Tools for designing in a startup

Building a Design team in a rapidly expanding company is not an easy task. Here are a few tools, methodologies and ceremonies that my team and I have tried over the years.

Francesco de Chirico
Mar 6, 2019 · 10 min read
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Illustration by Jin Ju Hong

What’s this all about?

I’m Francesco de Chirico, but you can call me Fra (everyone does). I’m the VP of Design at Airtasker here in sunny Sydney. We’re an online marketplace where people who need stuff done can find someone to do it for them.

We’re a pretty young tech company (only 7 or so years old) and we’re currently going through a massive growth phase. We started here in Australia, but we’re now in the UK and looking further.

So what does it take to lead to design in such a rapidly evolving and expanding company? Well, apart from buckets of coffee and a passion for spirited debate, you have to be adaptable. What works today won’t always work tomorrow. And as the team and the company grows and grows, you realise you can’t be across everything all the time. You’re just 1 person.

That was my first, and perhaps biggest, lesson. It’s no longer my job to be the best designer, (as hard as that is to admit).

Instead, my job is to design tools and processes to help my team succeed in the most efficient way possible. I empower my team to be the best designers they can be.

Along this journey, I discovered a few things about how tools and processes can help (or hinder) that to happen. I’d like to share some of these things with you today, hopefully so that you can make the most of my learnings and actually put them to good use in your own circumstances.

If you’re a designer building a team (first, run!!!! :)), you’re going to learn how to set your team up for success and get moving forward quickly.

If you’re a business owner, you’re going to learn how and why Design does what it does to make a real impact.

The need for tools

As designers, we’re used to having a whole suite of tools in our arsenal. I generally class these into 2 main types that help a team succeed.

Tools as a designer or actions you take to solve a problem

  • Problem definitions

Tools as a team or collaborative resources and specialities you lean on

  • Design Critiques

The great strength in these tools lies in their ability to help empower teams to progress through their approach. In this way, a set of tools becomes the toolbox you dip into to solve a particular aspect of a problem at a particular moment in time — meaning the focus is on contextuality.

As every problem is different, this can take into account how much money is available, how many people are involved, whether it’s been done before etc.

Giving your teams tools rather than a process means you’re trusting your team on when to use the right tools at the right time. That’s why you’ll need to differentiate juniors and seniors — they need to understand what tools are needed at any given moment.

This is where collaborative resources and specialties come in. These can take the form of actual people with skillsets (for example researchers and copywriters) or ceremonies & practices which bring these people (and others) into the approach.

Design Team Tools

Design is a collaborative discipline and no good idea survives untested. It’s essential to bring people together to bounce ideas, learn from the collective experience and spot things you may have missed otherwise.

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So as Airtasker grew and our team kept growing along with it, we needed to find ways to bring the team together to do this. And being agile in nature, we found that we had to learn and adapt as we went.

Here are some of the main tools we used, why they were great (or not so great) and how we’ve evolved them over the years:

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1. Design Critique

The idea: Get all the design team together (plus an open invite to the wider team, PMs, TL etc . so feedback is not siloed and include other teams) to review & critique each other’s current work in progress and let them talk it out.

The intention: Get genuine debate and discussion around current work. Encouraged passion and open-minded critique.

The reality: Without a set structure, it was a vocal mess. The louder voice in the room often took over, leaving quieter voices sidelined. This kept us revisiting the same things, feedback wasn’t captured and work was slowed. I ended up as the referee, the only source of authority and then a blocker. If I wasn’t there it stalled.

What we changed: We introduced 3 main rules to govern critique:

  1. The person working on it had to present and explains the context, the stage and what feedback they’re looking for. They should be quiet while feedback is given (except to answer questions). It is then their choice on what feedback to implement.

We’ve also changed this from a 1 per week, 2-hour meeting to a shorter (max 30 mins), daily occurrence just after stand-up. We reduced this to improve the turnaround speed (designers were blocked waiting for critique before moving forward) and to make this tool second nature for everyone in the team.

The results: These 3 simple rules transformed the effectiveness of critiques. Once we got over the initial learning curve of following these rules, fewer critiques were needed to accomplish goals. They were faster, more efficient and led to a definite increase in the quality of work. Feedback was focussed on the work itself, not on debates about what was right or wrong.
This meant team members could get valuable feedback while feeling ownership over their projects.

This also helped me share the responsibility of design team meetings, helping the design team function and move forward autonomously.

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2. Nudges (aka design gems)

The idea: Stolen with pride from Buzz at CM ;) — Any designer could send out an all-hands call to get an impromptu critique.

The intention: If a designer is blocked, stuck and can’t wait for the next critique, then they can put out a call for help and all available designers come together at the caller's desk ASAP.

The reality: This worked really well early on when we had a small team. It was great for building team morale (it always helps to know your teammates have your back. Once we got to more than 7 team members, it was hard to get everyone at the same time and we started using it less and less.

What we changed: We still use these as is, but only as a last resort. We’ve got into the rhythm of sharing design decisions on Slack or Confluence, and have stand-ups (short meetings every morning talking through our daily focus), we have less of a need.

The results: Knowing that we have a formal way of calling on our teammates is an essential support tool — it’s that safety net that helps us push forward confidently. The only difference is how often we use it.

