5 year product design journey in an amazing hyper-growth startup

Hyper-growth is a term given to a company that has found product/market fit and needs to scale as quickly as possible. This provides especially difficult environments for product design teams.

Hyper-growth is that rare state that founders and investors want to get to when building a startup. The term is used when a startup experiences rapid, exponential growth that launches them to success.

(specifically, where a company’s compound annual growth rate (CAGR) is 40% or greater.)

When a company experiences hyper-growth it often also comes with a set of challenges that can tear it apart just as quickly as it can launch them into orbit.

Design teams due to their collaborative nature bear the brunt of the growing pains. And when that design team is a single remote product designer (Me) in a globally different timezone those issues become compounded.

In this article I’ll talk about my story and the high-level learnings I gained during my experience as a remote product designer working with multiple teams, building teams and the many varying problems that come with scaling product design in a hyper-growth company.

A visionary founder reached out to a product designer as first point of call.

Back in 2015 I received an email enquiry through my freelance website asking if I would design the UI for a healthcare growth and analytics product. (Patient acquisition, management and marketing for doctors)

At the time I was Principal Designer for Neo Innovation heading up design in their Singapore office. (Neo was acquired by Pivotal Labs) ((Pivotal Labs has since been acquired by VMWare))

The enquiry referred to another dashboard I had designed back in 2012 that was featured on e-consultancy.

That unexpected email from a visionary and driven founder turned into a five year journey for me professionally and personally.

Early product design validation.

The intention for the dashboard UI design was for it to be used as an early prototype to test with the assumed target market (Doctors and healthcare professionals)

At the time the actual product did not exist. The founders needed a realistic looking prototype to show and pitch to target customers as part of their early validation of the business.

I’ll write another post on the process of designing a healthcare dashboard UI from scratch but to cut a long story short. I designed the dashboard and the experiment was successful in validating the business idea.

The dashboard product design was a huge hit.

From mockup design to product design

My initial task was to design a healthcare dashboard that ‘looked’ like it was real. It needed to give people the impression is was a live and functioning product.

After the founders were able to validate the business idea by using the (mvp) prototype – I continued to refine the dashboard and design the surrounding ux for multiple features.

The product design was developed into functioning software by a small team of engineers and doctors were lining up to take advantage of this never before seen product.

Hello hyper-growth

After working with the company for about 12 months on a freelance basis I ended up taking a full-time remote role as Principal Product designer. The company was just gaining momentum after receiving its first round of funding.

My role could have been thought of as Principle Product Manager as I was the only product manager and product designer working with a team of engineers reporting into the Founder/CEO. (I didn’t actually have an official title.)

In that role I implemented software delivery best practices, defined scope, created user stories, developed a product roadmap and if time permitted… i’d work on the user experience and interface design.

The original healthcare dashboard design I created was live and functioning for about three and a half years. Since then we have redesigned the user interface to suit the evolving feature set. (I worked with a team of other UI specific designers on this)

5 years on, the company has had multiple rounds of funding, grown to over 500 employees and has been in non-stop hyper growth. Potentially well on it’s way to a successful IPO or acquisition.

I currently still work with the company and have had multiple roles that have evolved and adapted based on the growth, culture and objectives.

Now we have more teams and design roles I’m able to work in a role more conducive to being remote and in a different timezone. Im now focused on brand and customer acquisition side of things in the Marketing Department. My official title is Creative Director.

Product design challenges in a hyper-growth company

I’ll talk about my high-level challenges as a product designer observing a hyper-growth company scaling around me.

Their are of course many broader issues and specific experiences that can arise during hyper-growth with culture, career development, alignment etc but I wont go into those.

1. Disproportionate hiring of other team members compared to product designers

I was/am the only remote Australian working for a company based in L.A. Being a product designer in Sydney, time zones and being physically separated from my teams played a part in the projects I undertook, teams I worked with and how I worked.

Back in the first 12 months the objective was to scale as quickly as possible. This resulted in a focus on our engineering capability to build and release features inline with our value proposition and roadmap.

We also invested in building a robust sales team from the get go.

This strategy worked but as a the only product designer it created many issues that can still be noticed today.

We did not have a balance between design and development. We also did not have a balance between releasing features and selling features.

We ended up with engineers designing on the fly and our only product designer and manager scrambling to provide the information the engineers needed to do their job. Often working behind released code to edit what should have been completed.

A majority of my time was spent trying to fix this issue. I was forced to work add-hoc on providing guidance to various dev teams. With very little time to actually think in advance about customer value and upcoming features. I’d create wireframes, prototypes, user stories, user flows etc on current projects in play but was not able to think about the bigger picture.

As you can imagine, we ended up with a lot of UX issues and technical debt due to frontend and UI inconsistencies.

I was able to put a rudimentary style guide in place with the help of a front-end engineer and unify some of our design to development processes by introducing Agile software delivery methods like sprints, retros and a unified approach to writing user stories (Gherkin)

Since then we have resolved most of the issues and have dramatically improved the design system and frontend styleguide. This gives engineers the tools needed to make small decisions around UI and UX that arise.

