Design driven at Buzzfeed

Read Time
10 min read
Published On
April 12, 2017

​Design Driven NYC is a monthly event organized by Firstmark to inspire design enthusiasts through the stories from entrepreneurs and industry leaders in the design community. The organizers believe that “great design is storytelling at its finest, and that it is a critical element to any successful product.”

On 5th April, we attended their 26th Design Driven event held at BuzzFeed’s office. The featured speakers were Alain Sylvain (Founder/CEO of Sylvain Labs), Marcela Sapone (Founder/CEO of Hello Alfred), Luke Chesser (Founder/CPO of Unsplash) and Bonnie Siegler (Founder/CEO of Eight and a Half). ​

Here’s a recap of what we learned during the engaging exchanges between the presenters and the audience. ​

Alain Sylvain of Sylvain Labs on User Research


Sylvain Labs, an innovation and brand consultancy, is the brainchild of Alain Sylvain. 7 years ago, he observed that very few companies offered services that catered to both creative and business needs. Inspired to create a company that meets these needs, he started Sylvain Labs and along the way it has helped popular brands such as Nike, Google and Airbnb to launch new products and reinvent their brand positioning through innovative solutions.

"Learn to differentiate the user needs."

When designing a product for users, we have to understand the complexities of a user’s needs. In short, what drives people to do what they do. During his speech, Alain touched on different solutions to make sense of a user’s needs.

  1. Physical need vs Emotional need: Is the need driven by actions or feelings?
    Eg “I need to go to the restaurant to get my lunch” vs “I need to talk to my boss to tell him how i feel”

  2. Timeless need vs Timely need: Does the need lasts indefinitely or happens immediately? Eg “I need to check up on my loved ones to stay in touch” vs “I need the ATM machine to work now”

  3. Conscious need vs Unconscious need: Is the user aware or unaware of his or her needs?Eg “I want to get good grades” vs “I need to do well in school to show that i’m smart and capable”
  4. Using Desire-Motivation-Tension model:
    ​As a user, I need/want ________ so that ________ but ________.
    Eg. As a CEO, I want to ensure that all the employees are working diligently and productively so that we can show progress but it is so difficult to keep track of the responsibilities that each employee has at hand and accommodate to different working styles.

Marcela Sapone of Hello Alfred on Design


Hello Alfred is a service that offers on-demand butler services to help you manage your daily chores. Founders, Marcela Sapone and Jess Beck were the first all woman team to win the Techcrunch Disrupt competition with the Hello Alfred concept and have currently raised $12.5 million in funding.

"Life is too short not to design for what you want."

Marcela started her speech with one of her favorite design mantras, “Life is too short not to design for what you want” and this was the quote that inspired her to create Hello Alfred. While going about her daily chores, she wished for someone to help her complete them so she could spend her time on more important tasks. With this idea in mind, she built this service to turn the idea into reality.

"Sometimes you want to increase friction to increase trust."

She believes that when designing for UX of trust, you will need to increase friction to increase trust. Instead of hiring an employee with 1099 form for the role of an Alfred (what the butlers are referred to as), she and her team decided to hire W2 employees. From an employer’s perspective, hiring employees with a 1099 form is usually preferred as they would be able to spend less on staffing since the 1099 form regulations do not require them to cover benefits that a W2 employee would receive.

​However, Marcela views that using W2 employees would be necessary in increasing the users’ trust towards the Alfreds since W2 employees are full-time employees as compared to contractual 1099 employees. Even if this decision increases friction, the company still insists on hiring W2 employees and ensures that they are carefully-screened through background checks (identity, criminal and credit), references, and in-person interviews to build trust between the users and the Alfreds.

"Do not be afraid to do things that are difficult to scale."

Hiring practices alone are insufficient in building trust with users. They realized that it was important for the Alfreds to leave personalized notes for the users after every session as well. It is more tedious for the Alfreds to do so, but they discovered that this small action translated into increased mutual trust.

"Be really specific and intentional about what you are designing."

Marcela commented that designing the Alfred application was one of the hardest things she and her team had to do, as Hello Alfred is a category that does not exist. She knew that she needed to build a User Interface that would convey the ability to accomplish multiple things at once, while humanizing the exchange between Alfreds and the users. How does one build an communicative interface for Alfreds and users that could constantly remind the users of the presence of a human being that is constantly doing all of their tasks for them?


Image via Hello Alfred

As such, her team built a task list with toggle buttons and this was an efficient way for  users to manage all their tasks at one go through a familiar interface. A profile image of the Alfred is strategically placed at the top of the application to remind users that a human is completing their tasks for them and an operational tracker is displayed beneath each task. This gives users the ability to see what is happening with all their requests. As the Alfred is out in the field doing things, the tracker stays up to date. Users love watching the progress across their tasks,  engaging users with habit-forming designs.

​The application also included profile and background stories of Alfreds to minimize the transactional nature of their relationship and create a new relationship of trust. Every design was intentionally created to allow the application to be as transparent and human as possible. Every point of contact with the users on the Hello Alfred application was thoughtfully planned to increase trust between users and their Alfreds.

Luke Chesser of Unsplash on Entrepreneurship


​Unsplash is a photo sharing service that features free high-resolution photos which are curated by professional photographers. What started out as a Tumblr page to post excess images available became a photolibrary that has more than 1 billion photos viewed per month.

"It's okay to not have all the answers when you are building your company."

When Luke created Unsplash with his team, they did not know what they were building. He commented that many companies do not have the answers to everything, such as a well defined long term strategy or a monetization plan. Founders have to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty and need to figure out solutions along the way.

"You should start building things, regardless."

Many companies tend to share their stories in a way that only highlights their successes and not their problems. Every idea a person has is going to bring a lot of problems, but despite these complications,  they should still work on building their idea. There will be many reasons pulling them back from their ideas but the great thing about designers is that they understand that there will always be solutions. The key takeaway is to be innovative with ideas and solutions, as safe decisions build safe products and mediocre companies.


Through the Design Driven event, we got to learn more about User Research, Design and Entrepreneurship. The founders’ conviction and determination about their companies was truly inspiring. Indeed, it was an evening well spent.