Inside Design at Blinkist
On the growth and evolution of our design team
At Blinkist, we’re making it possible for curious people to get the key insights from the vast and varied world of non-fiction. Our offering runs the gamut from classic titles on science and self-improvement to our own hand-picked favourites in genres like psychology and mindfulness. Surfacing the key insights means learning can easily take place in those little pockets of time that most of us have during the day. Whether it’s flipping through a read on the train to work, listening to a playlist whilst wandering the aisles of the local supermarket or furthering our knowledge on our favourite topics as we wind down for the evening.
Facilitating this learning is our core challenge as designers at Blinkist. This seemingly simple challenge is varied, complex and broad. It means letting people know — even before they download the app — that Blinkist truly gets that they want to learn more but can struggle to make the time. It means making it easy for people to find that one book that they need to read but also surprising people with titles they’ll love but didn’t even know existed. And, in these oh-so-modern times, it means finding ways to ease that struggle between wanting to use our free time on something more meaningful yet being sucked in yet again by those mindless (yet highly) addictive experiences.
This article isn’t specifically about how we’re tackling those challenges. That would take several more articles, a book that would have to be blinked, how-to videos with much wild gesturing and in-person chats over coffee with more wild gesturing. And I’m a big believer in the theory of impermanence; in many ways, it’s so applicable to what we do as designers. The solutions we put forward today to help our readers achieve their goals can change as we learn more about their needs and behaviours.
This article is our growth as a team, how we work and our culture here at Blinkist. On a fundamental level, these things are a big component of how equipped we are to tackle customer challenges through design.
So, let’s begin by going back.
A History — blinked
Joining Blinkist in 2015, I didn’t know much what to expect. I’d left a pretty big corporation with around 80 designers to move to a company of 14 people with no design team. But I noticed a close knit group that were excited about what they were building and they cared deeply about their customers. It was infectious. I joined as the first designer with the goal of building and leading the design team.
As with most small start-ups, it was customary to do everything as the lone designer. Design wasn’t just limited to defining experiences for the app; it ranged from redesigning our homepage to producing email headers, too. In a few short months though, we hired a second designer. Then, a year later, as Blinkist grew from 15 to 30 people, our 3rd designer was soon onboard. The first few hires of a design team (or really, any team) help underpin and define the team culture. It was crucial to have someone who felt excited about being hands-on and who would have skills and experiences that weren’t reflected on the team yet. We wanted to learn from them as much as we wanted them to learn from us.
Watching a company grow from 15 to 75+, one thing is clear: the challenges that we solve evolve in maturity. They become multi-layered, deeper and require the type of people who like to think intensely about specific problems. In a nutshell, it often requires specialists to be thoroughly immersed in a topic. Similarly, the design challenges matured at Blinkist, too. The design team had moved on from solving for best way to design activity feeds to developing and overhauling our brand in-house, using research to explore more ambiguous customer needs and delving into highly iterative, data-informed tests.
To be able to properly think, solve and obsess about these challenges, we stopped working on a per-project basis and focused in on specific areas. We created verticals in a way that felt necessary yet organic for our size: mobile product, web product and marketing. And since we were now spread out across different product areas and channels, we began to think more about how to ensure consistency and quality, and make sure we were all working with our customers always in mind.
What We Stand For
This is our purpose. Other Blinkist folk have written much about the unique working culture here. At Blinkist, teams (we call them ‘Circles’) establish a purpose in order to fully realise their goals. Every team’s purpose is public throughout the organisation so it’s clear why each team exists. The Design Circle is no different. Collectively, we formulated our mission to represent what it is that we stand for. Whether through experience or rumour, many of us know about companies that don’t value design — and by extension, don’t value their design team. At Blinkist, being able to so clearly and succinctly define our purpose is powerful, and gives a powerful signal to other teams about our value.
How we live this purpose every day can be seen in the ways that the team is organised and how we work. We are what could be considered semi-centralised. With the exception of marketing designers, each designer is embedded into a cross-functional product team (split across mobile and web).
What this means in a practical sense is that designers follow the processes and set-up of their cross-functional teams, so that they’re immersed in their projects. They have visibility — a seat at the metaphorical table — as contributors and stakeholders who help move their product area forward. In short, they own the design challenges that exist in those areas more wholly and can fully realise the Design Circle purpose.
Whilst designers are embedded on cross-functional teams (or collaborate daily on projects with various teams, in the case of marketing designers), it was important to allow space for collaboration and transparency on the design team in a way that wouldn’t impede anyone from their day-to-day tasks. This meant thinking more consciously about having just enough process; process that would help facilitate and ultimately improve the work we were doing. We know the definition of “just enough” may evolve as our needs change and we make sure to periodically evaluate on the necessity of the processes we have. Currently, our set-up looks like this:
The Design Weekly
Once a week, we gather for 30 mins to catch each other up on what we’re working on and discuss anything related to the team that might affect us all. For example, reminding each other who’s out that week, sharing news or even airing out any conflicts.
