Building a Product Design Team

A case study in establishing a new Design team and with that a Design Culture

My Role: Design Director, Design Lead, Hiring Manager
Timeframe: November 2020 - April 2021
Pieces of the original proposal and timeline for building the Design Team

The Challenge

The new product development process relied heavily on the skills of designers, but the company disbanded that department years ago.

The Opportunity

Leverage my background in Ux and Product design plus my experience in leadership and management to rebuild the Design team.

Early step was developing the Design Principles

My Role and Process

Under the guidance of the CTO and with the help of Recruiting, Product, Tech, and Project Management, I provided the concept, justification, and strategy for building a fully functioning Design team.

  1. Design Organizational Model
    Having led the team delivering the alpha tests of the new product development system, I was versed in the requirement of design deliverables to make the process work. I leveraged the expertise and perspectives of the heads of Tech, Project Management, Product, the CTO, and the CEO. I proposed a hybrid model for Design in the organization, connecting as a horizontal design group, but delivering across different project verticals.
  2. Design Principles
    I sought out coworkers with UX Design and Research skills for a core subgroup that would embark on defining the Design culture. The determined strategy was to steer the intended culture by defining core Design Principles. Through surveys and brainstorms, I led the discovery of the fundamental principles that would build the Design culture and align our new team with the needs of our business and our users. I submitted these Design Principles to the CTO and CEO for approval.
  3. Design Metrics
    The subgroup members became the design team’s initial members, reporting to me. To measure the success of our new team, I established Design Metrics. The business-oriented metric focuses on refunds and renewals- how effectively the UX and UI were helping and not hindering the member from finding what they need. The other series of Metrics was related to the internal Engagement Survey to ensure the team was aligned and motivated by the work in this role.
  4. Hiring Designers
    The early success of the Design team allowed for growth. I wrote job descriptions for Senior UX Designers, Product Designers, UX Researchers and Design Interns. I worked with the head of Technical Recruiting to post the job openings beyond the normal placements in sites frequented by designers. I used my platform on social media to broadcast the opportunities available further and encouraged joining the new Design team.
  5. Design Interviews
    Having found rock-star candidates, I created a design exercise to assess the applicant’s skills (and urged we pay them for their time and effort). For the Live (Zoom) interviews, I assembled a cross-functional interview panel of peers, leads from related departments like Tech and Product, and stakeholders on the leadership team. Following this process, I tripled the size of the Design team in five months.
  6. Design Onboarding
    With a cohort of new Designers joining the company, I built a site providing expectations, sharing buzzwords and internal information, setting up milestones for growing in the new role, and offering a list of key people to go to coffee with to know and be known.
  7. Design Ceremonies
    We were sparse with our ceremonies, trying to limit Designers sitting in meetings. Planning meetings happened within the vertical project, and I would check in on the expectations for Design for each project. Design Review was the optional opportunity to share progress and receive feedback; this was the primary ceremony to build trust and comradery as a team. Design Retro was the bi-weekly meeting dedicated to checking the emotional health of the members and the team.
  8. One-on-One Meetings
    I scheduled individual conversations with each team member weekly. The structure of these meetings was to be led by the team member, not the leader. The members would share their challenges or opportunities, where they saw themselves in their journey at the company, and what support they needed to be successful.
  9. Team Building
    About each month, I set up and budgeted for team-building opportunities. In the virtual workplace, this involved shipping items to each member to have a shared experience or playing a virtual game, like a custom Wits and Wagers board game I created to use to get to know each team member better.
Zoom-based Wits and Wagers game with questions pertaining to the Design team members

The Impact

A diverse group of seven senior designers, two junior designers, three contractors, and two interns working across four time zones came together as a team. We brought Design back as a critical department at the company.

With a functioning and healthy Design team, we were able to overhaul the entire Product suite, reimaging the Onboarding, redesign the UI and build out a custom Design System. The team’s prototypes in Sketch and Figma provided the essential deliverable for the new product development process to succeed, lifting product development capabilities by over 400%.

As their manager, the individuals who encouraged them to trust in this company as the place to continue their careers, the most impactful metric was the team metric.

The 2021 Morale and Engagement Survey score for the Design team was the highest of any department at the company. 19% over the benchmark.

The 2021 Morale and Engagement Survey score for the Product Design team was the highest of any department at the company, 19% over the benchmark.

Thank you for reading this Case Study. Happy to share more on this or other projects. Please get in touch for more details.

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Creative leader at the intersection of design, product, and tech. Writing mostly about design, CSS, product strategy, leadership, investing, and more.

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Greg Robleto

Greg Robleto

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Creative leader at the intersection of design, product, and tech. Writing mostly about design, CSS, product strategy, leadership, investing, and more.