From diving into product design and spreading the gospel of design thinking to sharing tips for earning a seat at the table and navigating life as the only designer at a startup, we’ve collected a fair amount of design wisdom over the years here on the Review.
But like all early-stage startup disciplines, the world of design is constantly evolving and maturing. Subspecialties spin out while best practices, different approaches and new tools emerge. And lately, we’ve had our eye on one recent development in particular: the rise of the small-yet-mighty community of growth designers.
Angel Steger counts herself as a member of this new breed of designers. As Dropbox’s Director of Growth Design (and former lead within the same function at Pinterest) she routinely deals in both the fast and the thoughtful, tapping into the oft-cited left and right hemispheres of the brain to scale the business while staying in tune with customer needs. And as an architect-turned-designer and former senior product manager, she’s particularly well-equipped to operate at this cross-section of two different disciplines.
But as far as intersections go, growth design is still the unmarked exit, the off-ramp into the unchartered territory of fledgling startup domains. While many companies have assembled a band of engineers, product folks and marketers who furiously experiment to acquire, retain and engage users under the banner of growth, this subset of design is a burgeoning role that’s still being shaped — and in Steger’s eyes — overlooked.
“It’s not a very formalized field yet, so I think there’s a certain amount of mystery and misunderstanding,” Steger says. “Growth conjures up this idea of hacking, of running fleeting or off-putting experiments. There’s some truth there. It is about rapidly expanding the number of engaged users, and, of course, applying a mindset of learning as quickly as possible. But when startups do it right, growth is about so much more than momentary wins. We have a responsibility to create and optimize a sustainable experience that nets more long-term engaged users. That part doesn’t get discussed enough — and that’s where growth design can play a leading role.”
In this exclusive interview, Steger serves as our guide on a trek to better understand this emerging speciality. She covers all of the essentials, detailing why it’s a role with runway for impact, sharing insights from how she’s approached growth design in her roles at Dropbox and Pinterest, and outlining tactics for sourcing, interviewing and setting up new growth designers for success. Let’s dive in.
TALES FROM THE FRONTLINES OF GROWTH DESIGN
Today, it’s unusual not to find a growth team inside a tech company. That’s a far cry from the more nascent days of growth, when some folks wondered out loud what a growth team actually did and if it was even necessary. But despite its ubiquity, there isn’t a standard manual for putting a growth team together. Some groups are distributed, while others are more centralized; some pull in marketers and data analysts to work alongside growth-focused engineers and PMs, while others opt for leaner configurations.
In Steger’s experience, no matter the structure, design is typically the building block that’s poorly understood, and subsequently, not leveraged enough. Some growth groups bring in design resources on an ad hoc, as needed basis, while others skip it altogether in an attempt to get experiments out the door even faster.
“What you’ll often hear is ‘Does this really need design? It’s just going to slow us down.’ Almost every designer has encountered a strain of this pushback from PMs or engineers,” she says. “When people ask me if they need a growth designer, I always say ‘Only if you want your business to be successful,’ which is admittedly laying it on kind of heavy. But skipping the detail work to get something out faster can hurt your learning and make it ineffective. Muddled tests, poorly defined problems, a lack of data — these are all issues that result from failing to fold in design at the very start of the growth process.”
Clearer experiences make it easier for users to act quickly, which gets growth experiments to statistical significance faster. You might think you’re “saving time” by trimming design details, but it can add weeks to the process.
Steger’s understanding of the advantages this role can bring to bear runs deeper than most. While she was at Pinterest, the growth design function grew from three to eight. Similarly, her team at Dropbox has grown quickly, from six to more than 20. Here’s her take on the five unique strengths growth designers bring to the table — and why early-stage founders and growth leaders should bring them a chair.
1. Drawing from different disciplines
In Steger’s eyes, a growth designer gets the best of both worlds, drawing on the strengths of the two disciplines that contribute to the role’s name.
“A good growth designer is very strong across the board in product thinking, interaction, visual design and customer empathy. Those details address problems at different layers of customer awareness and interaction,” she says. "Design is also a very user-centric discipline, which isn’t necessarily the reputation of growth teams. Growth designers, as guardians of the user experience, will push the growth team to ensure everyone is focused on business success — through the lens of user success,” says Steger.
In growth design, one side doesn’t overpower the other. It’s an even 50/50 split that allows us to bring the best of both worlds to the startup table.
