Scaling UX: All for One and One for All

Oct 18, 2019 · 9 min read

By Antoine Bonnin, Head of Design & Research @ Chewy

“Uniforme des Mousquetaires” Wikipedia

The famed “Mousquetaires” of Alexandre Dumas are known for their motto, Tous pour un, un pour tous, “All for one and one for all.” The motto emphasizes the virtue of solidarity and the bonds between team members who share a common goal and purpose. This is why working for a startup is so rewarding, and why every company tries to replicate a start-up culture as they scale. Successful start-ups — no matter the stage of development — always put the focus on customer satisfaction, both internal and external. If happy customers make for good business, happy employees make for great business.

This customer-centric approach was an important factor when I joined Chewy in the summer of 2015. Anyone who has experienced our customer service colleagues can testify to their unique care and unmatched dedication. How many companies answer you in less than three rings? How many times have you gotten a refund before finishing your first sentence? Our human-to-human experience sets the bar incredibly high. Back then, the goal to bring our digital experiences closer to it seemed like a daunting task. But when the needs of your teams and customers are met continuously, it becomes difficult not to be successful.

Quick side note: readers should know this post is not a tutorial on how to scale a UX team. For that, check out this resource, and this one, and of course always this one. This is only my experience scaling a team at a company that went through three late stage of fundings (D, E, F), one acquisition, and an IPO. While the terms “explosive growth” or “hyper growth” were not new to me from years in the Silicon Valley, the sheer scale of it at Chewy was something I had not experienced firsthand.

So, what would MacGyver do?

When I joined Chewy, the design team was composed of one graphic designer and the COO, who had owned a creative agency in a past life. The company was very much in start-up mode. The mission given to me was to first refresh the brand (the next funding round was looming), improve our marketing output, update the overall digital experiences, and build a “UX team.” I would need to wear a lot of different hats, from delivering on designs, to creating new processes, hiring, managing, etc. This was also an amazing opportunity for design to have a huge impact on a fast-growing company.

At the time, with limited design resources, we had to cut corners, and follow the “MacGyver approach” to solving problems. If all MacGyver needed was a paperclip, a Swiss-army knife and duct tape to save the world, all we required were whiteboards, a laptop, and user-centered design.

Welcome to Chewy! Go go go…

After a quick onboarding with the COO, our immediate priorities were hiring and branding, so we agreed that a new career site was needed — something “modernized” that could be “built fast.” At the time, the branding was four years old, but its core was strong. The brand’s principle had always been to provide the best customer service possible, going beyond expectations. Any company founded on this idea is inherently easier to grow, as every interaction increases brand affinity — we just needed to own our position of leader in the market. So, we used the career site project as a launching pad to rethink the brand positioning. We needed it to be more flexible, something the old brand was lacking.

To understand how we got to the new brand, let me take you back to Chewy in the summer of 2015. We were growing fast, and hiring was constant and would be for the foreseeable future (still is today). A big consideration was Chewy’s legions of fans: at that time, 40% of new customers came from word of mouth, and people had grown attached to the brand.

The new brandmark was simplified. The blue went away from cyan and used a more vibrant palette. In the end, we kept its core intact in hopes that current customers wouldn’t lose their affinity to it. Investors were also an important audience to consider: the brand evolution was meant to show investors that Chewy was no longer just a young startup, but a business to be reckoned with.

Jobs @ Chewy was the first real test of this new brand and a clear departure from the main website at the time. It was a chance to marry the brand to a business vertical (Recruiting) and add a sense of belonging, something prospective talent could picture themselves in. It was an easy test, since it would only affect potential candidates, not customers. It was also a soft introduction to current team members, making a wider launch in the next few months an easier transition.

2015 Chewy Website

As we tackled more pieces of the website redesign in 2016, the main takeaway came from the front-end team. It was clear to them that we needed a design system to make future iterations more efficient and reduce the amount of design QA required during implementation. One of the senior developers started that work on his time off, and when he showed a proof of concept to the leadership, it was a no-brainer. We created a new team that focused solely on the Chewy Design System. They worked closely with the Product Design team to ensure continuity across our web platforms. Eventually, that collaboration would get even closer, and the Chewy Design System team would come under the umbrella of Product Design.

