Chapter 3 of "Designing a Design Team"
3.1 What is a fast-growing company?
There is still a lack of consensus on a specific definition of a fast-growing company (Coad et al., 2014). In that sense, Nibu et al. (2016) argue that due to said lack of consensus around the topic, a definition that is most likely to be recognized by the scholar community is that of the Eurostat-OECD (2007): “All enterprises with average annualized growth greater than 20% per annum, over a three year period should be considered as high-growth enterprises. Growth can be measured by the number of employees or by turnover. (…) A provisional size threshold has been suggested as at least 10 employees at the beginning of the growth period.”
In this author’s opinion, however, such definition no longer suffice and is outdated due to the surge of “startups” and their impact on the global economy. A startup, according to Eric Ries (2011) is “a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” In that context, the Eurostat-OECD’s definition of a high-growth enterprise is limited in range as it does not take into consideration young companies that are growing incredibly fast. Take Slack, a startup that offers cloud-based team collaboration tools and services, as an example. It launched in 2014 and, in one year, grew 350%. As per the Eurostat-OECD definition, it would not be a fast-growing company. As it turns out, Slack is one of the fastest growing companies of all time. It raised a total of $1.2 billion over 11 rounds of investment and is currently valued at $7.1 billion.
While it is true that most startups fail, they should not be excluded from the definition of a fast-growing company. Neil Patel (2015) argues that “fast growth” is what entrepreneurs crave, investors need, and markets want. He continues, “Rapid growth is the sign of a great idea in a hot market.” Logically, angel investors and venture capitalists will not wait three years to invest in any given company. As soon as it starts showing strong metrics, that could range from the number of daily active users to its monthly recurring revenue, investors will see that as an opportunity to add, not surprisingly, a fast-growing company to their portfolio. To conclude, Paul Graham (2012), who is the founder and former president of one of the most successful startups accelerators in the world (Y Combinator), says that there is no precise answer to which should be the growth rate for a company to be considered a startup — to put it into context, his definition of startup is “growth”. However, he agrees that it needs to produce an S-curve. To reach it, the company will generally grow 5% to 10% per week and, in his opinion, the best metric to measure growth rate is revenue.
3.2 What is design and why does it matter?
Rob Walker wrote in a 2003 article for The New York Times that the legendary entrepreneur and Apple founder, Steve Jobs, defined design as follows: “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it is this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That is not what we think design is. It is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” However inspiring said definition is hardly actionable due to the fact that it focuses mostly on the outcome rather than the process.
Therefore, this author’s preferred definition is that of Jared Spool, a user experience expert, who wrote that “design is the rendering of intent”. He continues, “the designer imagines an outcome and puts forth activities to make that outcome real.” (Spool, 2013). Purposefully vague, Spool’s definition points out that design is an on-going process, in a variety of contexts, regardless of how people perceive its occurrence. And by focusing on the outcome, one can more easily grasp (and plan) the actions that will ultimately lead to the desired outcome. Hence, design is the process of turning intent into a palpable outcome. Similarly, Miller (2004) argues that design is the act of creation — the thought process — as opposed to the product of creation. Furthermore, the Design Council (n.d.) defines design as “the process of translating ideas into reality, making abstract thoughts tangible and concrete.”
In a hyper-competitive world, design is not only one of the most critical components for creating killer innovations (Mckinney, 2017), but also a most powerful means of communication (Shaffer, 2013). Therefore, design is more than a problem solving tool. In that regard, Skinner and Merholz (2016) state that “problem solving is only the tip of the iceberg for design. Beneath the surface, design is a powerful tool for problem framing, ensuring that what is being addressed is worth tackling. Go deeper still, and you discover that the core opportunity for design is to inject humanism into work. The best designed products and services do not simply solve problems — they connect deeply with people.”
At the end of the day, those are among the reasons why design matters. Design, at its essence, help companies focus on the right problem and on the right way of solving such problem. It puts people first as it allows for empathy building in an effort to see the world through the eyes of others (Brown, 2009). All in all, companies that are serious about winning cannot go a day without design. The challenge, however, lies on understanding how to properly incorporate design — and the correlated collaboration principles that come with it — within the structure of a company, especially within those that are growing fast and, more often than not, do not have the time (or focus) to do so. As previously mentioned, this research project aims to provide an answer to that challenge.