The first half of this hybrid role’s moniker shines through as well. “Growth design moves incredibly quickly and ships experiments regularly. And because a growth team’s metrics are a little bit crisper and perhaps more focused on a particular objective, that enables them to move faster and also to deliver more concrete results. A product design team that's working on something without specific objectives or user targeting might take years,” she says.
2. Scaffolding user success.
When describing growth design, Steger often references Helen Mirren’s line in the movie Gosford Park. “She says, ‘I'm the perfect servant. I know when they'll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they'll be tired, and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.’ To me, growth design is exactly that,” says Steger. “It scaffolds the user to success, behind the scenes. They don't necessarily feel it. It's like having a really great dance partner that’s leading you where you need to go and making you feel like you can dance well.”
But how does that differ from the broader field of product design? For Steger, it’s a matter of how that success is pursued.
“For a lot of designers, there’s a sexiness to working on products where you’re building a specific thing. What’s fundamentally different between growth design and traditional core product design is that product teams often own particular surfaces. So when you come across a problem, you’ll solve that problem using the surface that you have available, which can limit your approach,” she says.
Growth has an opportunity to determine the fundamental strengths of your product across the entire feature set, which is incredibly powerful — and an important conversation for designers to be involved in.
In contrast, for the growth designer tasked with making users successful, there’s a broader toolkit and almost a permission to think bigger. “Growth design owns user problems more generally. You don’t have to work on one problem. You get to traverse multiple products in order to ensure that users are successful. It's similar to a design systems role, but from a user experience standpoint of, ‘What should the user experience be?’” says Steger. “Growth design is a very scrappy and creative role, even inside the context of a startup. We figure out what a user will need to be successful and then look to see if we have tools that are already available, or if we need to make something new.
As a design lead on growth at Pinterest — charged with deepening user activation and engagement — Steger saw this wider lens and dedication to a user’s success come in handy time and time again.
“At Pinterest, we needed to get users to find content that they liked and then act on it, particularly in a save flow where new users save a pin and create their first board,” she says. “But my team spotted that the save flow was heavily optimized for people who had many, many boards. The flow had a lot of UI cruft, such as ‘Recent boards’ that didn't make sense to a user starting out with zero boards. It added noise that failed to match their context or clarify the task at hand.”
That doesn’t mean removing every point of friction, however. A blank slate can be as overwhelming as a series of irrelevant options. “From research, we saw that creating the name of your own board was important. If we automatically named your board, it took something out of the process and made it less sticky. But still, as a designer, you need to reduce the cognitive load it takes to create something,” says Steger.
When you're trying to make people understand the core mechanics of your product, you need to get out of their way and make the path incredibly clear. Help your users step into the pool — don’t throw them into the deep end.
“When I was an artist, I used to just make a mark on a piece of paper, just to break the physical tension of the page. The equivalent of that was an experiment we ran to suggest board names. If you were saving a recipe, we suggested 'Recipes' or 'Stuff to Eat' or 'Food,' options that you could claim with one tap. And it significantly boosted the activation rate. It created a ramp for people to work their way into the product — and I’m not sure we would have spotted that opening from a position on a specific product team.”
3. Uncovering underlying motivations.
A missing ingredient from many growth efforts is an understanding of the emotional and experiential components it takes to make a feature or overall product work. “We've all visited those websites that are so heavily optimized, your gut reaction is just to say ‘This is not for humans, this is for a web crawler.’ And that usually doesn’t leave you with a good feeling or with trust in the service. That’s where the design part of the growth designer equation comes in: advocating for the user and what will truly lead them to change their behavior,” says Steger.
Most growth teams already have that business strategy competency — designers can translate and push back against a pendulum that’s swinging too far away from what’s in the best interests of users.
“Certain types of tactics seem good in the short term, but can burn people. If you send spammy notifications or emails, you devalue the entire ecosystem. If users turn off notifications or unsubscribe, you don't get that chance back,” says Steger. “For virtually every business model in the world, you’ll want to build a long lasting relationship with your customers. Build a sustainable growth loop, not something that seems promising on its face, but is really churn and burn behind the scenes.”
You can trick users into doing things, but the truth is they're only going to fall for it so many times. Instead, push an experience that really addresses the nuances of their emotions — that's when growth will drive repeat behavior and start building user habits.