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3. Ping pong sessions

The idea: Designers work as a pair to workshop a solution, bouncing the design for 15 minutes each way over an hour.

The intention: Sometimes feedback from critiques could be unclear or hard to give just with words. Being able to sit and work on the problem directly could be more productive.

The reality: Hit or miss. If you and your design partner have complementary working styles and are open to each other's ideas then it can be incredibly useful. If you clash then it can be a waste of time. Use once you’ve got a good, open culture of collaboration — not to build one.

What we changed: This is a tool that designers are taught about and choose how to use based on their own preferences. Introducing Figma and Notion has made direct collaboration much simpler by allowing teammates to work on the same project at the same time.

The results: Work is more refined by the time it arrives at critique and much less time is taken sharing files and bringing people up to speed.

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4 .Design language/system

The idea: Have an established and approved set of all design components and elements for web and mobile.

The intention: Maintain consistency across all experiences, reduce development time and complexity and speed up design.

The reality: It takes work. A lot of work from a lot of people. It’s well worth the work (seriously, I can’t over-emphasise how much time and effort this has saved in the long run), but it takes significant documentation, resource allocation and stakeholder management to make it happen.

What we changed: Our design language (now called Airtasker Design System) has changed and evolved a lot. It’s gone from a design toolbox to a fully-grown system. We started with simple components for Sketch, then we moved to libraries and Abstract until finally we now have a fully-fledged integration process for Figma and Storybook.

The results: This has been great since day 1. It’s hard to make sure designers communicate, document & acknowledge that it doesn’t cover every use case, but once you do you’re golden.

The real trick lies in early adoption (despite how hard it can be to justify). The earlier this is started, the bigger the value and the easier the process. It’s SO much harder to do once you’ve already implemented a whole variety of different components across different flows in different experiences.

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5. Add Specialists

The idea: Teammates, not tools, that designers can lean on for specific skillsets.

The intention: Help designers move quickly, shift direction when needed and still maintain quality.

The reality: This extra headcount is a luxury — they’re not 100% necessary to the operation of the business. However, they allow designers to rush forward at breakneck speeds with confidence that the specialists will be there to boost quality and catch mistakes.

What we changed: We started with a UX copywriter and an illustrator and introduced a UX researcher later on. These were embedded directly into the design team, joining critiques, stand-ups and workshop sessions to support wherever needed. Over time they ran their own projects, identifying areas of improvement within the product and upskilling teammates with their skillset so designers could be empowered in their own right.

The results: The introduction of a dedicated illustrator and writer made dramatic improvements to the quality of the experience within the product. We now had beautiful images and icons to add delight in flows and in marketing, and communication was clearer and had more personality than ever before (not to mention improved spelling and grammar — Schwarzy ;)).

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What now …

We’ve actually hit a pretty good workflow approach within the Design Team. We’re shipping things better, faster and stronger than ever.

But naturally, there’s always room to grow. Now that we’ve got some great foundations, we need to let the rest of the company (and even the world) know what we are working on and what we are learning. That will help us continue to get the resources we need to scale effectively and keep the momentum going!

Some of the things we’re trying now …

Fortnightly Design Emails
As Airtasker grows and grows, our Monday huddles as a company are getting more and more crowded. We used to be able to tell the entire company what we were working on just by shouting out, but now that’d take waaaaaaaaay too long.

So instead we’ve created a fortnightly email that goes into all the ins and outs of the design team — what we’ve been focussing on, why and how we’ve approached it. We’ve had some really good feedback so far and are looking forward to seeing how it will evolve.

Monthly Articles
As you can probably tell, we’re on a bit of a Medium push too. These articles are a great way to go into detail about things we’ve tried, learned and even failed at.

A few of our talented design team have also taken it upon themselves to present at Meetups across Sydney (Kym Langford did a great talk about Trust just recently at the UI/UX meetup). We’re also playing host to a few. This not only helps with recruitment, but it also breaks us out of our “bubble” — getting us to consider perspectives and feedback from outside our day-to-day.

That’s that

Well, that brings this toolbox to a close. I hope you’ve found it enlightening and useful in some way for your own particular situation. Please use these, tweak these, perfect or reject these as you feel fit, but whatever you do bear this mind — TRUST YOUR TEAM.

At the end of the day, you hired them because they’re good, so help them to become great. Give them clear realistic goals, tools, support, space and time. They will take you there.

Experience has taught me that tools are only valuable when someone feels comfortable to use them. So build your tools for your designers, not the other way around.



Shout out to Alex Schwarz and Jin Ju Hong for helping me to bring this article to life 🙌.

The Airtasker Tribe

We come from different places, distinct cultures and a…

Thanks to Kym Langford

Francesco de Chirico

Written by

Design at @Airtasker, leading the product design & brand design teams.

The Airtasker Tribe

We come from different places, distinct cultures and a nexus of crazy and complex people, but under one unified battle cry we forge forward as tribe Airtasker!

Francesco de Chirico

Written by

Design at @Airtasker, leading the product design & brand design teams.

The Airtasker Tribe

We come from different places, distinct cultures and a nexus of crazy and complex people, but under one unified battle cry we forge forward as tribe Airtasker!

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