Everyone talks about culture. Entrepreneurs, product managers, designers, software engineers. It has literally become a buzzword, especially within the technology sector, but the term is hardly well-defined or even understood by those who talk about it. At the same time that having a solid, inclusive culture is essential to growth, it cannot be enforced, as taught by Taavet Hinrikus, founder and former CEO of TransferWise. He goes on to say that culture is the “unwritten — but accepted — rules of how we behave” (Hinrikus, 2016).
Brian Chesky (2014), founder and CEO of Airbnb, describes culture as a shared way of doing something with passion. And he urges people not to “f*ck up the culture.” After all, culture is the driver of future innovation. In that context, Shin et al. (2016) state that “culture is a key factor that contributes to organizational effectiveness and employee work outcomes”. If the culture breaks, employees will naturally start to underperform as the passion fade away. Ultimately, it leads to a lower than expected product quality and customer service.
Any given company culture will be closely built around its mission. Having a clear mission statement, and being incisive about it (almost to repetition), helps people understand why the company exists and what is its purpose. An inspiring mission guarantees that people share common goals and are pulled in the same direction. Consequently, culture is being slowly built and nurtured within the company.
But why is culture so important to a business and why people should not take it for granted? Brian Chesky (2014) offers an insightful answer: “The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial. And if we have a company that is entrepreneurial in spirit, we will be able to take our next ‘(wo)man on the moon’ leap. Ever notice how families or tribes don’t require much process? That is because there is such a strong trust and culture that it supersedes any process. In organizations (or even in a society) where culture is weak, you need an abundance of heavy, precise rules and processes.”
Having a strong culture lead to a more sustainable, mature work environment, where trust, self-accountability, and motivation are the fuel to the next break-through. Additionally, there is no place for micromanagement, but for empowerment, which not only makes sure everyone’s voice is heard, but also gives people the authority they need to perform their best possible work. In that regard, Joseph Folkman (2017), by looking at data from more than 7,000 employees, concluded that the more empowered people feel, the more engaged they are.
Last, but not least, if a company wants to build a solid, inclusive culture, it is imperative to do so based on professionalism, boundaries, and work-life balance (Armstrong, 2017). Working long hours does not mean being more productive — on the contrary. In some countries, for instance, working late means that you were unable to finish your tasks for the day. An effective team plans its days ahead so that its members know what and when they need to deliver. More importantly, people care about the things they are working on and are responsible enough to make sure nobody in the team feels burnt out.
3.4 Design teams as organizational models
“A design or product team is more than just the people on it. A team includes the people, the roles they play, the team members’ objectives, the tools and methods they use, and the project structures in which they operate” (Brown, 2015). Even though there is no formula that teaches how to build an effective and solid design team, especially within the context of fast-growing companies, “design leaders must be thoughtful and intentional about how the design organization is structured” (Skinner and Merholz, 2016).
A design team can be built (or shaped) in various manners, and it usually depends on the stage or size of a company. At very early stage companies, for instance, the focus tends to be more on proving that the proposed solution solves a real problem and less on understanding the intricacies of design or crafting a pixel-perfect product on its first iteration. At later stages, however, where product-market fit has already been achieved, design should be the driving force behind growth and customer satisfaction.
Having a validated solution opens the door to structuring a design team. At this point, design initiatives are more commonly led by a founder with a design background or, if the founding team does not have a designer in it, by a freelance designer who is brought in-house to help shape the future of the organization from a user perspective, by an external design agency or even by the CTO (Chief Technology Officer) who may or may not have had some sort of design experience in a previous life. Not rarely, and mostly due to the focus on proving their solutions from a technical, business and human — as in desirable — perspectives, fast-growing companies are faced with the challenge of having to rethink their products from the ground up when it comes to design as user interface inconsistencies are all over the place.
