How I built a design team and implemented a design strategy for a fast-moving, market-disrupting startup company.
Our team enjoys a pizza before a local design meetup.
Starting at RightIndem
As the first design hire at RightIndem, my role and responsibilities would be to lead the product design, turning it from an idea into a deployed working product in multiple live customer environments. This would involve:
Understanding business requirements through close collaboration with our CEO and CTO at the time
Understanding customer requirements through face-to-face meetings, user workshops, and conference events
Defining a product strategy and a design plan, which involved working closely alongside the Product Owner
Building a design system to underpin all design and product work
Relaunching the RightIndem brand, including a new website, marketing presence and brand identity guide
Growing the design team when appropriate, which involved direct participation in the hiring process, conducting 1:1s and employee appraisals and identifying objectives to support their career growth
These responsibilities, along with working within the fast-paced environment of a start-up with a global mission, were a role in which I thrived.
My priority was to take stock of the product that currently existed and all supporting product assets. I also wanted to learn about the current design process, the development process, and any communication channels or processes that existed between them.
I discovered that there was a lack of design process and design strategy, no design system, and the tooling was not optimal for generating rapid mockups or high-fidelity product work. There was also a blend of designs that were using an off-the-shelf design system, design work created by freelancers, and some designs created by the development team.
When I started, a junior designer was part of the team after completing a placement with the company. This individual showed a great deal of potential, so I wanted to help mentor him and understand his ways of designing and learning. I quickly gathered that his preference for learning was by “doing,” so I immediately changed his development plan from watching Pluralsight videos to designing and building product features.
Defining a design strategy
Once I had an understanding of everything that existed and where I could implement positive change, I began to implement a design strategy to successfully take the product forward. Within this strategy, the following high-level goals were included:
The start of a design system (Sketch) by the end of Q1
Align the design roadmap with the product roadmap
Promote and advocate a “design-first” culture
Gain an understanding of the entire end-to-end customer journey
Create a specific design backlog
Support the career development of our junior designer
My process of understanding the entire end-to-end customer journey whilst deliberately placing this on the office whiteboard for team inclusion and visibility
I also wanted to improve the ways of working between design and development, so the following processes were also identified:
Low-fi mocks will include all team members' participation and collaboration
A developed version (Storybook) of the design system
More office whiteboards to encourage full team inclusion (read my Medium article on this)
As part of the strategy definition, I also wanted to ensure that we could measure success in order to understand how these goals and missions could be adjusted if needed. The following success measures were also included:
The design team can create new product features within two weeks of the start of the next sprint (without using design sprints)
Design can make amendments to designs mid-sprint without affecting sprint velocity
The ability to create new client POCs within a 4-hour turnaround time
Implementing design foundations
Once my design strategy was in place and I had confidence in how success could be measured for its implementation, I began to lay some important design foundations alongside the day-to-day development of the product design.
Design values acted as my guiding stars, and therefore I intentionally set them without success measures. I also wanted to create these values in preparation for growing our design team in order to allow each team member to be mindful of them during their design process. This would help create consistent design patterns and product interfaces as we all shared the same set of underlying values.
The values I put in place were specifically suited to the user persona for version 1 of our product and the customer research and requirements that I had gathered. These values were:
Be deliberate—design should be an intentional action and have meaning, requirements, and a rationale behind its inclusion.
Add value — design should add value and be imperative to the user flow. Anything without meaning will detract from something that does.
Discoverable — our UI should be self-evident, and intuitive, avoiding the use of hidden gestures to align with our user personas.
I placed these values in our central repository and pinned them in our Slack channel for easily discoverable purposes.
