How to grow a high-functioning design team

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When TTT Studios first set foot into the tech world, we were a team of four working in an office the size of a closet. Our design team was, well, not really a team yet. I was the only designer. But fast-forward nearly one decade and our company has grown to 30+ people, 5 of whom are designers. Together, we’ve weathered the start-up storm and have helped countless clients deploy hundreds of successful software projects. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the steady growth we’ve undergone has given us ample time to experiment with and develop design processes and best practices that work well for our team. 

Our company vision is to build software that impacts a billion lives. If we’re to bring ourselves closer to that goal, then growth is an inevitable part of the equation. As we brace ourselves for that next stage of expansion, I want to share, from a design perspective, the insights I’ve gathered from my experience getting a tech start-up off the ground. The vast majority of us aren’t going to be co-founders of the next tech unicorn, but we can still learn, grow, and have a lot of fun doing what we love with people we trust. That’s what TTT has been for me, so if you want a realistic growth story—here it is. 

Design, design, design

When we first began our journey as Two Tall Totems, we worked on projects that we could tackle as a small team. From a design standpoint, the start-up stage is the one where you’ll feel most in tune with the skills you’ve developed from years in design school and countless projects completing pro bono and freelance design work. With the administrative duties of running a design team out of the way, I was able to let my creative juices flow and artistic faculty take the reins. This was phase one.

The team

When I co-founded the company with Chris and Dave, I was the only designer. While they fronted the business end, building rapport with clients, I focused on executing and handing off designs to our developer. 

Design process

As the sole designer on the team, I never really had to worry about drowning in the logistical nightmare that working on large teams can be. I had a lot of freedom over execution of the design work and my workflow was fairly straightforward. Given a design brief from the client, I would research relevant background material, create wireframes and prototypes, clean-up the UI, and produce two to three design solutions for the client. We’d move forward with the final design, and hand-off to our software engineer for development. Hand-off failure was never an issue because we had a single designer-developer feedback loop to streamline communication within our small team. 

People matter

As our team began to expand, I quickly realized that my responsibility as a designer doesn’t stop at design. Working in a cross-functional team with members from different backgrounds such as design, engineering, and business has taught me how to create meaningful connections with all project stakeholders. This was phase two.  

The team

At this stage, we were starting to take on larger projects and needed to scale the size of our team to match. With 3 designers on board, our design team officially became a team. Despite our relatively flat organizational structure, we began to fall into and define our individual roles as designers while also consciously incorporating consistency into our design processes. 

Design process

With 3 designers on the team, we needed to put in place a design process to ensure a standard of consistency and quality in the deliverables we sent off to our clients. Although we had developed a design process to facilitate our projects, they were mostly understood and ingrained into our heads through repetition. At the time, these processes were not well-documented because, by nature of our small team, I had the time to individually sit down with my fellow designers to clarify processes and best practices.  

As our team grew, my role as a designer also began to evolve and expand into other disciplines. I was starting to become more actively involved with our clients in order to intimately understand their business goals and missions and offer constructive feedback. Chris and Dave were my mentors in this respect, teaching me about the business side of our operations and effective leadership. As a designer, it’s easy to slip down a one-dimensional spiral where you invest all your energy into honing your technical design skills. But it’s important to remember that design is a discipline that is just as much people-driven as it is artistry-driven. 

Where are we now?

After we expanded to a team of 5 designers was when we began to document and formalize many of our design processes and best practices. This is phase 3, the current state of our design team.

The team

With a larger team, it made sense for us to scrap our old structure and reorganize ourselves into more clearly defined roles. Not only does this optimize processes internal to design, but it also gives the rest of the TTT team—developers, project managers, and business admin—a clearer picture of who to reach out to for specific design tasks. Below is a list of the roles that are currently filled on our design team. Other design roles to consider having on your team include a Creative Director, Design Manager, and UX Researcher. How these roles fit into your team hierarchy and fall in place to form project teams is up to you.

Photo of TTT design team

VP of design

As the VP of design, my first and chief goal is to foster a positive environment for my team to work and grow in. I aim to optimize the operational effectiveness of our design team by testing and implementing process improvements. Although I still work on the projects level, the vast majority of my time is spent on team building and design strategy. My focus is to mentor my fellow designers and provide them with the tools they need to become the most successful they can be in their creative pursuits. 

UX Director

As our company has grown, so have our clients. Because the scope of the projects we work on is so much larger now, I receive a lot of support from our UX Director, Mark, who helps me provide mentorship to our younger designers. In addition to design work, he takes a lead on organizing and conducting studies to bridge UX with business. Most recently, he helmed the formalization of our discovery process. 

Senior designer

Our senior designer, Felix, focuses on transitioning from design work to leadership roles on projects. His responsibilities include helping with design operation duties, driving design review meetings, and resourcing.  

Designers

Our UX/UI designers, Andrea and Ziwei, spend the majority of their time executing hands-on design work, developing wireframes and interfaces that meet our clients’ business objectives and address their users’ pain points. They focus on deepening their craft and working toward leadership roles so that they can take help mentor junior designers and co-ops that join our team as our company continues to grow. 

Design knowledge base 

As your design team grows and matures, it’s important to document design processes and best practices so that you don’t have to micromanage your designers for consistencies in their work. To help us with this, we keep a design knowledge base on Confluence. Below, I’ve outlined some of the sections we keep tabs on, to give you an idea of processes that you can keep track of in your own knowledge base!

