What does the product design team do here?

Illustration by Emily Murphy for this article.

When I joined Gem there was no design team.

Many of the engineers, product managers, and customer success team members I would be working with had some experience with product designers, but nearly just as many had little-to-no exposure to product design!

Meaning one of my first tasks as Head of Design at the company was to introduce the function of product design.

In addition to getting to know our nearly 100 person organization, becoming familiar with the history and context of our product and business, as well as planning what the next year would look like for the design team I’d build, I needed to help others understand what product design would mean for the company.

Part of introducing product design was tackled over the course of three weeks as I jumped into one-on-one video calls with nearly every person in the company. During these calls I’d introduce myself, get to know the other person, and have a casual conversation about the company and the role design would play in it.

I also created a go-to document for anyone in the company to refer back to in order to address how I imagined the design team would spend their time over the next year.

What follows is the content of that document (only slightly edited to omit proprietary information) which I hope helps address the question any startup might face: what exactly does the product design team do here?

1. What is product design?

Our role as designers is to drive success across the entire, end-to-end user experience.

User experience design—or software product design, as it is commonly known—is the practice of creating goal-driven, user-informed products or features. How? Through product thinking, visual design, and interaction design.

Think of user experience as the complete experience someone has when interacting with our product. Everything from the interactions we use in our sign-up flow, to the way we deliver and message email notifications, even the layout and controls available in our help center and account settings are part of the user experience. Our design team's responsibility is to ensure that that experience—any touchpoint across the product—is of a high quality. We define quality by measuring that customers can do what they need to do with our product in a clear, efficient, and often enjoyable way. A way that also represents our brand values and beliefs.

A common mistake is to think design is just how something looks. It's not! Product design isn’t just about the visuals or user interface (UI) of the product, it’s about how someone interacts with what we build, how it makes them feel, and how they come to understand our product as "uniquely us.”

Building out the UI is just one facet of the work we do in design, the other work we do encompasses: defining and designing the user journey, conceptualizing interaction flows across pages and features, helping define product strategy and vision, creating a clear language to use across our product, and more.

(For a great overview of how we think about product usability, check out this resource from the stellar Nielsen Norman Group.)

2. How does the design team spend their time?

Here's how our team defines and prioritizes what we do:

50% of our time is spent transforming the user experience in the product. This means:

  • Improving experiences for customers by defining and ensuring high-quality design, including ownership of all front-end interaction points (eg. our company website).
  • Delivering a consistent, seamless, cohesive experience across the entire product. Through brainstorms, whiteboarding, product documentation alongside product partners, interactive prototypes, testing with customers, and working with engineers to ship designs.
  • Conducting and participating in user research, including sales calls and customer success sessions.

35% is spent driving design change across the company. How? We do this by:

  • Driving design standardization across the company—including branding and marketing collateral—by creating a common design language and set of practices, regular design reviews, and training sessions for the company.
  • Representing design throughout the company, including creating presentations for board review or for providing regular updates at company all-hands.
  • Conducting cross-functional design training programs and insights workshops, and generally functioning as an open culture of design.

15% is spent building a world-class design team. We invest in ourselves and our team by:

  • Building and maintaining a globally recognized design team through sourcing, hiring, training, and personal development investments.
  • Representing Gem's brand at functions and in press including speaking at conferences, publishing online content, and participating in discussion panels and community-led conversations.
  • Developing design team skills, supporting the team through regular conference visits, workshops, and courses.

3. What does design collaboration look like?

Because design touches the entire end-to-end user experience of our product we must work in collaboration with other functions early and often.

As such, we take pride on our ability to pull-in (or be pulled-into) projects early. As well as partnering closely with engineering, product, customer success, sales, marketing, and other teams, to understand customer needs, envision product ideas and features, conceptualize and solutions, and follow-up on next steps.

In addition to ongoing project-based conversations in Slack channels and scheduled meetings, we work in the following ways:

Design Review Weekly

A weekly 30-minute to 1-hour session where anyone and everyone is invited to review the latest design work (at any stage). The agenda for this meeting is shared in-advance, and we show the latest work as well as the process which informed decisions for it (customer insights, wireframes, journey maps, explorations, prototypes, etc.).

Monthly All Hands Update

Each month design will provide an update in the company all hands to share top-level initiatives or interesting projects/insights.

Design can work with you to...

  • Define and document product strategy and direction
  • Create wireframes or user journey maps for specific features
  • Test concepts with users in order to evaluate an idea or change
  • Sort through conventional wisdom and research-backed data to inform decisions
  • Produce and walk-through pixel-perfect compositions for implementation
  • Create interactive prototypes to demonstrate an idea quickly
  • Ensure a concept is easy-to-understand and follows Gem design standards
  • Review work and collaborate through brainstorming

4. How can I better work with my designers?

Include design early and often!

Even if you think a conversation is too technically focused or not defined well enough, the earlier you include design the earlier we can start thinking about the user experience and the problems the team might encounter along the way to ideation.

Leverage design for more than UI.

Designers are often exceptional at problem framing, scope definition, and feature ideation. We can help visualize muddy ideas and rapidly experiment with ideas. It’s good to work with design on the visuals of something, but the visuals of anything are only one small part of what your design team can do for you.

Elbow designers if you aren’t seeing our process enough.

Design is only ever as good as the diversity of perspectives that go into the process. If we’re not transparent it means we aren’t getting your valuable feedback and insights into the work we do. If you aren’t seeing enough of our process, please elbow the design team and ask to see it!

Learn a thing or two about how design works.

I encourage all designers to make time for sitting down with cross-functional peers in engineering, product, sales, marketing, etc. to better understand how they work. Likewise: I hope all non-design peers will take time to educate themselves on how design works too. The more we can learn about each other’s roles, responsibilities, and processes, the better we can work together.