For more sustainable growth, make sure that users are able to see their intentions through and exit the product experience with a good feeling. “When we were working on the share flow at Pinterest, we had a realization: Sending is content that you're sending to a particular person. Sharing is one to many. And, typically, what we saw on Pinterest was that, because it’s about your personal taste, you're actually sending, not sharing. It’s a subtle yet meaningful difference,” says Steger.
With a better understanding of the primary intention, the team set out to improve the user experience. “After a closer look, we saw that there were probably about 11 different sending actions that you could take on mobile, which is insane. The more decisions that you have to make, the less likely you are to make any decision at all,” she says.
To simplify this experience, Steger and her team iterated to winnow it down to just three categories of sending — and increased the original sending rate almost seven-fold, demonstrating the incredible potential for impact with growth design experiments.
4. Rooting out what to look for in an experiment — and what makes for truly successful results.
Even with a focus on user success and a dedication to uncovering deeper motivations, growth experiments won’t truly be successful without a fundamental grasp on which results matter and how to observe them.
“A critical part of growth is understanding how to observe, and that's not something that I traditionally see as a design competency beyond traditional research methods,” says Steger. “You need to think through how you actually observe certain things in the wild. For example, when someone visits a page, what are they doing on the page? Are they scrolling through? Are they clicking? Are they hovering on certain things? Are they reading up and down? Growth designers tend to develop a stronger understanding of how to observe behavior.”
Digging a layer deeper, it’s clear that these powerful observation skills equip growth designers with the invaluable understanding that growth experiments can have positive outcomes that are bad for users.
“When I was working on sharing back at Pinterest, our hypothesis was that we needed as smooth and quick of a flow as possible. And the outcome of that experiment was super positive. But, when we did the user research and watched people in the lab, the growth designers saw something different, beyond the numbers. I’d describe it as a bad hookup face, that the experience was over too soon. They didn’t say anything, but there was a full body ‘What happened?’ kind of reaction,” says Steger.
“After some digging, we uncovered that it felt too fast. And that really came back to understanding their intent. You like to share with the people you’re close to — it could be anything from a future plan to buy a house to a silly inside joke. Whatever it is, it’s meaningful, and people really needed and wanted to set context,” she says.
Steger’s team then added an additional step to the share flow to allow for personal messages. “It’s counterintuitive from a pure growth perspective. It decreased the overall volume of sends slightly and slowed everything down, but it increased the response rate. And at the end of the day, that’s what success was there,” she says. “The response rate was the value. No one wants to share to a void — you’re more likely to keep sending content when the recipients respond. Think about the whole ecosystem of what motivates behavior, not just the discrete action. If you don’t have a designer on your growth team, you might miss the real takeaway from the experiment.”
Growth design pushes you to look beyond the results. I’ve seen experiments where the data showed a positive outcome, but back in the research lab, users had what I call a bad hookup face. It wasn’t an experience that made them feel good — and it’s not something they’d do over and over again.
5. Opting for velocity — not haste — with chainsaws and chisels.
Another key distinction between traditional product design and growth design is rooted in a simple truth from the art world: it’s hard to define what makes for “good design.”
“In the context of growth, it depends on your objective. A high quality design might not mean that it's perfectly polished, but rather that it has enough polish to get you to the next phase,” says Steger. “If the objective is just to learn but not to ship, then that’s the bar you have to clear. After you’ve shipped something, the standard is different. Then it’s about ‘How can we make it better? What might best look like? How do we squeeze all of the juice out of the lemon?’ Many traditional design teams over-engineer and over-design, while a growth designer knows that they may be looking for something more simple.”
And it’s not only a matter of grasping the level of design an experiment requires. “Maybe I don't need to design at all. Maybe all I need to do is pull up data, have a conversation, show a customer a paper sketch or have them draw,’” says Steger. “Because growth designers straddle both worlds, we can sense what we need to pull out of our design toolbox — and when to close it altogether.”
Essentially, Steger has an updated twist on the classic wisdom that with a hammer in hand, every problem appears to be a nail. “Imagine you're trying to shape a block of ice into a dolphin. If you start with your finest chisel, it’ll take you forever and the ice will melt before you ever get there. Instead, start with a chainsaw. Block out the shape and get a rough sense of where the problem really lies. Then you can go finer and finer, pulling out chisels and even smaller chisels to carve with finesse and add the detail you need,” she says.
