What I learned at Amazon in first 5 months

I joined Amazon in March this year. On completing 5 months here, I am writing my observations to reflect on my learnings.  

This is the first time I am working at a big company. I observed design and culture from a fresh lens, and sometimes in contrast to Indian-tech startups where I worked for 3+ years before coming to Amazon. This post outlines my learnings and observations which might help feed someone’s curiosity on how big companies function.

 

(Views in the post are my own and do not represent Amazon in any way; this post does not include parts of my work at Amazon)

 

What I do at Amazon

I am a UX designer in Customer Service team. More specifically, I own most of customer-facing post-order experiences for India. Anyone who has shopped on Amazon would know Your Orders, Call Us, Customer Service, and post-order communications. Yes, that’s what I do — make these experiences better everyday. This is an exciting piece to own for three main reasons:
 

  1. It’s crucial to Amazon due to its relentless focus on Customer Service

  2. It’s new and challenging to design for next 100 million users

  3. I get to understand both customer and associate facing sides — and build a unified experience for everyone involved. 

 

I closely work with a team of 16 people which consists of Product Managers, one UX writer and another UX designer. I also collaborate with the worldwide design and product team to localise upcoming features for India. 

Screenshots of flows I take care of (Only for representation, I haven't designed the above flows)

Learnings about work and design:
 

  • Customer service is complex and intriguing. Ever wondered what happens when you call Amazon customer care? How are they able to answer all your questions? What tools do they use and what processes do they follow? What happens when a celebrity expresses concern on social media? How do they know about fraudulent customers? I got the opportunity to closely understand and find answers to these questions. (PS: the job of customer care executives is hard. Imagine frustrated customers yelling at you for something you haven’t done)
     

  • Data security is critical and big companies strive to protect customer data. Data security is an additional check every new launch has to go through. At times, projects and timelines get affected in gaining permissions to use data. I learned that being data security aware is necessary while we think of something new.
     

  • Some solutions can’t be implemented due to privacy and legal concerns. For eg., Amazon does not want to use Google Maps, even though it can solve various problems; design tools like Zeplin can make your lives easier, but it can’t be used because of privacy concerns. You need to learn to live with the fact and find alternatives.
     

  • Edge cases can’t be ignored. The edge case which I would’ve ignored at a smaller company has to be solved. At Amazon’s scale, the impact of that edge case would be in millions of dollars.
     

  • Simple looking problems are complex. I was once curious to know how deprecating a small feature can be a task of high effort and importance. I was surprised to find out that, with time, numerous services and features got dependent on the to-be-deprecated feature. Discovering known and unknown sources feeding on the to-be-deprecated feature was a high-effort task, not actually deprecating it.
     

  • Small projects are incremental efforts for bigger impact (For eg. Making a minor edit to a copy). Small projects are steps towards a bigger change. They help minimise risk and are early indicators of success. At the scale of Amazon, you just can’t overhaul things overnight!
     

  • We need to be confident about the success of a big launch. And the way to do this is by breaking down the project into smaller ones and testing with a smaller set of users. As a designer, I have felt bad for settling with sub-par experience for faster pace and lesser effort. But, it’s all about identifying mistakes early, fixing them, and getting the best UX out.
     

  • A lot of time is spent on planning for next quarter, 1 year and 3 years. This is something which was quite different from what I had experienced at startups where plans were messy.
     

  • Bigger companies have longer timelines and slower pace. This is again a different experience than working at startups. Everyday I get to understand how challenging is to understand varied spectrum of users and bring multiple teams with different priorities at one page. 
     

  • Bringing all stakeholders from multiple geographies to a conclusion takes time and is important. Because you can't predict the impact your decisions can have on some other teams’ work. So, you need to be proactive to involve and inform all stakeholders.
     

  • As a designer, documenting presentable design decks is a crucial part of my work. This is one of my initiatives to efficiently solve for dependencies across geographies.

     

Culture, style of working, and general stuff:
 

  • Why writing is crucial? Amazon is a writing first company. The Amazon style of writing has been discussed widely (here and here). Seeing it in action has been rewarding. People are actually disciplined and serious about it. I can confidently say that:

    • Writing makes you think in depth. When you write, you spend time building an idea which is thoughtful and comprehensible.

    • Reading documents gives you your own mental space to form a new perspective than being presented something — which is someone else’e perspective on a thought.

    • Presenting documents convey entire context and not parts of it. Everyone in the team, at all levels and roles, can dip into the context.

    • Great documentation makes easy to repick things. Writing is an in-depth documentation. These documents also help retain context when stakeholders and owners are changed.
       

  • Well structured processes help everyone work in a similar style leading to quicker decisions. At Amazon, new ideas are presented in the form of PR-FAQs. This method is common across all teams which makes inter-team communications efficient.
     

  • Write succinct and clear emails. Shortening the emails take time and effort. Think of writing emails as an exercise of designing it for the end user i.e readers. Don't leave open questions and convey your point in the simplest possible way. 
     

  • Be prepared for meetings beforehand. If you were to review something, make time to prepare your notes before coming to the meeting. Be on time and respect other’s time.
     

  • Amazon passionately enforces its culture. Less explanations are needed when everyone walk and talk the same language — parameters, terminologies, goals, and vision. 
     

  • Design at Amazon is still evolving and has not reached a point where your team members would know what it entails. You’ll have to take initiatives to educate your team members about your work, processes, and the field in general. So, go ahead and share your thought process or talk about a specific topic in design!
     

  • Look out for opportunities to learn: trainings, talks, wikis, and repositories. Big companies have plenty of well-documented resources and opportunities to learn. 
     

  • Make use of the talented group of people around you. Be open to connect with people from different teams and departments and learn from their experiences.
     

  • Teams focus quite a lot on their visibility across the organisation. They want everyone to know what they do and the impact they have created. Environment like this was completely new to me. But the good part is that it creates a sense of competition and motivation for everyone to improve.
     

  • Last and not the least: Have opinion on everything. It takes conscious and structured thinking to have an opinion. I am trying to adopt this habit in my everyday work and interactions. There is no better way to stay curious and keep learning in a company like Amazon — where there is so much happening around you.
     

The entire experience has helped me grow overall. There are goods things and there are not-so-goods things — but there is something to learn from all. I look forward to coming back to this page 6 months later and see how far I have come!