I’ve long been a fan of Meetup and their uniquely genuine and concrete mission: strengthening human connections in the real world. This means more, far more, than just getting people to click approvingly on one another’s text fragments and random images. Meetup wants their users to actually meet face-to-face, to engage in real dialogue and share their time together. They’ve long been stalwarts of the New York City tech scene (over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to get to know Meetup founder and CEO Scott Heiferman—a great guy) and, incredibly, are nearly a decade and a half old. They’re still going strong, though, and in fact are in the midst of an important new stage in their evolution, one that has design at its center. I asked Meetup’s VP of Product, Fiona Spruill (also a friend and former colleague from my time at The New York Times) about their search for a new Head of Product Design and what it signals for the company.
Khoi Vinh: It’s amazing to me that Meetup is now fourteen years old. For those who might be familiar with the brand but haven’t kept up, how has the company changed and what are its priorities right now?
Fiona Spruill: Meetup was started in 2002 with the mission of bringing people together and spreading real local community across the world. We still have that same ambition today. Meetup is unique because people show up in person, do things together and actually talk. As a result, Meetup changes lives. That’s remained a constant since the launch, and it’s the main reason people are drawn to work here.
The not-so-secret news is that Meetup is on the verge of being fundamentally reborn. We’ve already shifted to thinking of ourselves first and foremost as a mobile app instead of a desktop web site. Now we are in the process of launching a brand new beautiful Meetup that brings that evolution to life. Our members and organizers will experience the new, redesigned Meetup first on our iOS and Android apps.
Our top priority right now is to ship those beautiful new apps and launch a brand new logo and visual identity, which we worked on with Sagmeister & Walsh. We’re also doing a major technical replatforming, so there are big changes coming that we are super excited about. Sometimes it’s a struggle being a teenage company in a world of technology start-ups. But a core value of ours is to continually change the company, and that’s the main reason we are still thriving.
We turned to Sagmeister & Walsh for two main reasons: One, it was obvious that Meetup needed a new, modern visual identity, and two, we wanted a new branding system that would allow Meetup groups to create their own visual identities while still keeping a tie back to Meetup’s brand. Nailing both of those things is a tough assignment. We have long admired the work of Sagmeister & Walsh so we knew that if anyone could pull it off, they could.
The work to launch our new apps and logo is well under way. But we are looking at this launch as the birth of a new visual design framework, as opposed to a finished product. That means we’ll be looking to the Head of Product Design to build on this solid visual foundation and create a world-class user experience.
Practically speaking, what does this mean? We are super excited about the apps we’ll be launching in the fall but we have ambitions to make them so much better. We expect to constantly iterate on them, and the Head of Product Design will be heavily involved in all future iterations. Another exciting challenge that we have barely begun to tackle is to bring the app redesign concepts to the web site. And there is also a lot of fun work to be done to bring the branding system for individual Meetup groups into the product. Design at Meetup isn’t just about designing for the screen. It’s about the whole experience, online and offline. The overall system that Sagmeister & Walsh created gives us a ton of room for invention and expansion on all fronts.
Can you tell me more about the offline design aspects of this opportunity?
Right now we’re pretty good at getting people to show up at Meetups, to actually talk to each other and do things together. But we know we can be so much better at that. We see most of what we do as being on a continuum: A great online experience can lead to a great offline experience, which in turn can change lives. There are so many interesting technological advancements happening right now at the intersection of physical and digital experiences. This whole area is ripe for experimentation and could make the experience at Meetups even better.
Other specific areas of offline focus will be great signage for Meetups, making it easier for people to find a Meetup when they show up. And we want to make it easy and fun for Meetup groups to design a logo, and to create tee-shirts and other swag that they’ll show off with pride. That’s a big part of bringing the Sagmeister & Walsh branding system to life.
How does the design team at Meetup work now, and how do you expect that might change with this new Head of Design position?
There are one or two designers on every product team so they’re integrated with those teams. But they also gather several times a week as a design team to share work, get feedback and make sure everyone knows what each other is working on. These feedback sessions help ensure that the individual projects are building toward a larger, cohesive end-to-end user experience, which is a big goal of the redesign. They also help us continually evolve our new living style guide/design pattern library.
We like to prototype and user test new ideas twice a week. Because many of the designers also code, they’re able to quickly build prototypes. Two designers built a fully functioning prototype of our new app in React Native, which was hugely beneficial for testing out the design concepts with real data.
Design hasn’t always been a driving force in how we approach product development at Meetup. That has changed significantly in the last couple years. Our design team has grown from one person four years ago to a team of nine now. It’s impossible to say exactly how things will change under the new Head of Product Design. In general, though, we’ll be looking to that person to lead the design of a great user experience, to ensure our product thinking is design-driven and to expand the team.
So the team is very collaborative and hungry, and the company is serious about its ambitions to become design driven—you describe a situation with a lot of potential. But these circumstances are familiar to lots of companies today; what is truly unique about this opportunity for design candidates who meet your job requirements?
You might accuse me of being biased, but I genuinely believe this is the most exciting design job in the tech world. Here’s why:
Designing a great experience that connects the online and offline worlds is a unique challenge. It’s particularly interesting at a time when virtual reality, self-driving cars and many other things are starting to push the boundary of how the virtual world interacts with the physical world. These are the interesting problems to solve right now, and Meetup is in a great position to tackle them in innovative ways. (Just look at our name!)
Meetup has a solid subscription business so our revenue comes directly from our members and organizers. We don’t have to pander to advertisers, which means creating a great user experience that has a big impact is, without question, our top priority.
I’ve mentioned that the design culture is fairly new at Meetup. That means there aren’t a lot of entrenched processes for how we do things. The Head of Product Design will have a lot of room to develop new approaches. He or she will also be surrounded by design, product and engineering teams that are hungry to take things to the next level.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the world is becoming more caustic, more bombastic and feeling less together every day. The news over the last couple weeks has tragically made this very clear. Meetup is an antidote to these problems because it brings people together. This is a design job where the potential for significant impact is huge because you can literally change lives.