The second foundation was the development of a design roadmap. I worked closely alongside the product owner to understand the product roadmap and to be able to discern product commitments and their projected launch dates from client deliverables and POC prototypes. This insight enabled me to create a design roadmap that could prioritise and separate products from non-product features, which I could then place on our design backlog in order of priority. I also identified product priorities. The RightIndem product had two user personas, the claimant and the insurer's claims handler. Understanding our priorities enabled me to make decisions at a design level, for instance, by focusing the creation of our design system on components and device resolutions that would prioritise the claimant journey and not the claim handler. These decisions were also influenced by an understanding of feature release timelines. As the insurer’s claim handler features were not due to be launched until the following year, it reduced the risk of not planning for these features in the claimant MVP.
I also wanted to implement the creation of a design system. The primary focus at RighIndem was the MVP release of the claimant journey, and the product roadmap and development backlog were both focused on this objective. Therefore, I chose to keep the design system lightweight and focus only on creating the assets required to support the design of this MVP. This also improved the speed of delivery. As the design system would be a new addition, it was playing catch-up to the existing development processes that were in place. Focusing the design system on building only the components that were required for the journey helped our efforts in launching this within the first quarter.
The design system would also incorporate pre-existing components that offered a richer set of interaction features. I made the decision that for more complex components, such as the date picker, we would adopt an off-the-shelf offering and make simple styling changes to align it with the customer's brand. This was another decision that contributed to the speed and efficiency of launching our design system.
An example of the button group component
Implement optimal tooling
The final foundation was to implement an optimal suite of design tools that would help me create high-level product designs, both low and high-fidelity, while also providing speed and quality for creating user personas, user flows, and user journeys. The set of tools I implemented was:
In addition to the new tooling, I also had to support our junior designer in his learning and development of these new tools. All design work prior to my joining the company was created in Photoshop, and I chose to move away from this product. Therefore, I mentored and helped our junior designer learn and understand these new tools, and as he was someone who learned by doing, he soon gathered solid knowledge and experience in using these tools.
These toolsets would also provide me with the opportunity to meet my success criteria of producing customer POC prototypes of the full end-to-end customer journey within a 4-hour timeline. To achieve this, we created an end-to-end customer journey in Sketch and each element of the design was a symbol. This allowed us to make changes in one single source that could be applied throughout the journey. We also integrated the Invision Craft plugin with Sketch in order to export the journey directly and autonomously. Lastly, we created a guide on how to make configurations to the design file and how to use it as a template for each new POC request. By the end of this setup, we could deliver new POC prototypes within 1 hour and more complex prototypes within 3 hours. This was a process that had commercial gains as it allowed the company to return to potential clients more quickly and empowered them with the ability to see their prospective user flow.
Building a design team and culture
After approximately 6 months of being in my role at RightIndem, product and design development were progressing nicely, so it was time to grow the design team. After liaising with our CEO to understand available financial resources, the plan was to recruit for:
Mid-designer: an individual who could hit the ground running
Lead/senior designer: an individual who could mentor the junior and midlevel designers but also lead the design of a different product within the company
Front-end developer: an individual to bridge the gap between design and engineering and sit with the design team
I took a leading role in writing the job description for the two design positions and conducted and ran the interview process either solely or with our product manager included. I utilised our lead developer for the recruitment of the front-end developer position.
As part of growing the design team in terms of numbers, I also wanted to create a culture within the team that would encourage honesty, humility, and respect for one another. I wanted our environment to be one where we could all learn from one another and one that empowered each of us to continue to grow our skills.
I tried to achieve this in various small ways:
I introduced daily standups to encourage discussion and the ability to help each other by simply stating if anyone had any design blockers or issues
I provided a range of design tools and resources that were available within our office space. As an example, I purchased the series of A Book Apart books that were available at the time
I encouraged local design meetups that we tried to attend as a team once per month
I tasked individuals with creating a specific design area for the design team at RightIndem. This was to operate similarly to Airbnb Design which would give us our own website to write articles, publish design thoughts, showcase side projects, etc.
I also created a development program called Employee Badges, which helped the team grow their skills and experience without forcing them into leadership or managerial roles in the future. This is a whole article in itself, and you can read the rationale behind it here.
Our design shelf containing the A Book Apart series, whiteboard markers and more importantly, sweets.