2016 — A Year in Design

In 2015, I shared some bets with First Round. These bets where my thoughts on the future needs of our design team, the company, and the community around us. In the words of Kevin Kelly:

“Betting on the future is more than just entertainment. It’s also an engine for study, rigor and planning.”

As 2016 came to a close I’ve been reflecting on our progress against the bets. This post shares how design has developed at Percolate over the last year.

Percolate Design Team 2016 — Anne, Elliott, Jeremy, Anthony, Chris, Ed, Clara, Mary, Lucia, Sofia, Alex, Jess, Hayeon, Dom

Bet 1: Technology companies only need one type of design role

My view on this is changing.

On the product side, our team continues to made up of designers who work across research, user experience, and visual design. Although, I can see an emerging need for someone to focus on user research. We have lots of opportunities and data that could further help our teams learn more about our customers. Beyond this, I’ve been reading more and more about how large design teams have people dedicated to designing and maintaining UI libraries. When the time is right I’d love us to look at this too.

On the other hand, our creative team has moved beyond hiring generalist designers. Last year, Alex was focussing on photography and film, and Hayeon worked across mediums with a particular focus on animation. At times we also worked with freelance copywriters and film editors. The need for these specialized skillsets is a response to our growing appetitie to produce a broader range of projects in house.

The increasing diversity of design roles feel natural to me. As our company and customer base grows, so does our ambition for improving the quality of our work, and streamling how we operate.

Percolate 101 film edit, Mary and Chris, Navigation update for our web product

Bet 2: Growing a company of designers will set us apart

This is an area we’ve continued to learn more about.

In the first half of the year, design collaborated with our employee experience and HR teams to develop our facilities, activity calendars, performance review program, and training experiences for employees at Percolate. My take away here is how design processes benefited these programs. From inital concept development and presentations, through to mapping out the physical and digitial experiences.

The creation and distribution of brand assets and marketing communications also evolved. On the creation side, we’ve introduced a Google slides template to help teams collaborate on internal presentations (we still use keynote for external presentations). As for the distribution of assets, we’ve gone from using Google sites to delivering assets through the Percolate Asset Manager. Our documentation around these tools has been upgraded too, all of which is accessed through hello.percolate, an app our internal tools team built.

In July, we updated how we think about design career paths. We took a step back from a list of ‘must have’ skills and thought about the core areas a designer needs to master. For example, a product designer needs to master an understanding of Research, UX, Visual, Systems, Business, and Collaboration. For a designer to progress from mid-level to senior, they would need to level up in each of these core areas. Whilst we were developing our descriptions I came across these examples from the Buzzfeed design team. They do a great job of using adjectives to describe the epxectations between each level.

Our design onboarding presentation for new hires also got updated a couple of times throughout the year too. It actually needs an update right now. Talking about things that are outdated, our design docs are. These are what we use to support the onboarding of new designers. These documents are one of those things that slip through the cracks.

Product screens in the Percolate Asset Manager, Our Google slides template, Slide from our design onboarding presentation

Bet 3: An open team culture will help us adopt new practices

We’re going through a transition here.

Our design crits have continued to be strong. We have a formal crit for both our product design and creative team once a week (there are a bunch of informal reviews around these crits too). Crits begin by the designer presenting the problem they are trying to solve, and then they walk through their explorations. From here we go round the table and everyone asks the presenter one question. This approach keeps the conversation focussed on the solution, and allows everyone to particpate.

I suggested doing design reviews on Thursdays and that’s gone pretty well also. Basically the day is broken up into 30 mins reviews and each team presents work in progress. What works well here is everyone knows that Thursday is the day and can work towards that.

We’ve introduced a new session called Design+Me. We do this when new members of the team join. We’ve explored a few formats, but basically our new designers, and a few members of the team, have 5 slides to share their relationship to design with the group. There is no set strucutre or topics, it’s left open to everyone’s interpretation.

In the new year we’re changing up how we do Show & Tell. Previously the session was one designer from product design and one from the creative team sharing a project with the group. The session lost it's way a little and we got lazy organzing it. In the new year Show & Tell 2.0 is coming. One designer. 45 mins. Share whatever you want (area of passion, new tools, work in progress, an inspiration etc).

2016 also proved that investing time in drinking cocktails and going to lake houses together works pretty well too.