For Steger, growth’s goal is to learn and execute as quickly as possible. But it's not about haste — it's about velocity. “That’s a very important distinction. And it’s an encapsulation of what a growth designer can bring to the broader growth cross-functional conversation,” she says. “Oftentimes, the temptation for engineers or project managers is to rush through, to trim on the execution in order to ship two weeks faster. Sometimes that’s true. But with experiments, it’s not always about launch speed, but rather about a crisp execution. Take a step back and think about what’s going to contribute to statistical significance.”
With experiments, sometimes you need a chainsaw, and sometimes you need a chisel. A growth designer knows which tool to reach for.
HOW TO SPOT GROWTH DESIGNERS IN THE WILD
Aside from outlining the assets growth designers can bring to an early-stage startup, Steger can also make the financial case for hiring them: “If you’re looking to make your first designer hire, consider shaping it into a growth design role. It’s straight up cheaper to have one person who can do both,” she says. “You basically get an all-star player. Find the right person, and you’ll have someone who is keeping an eye on user experience and business impact — for the cost of a single hire.”
But in Steger’s experience that task, as with most startup hiring efforts, is easier said than done. And while many leaders face a particularly acute struggle to find designers, growth designers seem to be an even rarer bird.
“It’s incredibly competitive to hire for. The field of people who are currently in growth design is so narrow. I’d estimate that five out of 100 candidates have actual previous growth design experience and expertise,” says Steger. “At Dropbox, we solve for that by looking at related competencies where you can find people that have the same kind of skill-set and then can train them in things like metrics literacy. Aim for skills rather than specific titles, because once you set your sights specifically on that background, there’s only a handful of companies to poach from.”
Lean on these profiles for growth designer sightings.
As you look through your hiring funnel for a strong growth design candidate, these are the traits Steger recommends keeping an eye out for:
- The unicorn. What does a sighting of the rare experienced growth designer look like? “It’s someone who is equally strong on all the design craft skills, but is also particularly strong in product thinking and user empathy. They really understand the way that a user is thinking and feeling at a given moment, and how to be in step with the user's context,” says Steger. “If you find an experienced growth designer, grab them. But if you don’t (and, given the numbers, you likely won’t), focus on skills and interests, not titles.”
- The impact seeker. Steger has also had success pursuing candidates who are inspired by impact. “That can mean two things. It could be someone who’s naturally entrepreneurial, and who’s interested in business impact because they want to be a founder one day. Or it could be folks who are deeply empathetic and who, when they talk about what’s valuable for them in a design project, talk about how it impacted people and what it unlocked for them.” She recalls a recent interview in which a candidate spoke about designing a particularly tricky product: an interactive thermometer for children. This designer dug in, even learning what he needed to help write a script for Elmo, who was voicing the talking thermometer to comfort sick children. “The way he described doing the research sessions and testing to make sure it made the children feel better, you could just tell that he was really paying attention to making users successful,” she says.
- The metrics aficionado. When you run into a designer who’s plugged into metrics — who sees how they can shape the future of a product, but also understands their limits — that person has the makings of a growth designer. “Someone who superficially understands growth will say, ‘We measured against this one metric and it was successful.’ But they haven’t paid attention to how successful it was — it could be a 1% lift that’s really just noise, but with low metrics literacy, they call it a win,” says Steger. “A better answer is ‘We got a 20% lift, and that was good.’ But the best answer is ‘We got 20% lift, but what we observed in the last user sessions was x, y, and z. And, therefore, I have a thesis that if we change these three other things, that will really unlock something.’ A successful growth designer is attuned to the fact that a bump in the numbers doesn’t always point to a more positive user experience.”
- The scrappy creative. “Nowadays, designers often use the same out-of-the-box tools to solve the same problems in the same way,” says Steger. But doing truly transformational work often means tackling new problems. If you find a candidate who’s willing to think outside the box to better understand their users, take a closer look. For example, Steger’s team recently hired a designer who worked on a karaoke tool. It was an atypical user experience to master, with unusual user problems, but he was undeterred. “What I saw was that he built his own tools to understand what the users needed, how to test for it and how to iterate on it and explore it,” she says.
Successful growth designers understand what tools are needed to use to solve a given problem — and are ready to build their own if that’s what it takes.
