Have better career conversations with your design team with this levels framework

tl;dr: I’m publishing a refined Design Team Levels Framework, based on what we’ve developed for Snagajob. Use it in good health.

As a design executive, one of the things I’m obsessed with is career development for my team members. We devoted a chapter to it in our book, including a levels framework which I shared in a post last September.

That framework was purposefully slightly vague, so leaders could adapt it to their org. This year, I became one of those leaders, joining Snagajob as the VP of Design. A few weeks ago, I presented to my team a new levels framework, which was a hybrid of what we had in our book, plus work that my Snagajob colleagues Rob Huddleston and Bridget Walsh had already done.

In the few weeks since sharing this new framework, my team leaders told me how it’s encouraged better conversations around professional development with their reports, how individuals on our team are using this to understand where they are and chart a path forward. I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the ways it has been embraced.

I’ve also realized that there’s nothing really proprietary about it. So I’m sharing it with the world. Here is the link to a public Google sheet:

Design Team Levels Framework

A key change from what’s in the book to this framework is the addition of an explicit Management Track. Our original framework was meant to be agnostic with regards to individual contributor (IC) or management, but through workshops and other sharing, we’ve found that it proved more confusing than helpful. Calling out a management track actually makes the IC track more robust, by showing how it parallels with management.

Also, the book focused on skills specific to software design. My team has communication design, copywriting, and video production practitioners, so this framework acknowledges those skills as well.

If you end up using this framework to guide your own efforts, we’d love to hear about it!

My chat with Stanley Wood

Over on Invision’s blog is an interview with Stanley Wood, a design director at Spotify. Stanley conducted a world tour and spoke with design leaders at many companies, and this conversations captures what he learned. I had the fortune of meeting him when he visited San Francisco, and Stanley shares what he took from our discussion:

At one point in the discussion, he said, “designers like to play together too.” It was so simple, because of course designers need to collaborate as much with designers as with non-designers; otherwise how do you ensure a consistent and delightful experience? It had always seemed like a binary choice—either sit together or sit apart—but in that one statement it was clear that both were important. There’s so much more I could add here, but instead I’ll just say the guy knows his shit and you would be wise to check out his book, Org Design for Design Orgs.

That’s an endorsement!

The whole interview is great. Read it!

The Minimal Design Team, according to Victor Papanek

In our workshop based on the book, we discuss the range of skills that need to be brought to bear for a design team (which is more extensive than what we wrote in the book):

design skills

This breadth is necessary for delivering on end-to-end service experiences that cross-channels, devices, and touchpoints. If the team doesn’t warrant having these skills on staff, it still needs to be responsible for the work done by any contract or external folks.

When we wrote this, we thought we were being quite bold in claiming design orgs should be responsible for delivery across such a gamut of practices.

Today I attended “Hippie Modernism” at the Berkeley Art Museum as part of Snagajob Design’s “Inspiration Day.”* It’s an impressive exhibit, detailing the intersection of progressive/counterculture sentiments and technological advances. There are many pieces devoted to design and architecture, and I was struck by this poster (“‘Big Character’ Poster No 1.: Work Chart for Designers”) by Victor Papanek, designer and design theorist who promoted humanistic values in design:


(Click to see larger. And give yourself some time with it. It’s worth it.)

44 years later, everything on this chart is still highly relevant to our society. Of particular note for people interested in design organizations is his proclamation of “the minimal Design Team”:

the minimal design team

So much for us being bold!

*Inspiration Day is a Snagajob Design team activity, where any team member gets one work day a quarter to go out and be inspired.

Where should designers sit?

One of the most common questions we get when teaching our workshop, and which friend-of-the-blog Todd Dominey submitted through our contact form, is “Where should designers sit?” It’s an interesting question, because it feeds a debate where there are two positions:

  1. Designers should sit with other designers in a studio-like setting, to benefit from peer critique, and learn and develop from one another.
  2. That’s stupid, because designers should sit with their cross-functional teams to better support product development.

For us, the response, as they say on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (a show you really must watch, if you haven’t yet), is more nuanced than that.

To figure out where designers sit, consider a number of factors. In a company with a new design team, a small design team, or a low-morale design team, designers should sit together. This supports designers building a sense of camaraderie and learning from one another. If designers are isolated, they may grow weary of only being around those that are different from them, bristle at the lack of growth and learning opportunities with peers, and, eventually, leave to a company where they can grow their practice and careers.

