Developing a small team of Product Designers with competency levels

Audree Lapierre
4 min readDec 23, 2020

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The organization I work for is a rather flat structure. Product designers are part of squads made out of developers, a product owner and a manager. Each squad has a different area of focus and targets to reach. The product designer role features the same general responsibilities for every designer and there are no superior positions to climb up to (yet). Some have a user research background, others were trained in visual design and some have no formal education in design.

“Am I doing well or not?” “Which skills should I develop?” There was a need for (non-designer) managers to objectively evaluate the performance of the designers on their team and map them to the remuneration system. Meanwhile, product designers were interested in knowing how they could level up their skills and improve their craft. Their old responsibilities sheet had 9 categories with generic, uninspiring items like “Produces wireframes autonomously”. While our small organization could not offer a full-on career ladder, creating clarity on the expectations of the role became a priority at the beginning of 2020. I’m sure many small design teams run into the same challenges so I’ll share with you the Product Designer competency levels grid I created (with link). Feel free to adapt it to your needs.

The approach has several advantages:

  • Provides a common understanding of expectations for the role
  • Items are easily observable by team members or fellow designers and facilitates assessments
  • The expectations are aligned with the needs of the business
  • Develops well-rounded designers across categories of skills (avoid developing deep expertise in only a few aspects of the role)
  • Integrates skill development into the culture
Competency levels sheet for product designers (link)

A lightweight system

The system is divided in 3 themes: User empathy & strategy, Design & know-how, and Collaboration & co-creation. These align directly with our company’s values (We listen) and needs. It also has 5 cumulative progression levels: To move on to level D, a designer needs to do everything in A, B and C. The lowest level is for someone freshly joining the team, it does not mean “junior-level”. A designer who would do everything including the last level would be ready to move on to a senior role.

An important aspect was to simplify the assessment process and avoid a complex skill-rating. Product designers need to perform autonomously, without the need for a peer to fill-in where they lack competency. For exemple, we did not want to create experts in UX research who would not care too much about crafting a beautiful UI or participating in the Design System. I often stumble on beautiful radial charts of design team skills. While it shows the overall strengths and weaknesses of a team/individual at a glance, it also gives every skill equal importance (at least visually) but that is not always desirable.

Assessing a designer’s level is easy and can be done by a manager or peer because each item is observable. “Have you observed Dmitry do this, 👍 or 👎 ?” A developer on their team could probably map their product designer. This is quite different from having a team member try to guess if their peer is a 3 or 4 at problem solving!

Finally, the grid also greatly simplifies the creation of a standardized Learning and Development program. For example, you could bundle different courses or readings and expect designers to go from C to D within X months.

Officevibe empowers employees to grow in their role by helping them set SMART development goals

Implementing

  • All product designers were able to comment and ask questions on the first draft. Their feedback as well as the feedback of stakeholders and product owners was taken into account until there was no ambiguity for anyone.
  • Product designers mapped their colleagues and themselves to a level. The managers led that process. They had previously discussed with me my own assessment of the team’s level. I’m happy to report that the mapping was always unanimous. 🥳
  • Managers adjusted remuneration according to the mapping.

During the year, product designers set Individual objectives for themselves using our own tool, Officevibe, to reach their developmental goals and upgrade to a higher level. It should be noted that by design, there are a lot of expectations and it’s not easy to reach the Mastering level.

The behaviour-based competency levels grid for Product Designers is shared here. I’d love to hear your comments on creating a simple progression scale for small design teams. 👋

All opinions my own.

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Audree Lapierre

Head of Design at Officevibe. Design + Business + Future. I show what could be.