Undoubtedly, this is far from being the only reason behind why companies need a design team. At the end of the day, companies invest in design to remove the barriers — the complexities — between their solutions and their customers. By designing something easier to use, and ultimately more graspable, designers are making products more desirable, which accounts for an increase in customer satisfaction and retention. Therefore, design not only influences product decisions, but also business strategy. Properly structuring a design team, in that sense, is of utmost importance to any company that wants to thrive while still growing sustainably.
Skinner and Merholz (2016) teach that, from an organization model point of view, design teams can operate as Centralized Internal Services, Decentralized and Embedded or as a Centralized Partnership.
3.4.1 Centralized Internal Services
As companies perceive the value of design, some sort of structure is needed. And perhaps the most applicable solution to it is that of an external design agency mimicked in-house. Skinner and Merholz (2016) explain that in this model the design team is led by a director who oversees teams, each having its own manager, responsible for a number of interdependent functions, such as interaction design, information architecture, visual design, usability and project management.
Similarly to a design agency, the team functions as a talent pool that is requested on-demand and on a project-to-project basis. The request tends to take the shape of a creative brief, with a defined set of problems that need solutions within a time frame. Design work is then done almost exclusively based on the initial requirements, which may or may not reflect user needs. As soon as the project is finished, designers wait for the next one.
Even though it might look like that the Centralized Internal Services model is outdated, it can support companies foster its design culture while, at the same time, allow designers to be flexible in regard to the projects they are involved with. Plus, it is the first step towards consistency in user experience and user interface, a problem faced by many companies, big or small, as previously mentioned.
As the main drawback of said model, Skinner and Merholz (2016) argue that “designers find themselves fundamentally disempowered” as the important decisions are made by business people in a previous step. There is no space for conducting user testing sessions or (in)validating assumptions and hypothesis. The work needs to be done and time is of the essence.
3.4.2 Decentralized and Embedded
Companies tend to mature with time. They learn from previous experiences and shift to a superior way of delivering value to its customers. Broadly speaking, winning companies go through transformational changes based on experimentation and trial and error as an overarching method of problem solving. The Decentralized and Embedded model surges as the “obvious next step” to the Centralized Internal Services one.
In general, being “decentralized” means that the company is organized into autonomous teams, each held accountable for a specific part of a bigger product. Such teams have the freedom to decide their own fate and priorities (with few constraints), focusing on the user needs as a way of generating value as fast and effectively as possible. “Embedded”, from the design team perspective, means having one or two designers teamed up with a product manager, frontend and backend developers.
According to Skinner and Merholz (2016), there might still be a Head of Design in such a structure, “but that person’s role has become consultative and strategic”. Additionally, one could state that the Head of Design is more of a facilitator, someone who will support the embedded design team members perform at their daily tasks by removing unnecessary distractions out of the way. In parallel, this person is the touchpoint between the design team and the company management. This author, however, disagrees with Skinner and Merholz in regard to hiring: while the latter affirm that the Head of Design would no longer have direct authority over hiring, the former argues that the Head of Design is still the person responsible for setting the foundations, which includes making sure that not only the best design minds are hired, but also the ones who are fit from a team and company culture perspective. That is not to say that other people, designers or not, should not be included in the hiring process of other designers. They naturally should, but the Head of Design would still be there to align expectations and propagate the design vision.
Designers are creative individuals who want autonomy and flexibility to better perform at their jobs. In that regard, the Decentralized and Embedded model offers not only those — autonomy and flexibility — but also ownership. The product development cycle, therefore, is usually speedier and more iterative as product designers feel empowered and are not micromanaged by the Head of Design. For such model to work, however, trust is crucial. Even though trust is something that can be built, hiring the right people is key to any company that wants to implement this model.
From a broader perspective and especially if it is compared to the first model discussed in this thesis, the Decentralized and Embedded one looks like the ideal setup to a company that wants to innovate and scale fast. Although one would generally agree with that, it still has drawbacks. Skinner and Merholz (2016) explain that teams are focused on one problem for a long time and designers can often feel lonely and disconnected from other designers within the organization. As a result, designers can fall into the trap of working in silos, which, for one, can create design inconsistencies throughout the product (e.g. each team working on different parts of the product, each with its own design components). To overcome this problem, however, fast-growing companies are investing in building a Design System, a single source of truth which groups all the elements that will allow the teams to design, realize and develop a product (Hacq, 2018).