As a company builds its design team and strengthens its culture, a transition occurs, where it becomes a benefit to sit with their cross-functional teams. The community bond is strong enough and the morale is high enough that it won’t break when designers are separated. There’s a productivity benefit when designers are in proximity to their cross-functional squads. And, with a strong design culture to draw from, designers advocate for a design-mindset with their non-design peers, helping make the whole company more design-driven. 

This should not mean a single designer sitting among a sea of engineers. There should never be only one designer working on anything – the idea of a design team is crucial, even if it’s just made up of 2 people. 

There is a third way, for companies with enough office space. Designers can have two seats — a primary one with their cross-functional team, and a secondary one with their design team (or with the whole design org). That way they still spend most of their time with their cross-functional colleagues, but also get time for critique, fresh eyes, fresh thinking, mentorship, etc., from the rest of the design team. It could work alongside a weekly cadence like this:

  • Monday—cross functional team: start the week with any planning, coordination, discussion, initial sketching
  • Tuesday—with design team: more of a ‘heads down’ day, with maybe an afternoon review across the whole team
  • Wednesday—with cross functional team: show the work that’s been done so far, get feedback, input, ask and answer questions, etc.
  • Thursday—back with design team: start applying polish to work, maybe more formal critique for refinements
  • Friday—with cross-functional team; wrap things up, get things ready for production, etc. etc.

We’d love to hear what you think, what has and has not worked for you. Leave us a comment!

Design Your Organization as Thoughtfully as Your Products & Services (From 2017 CX Outlook)

I contributed to Kerry Bodine and Doberman’s “The 2017 Customer Experience Outlook”, a collection of 14 smart pieces about design and user experience in the coming year, with the following short essay.

Design Your Organization as Thoughtfully as Your Products & Services

In the six years since Forrester Research first wrote about customer journey maps in 2010, the drumbeat for such service design practices and deliverables has grown steadily louder. In 2017, the penetration of smartphones and cloud computing has turned every company not only into a service firm, but one where customers expect 24/7 engagement through their channels of choice.

Companies must be thoughtful and intentional in how they coordinate the delivery of their service offerings across multiple digital and analog touchpoints, or they risk confusing and losing their customers to companies that prioritize customer experience.

Most organizations have not yet fully come to terms with the implications of this shift, and still exhibit a product mindset while delivering services. They structure their teams around specific features and pay most attention to launching new functionality, but customer insights (drawn from research or analytics) don’t feed into product development. Marketing focuses on communications and campaigns that are tenuously connected to the product, with more emphasis on building awareness and traffic. Customer service and support consist of overworked front-line employees who do not learn of changes to the service until they hear it from customers. These departments are siloed, connected only at the most senior levels.

At the heart of any service is the relationship between the company and the customer. Understanding and delivering on that relationship distinguishes great services. This is why journey mapping has become so crucial—it illuminates the experience a customer is having and encourages insights for improvements.

Journey mapping also suggests that design teams should be organized by customer journey. For example, if you have a marketplace model with buyers and sellers, discard the old approach of embedding designers in product teams. Instead, have one design team dedicated to buyers and another to sellers.

This approach is gaining traction outside the design world. Ken Norton, a product management thought leader who advises the companies in Google Ventures’ portfolio, wrote on his blog:

“Organize your product managers around customers, not code repositories. Connect product management (PM) areas of ownership to users and their product experiences. Maybe you have a buyer PM and a seller PM instead of back-end and front-end PMs. Or in a healthcare company, you’d have a PM responsible for the patient experience and another for the medical providers. When each PM has discrete ownership over an experience end-to-end, they can understand the customer problems more deeply and go all-in on representing their needs.”

This is a deep foundational shift in how companies organize their teams. It requires recognition that in a services world, the relationship with the customer is the most important thing. It makes “customer- centered” literal in structuring the org. For design teams, one of the clearest implications is that it no longer makes sense to separate marketing design and product/UX design. Marketing experiences and product experiences (and sales experiences, and support experiences) are all simply way stations along the customer’s journey. They should be orchestrated and coordinated through one design organization, with teams structured by customers and their journeys.

