Laying an organizational foundation
As a consultant focused on the org design of design orgs, I work across a variety of contexts—established businesses (banks, retail); software as a service (enterprise software); scale-ups (pre-IPO and growing); start-ups. And repeatedly over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself drawing some variation of the following generic digital product design org chart (click/tap for full size).
Let’s look at the various bits.
VP Design. A true executive role, with budgetary and headcount authority, often reporting to an SVP of Product Management (and occasionally to an even more senior executive overseeing all product development, including engineering).
BUSINESS AREA. We’ll further explore this concept later, but for now, the idea is that there are design teams, lead by Design Directors, dedicated to some discrete business goal (in a marketplace model, one Business Area would be the seller side, and the other would be buyer side; in enterprise software, one business area may be Applications, the other Platform).
Design Director (and below). Each team has between 10-25 designers, lead by a Design Director, supported by some number of Design Managers (this example is generous, with a manager for every 4 designers; usually it’s closer to 7 or 8 designers). The Design Managers are responsible for an aspect of that Business area. So, if this were marketplace model, and Business Area A were the Buyer side, each manager is responsible for a stage in the Buyer journey, in this case it could be Research and Discover, Purchase, and Post-Purchase.
Designer. These are Product Designers, with a range of experience: Lead, Senior, mid-level, and Associate/Junior.
UX Research. A small team of (Lead to Junior) researchers who support the organization, reporting to a Director/Manager responsible for the practice. This group is distinct (as opposed to being woven into the Design Directors’ teams), so as to support their career development as UX Researchers, reporting to a manager who has explicit responsibility to coach and grow them professionally.
Design Operations. Similar to UX Research, a distinct group that supports the organization, reporting to a leader who is both developing the practice, and managing the professional growth of their team.
DPM. Design Program Manager.
People Ops. The beginning a “shadow HR” function within Design, to account for the fact that standard HR practices for recruiting and hiring, onboarding, professional development, and performance reviews often don’t apply well to design teams.
Research Ops. UX Research practice requires significant effort in planning, coordination, communication, scheduling, paying, etc. If your UX Researchers are doing this work, it’s taking away from their practice. I place Research Ops under Design Ops as I’ve found it more typical that Research Ops people want to grow their careers within Ops, not in Research.
Redrawing to show relationships as it scales
That typical hierarchical org chart does not depict the relationships between different parts of the team. Instead, I prefer a diagram that looks like this. (click/tap for full size)
The BUSINESS AREAs are ‘verticals’ within the design org, with UX Researchers and Design Program Managers dedicated to them, while reporting to their function lead.
UX Research. With two researchers supporting a business area, one should be truly senior, and the other more junior.
Design Program Management. As shown here, the DPM is oriented on the Design Director. The two of them essentially ‘run’ their part of the organization, which the Design Director focused on creative and managerial leadership, and the DPM addressing the operational needs.
This diagramming helps us see how such an organization may scale (click/tap to enlarge).
Because of the genericness depicted, there is a lot that I’m not (yet) addressing, and which I plan to in subsequent posts. But one thing I’ll briefly touch on, as I hear Kristina Halvorson yelling it in my mind’s ear, is
What About Content?
And there is a simple answer to this. Either:
- some of the Designers in the design teams are Content Designers
- or Content Design functions analogously to UX Research and Design Ops, as a ‘horizontal’ team, reporting to a Head of Content Design, and with specific content designers
(I’d love to hear from folks on what organizational model they’ve found works best for Content Design.)
This post is meant to be a foundational building block for further thinking on emerging standards in the shape of design organizations. Subsequent posts may include:
- Digging into BUSINESS AREAs
- The New (Shadow) Design Strategy Team (it lurks within this structure)
- Experience Teams vs Platform Teams
- Design Systems and Accessibility teams
- How big this scales before needing a new model