Additionally, user research is often neglected or marginalized as it is hard for decentralized teams to justify their own user research, beyond quick and inexpensive efforts like online user testing, analyzing logs, and inferences from A/B testing (Skinner and Merholz, 2016). Therefore, user research, if any, remains centralized, which in some cases can lead to more confusion than clarification as the workload for the user researcher can quickly escalate and become sparse. Lack of focus and prioritization are two of the possible outcomes derived from centralizing user research. Similarly, by regularly moving from one project to another, the user researcher becomes less of an expert and more of a generalist.
3.4.3 Centralized Partnership
The Centralized Partnership model, as per Skinner and Merholz (2016), is the best of both worlds: “From an organization chart perspective, it is centralized, with all designers in one organization, reporting up through a single point of leadership (…) However, these designers are not part of a general pool of resources that are assigned on a project basis. Instead, they are organized into skills-complete teams, which in turn are dedicated to specific aspects of the business.”
From a team structure perspective, there will usually be a team lead, senior designers and other designers. The team lead is the single point of leadership and is the person from the design team who is in direct contact with the company’s management (e.g. Director of Product and Director of Engineering). Senior designers have a direct relationship with product managers and will take part in strategic discussions within their teams while other, non-senior designers are more focused on executing the strategic vision. Smart companies, however, understand that the decision making process cannot be purely top-down. Every team member has a voice and should be heard, regardless of seniority.
In terms of the size of the team, Skinner and Merholz (2016) suggest that they should “range from 2 to 7 members. Seven people can take on a large program — consider a generous designer-to-developer ratio of 1 to 5, we’re talking about a program that requires 35 engineers! If it seems the team should be bigger than 7, it’s likely its mandate has gotten too big. Split the team into two, each with a sharper focus.”
Jeanne Liedtka (2014), a Professor at the Darden School at the University of Virginia, interviewed leaders at a number of Fortune 100 organizations and concluded that “the process of innovation in many large organizations could fairly be described as the battlefield in which R&D, marketing, and business development functions seemed to wrestle for control and often work at cross-purposes with each other”. She argues that “contrary to the heroic, lone-genius myth of innovation is the reality that success is often the result of a team effort” (ibid.). In that regard, it is imperative that design teams be structured in a way where everyone is not only an individual contributor to the whole, but is also driven by impact.
In the Centralized Partnership model, teams should not be overly attached to the product organization or business units, but organized by customer type. A team that has a deep understanding of the user it is designing for can more easily empathize with them (Kelley and Kelley, 2013). The more “obsessed” designers are with the customers’ needs, the bigger the chances of creating delightful user experiences. From a more practical point of view, organizing a team by customer type means that your “team mission” is to serve well a specific “persona”. Taking a company in the HR tech sector as an example, one team could be focused on “recruiters”. Therefore, its mission could be to provide recruiters with all the necessary tools and processes to more effectively hire new talent to their companies. By making this explicit, team members, designers or not, are aware of the end goal of their teams and the purpose of their work.
Finally, Skinner and Merholz (2016) conclude that “the hub-and-spoke qualities of the Centralized Partnership provide a strong centralized foundation (the hub) upon which to build, but give greater freedom to the teams (the spokes) in their execution to address the challenges under their purview.”
3.5 Team building and development
Building a strong and productive design team is not an easy task. However, perhaps even more important than putting a team of talented individuals together is developing such a team. Design managers are not only responsible for laying the team’s foundational components such as values, principles and mindset (“shared sense of purpose”), but also for making sure people work well together and that the goals and objectives are clear and achievable.
3.5.1 Shared sense of purpose
“Successful teams need a shared sense of purpose that establishes their identity and the impact they hope to have” (Skinner and Merholz, 2016). As previously mentioned, values, principles and mindset are the foundation in which a team is built on. Being intentional and transparent about such foundation helps team members to be more committed to its mission and ultimately deliver (more) quality work.
