Building a Design Team

Over the last two years I doubled our UX team of UX/UI Designers, UX Researchers, Design Ops specialists, and Design strategists at Abercrombie & Fitch. I've spent over five years on the team and experienced reorganization and re-builds multiple times as strategic context, organizational reporting, collaboration with agencies, and team members have changed. The following are some of the things I learned on attracting designers, hiring, and balancing the team.
Five useful steps for building a team

Attract: Show What You Offer

First identify what you have to offer when attracting talent. If your company has a global reputation you may have candidates coming to you, but it's best to not let presumptions about the position to take place of the exact details you can provide.

It can be difficult for candidates to simply show why they would be great to work with without understanding your team or work, but if you give them the right backdrop it gets the match-making discussions started. Canditates will respond to what you show them and more clearly reveal what they have to offer and how they would fit in response. Here are some examples of things I've used to frame the context of joining the team.
Team Culture
People are looking for meaningful quality relationships because they are going to spend a lot of their life with the team so this is a powerful issue to focus on. Explain, or better yet show, your team culture and help candidates envision what it could do for their work life and how they would fit.
Growth Opportunity
Identify individual growth opportunities by discussing candidate desires and past experience and explain how you can support those. Team growth initiatives can also be attractive because the candidate may see an opportunity to make an impact or benefit from growing alongside others who are similar to them.
Customer Impact
Discussing the core impact your design team makes on customers is critical because this is ultimately what some designers will derive a lot of their job satisfaction from. Are there use cases, customer stories, or business successes you can share?
Strategic Value
Some people really like making an impact in critical areas. These personalities tend to thrive in areas of high risk and challenge, so if there are important strategic initiatives you can share they can attract driven high-achievers.
Sync with Design Field
Many designers have a strong appetite for learning and will be connected to and tracking new trends and shifts in the wider design industry. What does your team offer that is in sync with these trends and can you offer training to remain relevant the industry?
Organizational  Learning
There are many different organizational structures to experience in one's career, and communicating the benefits to experiencing yours can be attractive to candidates that aim for management or leadership positions.

Evaluate: What dimensions matter?

Take time to consider and map out how you will assess people you are hiring to join the team and what you need to keep track of when they are on the team.
When writing job descriptions, onboarding staffing agencies, or hindsighting hiring - having a record of your goals is invaluable.
These principles may change as you learn or the context changes, but providing guidance for yourself will help you when your "gut" doesn't know what to do or when you feel that something is off track but you need a reminder of your original intent. Every team and manager will have their own hiring goals, but here are some examples of things I tracked as I worked on the team.
Strategic Fit
  • Suited for highly iterative design work?
  • Emerging need for advanced interaction prototyping for key strategic projects.
  • Expertise in clothing industry and omni retail lacking on team.
Team Skill Gaps and Seniority
  • Direct contributors needed for volume.
  • More Leads needed to reduce management overhead and oversight.
  • Senior UX strategy and UI coaching skills needed for junior designers.
Culture Fit
  • Need curious learners who aim high, push boundaries, and are resilient.
  • Must be comfortable with creatively explorative and fun design culture.
  • Communicative and relationship builders do best in this environment.
  • Customer-centric designers who champion users but are business savvy.
  • Design-thinker types with balance of analytical vs get-it-done habits
Career Goals
  • Best current fits looking for skill and career growth over title/salary jumps.
  • We can best satisfy practitioners happy to lead through work verus title.
  • Those seeking external esteem will get less here. Self-actualization fits best.
  • Those with a "I have-to-be-designing" internal drive will enjoy the work pace.
  • Those who can stage growth for long-term gains will have opportunity here.
Disposition and Style
  • Learning mindset will be rewarded on team. Self-actualization opportunities are great here for people interesting in branded UX/UI, omni-retail, analytics, and org scale.
  • Internal thinkers would be beneficial but may feel uncomfotable due to high amount of external thinkers in leadership. Plan for supporting them and explain this.
  • Easy going, fun, avid learners who are hard-working and reliable do well on team. Self-promoting attitudes are disliked by team members.
  • Humility is essential. Blame-complain-defend behaviors will be rejected by team culture.
  • Ability to take feedback well is essental due to high exposure to stakeholders in addition to user feedback.
  • Org culture leans Type A, ask-assertiveness vs tell-assertiveness should be evaluated.

Onboarding: Consistent but Personal

When bringing members onto a team, it's important to provide consistent and sufficient onboarding for them. Onboarding is not only important for you and them, but also for their new co-workers and cross-functional partners. I assigned the Design Ops manager to create consistent onboarding practices and help them with functional onboarding. I focused on customized help and communication with each new hire to make it as supportive and effective as possible.
Keep Consistent
  • Company culture and values
  • Expectations for their functional role
  • Standard Processes
  • UX Design and delivery standards: Equipment, tools, deliverables, etc.
  • Communication processes and norms.
  • Tech, career, and organizational support contacts.
  • Introduction to team members.
  • Historical norms or documentation of other team structures and processes.
Personalize It
  • Cross-functional partners to meet.
  • Expectations at their personal growth level.
  • Exectations of onboarding period length.
  • Communication and guidance needed throughout initial onboarding period.
  • First contributions: make sure to identify contributions that can provide confidence, while still meeting expectations of managers, team members, and other functions. Ramp-up needs to avoid falling short.

Monitor: Is it working?

Giving a good pitch, onboarding someone, and then think it's set-it-and-forget is and easy trap to fall into. However, it pays to make sure you have set a cadence of check-ins or feedback mechanisms to know how the new desinger feels it is going.  A new team member may be eager to hold up their side of the bargain, working hard to catch up to the rest of the team given they are at a disadvantage in terms of history and organizational awareness — this can lead to burn out. Or, if the experience doesn't match what you pitched to them due to unexpected conditions, they may not be comfortable discussing so you can help make a new plan.
Make sure you have made it clear the onboarding period is a two-way dialog and the new designer can share their sense of progress and fit so you can both course correct if needed.
If you said you needed a lot of motion design and this was a key pitch to the hire, but chance has it that no projects have brought that opportunity for six months, you need to level-set on what happened and what is expected going forward. Remember that your team members have also hired this job to work for their life and reciprocity makes for long-lasting teamwork.

Adapt: Don't Make the Org Design the Goal

Don't make the team organization structure you set out with the goal. It's important to tie the structure back to higher level needs and have multiple strategies to achieve them. If the team members change the gameplan might need to change — but you want to keep those goals the same. There's more than one way to get the job done….so do the management work of going back to the drawing board and finding a new way to achieve the goals if the unexpected comes around.

All of this said, teams are full of wonderful talented complex people working to overcome the unknown. Ultimately you will have to look to continue to change and adapt yourself as you learn to keep up with all those smart designers you are trying to serve.