Being a user experience (UX) designer and managing design teams is a rewarding job. I should know since I’ve been a UX designer and manager for the last twenty years. During that time I’ve had several opportunities where I progressed from being the only designer in a company to growing and managing a design team. Agari is the most recent, and my favorite, example of that pattern.
My Agari Journey: A UX Team of One
When I joined Agari nearly five years ago, I was very excited to once again accept the challenge of being the only UX designer at a company, or a “UX Team of One.” I relished the idea of making all the UX decisions, supporting multiple products and product teams, and broadening my skills in research, wireframing/prototyping, visual and interaction design, testing, and documenting my designs—all within a truly agile software development environment.
It is very rewarding (and ego-fulfilling!) to be the only designer in that kind of environment: everyone wants a piece of your time, and, like most start-ups, there is plenty to do and not enough people to do it all. You have to move quickly, especially as the company expands its product features. There are times where I started a design on a Monday that was reviewed, refined, coded, tested, and rolled into production by the end of the week.
As a sole designer, you get to wear a lot of hats (like everyone else), and the company is small enough that there are few barriers between functional groups. If you need to listen in on a customer call to gather more context about a feature, simply ask the head of customer support or your favorite sales engineer over lunch. If you want to A/B test a paper prototype with your most challenging customer, simply send them an email directly and set up a call. When you want to take a feature interaction in a different direction, make a decent case to the lead engineer, and you might just get it pushed to production within the iteration.
Customers can’t understand how to use your product? You probably only have yourself to blame. Are there customers who praise your product because they find it intuitive and useful? Pat yourself on the back for a job well done. As a designer, it’s fulfilling to point to a revenue-generating product that exists in the world and say, “I designed everything you’re seeing in this application.”
Leveling Up to a Team of Two
After some time, however, if you and your company are successful like Agari has been, you may be asked to design a second or third product. It is likely at this point that you simply cannot do it alone, and so here at Agari, we expanded our US team. While working as a team of one is exciting, this expansion can also be extremely rewarding.
Building a team forces you to flex new muscles, starting with your first hire. Moving from an individual contributor to a leadership role will force you to answer questions that you likely were not thinking about when you were cranking out designs alone. What skills are you seeking to augment on your UX team (i.e. what are *your* weaknesses)? Are you looking for a design partner or someone whom you can mentor? Full-time hire or contractor? Seasoned veteran or a promising candidate with less experience? How will you plan to split up the work, hold design reviews, or even simply share files and assets easily? Are you willing to switch toolsets? Have you documented your style guide, or is it simply all in your head?
Some of the answers may change depending how quickly your startup is growing or how many products you need to support. It is important that your UX processes evolve and adapt along the way. You don’t want to invent process for the sake of creating process; the idea is to strike a pragmatic balance between agility and collaboration within the UX team and among functional peer groups. There will still be more things to do than there are people; the idea here is to augment your team and increase your UX influence efficiently.
Relative Size as the Company Grows
But how does “UX efficiency” scale with your company’s growth? How will you know the kinds of practices to implement with additional headcount in order to support more teams and projects?
One of the first jobs in my career was at a large, public company headquartered in Silicon Valley with over 30,000 employees worldwide. Later, I switched jobs to a smaller company of about a thousand people. Working at a place with an order of magnitude fewer employees was a dramatic change. There were fewer resources, but there was still a decent amount of formalized organizational structure and processes; you cannot exist as a publicly-traded entity without at least some governance and structure.
After that role, however, I joined my first startup of forty people. A forty-person company is roughly the size of a professional hockey team and its coaching staff—and that company acted and communicated a lot like a hockey team. We were a scrappy unit and changes in our strategy were quickly implemented by the team. That startup soon grew to be over 400 people, and I grew the UX team to more than a dozen people accordingly over the next four years. And then suddenly… we were acquired by a company with more than 70,000 employees. While I learned a lot in this role, I soon realized that I missed the nature of a small team, and thus found Agari.
When I joined Agari, our current 200 person company consisted of approximately forty people. We’ve certainly felt some growing pains as we’ve matured and more formal processes needed to be put into place, especially as we’ve expanded our product portfolio from one product to four. All this to say, after three years of being the sole designer, I was very excited to begin growing my team again and working with this scrappy, nimble, and talented group. It’s been an exciting journey, and one I’m looking forward to continuing as Agari moves forward in the email security market. Onward and upward!
Want to join the Agari team? Check out our open opportunities and apply!