was also working on things that I had no expertise in at all like payroll and fundraising. Designing a product that would be meaningful to people, meanwhile balancing my business duties, was a lot to juggle. After a certain amount of time, I had to take a break, step back, and think about what was important to me. After a bit of sabbatical–six months to a year–I started talking to companies again. That’s when I found Pinterest.

Part Two

The Unique Value of Possibility

Several UW Design Alum work in product design at Pinterest. From left to right: Xiang Ling (VCD 2009), Brenna Marketello, (VCD 2011), Scott Tong (VCD 2004) and Kaisha Hom (VCD 2010).

Our founder—Evan Sharp—has a design background. Design has a seat at the table at the executive level.

What is it like being a designer at Pinterest?

At Pinterest, design is not an afterthought. It is an integral part of the entire organization. I think one of the benefits of our company is that our founder—Evan Sharp—has a design background. Design has a seat at the table at the executive level, which is amazing because we don’t have to sell the value of design.

The product team is a group of thirty or so folks, split up into different teams. I run a team that focuses on user activation, which is essentially onboarding users once they’ve signed up.  I work cross-functionally with a product manager and an engineering manager—creating a kind of trifecta between product management, engineering, and design. The structure really cements the place of design as a critical part of the business.

Together, we define what the projects are and how they serve some sort of business objective—while also ensuring that the technology can deliver the experience. The designer’s job is to make sure that the interface actually solves that problem. We take the work from our product teams into design interviews with other design teams to say, “Hey, this is how we think this is going to work for our product. Are you guys doing anything similar? Do we need to make sure that the buttons here are matching the buttons there, so we’re not confusing users across the entire experience?”

Pinterest headquarters are in a converted warehouse located in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood.

The environment at Pinterest can be quite fast-paced. Product meetings are happening at a regular cadence, and can easily slice up your day. I actually intentionally ask all the designers on my team to block out three consecutive one-hour slots on their calendar to focus purely on design. Success is partly measured by how effectively designers can get their projects through reviews. We can’t spend our time ruminating about one idea when there are many ideas out there that need to be tested in order for us to reach our goal. We are on a limited timeline. We are on a limited budget. So we have to make sure we have the most effective work out as soon as possible. We have to get things done.


What stood out to you about Pinterest's platform?

Pinterest has a unique value, which is showing a user possibility. You  go to Pinterest to discover the things you love and go do them in real life. That’s our mission, and that’s what we want to deliver on. The curation that is happening [on the platform] is human. It’s not a machine. For example, if you like a standard wares watch and a specific shirt, and we can identify other people who also like those two things, there’s a high likelihood that your interests overlap. The challenge becomes making that relevant discovery happen at scale. That is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Internet. If I’m looking at something, what’s relevant next, and why is it relevant next? What signals can our system intake to output something that is relevant to you? This is where we see a huge business opportunity. Every marketer would love the ability to know what their consumers want to do next.

We recently launched a commerce product that allows a user to discover and purchase a product directly on Pinterest.

What does this mean for the future of Pinterest?

The change of technology is exponential, so it’s difficult to project where we will be even in five or ten years. When I started a little over two years ago, [Pinterest] had fewer than two hundred employees. Now, we have more than eight hundred. We’re in this hyper-growth stage that few, lucky Internet companies get to achieve. Pinterest is really good at exposing possibility. As a platform, we want people to be thinking of Pinterest whenever they’re thinking about, “ideas for X.” Whatever “X” means to you, we should have content. The mission of our company is really to help people discover the stuff that they love, and then go do those things in real life. Today, we deliver on at least the first half of that. But the second half is where there’s really room to grow.

We recently launched a commerce product that allows a user to discover and purchase a product directly on Pinterest. That’s the first form of transaction. The second is creating different ways for a user to take action with real-time content. In the future, you could imagine a direct integration with a time-sensitive or time-relevant service. For example, if you’ve pinned an image and want to know its location—or if you’re local and wanted to take an Uber to it—you could have a direct integration with some service that would take you directly there. If it was a place you wanted to go, you could book a flight. I think that’s probably within a five-year window at least.

Part Three

Leadership Through Empowerment


Where do you find the most fulfillment in your work at Pinterest?

I experienced a lot of personal and professional growth on the job, and feel like I’m at a slightly new stage in my career where the growth is less about success on an individual scale, and more about finding ways to empower the rest of my team to do the most effective work. I don’t want to spend my time on something that doesn’t have impact. And the greater the impact—whether that’s reaching more users, or shifting company strategy—the more I feel fulfilled by my work.

The way I see it, my team doesn’t work for me—I work for them.

You manage a team of designers at Pinterest. How do you encourage them to be successful?

As a manager, I view my job as creating an environment in which our designers can do their best work. The way I see it, my team doesn’t work for me—I work for them. I let the designers work fairly autonomously and trust that if we set goals, [my team] will do their best to reach those goals. I don’t care about clock management. I care about results. Ultimately, I think my job as a manager is to help [my team] grow and to give them opportunities.

We have monthly reviews, and try to keep it lightweight by setting three goals: A goal that maps to the overall company strategy, a goal that maps to design quality, and a personal goal. I think this is aligned with what [Pinterest’s] product and our culture is about, which is doing things that are beneficial to both the individual and the company. Goal setting is extremely important. Without knowing what a finish line is, how are you ever going to get there?

At Pinterest, we work hard to create an environment where employees can get inspired by what other teams are doing—maybe even take some of that work and apply to their own projects as well. One of the customs that we’ve started is called Fika—Swedish for coffee—that is basically this half-hour session where we hang out and have coffee during the middle of the day. It’s a time for our team to get together and chat about anything. It’s not formalized. It’s just about hanging out and letting organic conversations happen. We’re also starting this thing called One Minute Demos. If you’re working on a feature that you want to share, you get a minute to demonstrate your idea. Ideally, you can get two or three of those each week.

