Keeping Design Vibrant at a Dev-led (and any other) Company

Our story about growing design’s presence and value at a company, where developers have cache(t)

It’s no secret Algolia was founded “by developers for developers”, and given our emphasis on breakthrough technology, it’s no surprise that early on the focus was on building out our engineering organization. The truth is, the product and design orgs are quite young at Algolia (1.5 years old). And while developers still make up the vast majority of our product building org, this doesn’t mean that design hasn’t found its home here, too!

Thinking about elevating design’s presence in an organization is not a new topic. In fact, in San Francisco, this topic has been regurgitated so many times, I am sure you Bay Area folks are all rolling your eyes right now. I am based in Paris, though, and here, the topic is alive and very relevant. I often get approached by designers from other Parisian start-ups asking for advice on what they can do to make design more valued, vibrant and visible.

Here are a few things we’ve tried at Algolia to communicate what designers do and to strengthen our design culture as a team.

Take Up Physical Space

We took the “make design visible” goal literally and occupied a free corner of the office to show our designs, research and to gather feedback. It was incredible how many conversations the new space sparked. Others in the office approached us to ask design-related questions or to simply learn about what we’re doing. It was a great opportunity for us to expand their understanding of what designers do day-to-day and how we think.

Show, Don’t Tell

This is one of the mindsets from Stanford d.school’s Intro to Design Thinking workshops, and we try to live it every day. Instead of just telling others what designers do, we try to show them by facilitating workshops, inviting them to user research sessions, and using the design process sporadically. For example, once time at a Product offsite we wanted to figure out which problem, as a product group, we should solve. After seeing that just chatting about it wasn’t moving us forward, one of our designers proposed the Note-and-Vote technique from the Design Spring methodology (also very well described by AJ&Smart in this YouTube video). The team was engaged and, in the end, we came up with a project to tackle. The organizer of the offsite thought it was a great way to cut down on back-and-forth chatting and to arrive at an outcome.

Build Alliances by Providing Support

Early on, we recognized that a key partner of design would be the client-facing teams, as they saw every day the kind of impact design thinking can have on client outcomes. We have developed several initiatives to help support these teams, so that, in return, they can advocate on our behalf as well.

One of our early initiatives was to establish UX Office Hours, where anyone could come to ask questions. At first, the attendees were primarily from sales and account management. However, over time, we have seen more and more people from other groups come, such as developers, PMs and marketers. We host them every 2 weeks on a first-come, first-serve basis. This is a great way for us to understand where the greatest design needs are in the organization and how we can address them. For example, after noticing a pattern of similar questions about best practices of search experience on e-commerce sites, our team held a “Special Edition Office Hours: Best Practices of E-commerce Search.” It was a huge success and delivered immediate value to the client-facing and marketing teams.

Another thing we did was to provide individual support to high-priority clients by conducting UX workshops and having UX reviews of their designs. While this was surely outside of our scope of work, it helped us build key relationships within the organization.

When it came time to advocate for more headcount or to move certain initiatives forward, we weren’t the only ones making the case for them. Our partners in other parts of the org helped convince decision-makers that design is a worthwhile investment.

Welcome Everyone Into the Process

When building a product, it is common sense to include other product building teams (devs and PMs) in the process by hosting regular design reviews, facilitating design sprints and actively encouraging an exchange of ideas. But what about those folks in the organization that don’t directly build products? How do we get them to understand the process and its value?

At Algolia, we wanted to move beyond our direct squads to show the value of human-centered design. We started to host monthly “Introduction to Design Thinking Workshops” (based on Stanford’s s.school Crash Course) open to anyone at Algolia. By getting their hands dirty and trying out the process, many of our colleagues realized that design is more than just pretty UI, and, more importantly, found tools they could apply to their day-to-day work.

Start Within (Build a Strong Team)

It is hard to build a vibrant design culture without a vibrant design team. This is why if you’re on the hiring side of things, it is essential to recruit folks who will not only produce great work, but will also drive the design culture forward. At Algolia, we have an amazing team of designers with different backgrounds, personalities and experiences. We are all united by passion for our company and for design. We are also all on-board with fighting the good fight in order to make sure design gets its proper place and recognition. Finally, we try to have a good time and support each other, which is essential when the going gets tough. Being able to rely on my team’s support has been essential in staying positive, looking on the bright side of things and thinking of great solutions to all sorts of problems.

While it takes ongoing effort to keep design vibrant and understood at a company, the positive results are absolutely worth it. It gives the team a sense of accomplishment and improves our day-to-day work environment. We also learn from the experiences, which is always important. If you’ve tried things that we haven’t though of, please share your ideas in the comments below! We are always looking for new ways to bring others at Algolia into our world.

If you think you want to join a team like this, get in touch. We’re hiring!