We still have issues and a disproportionate number of engineers compared to product designers but we’re WAY better of that what we were.

This coupled with a growing sales team put a huge about of pressure on the engineering and product teams. The more we sold the more value we had to deliver to keep up with the growing demand.

Not only new features but supporting the growing number of issues coming up as more users came on board.

The natural solution to selling so much and fixing software issues is simpliy throwing more engineers at it…. right?

Wrong… we learnt the hard way. The growing technical debt and issues around customer experience and user interface were compounded.

The more users we had on the platform, the more support tickets were posted. At one point we had half the team working on support issues and bug fixes.

As engineers had to make more decisions we ended up with more inconsistencies and holes in the product experience.

The result of this was a LOT of focus on design (AKA me)

It sounds harsh to say people blamed design but it happened. Engineers didn’t have the design tools they needed to do their job effectively, they were forced to become designers by default.

This lead to a challenging 12 months of juggling various product managers and lead engineers to come up with a ‘design process’ conducive to their personal and their team’s expectations. All while still trying to design and deliver the product value.

This leads into the next challenge of managing the various expectations on what a product designer actually does.

2. Varied expectations on what product design is

Product design like UX Design and Product Management (Not the same things) are all very broad roles. Expectations on what these roles actually do varies tremendously between teams and organisations.

My previous role before joining this company was as a product design consultant. I worked with a range of startups, governments and enterprise orgs.

The projects and teams I worked with were very diverse. I was tasked with solving a wide variety of problems including, customer research, finding product market fit, validation, phased dev scoping, UI design, UX design and running innovation workshops.

This type of work is true to what a product designer does. They have a large toolbox of skillets they can apply to almost any problem.

Naturally, when joining my new teams I used my prior knowledge to offer value where I could. You could say I was defining my own role.

This caused some turbulence in how the team scaled and evolved.

Without going too much into the specifics. I was advocating for methods I used as a consultant orientated around agile and lean software delivery.

I worked with the likes of IDEO, ThoughtWorks and Pivotal Labs so thought I picked up a few things that could help deliver great software.

Everything was going very well with the small team at the time. We were putting in some great practices and releasing software.

This was until the team started to grow around me. We had multiple people hiring to scale the team as quickly as possible. I unfortunately could not slow this down.

Some senior engineering leads joined who had differences of opinion on how to deliver software and how product design fits into writing code and delivering value.

These new hires were more accustomed to a waterfall way of working. They saw product design as interface design which it is fundamentally not. Interface is an important part but only one component of the whole product and design process.

The waterfall way of working pushed for high fidelity UI to be the first step in the process. Those who have worked in an agile environment know this causes many issues later in the process when the UI has to be converted into working software.

This conflict in process and differing expectations on product design output coupled with internal turbulence around authority made it challenging to do what a product designer does.

The static design file become the product and was iterated on based on feedback and learnings. Issue is, teams and stakeholders start thinking of this fake picture as the real thing. Very quickly the high fidelity UI (Which looked great) became out of sync with what reality was in the real product.

As new team members joined this issue was intensified. I stayed true to my process and kept my work lean and iterative. I spoke to customers as often as I could and reported the learning back to the teams working closely with engineers.

Eventually, we scaled our product management capabilities and brought on a new VP of Engineering. It got to a point where me as the only designer wanted to work differently to the majority.

My activities were received well but caused some turbulence. I needed to adapt to fit in with new operations being rolled out, engineering processes and the majority expectation on what product design was.

I conceded my plight for agile and progressive design and ended up adopting a more waterfall way of working. I put on my UI Designer hat and focused on building out screens inline with specifications the product managers had outlined.

Being able to adapt to different roles is an advantage of a product designer… I went from being a product manager, to a UX researcher, to a UI Designer.

Product design encompasses many roles. At the risk of sounding egotistical… Product designers are unicorns. ?

This has been the fundamental reason that allowed me to maintain the value I offer to a constantly changing organization.

My latest evolution in role is to Creative Director. I now focus on our marketing, brand and customer acquisition. I still design products but these are focused on sales and customer on-boarding.

Conclusion of my time as a Product Designer in a Hyper-growth startup

I’m going to add a few more learnings to this post when I get more time.

These may include:

  • Design by committee and nobody making product design decisions
  • Too much emphasis put on processes instead of outcomes.
  • No time for research. Just make it look pretty.

I recently had my third child which makes it 3 under 5! Things have become a little busier than usual.

I’ll come back to this post after Christmas in the new year when I (Hopefully) get some time back.

To briefly summarize… As a product designer your work is highly visible, everyone will have an opinion on the solution you design.

Within a hyper-growth startup individuals and teams are competing for their place in the org. They all want to have their opinion heard and actioned.

Individuals who joined the startup early may not have the experience and/or mindset needed to fit into a culture that is constantly evolving.

Product Design teams are at the cold face of these growing pains.

If you want to discuss anything in this post feel free to reach out.