Growing a design team


When I joined CaseStack as lead UX designer, the design team had been designing some great products to solve the unique problems of this tech-driven logistics company. But they lacked an experienced design leader. What follows is a overview of the ways I helped the design team achieve significant improvement within 6 months.

Part 1: Understand the problems

Each design team is unique and has their own unique problems both at the individual level and also at the team level. My first step was to sit down with each designer one-on-one and ask them the following questions:

  • What did they expect of me?
  • What problems did the design team have?
  • What problems did the individuals have?
  • What were their long term goals as people?

In addition to talking to each of the designers on my team I also met with product owners and developers to get a full picture of where we could improve as a design team. After all of those meetings I understood the problems as such:

  • More direction: No one on the team had ever held a design job before this one. They had the desire to improve as a team and as individuals but no idea what steps to take. Also, there was no goal-setting and tracking, mentoring, manager 1:1 meetings, and there was no career ladder of any kind.
  • More accountability and structure: There had been attempts in the past to improve processes, consistency, and quality, but they had faded away.
  • More feedback: Not all designers felt comfortable sharing their work and receiving feedback which, in turn, caused other problems like:
    • inconsistency
    • lack of design quality
    • lack of follow through on initiatives
    • an outside perception that the design teams’ work was substandard

In addition to my in-person discussions, I sent out a engagement survey to try to get some quantitative data on how people felt about their design careers at CaseStack.

Part 2: Work towards solutions

The solutions to these problems fall into three categories: concrete immediate actions, abstract ongoing actions, and identifying side projects.

Concrete immediate actions

Instituting some basic management/leadership practices was an easy first step. My experience at taught me a lot about what works in this area. I kicked off the following:

  1. 1:1 meetings: Schedule 1:1’s with each designer every 2 weeks and create a shared document where we can both keep notes on each meeting.
  2. Goal setting: Help each designer to set objectives and SMART goals based on their own areas of improvement. Dedicate part of the 1:1 meetings as a check-in on the goals. Track goal progress on a shared document.

Abstract ongoing actions

These actions are about identifying areas that need to be improved and taking repeated actions over the course of time to encourage these improvements. For example:

  1. Building a feedback culture: As identified above, the lack of a culture of feedback caused many problems for the team, so I took every opportunity to encourage designers to open up their work for critique and also share my own work.
  2. Encouraging accountability: Often times, good initiatives were kicked off in the past that would have really helped the team but they were never followed up on. A few examples of this were:
    1. Building and maintaining a design system
    2. Implementing a tool for managing design files

Identifying side projects

This area is about identifying what projects need to be tackled that are separate from normal day-to-day work. These include process improvements and other things that will generally help us to do better work. I identified these projects:

  1. Overhaul our design system. As mentioned earlier, a design system had been created but it was not well curated and some designers were not aware of how or why they should use it.
  2. Define a career ladder. Part of understanding where you are going in your career is to have a proper definition of your current role and definitions of other roles beyond your own. This was missing entirely on the CaseStack design team.
  3. Design a product map. There were roughly 10-15 distinctly different products that were either in progress, complete, or needing maintenance. Each product interacted with different areas of the business, had different contact people, and were built on different platforms. We needed a clear map of these products.
  4. Standardize the product development process. There was a great deal of confusion among the product development group about what our “typical” product development process looked like. We needed to standardize this to enabled more efficient product development.

After identifying the side projects, I worked with each designer to determine who would want to own which projects. The design system ended up being a great fit for one of our designers based on their skills and ambitions and the career ladder was picked up by another designer interested in understanding the next steps in their career.

Part 4: Results

After 6 months of 1:1 meetings with our SMART goal tracking and also diligent attention to improving our feedback culture and holding each other accountable, I am pleased to say we saw a number of big wins in the team.

  1. 30-80% improvement in employee engagement: This was measured by 2 surveys asking to rate agreement with phrases like “This is a good place for me to develop my career” and “I feel I can do great work here.”
  2. Completion of the career ladder and design system overhaul projects.
  3. Significant increase in quality of design output as a result of encouraging a culture of direct feedback.
  4. Regular usage of previously abandoned tools such as Abstract for version control of design files.
  5. Improvements in technical proficiency and efficiency of designers. Reusable Sketch symbols and components are now used and understood by every designer instead of just one or two.

Personal feedback

In addition to these big wins, I also received some great feedback throughout my time. Here’s a few quotes from my team:

I feel like I have a career now, instead of just a job

I don’t even recognize the work I did 4 months ago

We were a team without glue to hold us together, now you are the glue

I greatly enjoyed being able to have such an impact in such a short time on both an individual level and also on a team level.