On-boarding process

Especially if you have a quickly growing team or if you frequently hire co-op students, having a clear onboarding process documented will save you a lot of time and allow your new hires to transition smoothly into their new roles. Some sections we include are:

  • Tools and software: A list of technologies we use in our design workflow, as well as helpful resources to familiarize new hires with the tools. Examples of software we use include Sketch for wireframes and UI screens, Zeplin for design hand-offs, Adobe CC for miscellaneous design work, and JIRA for project tracking.     
  • Communication processes: An outline of weekly stand-up meetings and project team structures, including the flow of communication between Lead Designers, Tech Leads, and PMs. The primary mediums we use to facilitate internal and external communication are Slack and email, respectively.
  • On-boarding project: An internal project we designed for our new hires to complete. This project allows us to acquaint our new designers with our design process, tools, and workflow before jumping into projects issued by external clients. 

Discovery process

When clients come to TTT with a project, there are usually gaps in their ideas. Be it an ambiguous value proposition, undefined target market, or inconsistencies between the users’ needs and the application’s proposed features, discovery establishes a clear foundation streamlining the stages that follow in design and development. Although we’ve always conducted discovery sessions as a part of our software development life cycle, we decided that we wanted to offer an even more rigorous process. Our UX Director fronted this discovery overhaul and updated our design knowledge base with templates of all the resources we need to complete an in-depth discovery session. These templates allow us to efficiently tailor each discovery session to our clients’ specific needs without having to start the process from scratch. They include documents such as the pre-discovery survey, agenda, workshop activity guidelines, and the post-discovery survey.   

sticky notes on flip chart paper during a discovery session

Design process

Documenting our design process in detail ensures that we are able to produce our highest quality work. Below is a high-level overview of our design workflow:

  • Discovery: Defines the project scope and clarifies the business problems and goals with a human-centered approach (product vision, user personas, user journeys, product differentiation strategy, product features, etc.).
  • Research: Validation of personas and user journeys through heuristic research methods such as user interviews and UX testing. 
  • Project estimation: Refine information architecture based on information gathered during discovery session and research. Once the information architecture is confirmed, the lead designer can provide resource and time estimates.
  • Project management and communications: The PM assembles a project team and assigns a lead designer. Project hours are logged, external communication is facilitated through the PM, and a #ttt-private channel on Slack is created for internal communication.
  • UX: Wireframes are sketched with pen and paper before being created digitally in Sketch. We conduct usability testing with low-fidelity prototypes before moving into external client reviews and development. Wireframes are iterated as per internal and client feedback. 
  • UI: If they don’t already have branding guidelines, our designers work with the client to create one. Otherwise, we proceed with creating UI designs in Sketch. At the UI stage, we want to give the client a good understanding of how their final software design will look, so we bring in high-fidelity prototypes for them to review. If necessary, we make tweaks to the UI design based on the client’s feedback. 
  • Hand-off: Sketch files are exported to Zeplin with screen interaction annotations, and the lead designer participates in the dev team kickoff meeting to facilitate a smooth design hand-off.

Advice

I’ve learned a lot in the past ten odd years fronting the design team at TTT. To help anyone in my shoes who is working to grow their own design team within a software company, here are a few pieces of advice that I think you should keep in mind.  

Build relationships on trust

When Chris and Dave first called me about founding TTT, I knew I’d be taking a career risk by accepting the offer. But it was a risk that I was willing to take because I trusted that no matter the roadblocks we ran into, we’d stick together and make it work. Nearly ten years down the road, we’ve done better than the 90% of start-ups that fail—it’s safe to say that my gamble paid off because the integrity of our team was vested in our unwavering trust in each other. Within your design team, the same concept applies. Trust will help reduce internal bureaucracy, conflicts, and boost overall productivity. Also important to note is that trust extends beyond the relationships you create within your team. Relationships with clients should be built on trust, too.  

Avoid micromanagement

Building on the previous point, micromanagement demonstrates your doubt, intentional or not, in the competence of your designers. Especially if you have many design projects happening at the same time, you will burn yourself out trying to micromanage. Give your designers the space and freedom they need to let their creative juices flow and keep up to date on their progress, without being obtrusive, during stand-ups and design reviews. In short, the advice I would give here is to relax, and trust and empower your designers.

Formalize and document design processes

To avoid running into logistical nightmares, I can’t stress how important it is to document your team’s design processes and best practices. Taking the time to build a design knowledge base over time carries so many benefits. Among other advantages, it streamlines the onboarding process for new team members, optimizes operational efficiency, establishes a coherent design culture, and sets quality standards that result in consistent outputs. 

Stay curious and get involved

Design professionals never stop learning. As you continue to grow your team, you’ll need to adopt a growth mindset and learn by immersing yourself in the design community by attending conferences, meet-ups, and student portfolio showcases. Some of the events our designers have had the privilege of attending in the past year include the Digital Thinkers Conference, DesignThinkers Vancouver, Nielsen Norman Group UX Conference, and the Sketch Vancouver Meetup.  

TTT designers posing for a picture at Awwwards Conference
Andrea, Ziwei, and Felix at the Awwwards Conference 2019.

Love your team

As designers, we’re strong advocates of empathy for our clients and their users. Just as important, though, is empathy for the people with whom you work. This is especially true at a software company where you will be working in a cross-functional environment. The same empathy you share with your clients and their users should apply to the internal teams you interact with on a daily basis—not limited to design, but including dev, PM, business admin, and marketing. Make it a priority to humanize your workplace by caring about the people you work with on a personal level. Provide timely feedback, offer mentorship, and celebrate growth. 

I think the type of relationship you build with your team is reflective of the work you produce. You can have all the talent in the world, but at the end of the day, a high-functioning team is the key to designing technology with great user experience. At TTT, I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by the brightest, most passionate designers I could ask for!    

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