On Building Design Organizations

Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. This is especially true when doing something like introducing a new department, and thus a new way of working, into an organization. In my experience, hiring the right people is only half the battle. As a leader, your real work lies in setting those people up for long-term success. Creating organizational alignment and implementing the right processes at the right time is vital to enable your design team to do their best work. Having now built design teams at several startups, here are a few things that have worked well for me.

Be an Evangelist for Product Design Within Your Company

There are too few companies that view design as a critical function and a core competitive advantage (This seems to be changing though!). Your co-workers (and even founders) may have never worked with an effective design team, and in fact, may not even understand what Product Design teams even do. Product Design is so much more than just “making things look pretty”. It is about understanding and defining the needs of the user through research then ideating and testing possible solutions with those same users. All of which is necessary to ensure the experiences we deliver are the ones the users actually want. When building a design org, talk to people in other departments and give presentations at all-hands meetings. Do whatever you can to create momentum for your team by removing any doubt around how your team will contribute to the growth of the company.

Create a Strong Foundation

When you start onboarding new designers, one of the most common issues that can arise is inconsistency between projects. This is where your design system comes into play. It will serve as the foundation that will keep the team’s designs aligned. It doesn’t have to be robust at first. You’ll be adding to it as your needs grow, but a good design system is more than just a component library. A good design system is a framework for how your designers make decisions. It’s a good idea to develop documentation for design principles and tone of voice and use them when critiquing work.

Define How the Team Tackles Projects

Don’t go crazy. Define some simple steps, maybe in the form of a checklist, to use as a guide. Not all designs will need all the steps, but this list can serve as a reminder of what is important to produce the best work possible. Here is the list we used early on at People.ai:

  1. Initial Problem Statement from Product Manger
  2. Target User Research
  3. User Flow Diagram
  4. Sync With Engineering Using Sketches
  5. Finalize Problem Statement and Scope
  6. High Fidelity Designs/Prototype
  7. Usability Testing
  8. Test Dev Complete Feature Before Release
  9. Create Dashboard to Measure Usage

Get the Team in the Action

This one can be tough and will be in constant change especially at a startup where teams are evolving and resources are scarce. If you have enough designers to match them 1:1 with product lines, thank your lucky stars. Most likely, your designers will need to support multiple products and engineering teams. A couple of things can go a long way in ensuring your designers are at the heart of the action.

First, get them involved in customer discovery. Typically product managers are on the frontlines meeting with internal and external folks to define the user problems to be solved, and these meetings will contain valuable insights into user behavior. Ideally, designers can attend these meetings and ask pertinent questions, but when they can’t, work with Product Managers to document any learnings in the form of notes or (even better) recordings.

Second, make sure they are talking to engineering early and often. We’ve all seen the designer working on a “masterpiece” in a silo, only to realize that their design is almost impossible to build. Engineers are designers too. They know how the software actually works and many times will have valuable feedback on small tweaks that can speed up the delivery of a project. Not to mention, getting engineers involved early will also foster a sense of ownership that will motivate the team.

Celebrate Wins (No Matter How Small)

Of all of these suggestions, this might simultaneously be the hardest and most important. Bragging about our work doesn’t usually come naturally to designers. We have a tendency to take small wins for granted. Conducting several insightful user research sessions. Ensuring your new color ramp meets accessibility standards. Finding an issue in the design through usability testing. All just part of the job, right? Wrong. These are all things that have a direct impact on the quality of the product and thus the success of the company. Take a cue from your sales team, and bang a gong (metaphorically) to highlight these wins.

Design leader focused on growing and mentoring effective design teams.