Scaling Design

After writing about how the first few weeks at BuzzFeed have been going, I got a few requests for more details on how I'm approaching the needs of the design team. As I mentioned in the last post, a lot of the design team needs at BuzzFeed mirror those of Etsy's design team a couple of years ago. And while I know that two data points does not a trend make, hopefully some of these tips and details are general enough to be useful to a few teams out there.

Career tracks and clearly-defined roles.

Hopefully, it's already obvious how important this is for keeping talented folks around at your company. Giving people clarity on their role and their path forward gives them something to work for, as well as allows them to stop wondering if they're doing a good job or not. Would you rather awesome designers be designing awesome stuff? Or wondering if what they're doing is a part of their job or not?

At Etsy, I wrote up a roles document and we distributed it to the team. At BuzzFeed, we're doing the same thing, with an extremely similar document. If you're curious, here's a link to the original. A few important things to note:

  • This document is simply a starting point. We wound up deciding to iterate it on an annual basis, based on how the team was evolving and feedback from the designers. The thought was "something is better than nothing," which I think turned out to be accurate.
  • Having something like this is also insanely great for recruiting. Not only does it make you more likely to find the right candidates, but it provides clarity and focus points for the people interviewing the candidates as well.
  • This is not a hierarchy. The intent is not for a junior designer to be told what to do by a senior designer. The hope is that these roles would help individuals know what their responsibilities were, as well as give their teammates a sense for what to expect from them. Of course, the desire is that senior designers mentor and give regular feedback to junior designers (who should probably take their critique seriously), but there's no expectation there.
  • Any iteration should attempt to not move the goalposts. Rather, iteration is to bring clarity and reflect the new state of the team after a prolonged period of change.

You should feel free to grab that doc and do whatever you want with it! It's pretty general on purpose (outside the UX examples, which are Etsy-specific in this case). And if you make any substantive changes, I'd love to hear about them. :)

Doubling down on transparency.

I've written before about the importance of transparency, but didn't get too much into the practical applications. The designers and teams at BuzzFeed already believe in being open and inclusive, so that's luckily not a hill we have to climb. I'm basically just bringing over a few systems that will help amplify that and let us scale over the next couple of years.

The first thing I'm doing is setting up a regular, design-only critique. We have critiques with our product teams throughout the week, but it's important for design to have a safe place to bring hard problems to their peers. You may think this isn't very transparent, but currently the designers themselves don't have a ton of insight into all the work going on. Giving designers more vision into everything will help us think about our work more holistically and make connections between projects we might not otherwise.

On the tool side, I'm spinning up Basecamp for our projects (queue Etsy designers nodding vigorously). Currently, we're using InVision to share all the design work with our teams, but while InVision is a great prototyping tool, it has a few shortcomings that Basecamp will help us fill in:

  • It's important to not just document the artifacts, but the design process and discussion around it. Basecamp is pretty great for documenting the earliest stages of design (getting agreement on the problems/goals, high-level user flows, etc.), as well as for capturing discussion around design decisions. Have a quick in-person conversation with your PM? Throw the relevant decisions into Basecamp. Prefer sketching your ideas? Take a photo and put it in. The beauty of documenting and writing about your work is that it forces you to explain your process and decision-making. "Because it looks/feels good" starts to leave your vocabulary as you learn to articulate the why behind your design.
  • Documenting the process is also super helpful for getting non-designers involved in design. You're no longer just showing polished mockups to engineers and getting pushback. They've been on the thread the entire time, giving feedback, asking questions, etc. This allows you as a designer to course-correct before getting too far down a particular path. And it allows everyone to be involved in the process.

Standardizing the recruiting process.

I'm not going to get too much into this, since it's pretty deep and probably an entire post on its own. But ensuring that we're using the same process and similar questions when interviewing design candidates is super important. Consistently hiring quality designers requires a consistent hiring process. The basic outline looks something like this:

  1. I or a design manager reaches out personally to gauge interest, then does a first phone screen, mostly checking for general skill fit and interest in what BuzzFeed is working on.
  2. A second phone screen with a senior designer or design manager, diving deep on a couple projects. We're looking for process artifacts and how they approach problem-solving.
  3. An optional, paid, design exercise. If the two screens go generally well, but we're on the fence, we'll use this to really understand a candidate's approach.
  4. The interview loop. Includes a portfolio review, an html/css exercise and some whiteboard sessions, as well as discussions with a PM and engineer on the team.

It's pretty simple, but having a solid framework means we know where everyone's at in the process and gives us the ability to compare apples-to-apples when discussing how an interview went. It also lets us tell candidates exactly where they are in the process and exactly what to expect from us. Again, clarity and transparency, for the win.

That's not all.

Duh. Those are the biggest things right now, though. A lot of it may seem pretty simple, but it's easy to take these things for granted. Designing your team is just as important as designing the product itself. Giving people clarity and providing as much transparency as possible are two of the most critical things you can do to help design scale within your organization.