Design recruiting, portfolios, and showing work

Jared Spool tweeted about hiring designers and requiring portfolios a couple days ago:

As a design hiring manager. I require a portfolio. In Org Design for Design Orgs, I wrote:

The most important representation of a designer’s career is not their résumé, but their portfolio. Design managers end up reviewing dozens, if not hundreds, of portfolios for any role. For those designers who do not have public portfolios, ask to see one. Any designer under consideration must have a portfolio. No portfolio means no job.

As with any discussion started on Twitter, there exists greater nuance than can be comfortably communicated.

His blanket statement that “the best designers don’t have them” is wrong–many great designers do. But, yes, many great designers don’t have an updated portfolio handy, because they’re busy.

As a hiring manager, I am willing to start the recruiting process without a portfolio, if there are other positive indicators in play—their resume shows they’ve worked for companies with high design standards, or there’s a strong personal referral.

I advocate for 2 screening interviews before an on-site. In the case of someone without a portfolio, my first discussion would be to vet them as professionals, as people, their career, their trajectory, and if they seem to be a fit for the role I’m looking to fill (appropriate skills, seniority level, interest). The second discussion would be a detailed discussion of their work. While this wouldn’t need to be a formal portfolio, they would need to be able to walk me through 1-2 projects, even if that means pulling up working docs from hard drive folders.

But, and this is the key point: no designer is coming on-site without having shown their work in the screening process.

It’s also worth mentioning that when they ARE on-site, I do expect a more formal portfolio presentation, to be given to the interview panel and possibly other members of the design team. So if this person is serious about the role, they will need to find time in their ‘busy’ schedule to pull this material together.

If they claim to be too busy to do so, that’s a sign of disinterest, and it’s best to move on.


Customer-centered is the optimal org model in a world of services

In Org Design for Design Orgs, we argue that design teams should be organized by customer journey. Let’s say your service is a simple marketplace. Instead of having designers embedded in the different product teams that make up the marketplace (a fully decentralized and embedded model), or instead of having a single monolithic team (a fully centralized model), to instead have one team dedicated to the Buyer Experience, and another team dedicated to Seller Experience.


This reflects our belief that design works best when focused on customer journeys and their end-to-end experiences, in contrast to focusing on the products and features that make up those journeys. It’s a subtle distinction, but powerful–features are simply a manifestation of the relationship between customers and the business, and organizing this way helps a team pay more attention to the whole relationship, and avoid the trap of being so focused on specific features that they can’t see the forest for the trees.

I’ve been presenting this model for a couple years now, discouraging design teams from organizing the way engineering and product management teams do, because those functions have different operating models. Product management often organizes around, well, products, which are discrete entities whose success is determined within the bounds of the product. Engineering teams organize either by product, or by platform/codebase, in order to realize efficiencies and promote quality.

So I was surprised when earlier this year, product management expert Ken Norton shared his perspectiveOrganize your product managers around customers, not code repositories. Connect PM areas of ownership to users and their product experiences. Maybe you have a buyer PM and a seller PM instead of back-end and front-end PMs.”

He then published a response from product executive Noah Weiss: “Just like it’s ideal to organize your PM team around customers and use cases, the same goes for engineering. Otherwise, you risk having a PM responsible for a use case having to work with half a dozen engineering teams to ship a feature: server, web, iOS, Android, infra, etc.”

So, what’s going on here?

I think these perspectives have aligned as a reaction to a broader shift in business, from products to services. Microsoft and Adobe once made boxed software sold on shelves, and the teams that worked on them were rightly focused on what went in their box. Now these companies sell subscriptions to access across their suite, and so coherence and coordination is crucial for success.

The key distinction between a product and service is that the service is predicated on a customer relationship. And in these networked services, these relationships must be maintained 24/7.

As companies embrace what it means to be a service firm, they understand that what’s most important is the healthy maintenance of that customer relationship. And so they realize they need to move away from old methods of organizing that were anathema to a customer’s end-to-end experience, and towards customer-centrism.

I believe design, because of it’s empathetic stance, and relatively smaller team size, has been able to sense and react to this shift ahead of other teams’ awareness. But whereas I used to think this orientation was perhaps specific to designers, I now believe we’ll see entire companies reshape this way.