Lucia preparing for a crit, A slide from Design + Me, Shot from our lake house retreat

Bet 4: Our design process needs to adapt to new technologies

The projects we’re working on continue to change how we design.

Our creative team learned the steps involved in making a product film are different than when you redesign a section of a website. Sofia wrote a great post on the tools and techniques behind our recent film if you’re interested in taking a deep dive.

On the product design side, we’re moving to more agile development methods. Embracing the idea of working in two week sprints changes the scope of projects, and how teams work together. Since Ed joined we’ve also been talking more about prototyping with code, and have discussed how design teams are using sandboxes.

We made a big push last year to improve the documentation we deliver alongside designs. This includes functional specs, prototypes, and animation mock-ups. This has seen tools like Invision, Zeplin, and Principle, used across our creative and product design teams. Next up is figuring out how to best maintain our interface libraries, we’ve been reviewing Abstract and Brand AI to help us do this.

New practices have seen an increase in cross-functional collaboration. For example, our Design Partner program has brought together product management and product design to work with our customers on research projects. Our Quarterly release program has brought together design, marketing, services, sales, and product management, to co-ordinate the training and delivery of our new products.

To keep all our teams on the same page with the status of design projects, we’ve been using the Percolate web and mobile apps more and more. They’ve proved really helpful for team’s to develop, approve, and work on briefs together.

Brief view in the Percolate web app, Activity feed in the Percolate mobile app, Principle screenshot

Bet 5: Building community will lead us to amazing talent

We kept going pretty strong here.

We presented work at the Buzzfeed design club, and at the NYC leg of the Inside Intercom tour. We also had the pleasure of hosting Debbie Millman of Design Matters, and MasterCard’s Cindy Chastain at our Transition conference in September.

Our writing continued with articles on the Invision blog, including a look at the start to finish designer. We also covered everything from our mobile redesign to our changing offices on the Percolate Design Medium publication. Most recently we contributed our thoughts on Measuring Design to John Maeda’s Design.blog.

Our social media game has slowed down a little. I find this to be one of those things that is easy to get out of the habit of doing, and before you know it’s been a month since you posted anything. We were fairly active on Twitter, Instagram, and Dribbble.

Throughout the year we attended events at the Design Driven meet-up, and we went along to AIGA’s Google Creative Lab session. We had our creative team offsite in December, and was lucky to be joined by Warby Parker’s Head of Brand, Andy Gray. It was great to hear what they’ve been upto and their plans for growing the company.

I’ve always felt participating in the design community would present us both short and long term benefits. On one hand, designers get a chance to develop their communication skills, and on the other we continue to meet new people, online and offline, who are interested in the lessons we have shared.

Debbie Millman, Dribbble shot of our Transition program, New Warby Parker store in LA

Bet 6: We will rethink design training by engaging with educators

This is one area where we slowed down.

We finished 2015 by hosting a Behance portfolio review, and visits to SVA and Hyper Island’s 30 weeks designer founder program. Unfortunately we never really got this going again in 2016.

We did have some 3rd graders come by the office for a careers day visit. Over a cup of tea we got into a healthy conversation about branding and why our primary color is orange.

We also got a look into the service design program at Savannah College of Art and Design through Lucia joining us as an intern in August. She begins her full time role with us this month.

The Behance Portfolio review at our NY office, Hyper Island’s 30 Week, Savannah College of Art and Design

Looking to 2017

When I think about what the new year has in store for design at Percolate there are three things that come to mind.

First, we’ll continue to feel the influence of a more connected company. We got a taste for this last year with cross-functional collaborations across our research and release programs. I plan for more of our team to be involved with these programs moving forward.

Secondly, we go into the year with a company operating plan that’s focussed on delivering great user experiences. This means we’ll see an increase in usability features and enhancements on our roadmap, and we’ll be using customer feedback in new ways across our product development and go-to-market efforts.

Thirdly, I will be looking to bring our creative and product design teams together more. We’ve done various things in the past here, my goal this year will be to create learning opportunities for our team around the end-to-end customer experience. This includes activities like reviewing our product education materials, getting up to speed on our new implementation plans, and sharing how we’re creating customer stories. I’ll write more on these pieces as they come together.

Most of all, I’m looking forward to our seventh year together. Another year of learning how design works inside a technology company called Percolate. Have a great new year everyone.

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