Never forget, there’s an ‘I’ in ‘Designer’
How to grow your people and team at scale
When I joined CarMax in 2015, I was one of five product designers. Alongside our Product and Technology counterparts, we formed the first product teams that would challenge CarMax’s approach to find, prioritize, and solve customer-centered problems.
Our starting lineup was made up of what you hear referred to as generalists or ‘T-shaped’ designers — practitioners skilled across many areas. Like rotating players on a sports team, each of us could play at any position with reasonable skill. Researching, facilitating workshops and interviews, prototyping, visual or UX design, testing, iterating, refining, measuring — whew, we wore all the hats.
This approach, paired with our lean problem-solving and skills over roles mindset helped our teams create new, digital experiences and capabilities in a short time. So, as we added more teams, we filled the bench with designers who, like us, had a broad set of skills in lieu of a specialized practice of design. And it worked well for a time…
Fast forward a year or two and most of our team still did wear all the hats. But wearing two, or three, or four at a time quickly led to prioritization trade-offs, fatigue, frustration; and generally, it just slowed us down.
If you’ve ever worked in a product organization before, you know velocity is critical. But velocity at the expense of quality was not negotiable. Not for us.
To move faster, we learned to lean on each other’s respective strengths. As an example, a product designer with more visual design skills would partner with a product designer more experienced in quantitative research, or vice versa, to progress their respective learning objectives.
While this new evolution of our working model was effective, it wasn’t scalable. We still faced trade-offs and fatigue attempting to solve increasingly more complex problems. We decided any further growth should be focused on finding individuals much stronger in specific design disciplines–experts in their respective fields; commonly referred to as ‘I-shaped’ practitioners.
Every time our team has grown and scaled; we’ve learned a ton. But there are two things I think every team could benefit from.
Scaling your UX group with quality is dependent on your ability to execute through partnership.
As we brought in specialized support for Visual Design and UX Writing, it quickly became clear how valuable their partnership with Product Designers was. If Product Designers felt they needed to focus more on research, for example, they were able to partner to ensure finer details of visual design or brand voice and tone were consistent across experiences.
You’ll want to recruit ‘I-shaped’ practitioners to balance your generalist ranks. You’ll quickly learn, as we did, to rely on these partnerships not only for the support of individuals and teams, but also for the expert insights and guidance they’ll provide the broader product org.
You can’t scale a UX group at the expense of your individual contributors’ growth and development. The two are fundamentally tied together.
Your opportunity beyond improving your design practice is how you can invest in and focus on your designers’ individual growth and development. Your team should be able to pursue growth in areas of respective interest without the quality of their work suffering; and even consider lateral movement to specialize in a respective design practice if they have that interest. Your ‘I-shaped’ designers should also have the chance to develop their skills and transition to support teams as a ‘T-shaped’ designer, too, if they like.
Encourage collaboration and partnership to enable an individual’s pursuit of specialized and/or generalized skills to allow them to grow and in turn, influence the growth of our UX group.
Growing a UX group is easy. But designing your team with intention and scaling with quality is a worthier ambition. Just remain focused on supporting and growing the people who make up your team as you scale.
For an interesting read about ‘T-shaped’ and ‘I-shaped’ people, refer to “Why T-shaped people?” by Jason Yip