Product Design and Autonomy at TransferWise

What we’ve learned designing in and across a distributed organisation

TransferWise is built by autonomous, independent teams. There were 46 of them last time I counted. Each team has a specific customer problem to solve. But every single team is aligned by a shared set of values — and our mission to create a fair, transparent and borderless financial system.

We work like this because we believe that the best people to make decisions about what to build, and how to build it, are the people doing the building. There’s very little room for top-down decision making at TransferWise.

Designing where it matters

Product designers at TransferWise are embedded in product teams. This gives them an incredible level of independence and control over the impact they have. Alongside their team, designers can pick the customer problems they believe are the most important to solve, and they are accountable for the outcome.

Product Teams in full hackathon mode

This way of organising is certainly not the classical in-house agency model. And it comes with some trade offs, but we believe in it and keep experimenting to make it better. Here are a few of the things we’ve learned so far:

It’s a marathon, not a drive-by.

Even the best designers rarely nail a product first time. You need to learn, try, test, fail, learn some more and keep trying. Embedded within their product team and focused on a specific customer problem, a designer can build empathy for the customer and a deep understanding of their needs over the course of time and several iterations. This allows them to really take ownership of the solution in way they probably couldn’t if they saw their work as ‘a project’.

Solving the “where’s my money?” problem

‘We’ not ‘They’

The tension between desirability and feasibility is an old one. I was at Nokia Design 10 years ago, where we operated as a central studio. Rumour had it that product teams would sometimes call us ‘Seagulls’ because we’d “fly in, make a lot of noise, sh*t on everything and then fly away again”. To be honest, this was often true.

When designers are actually in the product team, they’re all in it together with shared ownership and shared accountability. Designers can’t hide in an ivory tower, they have to lean into the technical realities of the product they’re working on. This removes a lot of the friction.

Keeping it together

When designers work independently, there’s no real mechanism for alignment. No one has to look across the whole product experience in order to get their job done in their product team. So we have to force it. This means regular sharing sessions, group reviews, and working together on our patterns and styles. Strong relationships and good communication between designers helps a lot here.

Buttons back to basics

No designer is an island.

Our embedded setup usually means one designer per product team, designing alone. So when we recruit new designers, we look for exceptional skills, and real entrepreneurial spirit.

But even the best designers need feedback from their peers. It helps them challenge and refine their thinking. We’re very lucky at TransferWise, because we’ve built a community of genuinely lovely people who like spending time together. It’s very natural to help each other out and solve problems together.

Up and out

Transparency is everything at TransferWise. It’s at the core of our founding principles. But when we’re all off working in our respective product teams, it’s hard to know what others are working on. Sure, we use InVision and Abstract (and whatever else gets the job done). But having work printed and up on walls around the office means we can see, understand, and contribute more naturally and in a more useful way — by actually talking to each other.

Every company and product has different needs when it comes to Design and designers. As we grow and learn, we keep trying different ways to work, and new ways to build great experiences for our customers. Every new joiner brings their own unique set of skills and experiences.

If you’re interested in how design can work inside product companies, I recommend Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner’s excellent book ‘Org Design for Design Orgs’. And if you’d like to learn more about design at TransferWise, why don’t you come and work here? We’re hiring.