Visualising the development of designers has always been difficult for us. Until now.

A Growth Plan for Designers

Ludwig Wendzich
Jul 21, 2017 · 8 min read

My name is Ludwig and I started at Vend almost 18 months ago. I stepped into a new role called “Director of UX”. The first thing I did was spend some time interviewing everyone who worked in (or with) the Product Design group to help see what the lay of the land was. I learnt a lot. There’s a reason why people new to a company should have a coffee with as many people as possible in their first few weeks.

I learnt two big things in those first few weeks.

  1. As an organisation, many of us didn’t understand what product design was, and because of that, we couldn’t value it. I could tell we wanted to, though.
  2. As a Product Design group, we each had access to a professional development budget but felt there was little guidance in the way of specific areas to develop or how to take the next step in our roles. This was a concern for everyone in the team, but no one had been able to address the problem.

Throughout 2016, over that first year, my team worked to address the first big thing. It was a big challenge, but I think we made a large amount of headway on that front. I believe the Product organisation at Vend have a clear understanding, not of only what Product Design is, but also why it is valuable. Product Design is valued now. Product Designers feel this.

We will continue to work to spread that understanding to the rest of Vend. This remains a very important goal for us. We’ll also come back and write about the changes we made in the organisation to achieve this, as well as the initiatives we started as a Product Design team to get everyone on board.

But what about the second big thing? In 2017, we worked hard on that. And we have something to share on that front.

Ad-hoc professional development is hard

Knowing where you are, what you have to focus on next, and what you need to achieve to reach the “next step” are difficult questions to answer, but also some of the most important questions a manager must help answer. Throughout 2016, I tried to do this ad-hoc with my team, and I thank them for their patience. I think it went OK, but it was a little haphazard.

A systemic problem, needs a systematic solution. This is how I see the world. People will always make mistakes; we need to help shape environments and create tools to make it much harder for them to do so. As a manager, with all my good intentions, I forgot things. I dropped the ball. The conversations I had, at the start of 2016, with the team about professional development and growth, haunted me. A constant reminder of the fact that I had yet to help provide clarity.

Competencies and Skills

I went through school while the New Zealand government were just implementing NCEA. There were some teething problems, but for the most part, I saw the value as a student. My mother, a teacher, also spoke a lot at home about the best ways she would evaluate and help develop her students. The idea of a competency based framework (or a skills matrix) seemed natural to me, and because other teams at Vend had already implemented this approach (Support), or were also thinking of implementing this approach (Sales), I followed my nose.

A competency is the ability to do something effectively, or efficiently. It’s demonstrable. It’s clear, and binary. There are different “levels” in which you can express a competency, but it’s expressed, or not. I liked that clarity. No scale, or rating, for how good you were at it. It meant the entire approach was positive: what you can do, or what you could do. Not about how you were getting an F on a particular skillset.

A comprehensive set of UX skills are very hard to find. Searching for “design competencies” or “design skills” will get you many, many articles which include Top 12, or Top 17 lists. A skill in these lists could range from anything as broad as “Concepting” or “Prototyping” to as specific as “Creativity”. OK, nobody got very specific. In fact, the Skills Framework for the Information Age boiled Design skills down to “User experience analysis”, “User experience design” and “User experience evaluation”. Very helpful for guiding development. </sarcasm>

Dr. David Travis did write a great article on Jan 9, 2017: “The competencies of user experience: a tool for assessing and developing UX practitioners”. That title seemed exactly what we wanted—and the body of the article forms the basis of our Competency Matrix.

Most of the time spent on this framework, was updating and validating the list of skills and competencies.

Our competencies and skills

We settled on 8 broad competencies (that looks like one of those Top 8 lists): User Research, Usability Evaluation, Information Architecture, Interaction Design, Visual Design, Writing, Prototyping and Leadership.

Each category includes 4–8 specific, demonstrable, and describable skills. Like “Choose the appropriate fidelity of prototype to match that of the hypothesis.” under Prototyping, or “Use the correct component from the pattern library to provide affordances and shape the user experience e.g., choosing the correct control for an interface, such as segment controller instead of a radio button.” under Interaction Design.

Overall we have 44 skills across our 8 competencies. These specific skills allow designers to see why they aren’t as proficient at a competency as they think they may be (and thus know where to put effort into), they also provide us with a clear standard to compare all designers against.

We passed this list to some of our friends who are also designers, who suggested we fill gaps they had noticed, and helped us to even out the “size” of the skills: so that one skill wouldn’t be dramatically bigger in scope than its neighbouring skill.

Levels of competency

We also settled on five levels of competency, each with clear meaning:

The shape of roles

We spend a bit of time talking to other design teams in Auckland. We have different ways of working than they do. And those ways of working shape the roles we have available in the company. Some of our design friends had split User Research and User Experience Designer roles. Having a much smaller team, we had Product Designers who were expected to be generalists.

It became clear that certain roles, would lend themselves to a certain type of designer, with a specialised set of skills. A Senior User Researcher looks very different from a Senior Interaction Designer. Which may look different even from a Senior Product Designer. We wanted a way to show this, and express how a designer could move from where they were to where they wanted to be.

The fictional Jordan, who is currently a Junior Product Designer, is keen to understand the next steps to getting a promotion.
A fictional Terry Brownlee started out as a Junior Product Designer with a keen interest in User Research. She wants her next role to solidify this focus as a Senior User Researcher.

The visual expression of the competencies help with this. They literally create a shape for each designer, and a shape for each role. They help designers determine which skillsets they need to develop, to “fill out” the roles they want to be in. And, because under each competency is a set of specific skills, they provide a roadmap for how that designer goes about getting there.

How has this worked for us?

We started this process in early 2017, and completed our competency and skills list in time for our 360 reviews in May 2017. Throughout that process we’ve had to adjust the wording of some of the skills, and some of the levels. I also believe that it’s become clear that despite having a relatively “same-sized” set of skills, they don’t all carry equal weight to determining whether someone has met the requirements for a competency (for example, averaging out the skill levels do not accurately produce a competency level). This is something we need to investigate.

Sam Jones has identified a strength in Interaction and Visual Design, as well as nailing it on a world-stage for Leadership, but a focus on User Research, Usability Evaluation and Information Architecture might be prudent.

However, the conversations we’ve been able to have as a group of designers around the way we work have been much more valuable and high-bandwidth than would otherwise have been possible. Our strengths are emphasised as individuals in the team, the strengths of our team are recognised, we know where as individuals we have opportunities to improve (and what opportunities I need to help create for my team so they can grow), and for me, as a hiring manager, I am better able to understand what role we should hire for next, and what the individual should look like, who fills that role.

This is a WIP

We approached this problem like a design problem. And it’s still a work-in-progress. We’re at a stage where we have alpha-tested a prototype. It makes sense to us, it’s useful to us. Next, we want to test it with our design friends. To see if it helps them, and see what we can learn from them.

We also see that there are two valuable sets of tools here:

  1. The 8 User Experience Design competencies and the 44 skills that make them up. This may be a useful resource for any design team.
  2. The competency charts: visually expressing the shape of a person’s competence and the shape of roles they are trying to fill. This could be implemented by any other team (including the teams at Vend) who currently have competency lists, or want to create their own list of competencies and skills.

We’ll keep you updated. We take being a world-class design team seriously, and this is not nearly enough — we’re not close to being done.


Stories of our excitement, trials & tribulations building…