Home How Etsy Reinvented Its Development Process

How Etsy Reinvented Its Development Process

When your company is a platform for the livelihoods of thousands, you’re probably not going to have a good time with your full-scale code rewrite.

Unless you’re Etsy, that is. By involving more than 10,000 users in the rewrite from Day One, the “handmade marketplace” has all but skipped the user-frustration step of the process for its complete revamp of a new Listings Manager for sellers.

According to Russ Posluszny, Etsy’s engineering manager of shop management, this is the largest collaboration between Etsy developers and Etsy users yet.

See also: How Etsy Turned Into A Gadget Paradise

“This is the second largest prototype Etsy has ever done in terms of sheer numbers,” he said. “But in the level of participation, it was our most intensive.”

It’s part of a unique process called Etsy Prototypes, where users can opt in to testing new features before they officially hit Etsy. The program launched in 2011, and there are now 50,000 active users testing prototypes. It’s become such an important outlet for user feedback, it’s actively shaping the site’s development process moving forward.

Development The Etsy Way

The revamp began when Etsy realized that its sellers weren’t using the site’s listing tools the way the company expected them to. Users seemed to be fighting against the product in order to do what they wanted to do.

These listing tools were designed for sellers to update one item at a time. But Etsy’s research showed that sellers were far more likely to do batch updates in which they listed multiple items to their page at once. The existing tools made this tedious. 

Interviews with sellers helped identify the problem. But that was just the beginning of an arduous back-and-forth as developers forged ahead in one direction, leaving users to test the prototype and recommend big changes, starting the cycle anew.

To speed up the process, Etsy Prototypes keeps developers, designers, product managers, and users constantly in contact. Users connect and receive feedback quickly through a forum. Designers and developers use a process similar to the “agile management” used in app production to ship their latest versions.

This includes a “living style guide,” in which designers bypass ordinary wireframes and select from existing code segments to build functional interfaces very quickly. (It certainly helps that all designers at Etsy double as coders.) User feedback is implemented into new versions of the prototype with a turnaround as quick as a few hours.

“Sellers understand their business needs better than anyone else ever could,” said Nickey Skarstad, a senior product manager on Etsy’s shop management team. “By partnering with our community in the development process, we can check and balance our progress against their needs and constantly make sure we’re on the right track.”

Inside The Technology Stack

Open source was also a huge aspect of the project. The Etsy codebase is primarily written in PHP, but also uses the JavaScript framework Backbone, a small JavaScript MVC library, for establishing conventions and patterns to organize the data on Etsy pages. Straightforward HTML and CSS are used for front end design. These technologies are all open source, although Etsy’s codebase itself is closed.  

One task with a lot of payoff was integrating Marionette, a layer on top of Backbone for large JavaScript applications. Over the course of the project, Etsy took advantage of and contributed to the Marionette open source framework so much that Etsy programmer Jason Laster became one of Marionette’s lead maintainers. 

While the new listing tool has been all but ready to go since the fall of 2014, the company decided not to release it until after the busy holiday shopping season. Sellers subscribed to an Etsy mailing list have known about the upcoming feature since last year, and membership in the prototype forum has grown from 11,000 to 23,000 in a day after Etsy announced it on its blog.

These users can opt to begin using the feature right away. Others may choose to keep going with the “classic tool” until Etsy retires it next month.

“The folks that use Etsy are using it to run their business, and it’s really critical that we don’t cause disruption there,” Posluszny said. “Small hurdles like learning new products can cause roadblocks in running their business. It’s important to allow users to learn at their own pace.”

Photo by Jared Tarbell

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