The “shared sense of purpose”, in that sense, can be designed in various different manners. It can be a set of short, straight to the point sentences or principles (e.g. “Customers are everything”, “Design with intention”, “Make something people love”, “There is no room for ego”, etc.). It can be a simple, but more sophisticated — and arguably more generic — statement, such as the one offered by Skinner and Merholz (2016): “We’re not here just to make it pretty or easy to use. Through empathy, we ensure meaning and utility. With craft, we elicit understanding and desire. We wrangle the complexity of our offering to deliver a clear, coherent, and satisfying experience from start to finish”. It can even be a lengthier document, which can mix a bit of everything, from principles to team statement to career plan (paths), to a name a few of the topics it can comprise.
Nonetheless, there is no “one size fits all” approach. Every team has its own approach and what matters the most is that the team leadership ensures that it “shared sense of purpose” exists, regardless of form and size.
3.5.2 Knowing, respecting and understanding each other
There are numerous ways of building a relationship with colleagues. Hyper Island, sometimes referred to as the “Digital Harvard”, offers a toolbox (https://toolbox.hyperisland.com/) with various methods, workshops and guides for companies that acknowledge the need for “something more” when it comes to team development.
To build an effective team, one should not be focused exclusively on the outcome of what is produced on a daily basis. As a matter of fact, for a team to have an impact it first needs to ensure that its team can work (and work well) together. To do so, it is vital that its members are not only bound by the same values/principles/mindset, but also know, respect and understand each other.
Connecting with colleagues on a deeper level requires that teams establish a culture of openness, self and team reflection and regular feedback, which will lead to building trust among its members. On this subject, Hyper Island (n.d.) recommends activities/techniques such as “check-ins and check-outs”, “stinky fish”, “Johari window” and “structured/regular feedback sessions” to support teams in achieving that goal.
Check-ins and check-outs
“Checking-in or checking-out is a simple way for a team to open or close a process, symbolically and in a collaborative way. Checking-in/out invites each member in a group to be present, seen and heard, and to express a reflection or a feeling. Checking-in emphasizes presence, focus and group commitment; checking-out emphasizes reflection and symbolic closure” (HI Toolbox, n.d.). More at: https://toolbox.hyperisland.com/check-in-check-out.
The “Stinky Fish”, as a team development tool, helps teammates share they own fears, anxieties and uncertainties with one another. It is “a metaphor for that thing that you carry around but don’t like to talk about; but the longer you hide it, the stinkier it gets” (HI Toolbox, n.d.). More at: https://toolbox.hyperisland.com/stinky-fish-13d9ce8d-e64f-4085-8a06-8d212c627788.
The Johari Window is a technique mainly used to build trust within teams. And one of the best ways to do it is by being as open and honest as possible. When personal information is disclosed to others, the first step to building better, more trusting relationships is taken. Additionally, the Johari Window helps people to understand their blind spots and explore unknown areas to them and to others, which ultimately leads to a path of self-discovery and self-reflection. More at: https://www.buildingthelifeyoulove.com/the-johari-window-model/.
Regular feedback sessions
“The term ‘feedback’ has come to serve as a euphemism for criticizing others, as in ‘the boss gave me feedback on my presentation’. Following this same logic, ‘positive feedback’ does not mean praise and ‘negative feedback’ does not mean criticism” (Cole, 2015).
Putting it simply, feedback is a tool that helps to understand behaviors and improve relationships. More than that, it is a gift. When someone gives feedback to another person, they should just accept it and reflect on it. Having regular feedback sessions will most likely make any team work better and more effectively together because it builds trust and encourages transparency among teammates.
3.5.3 Personal and professional growth
Winning in business is a long-term game. Therefore, retaining talented people is essential. Aware of that, smart companies are transforming the workplace into a learning environment. At those companies, teammates are constantly learning from one another — sometimes without even realizing it — but more than that, they are being encouraged to learn on a regular basis.
Companies are starting to offer “personal and professional development” packages as part of their employee benefit programs, so employees can learn new skills and, ultimately, get better at their jobs. By promoting personal and professional development, companies are investing in its teams’ morale and self-esteem, which tends to increase their overall productivity and efficiency.
3.6 Ethics and design
Mike Monteiro (2017), the co-founder and design director of Mule Design, wrote that one is a human being before being a designer. By being a human being, one is part of the social contract. And, collectively, we need to assure that we are holding each other accountable.