Now, all we needed was a UX team. The “MacGyver approach” had proven fruitful, but it started to reach its limits after one year and a half in action. We were looking toward expanding our reach to native apps, internal tools, and more. Scaling the team would be next.

Building for tomorrow

I had been at Chewy for two years, and we had gone through a rebrand, web experience redesign, launched our first iOS app, and started processes to help the teams be more efficient. Unfortunately, it was difficult to recruit UX talent in South Florida, and leadership decided it was time to look for a more tech-friendly neighborhood. Boston was chosen, and in early 2017, we made our first New England hires, including on the Product Design side. We decided that I’d move to our Boston office to grow and lead the Product Design team.

Do you like Dunks?

Moving to Boston from Dania Beach was an easy transition for me. I lived in NYC and Toronto in the past, and the snow was a welcome contrast to the yearlong summers of Florida. The first thing to know about Boston: Dunkin Donuts is referred to as “Dunks” or “Dunkies” and locals love it, your favorite football team has to be the Patriots, and the tech community is flourishing! We quickly found a great Product Designer who would help with our internal tools. A few months later, we had a team of product designers, including our first content strategist.

We were cautious about hiring too fast because we wanted the scope of designers’ work to stay significant. The last thing I wanted was for the team to become so big that team members would only work on tiny features. Designers (and others) do their best when they can see the impact they have on the experience. Limiting their scope too much will inherently hinder their thinking and risk ending up with less creative solutions. We wanted to think about experiences in the context of the user’s mental model, and that model is rarely limited to just one feature. That’s why teams need to collaborate, but it’s also why giving designers wider scopes helps them do their best work. So far, our team at Chewy has been quite content with our growth and their contribution to it.

Building a design culture

As the business needs grew, so did our team. We wanted to triple it in the next 12 months with an emphasis on research. Thankfully, we hired great design managers with strong networks of talent in Boston. All I had to do was to trust my team to help find talent while I focused on creating a team culture. Lucky for me, there are great resources out there. Peter Mrholz and Kirstin Skinner’s book was a godsend as far as team organization. After a few iterations, we agreed on a structure that would fit our current and future needs.

Team org iterations

Next, we needed something to bring the team together. That’s when I attended Zaki Wrafel’s design leadership workshop. He had managed hundreds of designers in the past and was a great coach. His advice was based on past experiences and was actionable right away. One of my favorite quotes of his:

“Culture and leadership are not a consequence of doing work in a certain way. Instead, they create the healthy context where excellent work is done.” — Zaki Wrafel

To me, this meant that without establishing a strong culture, my leadership would not stick, and the work would suffer.

In order to establish a UX culture, Zaki’s advice was to create a team charter that would state my expectations as a leader, but more importantly, it would put on paper a common set of principles and beliefs for our team. The charter was meant to give the team a sense of belonging, but it would also help other teams at Chewy understand what we stood for.

Our next step was to give team members a future at Chewy. In other words, what would it mean to be at Chewy for the next 5 or 10 years? How would I grow within the team? We established a team competency document to give current and prospective talent a clear idea of their current skills and what they should work on in the future. To make it more actionable, we created a simple tool for managers to easily keep track of each team member’s effort. Turns out, this competency document was a great recruiting and retention tool. Prospective team members loved that there was a clear path for their career.

Competency Chart

Now that we had the necessary tools to build a team, hiring got a lot easier. We built the research team in six months (thanks Jess!) and reached our goal of tripling the team in 10 months. The team’s culture is only getting stronger and evolving on its own accord. The future of the UX team at Chewy is very bright. As Chewy keeps growing to meet pet parents’ needs, we are set up to not only meet that demand, but surpass it, with the ultimate goal of matching our customer service experience.

by Antoine Bonnin

Head of Design & Research @ Chewy

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