Design Secrets: How Navy Vet Creates Acquire.com’s “Invisible” UX 

Hey there, I’m Rocky, the Director of Design at Acquire.com. ?

In this article, I’ll share a little about how we do design and give you some tips you can apply to your own business. Good design is everything when creating memorable customer experiences, so if you’re unsure how to do this well, you might frustrate or even lose customers. 

You might’ve heard that the best design is invisible. I like that saying because it illustrates the high expectations of today’s customers and the need to understand how they think and behave. For UX to be truly “invisible”, you must design, test, and refine as we do at Acquire.com. 

Consider this blog your introduction to our design philosophy. Designing an intuitive, seamless marketplace experience isn’t easy, let me tell you. But before I start, you probably want to know a little bit about me. What is a Hollywood brat and former Navy engineer doing here, anyway?

Creative Outlets

I grew up in LA surrounded by creatives. When my dad was building squibs or my mom fitting costumes, I’d play in the back lots of Universal Studios, blown away by the people working behind the scenes. The set designers, builders, artists – talented yet ordinary folk who got stuff done. They traded the limelight to build the illusion, and I admired their inventiveness. 

Both parents encouraged my artistic side. I painted, drew, and took photographs. But I wanted to do more with my creativity than just make pretty things. Acting was off the cards (I’d seen how nasty that business could be), so, in the nineties, I learned to code and started building websites. Silly things like MySpace Sailor Moon fan pages. 

I didn’t settle on design as a career until much later in life. I moved around a bit, from LA to Missouri, and then to Arkansas where I joined the Navy. I wanted to go to college, but my family couldn’t afford the fees, and I didn’t want to bury myself in debt. I ended up working in avionics, fixing helicopter radar systems. My Navy career eventually landed me in San Diego.

Design Secrets: How Navy Vet Creates Acquire.com’s “Invisible” UX 
I FIXED HELICOPTER RADAR SYSTEMS IN THE NAVY UNTIL I’D SAVED ENOUGH MONEY FOR COLLEGE.

There, I met my husband, and between GI Bill benefits and bartending, was able to leave the Navy and earn a bachelor’s in web development and an associate’s in web design. 

The UX class resonated with me. It was like a superpower: with the right design, you could make the complex, easy, the slow, fast. Good UX made people happy, and that made me happy. Finally, I’d found a creative outlet that would pay the bills and help others achieve their goals. 

Figuring Figma

I was lucky to study at a design school that loved experimenting with the latest techniques. I learned web design using Photoshop, which I couldn’t imagine using now, but which taught me essential – and marketable – skills I could use upon graduating. 

My first job was in marketing design. I spent my days designing creative assets for ad campaigns, landing pages, and so on. When I left that startup to join another, I bugged the product team for little tasks to cut my teeth on, eventually learning Sketch. But it wasn’t until my last startup, Rubbl, that I learned how to design UX using Figma. 

Technically, you can design with anything that makes a mark. Even a lump of coal would do. But having the right tools makes design so much easier. It shortens the journey from your mind to the page, which allows you to be more creative, spontaneous, and iterative.

Design Secrets: How Navy Vet Creates Acquire.com’s “Invisible” UX 
AT RUBBL, A MARKETPLACE FOR BOOKING HEAVY MACHINERY, I LEARNED TO DESIGN UX USING FIGMA.

Figma checked almost every box. I love that you can collaborate and design live. In the past, you’d have to save your design file, share it with a collaborator, and then the collaborator would update the file, save it again, and return it to you. It was so slow! Figma changed that forever.

With one version of the truth, everyone works from the same foundation. I often open a file and find copywriters, product designers, and developers working on it together. Someone might leave a comment, add some copy, or just run through a prototype page. Okay – you get it – if you want to design well, you need the right tools, and for me, that was and still is Figma.  

Iterative Design

All design is art, but not all art is design. Self-expression might be enough for the painter or novelist, but the UX designer also seeks utility through user psychology. What do you want the user to do? How can design achieve that outcome quickly and easily?

You know you’ve designed something well when “it just works” (to borrow from Steve Jobs). When the flow from your design to the intended customer action is seamless.

Everyone has biases about how something should look and feel. Although I learned web design theory at college, theory alone only gets you so far. Technology and behavior change. Without iterating on customer feedback, you risk losing market share to your competitors.

American writer and useability expert, Jared Spool, said, “Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible. It’s only when it’s done poorly that we notice it.” 

I experienced this first-hand with our recent revamp of the mobile experience. I researched user behavior patterns for weeks, investigating how people browsed the marketplace, listed their startups, chatted with founders, and other things our old mobile interface didn’t do very well. 

When we launched the new design, I expected a flood of positive feedback. The changes, however, were met with silence. Not because we didn’t do a good job, but because our customers have come to expect the best as standard. You seldom get a pat on the back in UX design. Instead, you’ll see an uptick in activity, conversions, and desired behaviors. 

