Lessons Learned Growing a UX Team From 10 to 170

“When you’re scaling, things are always broken!” Lynsey Thornton would know — starting out at Shopify three years ago she was one of 10 UX designers — and has been part of growing that team to 170 people today. Now Director of UX Research, she said the learning curve of scaling a team has been challenging, but immensely rewarding. In a recent session at CanUX, she shared her learnings and advice for designers who find themselves playing a part in growing a design team.

Building Your Team is a Design Project

Understand the constraints and enablers of your design team in your unique context. To be effective as the team grows, you need to understand these key questions:

  • Who is the executive champion for design at our organization?
  • What skills are needed for the team to be successful and drive value?
  • Where does the UX team fit within the organizational structure?
  • What role do you want UX play in the success of the company?

You also need to design the right structures. In a startup environment with a small team of designers, it’s natural to operate in a more ad hoc, nimble way. At Shopify, as both the design team and the company team grew, it was crucial to put the right structures in place to support the team.

It’s important to remember that structure is not about bureaucracy — it exists to support people. As Thornton puts it, “People are often afraid that structure will lead to loss of autonomy — but done well, structure should enable autonomy.”

Growth is Hard

If you are tasked with growing a team, or even just being part of a growing team, it is crucial to acknowledge that growth is hard. Continuous growth poses many challenges — things are always changing, and systems are often broken as they try to keep up. Thornton shared that one of the risks of constant change is that “people eventually either burn out or peace out.”

Dealing with constant change can be risky as your team grows. Photo by Dave Morin @MadTurki on Twitter

One way that Shopify tackles this challenge is by hiring people who have a growth mindset — characterised by a love of learning, resilience, and a belief that work and practice will grow the necessary abilities. Thornton cautioned in her talk, “this doesn’t necessarily mean that change isn’t hard though — so we make sure to balance pressures with creative outlets for our teams.”

Coupling leadership awareness of the challenges of growth, a team with a growth mindset, and opportunities to blow off steam through creative activities are strategies for minimizing the challenges of scaling.

Hire the Right People

A key to the successful growth of the team at Shopify has been the emphasis on hiring the right people. This can be really time consuming and frustrating, but remembering that you and your teams have to live and work with the hiring decisions can help you keep things in perspective.

You should always be looking to hire someone who’s different from you — otherwise what’s the point?!

Thornton was pretty upfront about some of her mistakes in the past. “The first time I hired someone in my previous role, I just wanted a carbon copy of myself! You need to hire people with the potential to be better than you, who will grow into leadership roles.”

One of the things UX researchers at Shopify really appreciate is being able to learn from a diverse set of teammates — so this is called out in the job postings.

Hiring the right people means being able to attract them, and at Shopify Thornton and her team pay careful attention to the value proposition in their job postings. Sell your strengths! Communicate how design is valued, or what’s unique about design in your organization as you draft the postings. “We see examples of this from other companies — for example Intercom job posts highlight that their VP of Product was a researcher at Google.”

Getting Design Team Growth Right at Any Scale

During her talk, Thornton acknowledged that the levels of growth at Shopify are extreme, but cautioned that with the growth of design and UX we are poised to see more of this across industries. The tips and tactics she shared are applicable at any scale, whenever you are experiencing growth or mandated to grow and cultivate a team. Go forth and scale your teams!

“We’ve learned a lot” said Thornton, “but as Jared Spool said, ’the more I learn the more I realize I didn’t know!’”


Linn is a UX and service designer based in Toronto. You can currently find her at Bridgeable, telling the story of design and its impact in the world. Linn has worked with a wide range of clients including Huffington Post, Shoppers Drug Mart, Toronto Public Library and CBS Outdoor. She also mentors the next generation of designers online and in person. You can follow her on Twitter @wittster.

Originally published at blogs.adobe.com.


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