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Scaling design teams: lessons learned from AT&T and Home Depot

4 min read
Liz Pratusevich  •  Oct 16, 2018
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Organizations across the world are recognizing how crucial design is to business success. This has led to a rapid growth of design teams. The question on every organization’s mind is, how can you scale a design team?

Aarron Walter, InVision’s leader of Design Education, brought in Andrea Sutton from AT&T and Cliff Sexton from Home Depot to share some advice.

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Create a design thinking culture

Cliff built his team at Home Depot on a “blank slate”—until his arrival, Home Depot hadn’t yet invested in UX on the enterprise side, including HR. The company kicked off an initiative to modernize their practices across, including UX research and Agile processes.

To ensure that the changes he made would stay in place, Cliff made sure to hire good people who will “allow the transformation to happen and scale to grow.”

Andrea’s team makes a point to continuously grow (and teach other teams!) by taking classes, leading workshops, and teaching others how to talk to leadership.

Get top-down support

One of the reasons Andrea took her current job at AT&T is because she was getting support from the CEO.

“Design was a step in the process, but it didn’t hold the position of being a strategic innovation engine.” Before Andrea could move forward with growing her design team, she had to educate the company about the usefulness of design.

She even went as far to say, “If you’re a VP in an enterprise company and don’t have a working knowledge of design, you’re probably not worth your salt.”

“If you’re a VP in an enterprise company and don’t have a working knowledge of design, you’re probably not worth your salt.”
Andrea Sutton, VP Design Technology, AT&T
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Show the data

Countless studies and reports have proven that utilizing design effectively makes companies more successfulTwitter Logo. Andrea especially recommends using the fact that companies that put value in design had 200% more value in the S&P than companies that didn’t.

“As a young designer, having that data in your pocket is a great way to start pushing to develop design at an enterprise.” You have to learn to speak both quantitatively and qualitatively to strengthen your argument for a design culture. Cliff adds in that he makes sure “everything we’re doing has value associated with it.”

Language is important

Andrea knows the importance of language. “You have to educate people on the lexicon value of design, and how it’s been used by other companies to kick off great projects since the beginning.”

Even seemingly small changes in the way teams refer to designers can make a world of change in the culture. One of the big changes Andrea made when she joined AT&T was to move from calling designers “talent”, rather than “resources.” That small change helps non-designers understand that designers bring something valuable to the table—something that not everyone has.

Bring stakeholders into the design process

“The more we can help engineers and other stakeholders see their input to the customers, that’s when adoption truly happens.” Cliff recognizes the importance of getting people to buy into design. One way to do it is to move from a creative agency model to a strategic organization.

Incorporate the designers to be part of the team as much as engineers and PMs. Andrea reminds us to keep “as much empathy for the business as for the user,” as to be able to communicate how designs achieve business goals.

Design ops and design research teams are vital

Cliff claims that his team would not have been able to scale without Home Depot’s design operations team. Their charter is to “help drive developer efficiency and UI consistency”, and continue spreading the design culture by bringing in students and interns.

The design ops team is key to thinking holistically. For Andrea, the design ops team gets to “see the whole range of programs” that they’re working on and “point out the connective tissue across the team for continuity.” Aarron refers to this as “cross-pollination”. The connectivity across teams and projects is vital to consistency across different teams and parts of the company.