What I learned growing a design team

It has been a little over 2 years since I started my design leadership role in my current company at Setel Ventures. When I accepted the opportunity back in late 2019, I was super excited about the prospect of working in a team of 5 product designers — something I’ve never experienced before, coming mostly from startups with small design teams.

Fast forward 2 years later, the team have grown to over 30 products designers across multiple teams, working on various interfaces in the Setel ecosystem of products. It is the most fun I have ever experienced in my career, so far. Sure, there are ups and downs along the way, but that’s what makes it more rewarding.

As I was trying to reflect back on my journey here, I realised I was never fully prepared for this huge role when I accepted the challenge. The usual impostor syndrome is always lingering whenever I had to do things outside of my comfort zone — but the opportunity for growth is what I always appreciate. So, to mark this occasion, I wanted to take the opportunity to summarise some key learnings I’ve personally gathered while growing the wonderful product design team at Setel.

A photo of some of the designers during one of our retrospective sessions back in 2020

#1 — Let things go progressively

When I first started, on top of my usual day-to-day tasks, I was also spending a big chunk of my time working on the design libraries — from creating initial components, writing documentation, updating components based on feedbacks and more. It makes sense at the time as we needed a good foundation towards having a scalable design system.

As my responsibility grew, my manager convinced me to start delegating stuff over to other designers. This was probably one of the hardest things for me to do as I transition into a “proper” leadership role. I knew it is critical to scale the team further, so I started to bring them into the process. As they started to pick it up, I slowly step aside and focus more on providing the guidance & direction for them to continue.

Evidently, letting go is not easy but it is very necessary. With the right processes and culture in place, I learned to trust my team to run things with full confidence that they can do a much better job even than me.

#2 — Establish effective workflows

Being a newly-formed design team, there was a lot of stuff we had to figure out to make sure the team can adapt to the fast-paced nature of the company while maintaining the quality of our deliverables. Whenever there are gaps in existing processes, I see it as a good opportunity to take a step back and figure out how can we turn into a standardised workflow. And once that’s firmed, it is coupled with a properly written guideline for reference.

For instance, we noticed designers were spending a lot of time reviewing inaccurate design implementations. There were broken communications between designers and engineers. Hence, as part of the design deliverables, we introduced design spec documentation that outlines things that are not immediately visible in the Figma handoff files (e.g UI anatomy, micro-interactions, funky behaviours and more). This has proven to solve the issue to a certain extent and let designers & engineers focus on more important stuff rather than having to go back & forth within the sprint.

In the end, less experienced designers can benefit from having a structured way of learning new things without getting too overwhelmed by the processes, and the more experienced designers can help to iterate it further as things scale.

#3 — Build genuine relationships

When I had to grow the team at the beginning of the pandemic, all of our hirings, onboardings & socializing had to happen virtually. I was worried the existing and new designers will not be able to bond well with the rest of the designers beyond their immediate team — which in my opinion is very important to foster a healthy working environment for everyone.

We organise recurring sessions that allow everyone to be in the same “room” – like our design critique and knowledge sharing sessions. My personal favourite is our Friday evening’s Gratitude session where we just hang out before closing the week and talk about what we were grateful for the week (something I stole from the first company I worked at back in the day). This has been a great opportunity to connect with each of them on a deeper and personal level. It’s impossible to work with everyone on the same project, but at least they’d know each other by name (and hopefully face, too) through these sessions.

Personally, it’s always heartwarming to see everyone can be casual with each other regardless of their position, and find opportunities to organise get-togethers outside of work whenever possible.

#4 — Enable space for criticism & open conversation

No matter how approachable I set out myself to be, not everyone is comfortable talking about their frustrations. They don’t want to be seen as somebody who likes to complain about the little things — even if those little things really matters. While growing the team, we’ve introduced another layer of design leaders to work closely with a smaller group of designers, and this gives them opportunities for more intimate conversations – to gather feedback, criticisms and frustrations while ensuring they are transparent and as genuine as possible.

Our quarterly retrospective session has helped to surface collective issues and things to improve as a team. By having an open discussion during the session, it becomes a safe space for everyone to highlight their challenges and get buy-ins from other people in the team. In the end, they can clearly see those issues turned into action items to be tackled in the next upcoming quarter.

#5— Hiring is a never-ending journey

Hiring is particularly challenging for me. With continuous growth in the company, it is one of the tasks I can’t seem to cross out from my to-do list. There is always one new feature to prioritise and one new team to build. There are a lot of aspiring new product designers here in Malaysia and we brought several of them into the team. However, in order to provide the mentorship they deserve, we also need more experienced product designers in the team. From my limited experience so far, finding a strong experienced senior designer is a challenge on its own — and it’s still something I need to work on.

On top of that, when a team member decided to leave the company to purse new opportunities, it sometimes put a lot of pressure on the leaders to give the right assurance to the rest of the team. Every employee has different motivations when it comes to their career (e.g monetary, flexibility, growth opportunity and more). As the leader, I have to pay closer attention to these and ensure they are being taken care of accordingly.

#6Empower people to produce their best works

One of the common mistakes earlier in my journey is treating this role as a way for me to enforce my design style & ways of working. I have to admit, it was fine for some time when the team was smaller and while the foundation is still being established. However, once we have a mix of designers from different backgrounds, experiences and seniority, I realised this could hinder their creativity and restrict them from showing their true potential.

It is more valuable to find ways to empower them in their creative process and let them focus on finding the solutions. As long as we are aligned on the problem to solve, we just need to provide the right tools, access to the right set of information and clear direction from the stakeholders. Let them work out the magic.

These learnings might be super obvious for some people out there. But as someone who doesn’t have access to leadership influence at the beginning of my journey— especially in the design industry – this has been a self-taught experience for me. It is really easy to fall into the trap by just copying what other design teams from big tech companies out there are doing — and hoping it will miraculously work for my team too. Unfortunately, it is not always the case. There are a lot of trials and errors. I am beyond grateful to have the opportunity to go through this process in a very supportive environment and get to do it with a lot of amazing people around me.

There’s a lot more to learn and definitely a lot more to improve. I’m looking forward to growing further in my role, along with the great people around me.

🚀

I design and build things for fun