In the end, I think the team building is really done by building trust within the team through your day-to-day work—not through going offsite and doing a trust fall. Finding alignment, taking time for personal reflection, knowing your strengths, and developing the right cadence are all crucial for team-building.

Team Building and Collaboration at Pinterest

"I think the team building is really done by building trust within the team through your day-to-day work. Finding alignment, taking time for personal reflection, knowing your strengths, and developing the right cadence are all crucial for team building."

If your design doesn’t solve some sort of human need first, it doesn’t matter how awesome the technology is.

What about your personal design process? How does it manifest itself in your work at Pinterest?

Much of my personal design process is heavily influenced by human-centered design. As a philosophy, it changed the way I think about the world and approach a problem. Experience is everything, right? If your design doesn’t solve some sort of human need first, it doesn’t matter how awesome the technology is. It doesn’t matter what the business case might be if people don’t want it. Human insight is an incredibly powerful tool for informing design, and there’s always some sort of research involved in my process. Either I do the research myself, or I take insight from a research team. In my day-to-day work, this also involves cross-referencing research and data with our business objectives in order to identify an opportunity that’s worth pursuing. Starting off with the right question is the most critical part of the design process because that will set you off in a good direction, or possibly the wrong one.

For example, on the activation team, we care about converting active users. To do this, we have to understand where the most users are signing up to join Pinterest. Signing up via SEO is quite different from signing up through downloading an app. Because the context is immediately different for each kind of user, we need to treat them differently. First, we have to identify what opportunities we have to engage a user. Defining the problem is the next step. After defining the problem, comes cycles of iteration.

And a lot of that also comes from that kind of lean startup processes. People talk about MVP a lot—minimal viable product. Because that minimal viable product is testing that fundamental assumption, you have to know what that assumption is first. We’ve heard the popular aphorism, “there are no dumb questions.” In my experience, there actually are dumb questions. Dumb questions are the ones that don’t get you to the next step.

Part Four

Finding Success in the “Real World”

First, you want to make sure you work with people you admire and respect.

What advice would you give to students?

There are three things I look for in any job (and I think they apply to a new grad as much as they do to someone who’s ten or twenty years into a career). First, you want to make sure you work with people you admire and respect. Second, you want to make sure that you’re stretching yourself so you’re in the growth zone. Try to avoid the complacency of a comfort zone, but also the overwhelming stress of the panic zone. Finally, make a positive impact—not only by what you say and do—but by what you make. Ultimately, people are going to remember you not by your intentions, but by your actions and your products.

This advice is based on experience and reflection. Thinking about what’s led you to where you are today, and making active choices based on those reflections is key. [Reflection] may help steer you in a completely different direction because you’ve taken the time to think back and say, “That wasn’t a great experience,” or “That was a great experience and I want to double down on that.” But if you don’t take the time to reflect, you’re ultimately just meandering.


What do you look for in successful hires?

I remember being at a younger stage in my career being mostly concerned with execution. But in reality, it is important to prove that your are capable of thinking not only of execution, but of strategic problem-solving. If you can demonstrate that you can think through a problem, you become more credible for employers.

In our product designers—especially junior product designers—we look for a solid visual design foundation. Of course, it’s great if they also have user experience aptitude, but we’ve seen that visual designers can easily be coached into becoming good UX designers. We’re really of the opinion that if we start with visual designers first, we have enough grey matter and mentorship to help them become good UX designers. It’s very difficult to do the opposite. Visual design is a clear, tangible expression that allows you to put yourself in the shoes of a consumer and make a thorough attempt to understand what facilitates the user experience.

Finding something that motivates you is key for success.

How would you advise students about their education?

Learning the critique process is incredibly valuable because it gives you thick skin. It gives you the vocabulary to communicate ideas in a very abstract or tactile way. If you don’t have that vocabulary, you won’t know how to interpret feedback and ultimately deliver on your concept. Part of giving good critique is making it not personal and understanding that it’s not about you. In the end, it’s about the work and the process of improving its quality.

During one of my earliest design critiques as a student, Doug Wadden–a faculty member in the program at the time– walked into class, saw a student’s work on the wall, unpinned it, flipped it over, pinned it back against the wall, and then proceeded to ignore it for the rest of class.

That student was me.

Looking back, that moment was incredibly important because it gave me a glimpse of the real world. People won’t give you a chance just because you’re trying. That was the inflection point in my educational career when I started to work a lot harder, trying to prove I really was capable of doing the things that were asked of me.

A selection of work from Scott’s student portfolio. Scott held an internship at a post-production studio in Hong Kong, where he did voiceover for the first version of the video game Ghost Recon.

I got more involved in the design program. I went to Japan with Chris Ozubko and learned a lot more about the career possibilities that were open to me as a design student. Stefan Sagmeister was there. Naoto Fukasawa, who is a very famous industrial designer, was there. From there I found internships and designed skateboards on the side. I even worked for a post-production studio in Hong Kong, where my voice ended up being used on the first version of Ghost Recon. (The was mostly because I was the only one there who had an American accent, but it’s still my claim to fame.)

In the end, I think finding something that motivates you is key for success. Competition can be a great motivator. Having your work turned upside down or flipped backwards is a good motivator. Proving people wrong is a good motivator (Steve Jobs’ entire career was about that). It can be a challenge to discover, but it’s an essential thing to tap.

A final pithy piece of advice I have would be to see where you can insert yourself to achieve strong results. Your work is a representation of you in many ways. It of course serves some user—some audience—but if you really believe in your work, then you’re not going to let your results be half-assed. You want to make sure that those results are your best foot forward.