The Product Designer’s Guide to Growth
Step 1: Figure out what growth means
I have a lot of friends who work in Growth, but I never really knew exactly what they did. Whenever our conversations turned towards “growth stuff”, I would always just smile, nod, and occasionally contribute a, “that’s really cool!”
It’s not like I was clueless. I mean, I had an idea of what “Growth” meant — growing users, making money, right? But honestly, it sounded pretty boring. And I never thought it’d have anything to do with design, which was what I was really passionate about.
Fast forward to now. I’m a few months into a Growth Designer role at Evernote, and it’s safe to say I now know a lot more about growth than before. I’ve discovered that not only is it not boring (surprise!), it’s actually a super fascinating field to be in as a designer.
So if you’re growth-curious, but still find Growth Design to be a little mysterious, like I did, (and no worries if you do — it is a “growing” profession, after all), here are 7 things I learned that maybe could be helpful.
1. Figure out what the **** “designing for growth” actually means
If you work in tech, you may be familiar with the term “Growth Hacking” — previously a startup-exclusive title for people who were responsible for finding ways to “hack” the system to grow users and make money. But as “Growth” in general has evolved, the “hacking” part has faded away, and more processes and best practices have been put in place. Nowadays, designers are getting into the game as well, and lately more folks than ever are adding “designing for growth” to their resumes. But what exactly does it mean?
Every company does it differently, but I’ll go off my own experience at Evernote. Here, I work closely with Growth Marketers, Product Managers, Analysts and Engineers on designing and optimizing various parts of our product to move key metrics—whether that be monetization, engagement, retention, or acquisition.
That means I work on flows like signup, onboarding, and checkout, but also partner with other designers to improve experiences across the board and increase engagement.
Everything I design is an experiment — not ready to roll out until proven successful. Defining these experiments is another huge part of my job: thinking through what to test, how to test it, and how to measure success.
2. Think in experiments, and be agile
So what’s the process? We work in one week cycles. Our team huddles together to define what we’re going to experiment with in the beginning of week, review those experiments in the middle of the week, and analyze the results of previous experiments at the end of the week.
Why one week? The decision was deliberate. Traditional 2 week sprints are good for churning out work fast and iterating towards a clearly understood goal (e.g, launch of a product). But our work in growth is less defined. We work towards moving metrics, rather than meeting product deadlines. So our process is characterized by the ability and willingness to change direction fast when we learn new things. This lends itself much better to one week cycles, in which we evaluate what we accomplished each week to decide what to do next week.
Are you the type of person who is used to designing a single large product or feature that takes weeks to conceptualize, design, and implement?
I was. And transitioning into the Growth Design role was definitely a bit of a shock. Now, any given week I could be working on 3 feature or flow experiments, and some user research and copywriting on the side. The good news is, I still get to work on the cool stuff and the gnarly problems. I just learn to churn out ideas faster, experiment on them, and get results back so I can iterate more efficiently.
3. Think like a psychologist (or a pseudo one)
Like any other kind of design, Growth Design is all about human psychology, but perhaps even more so than usual. When you’re thinking about how to convert and engage users, understanding underlying motivations and subconscious biases is doubly important.
At Evernote, we do that by making sure our quantitative knowledge is always backed by qualitative user research, and that we combine the two to drive and inform our design decisions.
We also read a lot of psychology books and articles to help deepen our understanding — Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a personal favorite — and base our experiments on tried and true psychological principles.
4. Expect the unexpected
But experimentation is as much about failing as it is about succeeding. No matter how confident we are in our pseudo-psychological theories, our experiment results always have a way of putting us in our place.
I can’t tell you how many times an experiment has come back showing something we completely didn’t expect.
That greatly simplified redesign we thought would make the page cleaner, reduce users’ mental loads, and convince them to buy? Nope. Turns out users wanted more information to help them make a decision.
It takes some getting used to, but I’ve come to love it when unexpected results come back. Because every time my assumptions are challenged, I learn something. And I get a little better at my job.
That’s why whenever we set up our experiments, our main objective is always to learn, rather than to achieve smashing success (although smashing success is nice too). Sometimes sending out variants we assume WON’T work and seeing what happens is more interesting than testing something we think definitely will.
The more we invite failure, the more we increase our chances of failing towards a home run. If we run 100 experiments and 99 fail, but the process leads us to 1 monumental success, and if that success makes us 10 cents more per user/per year, and if we roll that experience out to 100 million users… you do the math! (If you don’t want to do the math, read the next section.)
5. Learn how to read numbers
Unsurprisingly, a huge part of Growth experimentation is monitoring experiment results, and that means it’s crucial for Growth Designers to understand numbers and contribute to strategic decisions.
Part of this is just knowing when a result has become significant. Oftentimes an experiment variant can look like it’s performing a lot better than the others, but before I get too excited, our analyst will say: “Ignore this. It’s not significant yet.”
Even when we all agree that a result is significant, knowing that something won and something lost is just scratching the surface. Understanding context and referencing a knowledge base of past successes and failures is key, because it helps us form hypotheses on why certain numbers came back a certain way, and decide together how to answer the ultimate question: Should we roll this out to all our users, roll it back, or do a follow up?
Some of you may be thinking to yourself: “I didn’t become a designer so I could do math all day! I freaking hate math!”
If so, don’t worry. You’ll be working super closely with your Growth Analyst, who will be primarily responsible for actually doing the math and analyzing the data. You just need to make you sure you can contribute to the discussion enough to earn your seat at the table when it comes to interpreting it.
6. Move metrics…But don’t be an asshole
But let’s just say we looked at the data, discussed, and agreed that a big red button on a popup you can’t dismiss makes more money. Does that necessarily mean we should implement it, knowing that it’s going to be a terrible experience for our users?
Ah, the classic designer’s conundrum — user vs. business. For a Growth Designer, knowing how to balance the two is paramount.
Yes, our main responsibility is to grow the business — it’s part of the job title, after all! And you bet we’re measured by how well we do it.
But “grow the business” does not equal “grow the business at the expense of the user.” In fact, Growth and User Experience can, and should, go hand in hand.
How does that work? Well, it helps that engagement is one of the key metrics of Growth, and good user experience is almost synonymous with high engagement. If a product is easy to use and actually helpful, users will use it. If users begin to use the product regularly, they will also stay. And then, if they find real value in it, maybe they will pay as well!
On the flip side, bad user experiences that may show short term gain are almost always bad for the business in the long run. We’ve proven this with experiments we’ve run in the past.
So about that big red button with the pop up? Yeah, don’t do it. Look at the big picture.
7. Do awesome things
Doing Growth the we way we do it at Evernote is undeniably a luxury that only few companies have. We’re lucky enough to have a huge (more than 200 million!) user base, so we can run many multivariate experiments and get results back within weeks.
But even if you’re at a smaller company, you can still design for growth. If your user base is smaller, run larger A/B tests, (like two versions of homepage or CTA), rather than small micro-experiments. Design with a growth mindset: think like a psychologist and frame qualitative testing in an experiment framework. The Moves the Needle lean experiment map is a great tool to use to get started.
I might be biased, but I think this just might be the most interesting design job out there. As a designer, being able to marry great user experience with killer business results is unbelievably gratifying. So my last tip? If you get the opportunity to design for growth, take it by the horns! And prepare to learn a ton.
And if any of this sounds interesting to you, we’re hiring at Evernote.
Join me and we’ll move mountains together, one piece at a time!