Firefly has always had a reputation for excellent design. Brilliant usability and gorgeous aesthetics are key differentiators. This didn’t happen by accident: I hired great people and created an environment where great work could happen.
My team were responsible for the user’s experience of Firefly; what they saw on screen and how they interacted with our product. Although we felt valued, being a relatively small team presented a couple of problems:
- We were responsible for a wide array of design tasks. How could we ensure we were performing our best at all of them?
- Senior designers wanted growth. How could I support their career development without room for upwards movement?
By explicitly defining what designers did, I was able to clearly delineate our two core designer types: UX Researcher and UI Designer.
To do this, I ran a workshop where team members voted on their own and each other’s relative skills in each area, the adjusted their score based on feedback. This led to greater trust amongst team members and a clear path from junior to senior.
In addition to core functions, I created add-on roles that were assigned to designers who showed a particular interest in or aptitude for that skill. It was their job to advocate best practice and for seeing everyone level-up in that area.
For example, the Web Design System Owner was responsible for the evolution of the pattern library and style guide; ensuring that they are practical tools for designing and documenting web UI within Firefly.
The result was a happier team who had a much clearer idea of what skill or area to work on next. Firefly offered a yearly £1,000 training budget, and we were one of the few teams that consistently spent nearly every penny.
The responsibilities of a design leader are many and varied. You have to bring a mix of in-depth design knowledge and traditional management skills. I’m continually iterating my toolset of techniques to empower my team to do their best work then getting out of the way to allow this to happen.
One to ones
One to ones are vital in running a healthy, happy team. I ran weekly hour-long 1:1s with all of my team with clear timed sections for work catch-up, Objectives and Key Results review and career support.
Every week the whole team came together for an hour in a safe space where we shared what we’d been working on and offer feedback.
As the team changed, so did the format of these meeting. Periodically, I’d turn the whole of the meeting over to a “format workshop” to ensure we were always keeping the gathering fresh.
Jon’s been a great leader from the beginning: approachable, open-minded and always willing to listen. I’ve always been able to trust him with my concerns, and he will either help me resolve it myself, or help me find someone who can!
Rachel Anderson, UI Designer
It’s a complicated thing; getting all the disciplines within a product development team working in sync. There’s also a balance to be struck over leading the way and not micromanaging or being overly prescriptive.
I worked with Firefly’s Squads to create a process that worked for all but could be modified per Squad as they saw fit.
A clear definition of who was responsible for what was something we severely lacked within the design team itself. Using the classic “double diamond”, I was able to adapt the overall Squad process to clearly demonstrate the research and design process within it.
My team were responsible for helping to define what we should build through user research and testing. UX Researchers owned this part of the process and split their time between:
- Generative research: developing a deep understanding of our users and their needs to create innovative ideas of how Firefly could help them in-line with our mission and strategy (“why”).
- Idea validation: testing ideas with real users and their feasibility with internal teams.
- Feature validation: at the end of the process, understanding the impact of recently shipped features on squad-level KPIs.
My team were responsible for define solutions to user stories through creative design and testing. UI Designers owned their part of the process and split their time between:
- Solution ideation: create ingenious solutions to problems for teachers, parents and students through fail-fast, iterative design.
- Solution validation: testing then iterating solutions with users via increasing fidelity prototypes.
- Solution feasibility: working alongside product managers to ensure that solutions are technically feasible and align with sales and product-marketing strategies.
Despite my belief that everyone should understand and valued what my team did, this wasn’t always true — especially when someone new joined the company. I started several initiatives to raise awareness of all the great work the design team were doing, both internally and externally.
Show and tell
To engage others early, we started posting our research, wireframes and design mockups on spare bits of wall. This was really great and got near-instant feedback from the rest of the team.
My team started having better conversations about forthcoming features with everyone, and this fostered a greater understanding and respect of our craft.
I organised and hosted events at Firefly HQ. These brought together designers and developers from all over London (and sometimes beyond). We had some really great speakers, beer and pizza.
To encourage a “write to think” mentality I created a publication on Medium called Illuminated — and built the requirement to write at least one post per quarter into my teams’ objectives.
I’m overjoyed to see that the blog is still going strong and now has posts from developers and scrum masters too!
I believe workshops are an essential part of any design process. At their best, workshops unlock untapped creativity, spark unexpected ideas and facilitate fast-failure.
I’ve run workshops with internal teams and external clients in many different formats. At Firefly we came to favour a version of Design Sprints as our go-to format. We’d then develop the structure depending on the desired outcome, attendees and time constraints.
By readily involving team members from other areas of the business, we were able to employ their unique perspectives and evangelise the tools and techniques of design all in one fell swoop.
Jon leaves Firefly with a fantastic legacy - a great design team working together within a well-designed set of design systems and processes.
Joe Mathewson, founding partner of Firefly Learning