In the morning, we have a standup at our to-do board (think: a giant physical Trello) where we share what we were working on the day before and what we’ll be working on today. As we’re split into different verticals, the updates are a way to learn more about an interesting project a team member may be working on and it helps us spot further opportunities to collaborate.
Feedback and collaboration
We have one formal review each week. We carve out a longer time period for these so that anyone who needs to gather feedback has enough time to present and for the team to give thoughtful critique and suggestions. We look at everything from social media graphics to onboarding redesigns for web and even dive into insights from customer research.
For more informal feedback, we have a Slack channel dedicated to design feedback. Here, we can post up our Invision prototypes, screenshots or other forms of works-in-progress.
We also have the benefit on all sitting together. The proximity to each other allows for more spontaneous feedback, for those times when we just need a second pair of eyes to check something out.
When I speak to potential new hires, I often find myself remarking on the culture of respect and trust that Blinkist has for the practise of design. Although Blinkist isn’t perfect (like any place) I’ve worked in companies where this trust wasn’t present. I’ve seen how the lack of it can affect the work designers create. It’s not something we take for granted. So, the interest in design within the wider company is something we try to foster further.
For example, we share what we’re working on in the team in an internal blog. It’s an opportunity for people to have more transparency about what we’re working on. Furthermore, we host periodic Design Show ’n’ Tell; these are interactive hands-on workshops (the last one was on co-creation) or talks or talks that anyone can join.
We pride ourselves on being a curious bunch at Blinkist and paired with the interest people have for design here, creating a sense of design culture is a fun endeavour.
As the Head of Design, the question of whether the team should be centralised or not is one I’ve explored many times. Ultimately, I think being a united team betters our work — it allows us to share our ideas and learn from each other much more easily. It also means that we have each other’s backs — and that can give more weight to our work and opinions in the wider company.
How to Make Waves
In October 2016, we rebranded Blinkist. It was one of the biggest projects we’ve undertaken as a company and an especially huge project for the design team. As a team of three, we introduced a new visual brand; crafting the logo in-house, defining the typography, colours and art direction. We revamped Blinkist.com, our iOS and Android apps, print collateral (e.g — business cards, vouchers) and produced yet more material for social platforms and other touch-points.
It was an intense, exciting and, to be dead honest, a stressful project, but the rebrand was one of the biggest achievements for us. In many ways, it breathed new life and energy into what we were doing and gave us a clean slate to do even better work. One of the key things that emerged from the rebrand was our visual design principles:
- Simple and Clear
- Distinctive and Recognisable
- Warm and Lively
- Bold Typography
There’s something about writing principles or values or a mission that can feel too abstract when you put pen to paper. But over time, they become things that you live by. No matter what platform or channel we’re designing for, these principles guide us so that we stay true to what designing for Blinkist looks and feels like.
Principles also take a life of their own. Originally intended to only apply to the visual brand, we carry these principles over when we think about how UX should be, too. Is a flow simple and clear? When a reader achieves something awesome, do we create a feeling of excitement for them (i.e - ‘Warm and Lively’)?
Along with our team purpose, having shared principles that we believe in keeps us accountable and helps to push each other forward. Our defined purpose — with its emphasis on putting people at the centre of our work — reflects itself in our approach to work. We care about designing things of quality, things that our customers (and potential customers) will be happy to interact with or view.
As a team, we see how each of our different focusses and projects intersect and tie back to the bigger picture. We know the decisions we make today can shape the prevailing perception of our brand and overall customer experience later down the line.
Individually, we’re self-sufficient, feel empowered to create work we believe in and when respectfully challenged, defend the right to make decisions in the interest of the customer or say no. Yet, we each have a team mentality and look for this when we hire, too.
As a team, we have a vision for how design can impact Blinkist. Our team strategy originates from the belief that it has the ability to move the company and the customer’s experience to a new level. Collaboratively, we create a roadmap based on our strategic focus areas for the year and work together — whether it’s planning projects, giving feedback, executing, documenting or actively working to gain buy-in from others in the company — to make those goals happen.
Although we don’t work with gaining external validation in mind, we do feel fortunate to have been recognised many times on the Apple App Store, as well receiving a Google Material Design Award. But to be honest we’re secretly pretty happy when we receive a bottle of sake for our efforts.
This year, there are more challenges than ever; we’re solving increasingly complex customer needs, discovering surprising things about reader behaviours and thinking about what innovation looks like for us. On an organisational level, the design team is entering a new phase in its history. We’re thinking about the future structure of the team and the best ways of working within a fast growing organisation.
We’re excited to tackle the challenges on both fronts. And personally, as Blinkist’s first designer, I’m in awe of our growth and fascinated to see what the future holds for us.
If you’re a designer and want to be part of our journey, drop me a line on Twitter or say hi in the comments.