Design field trips can teach us what conferences can’t

Jonathan Roberts
Jan 4, 2017 · 4 min read

This post is part two (of 2) about design field trips — visiting design teams in other organisations. In the previous post I explained what a design field trip is, and how one works. In this post I go into a bit more detail about what can be learned from taking part in one.

We’ve all been to a conference talk where the Q&A is hi-jacked by an individual in the audience. They usually describe their issue, often quite a fundamental one, and then continue to ask questions in the hope that the speaker will solve it for them (or until the session facilitator cuts them off).

The thing is, we all face these challenges — the ones without clear, concise answers — I believe design field trips can help us solve them where conferences struggle.

Learning from Facebook

What we see and hear on a design field trip contributes to our understanding of the challenges that we face (or might face). The information we gather helps us rank them in terms of their potential impact to our organisations. For the challenges we want to tackle immediately, we’re able to set a direction on how to solve them.

What follows is just a few pertinent examples of things we learned together, as a team, on a design field trip to Facebook:

Design systems

The last time I spoke at UX Cambridge (Sept 2016) I talked about our design system, Honeycomb, and the challenges we faced keeping it alive in addition to our regular project work.

Facebook felt the same pain and described how they moved from a design system curated on a “volunteer” basis to investing in a full-time team of designers, content strategists and engineers. Doing this gives them the capacity to build a suite of design tools for designers at Facebook. These tools reduce design effort and time, increasing productivity and making time (and therefore $$$) savings.

Design tools

For a long time we’ve been proud to tell designers at Redgate that they’re free to use any tool or piece of software they’re comfortable with to get their work done.

Facebook use Sketch as their only design platform. It means the team that works on the design system only needs to build one set of components and plugins that help all designers and content strategists work more efficiently.

Career progression

Good ideas should be able to come from anyone on the team, regardless of the length of their career. Not having “Senior” in your title means no one can try and pull rank, but it also makes it difficult to describe career progression to applicants.

Facebook have a banding system, from IC3 (Individual Contributor, level 3) to IC8. Your IC level is kept private between you and your line manager (again, to prevent people pulling rank) and the difference between bands is determined by the types of additional work that you do.

Remote working

We took a tour of the Facebook office at 10:30 on a Wednesday morning. It was (almost) empty. Wednesday at Facebook is a meeting-free day. The side-effect of this is that most staff choose to work remotely. I was reminded of a piece of advice from Jeffrey Veen, who spoke at the Leading Design conference last October:

“[as a team] act distributed, even if you aren’t”

Acting distributed improves communication skills and reduces the opportunity for misunderstanding. A sound bit of advice, but difficult to implement in practice. Facebook’s meeting-free Wednesdays creates a very practical step towards achieving Jeffrey’s advice.

Metrics, objectives and accountability

At Facebook, London, there are three main products: the ad platform, Workplace (Facebook for business) and Oculus. Teams have clear objectives, set by the business, and design contributes to those.

Individuals are accountable in a very personal way; 20% of their salary is determined by their contribution to those objectives. And it’s measured every six months.

That might not sound great at first, but consider this: the best idea is the one that contributes the most heavily towards achieving the objective. You’re incentivised to get behind the best idea and contribute whether it’s yours or not. That doesn’t just go for product design decisions, but fundamental ones like how design is organised across the product, because there are significantly fewer designers than engineers.

Which brings me to my final observation.

Design evangelism

There are around 25 product designers based in Facebook’s London office, which employs around 1200 people (estimated). In contrast, there are (currently) 7 designers in Redgate’s Cambridge office, in which around 200 people are employed. That means we have a design presence at Redgate that’s roughly 75% greater than Facebook (although we do have a bigger portfolio of products).

Product design at Facebook isn’t just about doing the design work, it’s about evangelising design. They’ve worked hard at this and it shows. For example, the engineers are the ones leading the way with initiatives around accessibility, at times leaving the designers to keep up.

If your design team is interested in a design field trip exchange with Redgate, get in touch. We’d love to show you around, explain how design works in our organisation and share with you what we know. Lunch is on us!

Jonathan Roberts

Written by

Leading the research and design of new products @redgate.

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