Scaling a Design Culture and Practice as a Team of One

I lead design and user experience at a startup with 100+ employees, where I’m the only product designer working with an engineering team of 25+.

In the last six months, I’ve helped us grow from a requirements-driven product development culture to a design-driven one. We’ve built a culture that prioritizes user experience research, inclusive ideation, rapid prototyping, user testing, and iterating based on testing feedback. Design guides the requirements, not the other way around.

How did we do it? Below, I’ve outlined seven actionable steps with concrete examples so you can bring what we learned back to your organization.

It Starts with a Mission…

1. Write a design manifesto.
These should be high-level principles that will guide your design culture and your design decisions, principles you must be willing to hire and fire against.

When you begin to demonstrate the value of UX, and your company considers growing your team and hiring a second designer (more on that here), these will come in handy — when I interview design candidates, the most common questions they ask me are related to what design culture and process they’ll be expected to operate in. Need an example? Ours are here, and we are hiring.

Then You Rally a Team…

2. Build your agenda into what matters to leadership.
Do they care about company culture values? Do they care about certain KPIs? Figure out a narrative that ties what you want to do to that. If a company value is to foster transparency across the company, explain how UX deliverables can give greater transparency into the product process to other departments. If executives are trying to figure out why certain prospects aren’t buying, explain how improving the UX at various user activation and retention points of the user journey can help move those metrics.

3. When trying to get buy-in, figure out what messaging resonates best.
If not “design” or “user research”, then try “customer empathy” or “customer development”. At this point, the battle of explaining the difference between a user and a customer might not be worth it — people who don’t understand design will still subconsciously associate the word “customer” with $$$, and people listen to the $$$.

If leadership is very data-driven and more easily swayed by numbers, show case studies. If you’re a SaaS company, show how other SaaS products redesigned their new user on-boarding and how it affected trial-to-subscription rates, average contract value, renewal and churn, etc. If you’re an e-commerce platform, show how other e-commerce platforms redesigned their checkout process and how it affected checkout-to-payment rates, average sale value, etc.

4. Find your allies.
Get your manager on board and convey that if you succeed in making the company more design-driven, it will make him/her look good. Get a product manager and/or an engineering lead who is interested in trying a more human-centered design approach to product development on board (I was lucky enough to work with a product manager and several engineering leads who were excited to experiment with a new process). Finding these allies might have a greater impact on changing your day-to-day process than trying to get an executive on board, so prioritize who to get buy-in from based on what you know about your company culture.

…And Soon Everyone Wants to be a Designer

5. Make user research open.
The easiest way to first get started in UX research is to run a usability testing session. Run a round of usability testing with three users and set up a room for people to watch remotely from another room (Read Rocket Surgery Made Easy for quick primer on running DIY usability tests). Invite everyone in the company to watch three people in a row struggle to do the most basic tasks in your product. Watch your colleagues shake their heads in disbelief, and make sure to have a pencil in hand when they jump out of their seats with ideas.

6. Democratize access to sharing ideas.
After usability testing, rally people to work together to sketch some ideas for quick win redesigns as a result of the insights you gathered from testing.

In addition to this, we also invite a special guest to each design kickoff meeting I lead. While the regular guests are a design lead, an engineering lead, and a product manager, the special guest could be a client success manager, a sales director, a marketing manager, or a professional services consultant. I give a quick overview of the meeting’s agenda and typical design sprint activities to our special guests, and our guests get a chance to not only share their ideas but also better understand why we sketch and leave sticky notes everywhere and how it helps us get to the finish line of a shiny clickable prototype with polished UI.

7. Offer several channels for feedback.
If you don’t build in a process for getting feedback, you will either get no feedback or it will still come to you, but you’ll have no time to organize it in a coherent manner. Know the audience you’re looking to get feedback from and the cadence at which you want certain feedback, and go from there.

I update prototypes daily or multiple times a day, post links to them on Slack whenever they’re updated, and ask colleagues to chime in with feedback. In addition, everyone has links to all current interactive prototypes in a shared document any employee can access on Google Drive. Every week, I lead a product design review meeting on Friday mornings, during which I recap feedback from prototype testing with users and gather feedback from product managers, engineering leads, data scientists, and executives. Because I bring paper copies of designs to that meeting, at the end of it, I tape it up on a wall in the kitchen so people can take a look at what designs are coming up if they’d like. Throughout the week, I gather feedback 1:1 in quick 5-minute huddles with various people across the company. It helps to ask each person specifically what kind of feedback you’re looking for (e.g. “I’m looking for feedback on usability, that is, is it easy to use this feature? Why or why not?”, “I’m looking for feedback on if this design is possible. Do we have the data for this?”).

What works for us may not work for everyone — I’ve previously tried daily 15 minute standups, 30 minute meetings every other day, putting design conversations onto the agendas of grooming and kaizen meetings, none of which worked quite well but all of which helped me learn and iterate to our current process, thanks to trial and error and also thanks to conversations with designer friends like Dr. Brittany Burrows.

Go Forth and Conquer

I know it’s tough feeling like the only person who cares about user experience, but you can and should make change happen. After all, design-led companies have outperformed the S&P by an extraordinary 219%. And if the going gets too tough, join me — we are hiring.

What have you tried in your organization? What worked and what didn’t? I’d love to hear from you — share your story below and/or reach out to me @crystalcy.


Thanks to Rob Wyland and Gerald Yao for their editorial feedback.

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