Evolving the design practise in a startup – my 99designs story

99designs has grown at an amazing rate, in many ways it’s the dream rags to riches startup story — from a team of 4 locked away in a meeting room to a worldwide team of 90 in just a few years.

I joined 99designs in late 2009 as I saw the potential it had and I believed I could help them realise it. Now, as the longest serving Designer at 99designs, and the Head of UX, I thought I’d share the journey the design practise has gone through in the 4 years I’ve been here and how the team has both responded to the growing demands of a company brimming with ideas as well as improved the way we design. Hopefully there’s some lessons in it for other startups and Designers who are looking to scale their design practise.

The early days – whatever it took

When I started at 99designs I was the second Designer on the team and my first project was to design a complimentary product to the existing 99designs contests product — the Ready-made Logo Store. The project was essentially another start-up with another team of 4 locked away in the same meeting room as the inaugural 99designs team.

It was a great little team and we moved rapidly. As the only Designer I had to do it all — interaction design, visual design, front-end coding, marketing and some product strategy and project management etc. It was intense but we all shared a common goal — to get something up as quickly as we could and to scale and build on it from there. It was fun and I enjoyed it but the process wasn’t what I was used to nor what I considered the best way to design a great product — it was just to get us to stage one.

Encouraging a more user-centered approach

As the Ready-made Logo store went live and we began to get customers we obviously wanted to build and improve on it but there was different ideas about what would give us the most “bang for buck”. I’d been pushing before but this was when I started to push harder for using a more user-centred design process and user testing in particular.

99designs were already great at listening to their users and engaging with their customers through email, forums and the support team etc but that’s a small part of a user-centred design process and I knew they could do better. I’d been designing websites and applications for over 10 years at the time and had been exposed to a range of processes and methodologies — user-centred design was where my passion lay and what made the most sense to me. More importantly I knew 99designs would benefit from utilising these techniques and approaches.

It’s fair to say my ideas weren’t welcomed with open arms to begin with, there was some healthy skepticism from within the management team and as they’d built a successful product to date without using these techniques, I could understand why. I respected their point of view but I continued to push and it was worth it.

The first BIG win — a watershed moment

The first time we ever conducted proper user testing sessions and used it to guide the design of our user-interface we saw a 35% improvement in conversions of sales leads. As you can imagine this was a massive win for 99designs and was a watershed moment in the adoption of user-centred processes within the business.

These days we use a wide variety of user-centred techniques including:

  • Stakeholder workshops,
  • Focus groups,
  • Moderated user sessions,
  • Unmoderated user sessions,
  • Collaborative design sessions,
  • Quick and dirty internal user testing,
  • Guerilla testing,
  • Shadowing the support team,
  • Surveys, and
  • Diary studies.

It’s hard to imagine us not working on any new feature without doing any user research first and user validation along the way. It’s amazing to witness the difference it makes and it’s one of the achievements I’m most proud of here at 99designs.

I knew we’d come a long way when our CEO (Pat Llewellyn) asked me in a meeting once if we’d “validated that with users”.

Maturing our understanding of our audience and brand

One of the other things I pushed for at 99designs was to improve our understanding of our target audience and how we pitched our products to them. To clearly articulate who our audience was and what kind of brand (personality) we wanted to portray to them. I knew by being clear on this that it would help guide the decision making around our products, their feature sets and their user interfaces.

Although it’s not my strength, I pulled together a series of workshops around brand values and visual design and pushed the management team to think more about these. To move away from subjective opinions to a more systemic approach of making decisions.

Again we’ve come a long way in this regard and we now have a dedicated Marketing manager (Jeff Titterton), Art director (Kyle Wai Lin) and Copywriter on our team whose roles are to help us refine and mature these brand values even more.

Splitting interaction and visual design

Until our Art Director Kyle joined us a year ago, 99designs had always hired Designers who could do the spectrum of user research, interaction and visual design — being a bootstrapped startup we didn’t have the luxury to separate these roles.

As we grew and matured, and with a stronger desire within the company to improve our aesthetic, we’ve started to split these design disciplines more and strengthen our visual design capabilities and it’s been wonderful for us.

We now have 3 Visual Designers who work across both marketing collateral as well as the visual design of our user interfaces. It means the UX Designers can focus more on the interaction design and user research to make sure we really nail that. And the Visual Designers can really focus on the aesthetics of our products and nailing that.

It’s been a year since Kyle joined us and started building up the Visual team and they are doing an amazing job of it — for me it feels like it’s all starting to come together nicely.

Where to from here?

We have a lot on at the moment, we’re creating some new products to sit with the existing two we have and we’re working on improving our flagship product as well with a new visual aesthetic and a responsive UI. It means we’re very busy and we’re always looking for people to help us, but in terms of the design practise and improving that, my plans of where I’d like to see it go (i.e. requires management approval) are currently:

Two designers to a team

I’d like for each product (or project team) to have a pair of designers working on it. There’s a lot of research acknowledging the benefits of it and I think a UX and a Visual designer working together on a project is the perfect combination to have.

A family team focussed on consistency

I’d also like to see us pull together a family team whose mandate is to oversee and encourage consistency of UX across the product suite we are developing. They would also be responsible for the design of the platform of shared services we are building to support the product suite.

Dedicated user researchers

And lastly I’d like to have a small user research team to mainly help conduct user research on user interface projects but could also provide the marketing team with market research capabilities.

Your experiences or thoughts?

So that’s my story on how the design practise at 99designs has grown over the 4 years I’ve been here and where I’m hoping to take it in the future. I’d love to hear from others who have been part of a growing design team and their experiences as well. Or from others who currently work as designers in similar or slightly larger sized technology companies and what they find works well for them.

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