Let me begin by telling you something surprising, followed by some not at all surprising things. Then maybe one more surprise.
When I joined Meetup in 2013, it had never had a design team.
This is all the more surprising because at that time it was 11 years old, had more than 100 employees, and was a global public-facing software product with hundreds of millions of users.
The lack of a design sensitivity or design culture at the company was more problematic to me than the lack of “designers.” Many of Meetup’s upper ranks had been at the company for a decade or more, so they missed out on the design revolution that the rest of their internet peers went through. Everyone was frustrated that Meetup didn’t feel as simple and polished as other apps and sites.
When they finally decided it was time to build a design team, that’s when I joined. Their approach was to re-title their most design-savvy front-end developers and hire a couple of code-savvy designers, grouping them together and calling them a design team. The plan was to let them sort it all out themselves until product managers dropped by a few days before a feature was ready for release to ask the new team to “hit it with a pretty stick.”
Unsurprisingly, the results were not great. Without the support of a design culture, a design process, or even a leader to institute those things, the designs either went wild or went nowhere. And everyone was grumpy.
Luckily for me, everyone on this new “design team” was amazing and talented and totally got the notion of design culture, even if they’d never found themselves in one before. We talked, and talked and talked, and realized we needed process to do what we needed to do and truly be a design team, without the quotes.
So I fought for design leadership and process, and when I was promoted to be the company’s first design director, I made it my prime directive to grow a real design culture. I began by more formally interviewing all of the designers, as well as people from the product and engineering teams, and compiled a document of the chief issues and ideas. I folded that direct feedback into my previous experiences and instincts, and came up with a 3-fold plan:
- Define “design” — in a way that everyone could understand and get behind
- Put the user back in the process
- Become a tribe