When the Product Design team is small, from 1 to 4 members, its organisational model is simple: a unique team that meets all the product design needs of the organisation. All design decisions are made by a single expert or a small group of people. In this configuration, the integration of Product Design into Product teams is not formalised. Indeed, a simple workflow is established and requests are processed as and when required, with often informal communication within the Product Design team.

However, this organisation is under severe stress as soon as the company is confronted with friction related to its growth. Indeed, the proliferation of Product Designers may impact product standards and the speed of execution: degradation of the brand image, lower product usability, compliance issues between what is asked and what is achieved. As the team grows, the issue of workload distribution and validation will arise.

As for managers, they will have to think about how the Product Designers communicate with the rest of the team. They will also have to think about the transmission of knowledge of people who integrate the organisation and who must take ownership of the existing design culture: its principles, tools and processes. 

This article answers some of the concrete questions posed by those who define the Product Design organisation: 

  • Should designers be integrated into squads ? Or conversely be mobile?
  • Who are the managers?
  • What roles do you see as the team scales up?

The 3 ways of integrating Product Design into a Product organisation.

Design, Product and Tech need to work together to be effective and deliver real value to users and the business. It is therefore essential to create the right mode of interaction between these teams, to ensure:

  • a common vision,
  • an effective discovery and delivery process, 
  • and unified learning. 

We decided to start with an example of a Product organisation to study how Product Design teams can fit into it. It is an e-commerce platform where the Product, Design and Technical teams represent around one hundred people.

This organisation is based on tribes, led by a Head of Product and divided into squads. Squads include Lead Product Managers, Product Managers, Developers, and if need other trades like Scrum Masters and Quality Analysts. The CPO manages the entire Product organisation.

organizational model

Lets now outline three major organisational models in Product Design. We’ll have:

  • The centralised model: the Product Design team is grouped in an internal studio team, 
  • The decentralised model : Product Designers are distributed in Product Squads,
  • The centralised model at the level of the tribe: Product Designers work for a whole tribe, and therefore several squads.

This last model seems to us the best to ensure delivery efficiency while ensuring the overall consistency, necessary for design and innovation dynamics.

A. Product Design in a centralised organisation

The centralized model or internal studio
The centralised model or internal studio

A centralised team takes all design decisions , which are then applied to one or more products.

In this internal studio model, the team is flanked by a Head of Product Design that animates those responsible for functions such as user research, information architecture or visual design. The manager of each function is the most experienced in the field.

These studios are usually placed within the marketing department, an IT department or in a newly created “digital” or “e-commerce” team.

This is probably the most common configuration recently, but this model is in decline . It is found today in early stage startups or in large companies that have not changed their organisation. It usually reveals an organisation that is not very mature in Product Design .

B. Product Design in a decentralised organisation: complete integration to product teams

Decentralized model or full integration to product teams
The decentralised model

The second option is to integrate Product Designers into the Product teams. They focus on given functional perimeters. All squads are equipped with all the necessary skills for delivery. Each designer works daily with Product Managers, developers and all other trades of their squad.

The Head of Product Design manages Product Designers and Lead Product Designers of the Product Team. They report to the Chief Product Officer, have a vision of the high-level product strategy and allow teams to convey this strategy from a design point of view.

In some organisations, there may be sufficiently senior Lead Product Designers to be given a major scope from a design point of view. They are examples for other Product Designers whether in terms of hard skills or soft skills, can help their managers in strategic decision-making, support the Product Designers of the team and mentor juniors. But they are not hierarchical managers of other Product Designers. 

Let’s now compare these two models: centralised (studio design) and decentralised (full integration to product teams).

The centralised model: advantages

  • Encourages a consistent user experience
  • Clarifies the responsibilities of each and the decision-makers.
  • Promotes a common Product Design culture.
  • Allows Product Designers to work on a variety of projects.
  • Strengthen strategy and research activities.
  • Creates efficiencies in the work between Product Designers, and strengthens their rise in proficiency.
  • Facilitates the work of the Head of Product Design to allocate tasks to the workforce and manage the budget related to design.

The centralised model: disadvantages

  • Makes communication between Product Managers and Product Designers more difficult.
  • Reduces the visibility of Product Designers on the prioritisation and planning of product teams.
  • Reduces accountability for delivery and increases the risk of unsupported models.
  • Causes a situation where Product Designers become the delivery teams bottleneck and cause frustrations.
  • Develops a client / supplier relationship with squads, which can cause friction.

The decentralised model: advantages

  • Promotes the empowerment and involvement of Product Designers as full members of the Product Team.
  • Facilitates the integration of user research elements that Product Designers themselves have conducted at the time of design.
  • Aligns Product Managers, Developers and Product Designers, who better understand each other’s needs.
  • Shorten developments and simplify iteration.

The decentralised model: disadvantages

  • Increases the risk of a fragmented user experience.
  • Promotes inefficiencies if the same work is done multiple times.
  • Tend to marginalise the strategy and research users. Product Designers are limited to “producing screens”.
  • Tend to isolate Product Designers who receive less feedback from their peers, increase their skill is more difficult and they can lose creativity.
  • Complicates the existence of a Design Consistency culture and a Design community.
  • May make it difficult to occupy full-time Product Designers within the perimeter of the squad.

C. Centralised Product Design at the Tribal Level

The centralized model at the tribal level
The centralised model at the tribal level

In the model we advocate, the central unit is the tribe. It consists of squads that work on issues that are very similar from the point of view of the user experience, as shown in the diagram above.

The Design functions (Lead PRD and PRD) are pooled at the tribal level for a set of squads working on related themes.

As in the previous model, the Head of Product Design is above the tribes. In addition to Lead Product Designers and Product Designers of all tribes, up to six to seven people, they manage the transverse team of specialised designers: User Researcher, UX Writer, DesignOps, for example.

We see several benefits to this organisation: 

  • it encourages a consistent user experience: Product Designers have a vision of the experience common to their squads and work on different projects;
  • it supports an internal design community and a design culture. Product Designers are best tracked in their careers, professional development and daily professional lives. They work with peers who can improve their skills and are guided by mentors who help them chart their course;
  • it empowers Product Designers as members of the tribe. Integrated in the governance of the tribe and certain squads, they do not attend the daily meetings of each squad, but adapt to the needs of the teams;
  • it creates efficiencies in the work, from the point of view of the allocation of resources in time (some squads do not need a full-time Product Designer, why freeze it?) and from the point of view without affecting the overall organisation. 

Whatever the model chosen, for the user experience on a site or application to be optimal, it must be consistent throughout its journey. The user must not “notice” the change in design and experience caused behind the scene based on the tribes effort and experience. 

It is therefore necessary to establish a global governance between the tribes, guaranteed by the Chief Product Officer and the Head of Product Design.

The Product Design team must ensure that for each type of user, the experience is seamless. To this end, Product Designers can implement a visual management based on the user experience (Experience Board). Each squad displays on a board the screens it plans to work on in the next sprints grouped by persona. By consulting this table, the members of the squads can anticipate the potential differences of user experience related to their respective jobs, and ensure the consistency of the courses for the same user. 

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