There have been numerous incarnations of the design team at NationBuilder. The original configuration of the team focused primarily on brand and marketing, establishing a brand identity, a marketing website optimized for trial conversions, as well as creating official website themes. I recruited designers exceptional not just in visual design, but also in HTML, CSS, and Liquid. This enabled us to operate without any dependencies on other teams, resulting in quick iteration and experimentation.

As the product grew in complexity, it became increasingly urgent to address growing user experience issues. I focused design hiring on product-oriented roles and grew the team from within to begin crafting a design system to power the NationBuilder platform. Incorporating the design system into the product became a courageous cross-functional effort including members of product, engineering and design, and established the template for nearly all future product development.

Cross-functional pod
Cross-functional Pods: Product Manager + Engineers + Product Designers

Leadership approach

I have a relational leadership style, which prioritizes establishing relationships to build a high trust environment and a clear sense of purpose as a team. This begins with each team member and I identifying skill strengths and areas for improvement. As part of being a deliberately developmental organization, team members and I would identify their “growth edge,” and find opportunities through various forms of mentorship or collaboration to help them grow through their tenure at the company.

Daily design standups provided a frequent chance to check in and unblock issues as needed, and I facilitated weekly one-on-one meetings with each member of the team individually. This was their meeting; they set the agenda and guided the conversation. I listened. Especially as a fully remote company, I felt this dedicated time was essential from a relational standpoint, and as an opportunity to provide feedback if desired. I also facilitated regular design critiques with the team, and occasionally members of product and engineering. Because Product Designers were embedded in cross-functional teams, this time functioned both as a chance to give and receive feedback, as well as become familiar with work happening elsewhere in the product.

Finally, reviews were held at least annually and oriented around an expectations rubric I created for each role. Team members were introduced to these expectations when joining the company, and as the review approached, they were asked to evaluate themselves against each category within it. The review was essentially a conversation discussing where they landed on each expectation, and any gap that may exist in my evaluation versus theirs. Because the weekly one on one’s provided continuous feedback, team members were more relaxed as there were rarely any surprises to reveal during the review.

Custom expectation rubrics
Custom expectation rubrics per role

Design driven cross-functional teams

Configurations consisting of at least one Product Designer, several Engineers, and a Product Manager (called “pods”) became the default for most product work once the design system was created. Arriving at a shared understanding of how to best collaborate in this new environment—from discovery to delivery—was needed. I felt that Shape Up by Ryan Singer had several concepts that could be apply to NationBuilder, and suggested the product development organization read and discuss what we might take away from it.

One concept which resonated was attempting to define a time “appetite” for a project before it began. This essentially defines a fixed time with variable scope as an alternative to the common pitfalls associated with a fixed scope that almost always consumes significantly more time than anticipated. Adopting this approach allowed us to deliver value to customers much more quickly, as we had to be less rigid on scope if time was running short. We could ship one meaningful part first, and then another later, instead of trying to fit everything together after a massive amount of time had been committed. The project of modernizing the experience of email blast creation is an example of this approach.

Another concept was around working with the right level of abstraction when “shaping” work. Early in a project, even wireframes can be too concrete, and they often aren’t the best way to consult with Engineers on level of effort. To get everyone on the same page, Product Designers would facilitate a brainstorming session to field early ideas or create an empathy map oriented around customer personas. This resulted in everyone understanding who we were building for, flagging risks early, and providing a sense of agency in defining core concepts of what we’d eventually build.

Persona and brainstorm
Getting aligned with personas, brainstorms and empathy maps

Once everyone was on the same page, a Product Designer would iterate on wireframes, gathering feedback from the pod as often and early as possible. Once confident with the design, a high-fidelity prototype would be built and used for internal feedback and external usability testing. Finally, design specs identifying every behavior and state were prepared for Engineers.

When projects shifted into a primarily engineering phase, design would occasionally have a window to explore upcoming work on the roadmap. Sharing rough early concepts with GTM, PED leadership, or customers often sparked questions or other ideas no one had yet considered. No decisions were made during this phase, but brief explorations during these lulls regularly provided additional clarity once a pod was assigned to the work, leading to more efficient use of the group's time.

Always learning

Leading design teams for over a decade has been a continual learning experience. As the company grew and changed, it became necessary to modify how we operated to better serve our customers, the company, and our mission. From our humble origins to a fierce multidisciplinary team, capable of creating a robust design system and delivering the most ambitious and powerful user experiences in the product, the team continually rose to the challenges before it. I've grown a tremendous amount from these experiences and the people I've worked with, and am certain of one thing: there is always more to learn.

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