Leslie Becker (2012) teaches that “design practices can involve many genres of ethical problems”. Therefore, design is not only about simply crafting experiences, but also about guaranteeing that such experiences are helpful and not harmful. In that regard, Mike Monteiro (2017) goes on to say that “we need to fear the consequences of our work more than we love the cleverness of our ideas.” Similarly, Aral Balkan (2016) argues that to design ethically aligned products one needs to be aware of human rights, human effort and human experiences. Consequently, it is not an exaggeration to state that designers have an increasingly important role in shaping the future both by a moral and a human standard.
At the same time that designers are the driving force to solving the problem of the many, they are the ones responsible for evaluating the impact of the work to be produced (or being produced) as not every problem is worthy to be solved. As Mike Monteiro (2017) would put it, ”a designer uses their expertise in the service of others without being a servant. Saying no is a design skill. Asking why is a design skill. Rolling your eyes is not. Asking ourselves why we are making something is an infinitely better question than asking ourselves whether we can make it.”
Asking why more regularly is what companies such as Uber should be doing. The company is not only known for creating arguably the most popular ride-hailing in the world, but also for making dubious — to say the least — design decisions. In a thorough article published by The New York Times, Noam Scheiber (2017) explained how Uber used psychological tricks to push its drivers’ buttons: “of course, many companies try to nudge consumers into buying their products and services using psychological tricks. But extending these efforts to the work force is potentially transformative.” To manipulate its drivers to work longer hours, the company sent subtle messages to drivers who wanted to go offline:
By putting profits first, Uber is “not only deteriorating their driver’s trust — they’re taking away their sense of autonomy, ultimately decreasing their quality in life“ (Sohail, 2017).
3.7 (Cross) Team collaboration
A successful team excels at collaboration. In simple terms, team collaboration is about “finding new ways of working as a team, creating new ideas, fostering an innovative culture to achieve goals and objectives, and acquiring better solutions” (Muslihat, 2018). Furthermore, it is also about clearly communicating (“hear and be heard”) and interacting with different people, who have different experiences, expectations, and roles.
Liana Roxana Dumitru (2018), a Dropbox’s product designer, argues that developing good collaboration within your own team does not suffice. Therefore, building relationships across teams, and learning to work with people who are different from you, is fundamental to achieve excellence. That said, operating as the lone genius — e.g. doing everything on your own, or only with other designers — is the recipe for disaster. A healthy company not only creates multi and cross-functional teams, but also encourages their members to consistently build on each other thoughts and ideas.
As a designer, one will work and collaborate with multiple disciplines: research, engineering, marketing, customer success, product, sales. To excel and create value, it is of utmost importance to understand each of these disciplines as thoroughly as possible. For instance, even though a designer is not expected to be as proficient at coding as engineers, it helps to have at least a solid knowledge of the basics (and of the constraints around it). The same is generally true for the other disciplines. By detaching themselves from a pure design point of view, designers build trust and increase their overall impact within their organizations.
A winning company is transparent and embraces feedback and co-creation. Having said that, this author is an advocate for sharing early and often. Collaborating with product managers, for example, is essential to define hypothesis and predictions while working closely and early on with engineers helps to reduce misalignment and understand technical constraints. Additionally, people are aware of the intentionality behind design decisions and are welcomed (and encouraged) to voice their opinions on them.
In companies where product teams are mission-based and autonomous, it is particularly important that they work well and collaboratively with one another. Imagine a scenario where each product team has a product manager, an engineering manager, five or six engineers and a designer. If each team focuses exclusively on their own missions, it is likely that the product will have a different identity and will offer a mutating experience depending on which team is responsible for what part of the product.
In general, apart from what have been mentioned above, a key characteristic of a company that has effective cross-team collaboration is to be open about what each team, both at an individual and collective level, is working on. Having regular touchpoints and updates, transparent Objective and Key Results (OKRs) and being ego-free, for instance, foster a working environment where people are empowered and accountable not only for their own teams’ success, but also for others’.
I’m a Product Designer based in Munich and working at Personio. If you’d like to see some of my recent work, you can find me on Dribbble. Want to chat or grab a coffee? Shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org :)