Designers used to be the last people brought on to a project. The product managers and developers would decide what to build and then call in the designers to make it look good. In past jobs, I remember being asked to design pretty buttons that would later appear in strange places in the UX. It was frustrating knowing that customers would be left scratching their heads. 

Thankfully, those days are gone – at least at Acquire.com. Now, Stephen (our VP Product), Dave (our CTO), and I kick off a project together so we’re aligned on what the UX flow should be. It’s a great feeling knowing that you’re starting with such a strong foundation, and it makes iterative design so much more successful. 

UX Design Principles

Know the Product

You, the UX designer, are responsible for transforming a potentially complex product into a front-end shell anyone can use. It’s therefore vital you become an expert on the product you’re designing. Learn every nuance and quirk. Read every manual and test every workflow.  

Designing marketplaces is tough because of the multiple customer personas. On Acquire.com, it’s buyers and sellers. On Airbnb, it’s hosts and guests. On Uber, it’s drivers and passengers. When you design one side’s experience, what happens to the other? 

I spent my first weeks at Acquire.com learning everything I could about the marketplace. I tested every user flow, read every blog and email, and explored how our tech stack brought everything together. Quickly, I began to see areas for improvement, but I just noted them down and continued exploring until I knew the process from soup to nuts.

Product research doesn’t end with your company, either. Study what the masters are doing. Companies like Airbnb have spent millions relentlessly studying customer behavior and applying those findings to their UX. Just think what they (and others) could teach you. I have around fifty apps on my phone that I only use to research how other brands design the customer experience. 

The best artists steal, as the saying goes, and while I don’t agree with copying another company’s UX wholesale (and why would you when your company is unique?), I do believe the largest companies can inspire startups with smaller budgets. Moral of the story? If doubtingyour UX direction, research how other successful companies do it. 

Trial By Hand

Once you know how the product works, start thinking about how customers see it. Our product sprints start with expressing problems as customer stories. We contextualize features with statements like, “As a customer, I want to do…” and then design around them. Starting with user pattern research, and then examining how other companies solved those problems. 

Then I pull out my trusty notebook and start drawing wireframes by hand. I know, I’m old school, but I love that mind-to-hand connection. I can instantly see what works. I then move to Figma to build a high-fidelity, responsive webpage in minutes. (Tip: Compile a component library so you’re not starting from scratch every time.) But before you start designing on your laptop, sketch your ideas on paper first – it’s faster, fun, and kind of meditative. You just don’t get that working with a mouse or Apple pencil (in my opinion). 

Ride the Feedback Loop

UX design is a team sport. When the first page is ready in Figma, the feedback loop begins. Product, marketing, and engineering teams each have a say in the design. I refine, iterate, and ask for more feedback. Once everyone is happy with the direction, I start prototyping, building an interactive experience in Figma to test the flows. 

We also do a design weekly design review for the whole team. I find this helps to crystallize our direction because we have to justify it to the entire company. You can’t just say, “Oh, we’re updating this page to look nicer,” but instead give a customer-focused rationale for making the changes. And if anyone disagrees with our direction, we listen to and act on their feedback. 

As your company grows, you’ll find design is a puzzle you never completely solve. There are always more features to add and improvements to make. But don’t spend weeks designing something without testing it with customers first. Rely on instincts and theory alone, and you’ll likely redesign the same pages later.   

I think many young designers get attached to their work, thinking that it’s them on screen, on the artboards, and so on. But you need to detach your ego. It’s not about you, but the customers and making their experience the best it can be. Even if someone gives you amazing feedback, search for those little changes that add up to better experiences. I’ve never gotten feedback that wasn’t useful, so get your designs in front of customers as soon as you can.

Overcoming Challenges

Iteration is king, but it’s not the most exciting way to design. Even I get carried away, usually when something appears so obviously helpful that I forget or overlook the consequences. Design is a holistic endeavor, and too much focus can be a disadvantage.  

Let’s take a look at an example. 

One of the projects I’m most proud of at Acquire.com is our guided acquisition process (GAP). It didn’t exist anywhere else. This was us breaking down, consolidating, and streamlining the acquisition process, primarily for sellers. And this was, in hindsight, a bit problematic. We spent so long on the seller experience, that we had to force a similar design on the buyer side, which probably wasn’t the most helpful. 

Buyers come to Acquire.com to find great startups to acquire. Sellers come to find the ideal buyers for their businesses. While the acquisition process is similar for both personas, their goals require different design approaches. Having gathered feedback from buyers, we’re redesigning GAP for buyers and adding new tools to help them achieve their goals.   

Mistakes and oversights are just part of the design process. Aim to do better next time, every time, with help from your team and customer feedback. I love designing for Acquire.com, and I hope this article has helped you understand a bit about how we approach design problems. If you have any questions, don’t be a stranger – reach out and let us know.


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