“Product designers” and design team evolution

(This may or may not end up being part of a series of my reflections as in my role as VP of Global Design at Groupon.)

In Silicon Valley, there’s a new(-ish) design role called “product designer.” I first heard about it at Facebook a few years ago, and since then, many other companies have adopted it (including Groupon, where I work). Product designers are jacks-of-all-trades, expected to deliver interaction design, information architecture, visual design, and even front-end code. From what I can tell, “product designer” emerged for two primary reasons:

  1. Startups don’t have the resources for many employees, and so needed individual designers who could cover a lot of ground
  2. More and more young designers demonstrate these cross-trained skills, and don’t want to be pigeon-holed

The title also suggests a tight relationship with product managers.

With the rise of the product designer, there’s a simultaneous progression and regression in digital experiences. Using Jesse’s 12-year-old diagram (!) as a framework, we’re seeing the top two planes getting tastier and more interesting — look at Path, Square, AirBNB. Luscious full-bleed high-design screens where it’s clear that designers obsessed over every pixel and element of movement. But in that middle plane, digital experiences suffer from a lack of attention to flows, taxonomies, relationships between content areas, etc. (Any attempt to navigate Path turns into a trip down the rabbit hole.)  We’ve forsaken managing complexity in favor of delight in the moment.

Additionally, a challenge seems to occur as design organizations scale, and the product designer (or 2) needs to turn into a product design team. People who are able to deliver effectively across the entire “product designer” set are few and far between, and so if you require all of those boxes to be checked, you’ll be looking for a long time.

So, organizations end up changing requirements, looking more for “T-shaped” people (strong in one thing, able to work well cross-discipline). This leads to an uncomfortable interim where you have these jacks-of-all-trades who feel a sense of ownership of the whole trying to figure out how to collaborate with a designer who is focusing on a part.

This means designers (and the organizations they work for) must embrace a team model of design. I’ve never worked in a context other than that of team design, so I’ve been staggered by the Silicon Valley startup model where team design is considered optional. (I had coffee with a friend from New York today, who said that Silicon Valley is becoming notorious for the ‘design unicorn‘, whereas New York startups are more, well, traditional in their thinking about teams.)

Another interesting aspect to this is productivity. I’ve always sought to hire generalists, because I believe a small team of capable generalists (who each might have different emphases) is stronger and can deliver more than a large team of dedicated specialists. Product designers often work alone, and because they’re expected to do so many things, end up working on projects of limited scope. (I think this contributes to the problem of managing complex user experiences). My supposition is that the small team of generalists can also out-produce an equal number of team-of-one product designers. You get higher quality, because folks who have a functional emphasis (such as visual design or interaction design) can deliver better than those whose priority is developing a broader set of tools. And you get greater output, because their mastery of those areas means they can deliver more quickly. What you give up are the transaction/overhead costs of teamwork, but I don’t think those are as great as the gains.

An essential element to making this all work is leadership. Design teams *will* be less effective than a squad of singular designers if there’s no clear leadership and authority. Someone needs to step up and be accountable, or design teams will flounder. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, design teams can be quite bristly about leadership, but it is essential. Much the same way that there’s one director of a film who makes the final call, there needs to be one leader of a design team who makes decisions and keeps things moving.



New York Designers–Interested in working with me at Groupon?

In two weeks, on November 8 and 9, we at Groupon will be visiting New York to talk to people interested in working with us in design, product management, and engineering positions in our Chicago, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Seattle offices. As I’ve explained earlier, there are lots of tasty design challenges we’re tackling, online and offline, for merchants as well as buyers. I also think this could be a remarkable career move for the right candidate — an ability to lead teams and elevate your practice within a passionate internal design community.

If joining a burgeoning world-class design team compels you, please let us know by submitting through our listings for product designers and visual designers, or emailing me directly at [peterme] AT [groupon] DOT [com].

(And I promise this is my last post soliciting designers for a while. I know I need to get back to addressing design ideas! And the NBA! And Top Chef, when it returns.)

Calling all designers!

Truly! I am calling all designers.

I’m in my third week at Groupon, and one thing is very clear–to tackle all the interesting stuff we’re doing (reducing the friction in local commerce between merchants and their prospective customers with web/mobile/tablet solutions, marketing and brand work, print and packaging), we need heaps more design talent.

We have design needs in Chicago, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Seattle, and Berlin.

We are looking for full-time digital product and visual designers from junior all the way to director level. We pay competitively for Silicon Valley/tech.

If you like your freedom and independence, we are happy to collaborate with contractors and freelancers. (This is particularly true for our marketing and communication work, which spans all media.)

And we are looking to partner with small design shops (digital product, ux, marketing) in those locations as well.

If this is you, please contact me directly at peterme (at) groupon (dot) com.

Why I’m excited about joining Groupon

Today I begin a new job — VP, Global Design at Groupon. I’m thrilled for the opportunity to work on what I consider to be one of the most interesting design challenges of the Connected Age.

Now, if you’re someone who, when you think of Groupon, you think of daily deals, you probably wonder what in hell I’m talking about. And that’s going to be one of my big initial challenges. Because Groupon’s vision is to become the operating system for local commerce. Thanks to the daily deals, Groupon has relationships with hundreds of millions of shoppers, and hundreds of thousands of merchants. The objective is to activate those relationships in interesting new ways in order to reduce the friction in local commerce, to make it easier for local businesses to attract and serve customers, and for those customers to find and buy what they desire.

You could think about it as taking the kind of e-commerce intelligence found within a single site like Amazon, and figure out how to distribute it to local businesses throughout the world. To give these local businesses access to the kinds of technology and data that currently only big box or online retail has. And in a time of increasingly boarded-up shops, it’s clear local commerce could use every advantage it can get.

And, hoo-boy, what a design challenge. Across merchants and shoppers you have a remarkably complex eco-system of devices, touchpoints, desires, and processes to serve. To make this real, we will need to bring to bear every tool in the design toolkit — service design to understand end-to-end customer journeys, brand design to better communicate Groupon’s evolution, interaction design at every touchpoint, whether a shopper using the website or mobile app, or a merchant processing a payment (yep, Groupon helps merchants take payments now). Addressing this all is going to be hard, but it’s also going to be a lot of fun.

Groupon has been a punching bag for the tech and finance press the past year, but I think the company has only remarkable opportunity ahead of it. With their (our!) phenomenal growth in the past few years no other company is so embedded on both sides (shopper and merchant) of the local commerce equation. But don’t merchants hate Groupon? Given all the bad press about unhappy merchants, you might think so, but it turns out that while it makes for compelling stories that fit the media’s overarching narrative about Groupon, it’s not indicative of broader merchant sentiment (yes, that’s a link to a press release, and yes, it’s research commissioned by Groupon. For a broad and deep look at Groupon and merchants, try this article.)

What cinched the deal for me was how impressed I’ve been, up and down the line, with the people I have met, and their commitment to serving their customers with great experiences. My job is not to try to convince Groupon that it should care about its customers — they already do that. My job is to help Groupon figure out how to sustainably deliver great product and service experiences that appropriately reflect its internal passion for customers.

If this all sounds interesting to you, we’re hiring (product designers for web and mobile, visual designers), and I’d love to hear from you.