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Design your team like you would your product

AMEX VP of Product Design and Research Evan English shares her approach to scaling design teams
Design your team like you would your product

In our interview series so far, we’ve delved into the research phase of product design, the prototyping phase, the build and release phase and, finally, the refinement phase. But product design leaders like AMEX’s VP of Product Design and Research Evan English, know that a leader’s job isn’t just to manage product delivery from end-to-end; it’s also to champion the design team and design thinking within the organization. 

Evan’s led product design at AMEX for a decade and in that time she’s learned that scaling a design team has many parallels to designing and shipping digital products: 

  • You start by hiring someone with a certain skill or specialization as a proof of concept that their knowledge and craft is necessary to the team
  • Once you’ve proven that this person’s expertise is a value add to the team, you champion them to continue building out that function so you can tackle more features and products 
  • As you expand the team and hire more people; you invite folks into your team design process by asking them to contribute to the establishment of team norms and by working together to develop design systems and foundations 

In other words: you begin with a hypothesis, prove it out, then continue to build, expand, and refine as you move forward. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? 

Evan believes that design maturity means having an organizational vision for how design integrates into the various aspects of your business and how the broader organization perceives and embraces design. She encourages fellow design leaders to create ways to measure maturity and evolution while remembering to celebrate your progress along the way. 

“If we are to truly become a critical business function we will need to answer the question: how do we scale, measure, and mature design in a hyper-competitive business environment?” she says. 

Don’t sacrifice quality for agility 

Speed to market and agility both matter greatly in a competitive business environment, but there’s no substitute for quality offerings. 

“I've seen people too focused on the short term and getting things out quickly and there's this ‘agility means better’ kind of mindset,” she says. “We want to be agile, but we want to be thoughtful as well.” 

So how do you avoid going down a rabbit hole of overthinking and over designing? For Evan, it's continually focusing on who you’re designing your product for: “Customer centricity has always been part of the DNA of AMEX,” she says. 

“The biggest shift has been cultural in that now we approach things from a research-first perspective, because the company has very much embraced being so customer focused.” 

Evan says that design teams should always strive to keep the two aspects—agility and quality — in view when approaching your goals and outcomes. 

Develop a design maturity model 

You don’t need to start your design maturity model from scratch. Many organizations, including NNG, have put out different frameworks for design maturity models. 

For Evan, it starts with “having an organizational vision for how design integrates into the broader aspects of your business and being mindful of continuously elevating the practice.”

It goes back to balancing agility and quality. She recommends having “an approach that's going to allow you to scale thoughtfully and not try to boil the ocean all at once, because it shouldn't happen overnight — since that would be very disruptive and would probably make a lot of people upset.”

Reaching design maturity isn’t just about growing and scaling design teams, it’s also about how the broader organization perceives and embraces design. Evan wisely reminds us that there’s a heavy cross-functional component to selling the design function on a broader level. 

“I always talk to my team about how we have to level ourselves up in terms of how we work and the skills that we have across the team in order to sell design,” she says. “We have to demonstrate and show and bring in design when it makes sense, because if you're not thinking about design maturity, you could become complacent.”

Scale your team around necessary skill sets 

One thing the product design team at AMEX recognized early on, Evan says, “is that the notion of a jack of all trades product designer, or a T-shaped designer, whatever you want to call it, is a very valuable type of designer to have on your team, but you also want to balance the more generalist design function with more specialized skill sets.” 

Over time, Evan took the approach of bringing in specialists one by one to prove out the value they can bring. First she brought in design managers who focused on operations, “then our designops practice was born. And then we brought in the UX writers and now we have a flourishing UX writing team,” she says.

Remember what Evan said before: There’s no need to boil the ocean. Start with the most immediate skills that you need and give those people time to prove out the value of their contributions then allow them to expand. 

There will come a certain time in your growth though where you have to consider career paths. “There’s the skills piece, but then there’s also the work of mapping the skills to levels,” says Evan. 

That can mean defining higher levels for designers to aspire to, like management and leadership positions, or defining a more horizontal, but equally valuable, path where designers can gain expertise across disciplines. Part of building design maturity is to establish these kinds of paths and guidance for teams as they grow. 

Advocate from within 

Advocating for your team and the value that your skills bring to the organization is an effort in advocacy and championing, not politicking. Evan says that design teams have a responsibility to be good collaborators with both internal, cross-functional teams and externally with the wider design community. 

Building a network of advocates has to be an intentional thing and there’s an obvious place to start: “we need advocacy from our product and engineering pals,” she says. But Evan also highlights some not-so-obvious places where allies can be found: “your HR partners, your compliance partners, and your corporate communications team; you need to make sure that you're bringing them along the journey and helping them see what you're trying to achieve at the end of the day.” 

Great design teams don’t just serve their organization internally. Evan puts a finer point on highlighting that being a good designer also means contributing to wider design culture and community. That can be through speaking gigs, sharing your thoughts and ideas on a blog, or maybe lending some time to open source projects. 

Reaching design maturity 

Evan thinks we’re not far from a future where design is, “seen less as a phase and more as a fluid and continuous part of every stage of how we operate in a business setting.” 

She notes that there’s a lot of work to do still, but we’re well on our way to proving design as a durable and core business pillar. The growth of things like the design operations function over the years, Evan says, is a good sign that the design discipline is heading in the right direction. 

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring snippets from our podcast: By Design — a show about designing exceptional digital products and experiences. Each episode, our host and co-founder Josh Brewer dives deep into every stage of the product life cycle along with industry experts. 

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