2015-2017

Case Study

Designers at Shopify running a retrospective

Building a Design Practice and Team

How we grew a team to 30 designers

Stage 1:

Building the foundations

The roles of technical lead and manager aren’t separate at Shopify and leads fall along the spectrum between the two.[1] Originally hoping I’d be a tech lead, I was inspired by my Director’s influence (Verne Ho) and started to internalize management as a craft.

In my past year, I was setting up the foundations of our team of five. I set up a weekly sync, which became a consistent cornerstone, which allowed me to push a priority of learning, helped us build trust, ensure our output quality was high, and gave me an opportunity to ask for things we needed to do better.

As our company grew and engineering was overlapping us in size, we needed something that could help us expand our influence as the office grew larger. I had participated in quite a few design sprints before in the past and thought it would be a great tool for alignment and encouraging other disciplines on a project team to participate in the design process.

After running a couple of Design Sprints on some project teams, I asked the designers to facilitate a Design Sprint workshop on how to run one.

Designers at Shopify running a workshop

This helped teach others on the UX team and gave us more opportunities to practice and advocate for more sprints across R&D. The sprints provided value for teams who didn’t have a full-time resourced designer and we adjusted them as we learned to fit the Shopify context. These learnings were documented to scale the knowledge across our team as we hired, giving any designer a library of reference to run their own sprints.

With our initial structures and design sprints in place, we were free to focus on hiring more designers and building more influence across the company.

~1000

employees
~230 000

stores

Stage 2:

Culture, process, and teamwork

~1900

employees
~377 500

stores

At the start of 2016, Ilia Larionov joined the team as a lead. Verne was gracious enough to give us the space to build the product design team with lots of autonomy. In retrospect, this one of the decisions I’ve been most grateful for, as it allowed us to learn at a speed and try new things without much overhead.

While our main priorities were the product designers we were leading and hiring, we were involved with initiatives across the whole office. Working with our Director, we tweaked our product design weekly syncs and helped scale our other Shopify design team review opportunities: fresh eyes and design reviews.

As our team grew to ten designers, we noticed a few things based off conversations during 1:1s with the designers (and through data we received with our annual Gallup survey) that needed to be addressed:

  1. Expectations for designers were unclear

  2. We weren't clear about how we wanted the team to work moving forward

  3. We didn't have a common understanding of what skills we were looking for

The best way to address these type of concerns is to be sure clear about what we wanted to see out of our designers. I wrote the first expectation documents and worked with Ilia to ensure we were both aligned.

This resulted in a stronger identity for the product designers[2] in the office with a clear set of expectations they could work with. We tested these new documents as the team onboarded more designers tweaking as we went. A lot of this work has been folded into documents for product designers across all of the offices at Shopify now.

Soon enough, we were at a team size of 14, and we had added another lead to the team, Darrin Henein. Ilia and I could feel the team’s changing sentiments about our recent growth from our 1:1s again, and felt like we needed to run a retrospective to understand how to grow the team going forward.

Designers at Shopify running a workshop
Designers at Shopify running a workshop
Designers at Shopify running a workshop

From this I found a few things I could focus on over the next six months,and we developed a good understanding of where our team stood. While it was important that I acknowledged the problems our retrospective pointed to, I was interested in the larger problems we would eventually run into. At the speed we were going, I had to move my priorities around.

~1900

employees
~377 500

stores

Stage 3:

Hiring, diversity initiatives, and advocacy

At the two-year mark, we went through an intense hiring sprint and our team grew to 20. A lot of our previously set processes were working on their own, and our team was welcoming newcomers well. After attending a leadership conference in San Francisco, I was inspired to tackle problems of breadth.

I had been learning through experience about women in the workforce after my part-time job allowed me to make connections between my female students and my female reports (there are striking similarities). This was the first dimension which kickstarted my research.

At a size of 20 with the leads, we started looking for designers with unique skillsets and backgrounds to round out the team. This urgency was further compounded by a Hack Days project, which led me to question the make-up of our team. I pushed heavily[3] on TA (talent acquisition) and our other leads to make diversity a requirement in hiring.

Diversity of thought became a key theme for me during these six months and I looked further at advocacy and hiring as ways to better improve it across the team.

~2000+

employees
~500 000

stores
Luke Reeves & I speaking at Unite
Advocating Externally

I had been publishing articles once a week and we were getting more talented designers through our door interested in Shopify. To increase this, I spent time speaking on podcasts, panels, and at our partners conference (Unite).

Advocacy not only increased in our team and the work we did but it also reinforced that we were looking for more diverse candidates and allowed me to meet other design leaders in the industry to learn from.

Andrey Gargul running a Design retrospective workshop
Nurturing Internally

To grow our team I looked at: interns to build our junior level and introducing seniors into our leadership team.

I designed and ran our first Toronto design intern program which resulted in strong diverse hires and helped other internal teams reconsider the way they had been approaching hiring. In the meantime, I was mentoring one of my reports into leadership (hello, Andrey!). After months of sharing and looking for opportunities for practice, we welcomed him into leadership.

Entire Shopify team
Hiring for Diversity

To better scale, we had to train our current designers how to interview candidates instead of doing it ourselves (the leadership team).

Building on what I was learning about diversity at the time, we kicked off the training by talking to them about what we were looking for in team members, identifying subconscious bias, and ensuring they were all confident heading into the various interview types we ran.

Over a few months, quite a few things changed. We ran our first hiring sprint with diversity as the main focus, Talent Acquisition was able to learn more about the nuances of our industry, and we welcomed five new diverse hires within a few months.

~2000+

employees
~500 000

stores

Saying goodbye

Clarifying principles

Strong management and leadership comes from strong principles. A lot of what I did was learned from observing Satish Kanwar and Verne Ho run a design agency before Shopify but I also developed my own thoughts along the way. As well as learning about this new craft I also became a stronger Designer, strengthening my strategic thinking and applying it to our platform products with the support of the design team.

I left the team once we reached a team size of 30. Growing the team was one of the most challenging ‘projects’ I’ve ever worked on and the experience will shape who I am for years to come. I’ll write more about this in the future[4], but for now, we can close this chapter.


↩︎ [1] This is true as of August 2017. We had some documentation introduced in 2015 saying that there was a difference. As the company grew, this happened in the ENG department but it never manifested in the UX department in Toronto in the time that I was there.

↩︎ [2] I believe there is a difference between a Product Designer and a Communications Designer. This is a topic I intend to write about at some point.

↩︎ [3] A brief synopsis of this can be found on Twitter ↗︎.

↩︎ [4] There are many things I’ve not discussed in this case study for brevity, but I welcome any questions about it on Twitter ↗︎ if you’re interested.