Toggle between growth and design lenses throughout the interview.
The interview process for a growth designer typically includes a design presentation, in which Steger suggests sussing out whether a candidate brings that essential mix of strategic and empathetic thinking to the table.
First, dial in to see what they’d bring to the growth side of the equation by paying attention to how the candidate is framing the business problem they’re presenting. “While they’re talking, ask yourself, ‘Is it really a problem? Is your hypothesis a true hypothesis? Does it take a stance on what leads to an outcome and why? Are their success metrics nice and crispy?’" Steger says.
From there, flip the coin over to look for signs that the candidate also has the hallmark of a growth designer: user empathy. “They should be talking about the user and framing the user's experience,” she says. “If you’re dealing with an experienced growth designer, you won’t have to prompt this line of thought. For other candidates, though, don’t hesitate to be direct.”
As an example, Steger recalls seeing a presentation for a premium sharing feature: “When the user clicked the share button, they got an upsell message instead of the share flow. And I just had to hit pause and ask the candidate: ‘What do you think the user is intending to do with this flow? How does this upsell deliver on their intent?’ Because, yes on the surface, if they’re interested in sharing, they’re a good candidate for a premium sharing feature,” she says. “However, when someone is in the middle of something, they have very explicit intent. You need to let them be successful first, then the timing might be right for the upsell afterwards. You don’t want your users to be like kids batting at the commercials before their videos on YouTube.”
To expose these skills, Steger asks these questions as designers present their work:
- What’s the core problem you were trying to solve and why was it important?
- How did you measure success?
- Who sees this experience? How often? In what context do they see it?
- What's the user's emotional and motivational context at this time? How does your design address that?
- What's the most important action on this page? Where does the action you’re driving the user towards fall in that hierarchy?
- What does the user care about? How does the solution you're offering reinforce — not interrupt — what they're up to? Why would a user care about this feature you’re introducing?
SCOPING OUT THE TEAM AND STRUCTURING IT FOR SUCCESS
While the versatility of the growth designer is certainly a strength for startups looking to move quickly, this multi-purpose nature of this role can make it tough to decide where they should sit.
Steger advises startups to incorporate growth design into the broader design team for a few reasons. “For starters, it’s a natural fit when it comes to training and mentorship. You want to be able to learn from other people and keep advancing your functional skills as a designer,” she says. “But frankly, it’s also a relationship play. Growth design will touch everybody else's stuff, and people get prickly. That send flow that I was talking about at Pinterest? We didn't own that, core product designers did. But we changed it. If you’re going to be intervening in someone else’s experience, you need to have a little bit of a common bond, some sort of relationship holding it together so that you don’t seem like an invader.”
That’s also why she’d take pause before adding growth designers to an already sizeable growth team on the org chart. “It's important for growth designers to build close relationships outside of the growth team in order to collaborate effectively. Growth’s potential for impact is exciting, but it can also be a double-edged sword. When you solve one problem, people bring you more. So over time, there's a tendency for growth teams to grow faster than the overall rate of the company,” Steger says. “And that can be scary for people, especially because it seems like an insular group that most aren’t a part of. To some, watching a growth team expand extremely quickly can feel like it’s metastasizing. Putting growth designers in the broader design org can help mitigate that.”
Startups without a formal design team, however, should place their new growth designer in the product org, with marketing as the next best bet. And wherever growth designers sit, they’ll likely have a dotted line to growth, as Steger’s own team at Dropbox does. “You still want to be tied to the strategic wing of what your organization is doing. It’s like having two parents,” she says.
Here are three additional tactics Steger recommends to set up growth designers for success:
- Rely on these ratios: The triad model that fuses product, design and engineering together now seems be the norm. But in Steger’s experience, finding the right ratio for that triad can have a big impact on the power dynamics of the team. “I like a ratio of one product manager to two designers to three to six engineers, potentially more depending on how technical the problem you're solving is,” she says. “A healthy ratio for growth designers means that they're not the sole breaking point on the team. That’s why I think having multiple designers is useful. You get a buddy system, someone else who understands the problem you're trying to solve but can also push your execution. At the same time, you don't have 20 people breathing down your neck for stuff.” It’s also a boon to product managers as well. “PMs can focus on opportunities while design focuses on how to solve against those opportunities with engineering,” says Steger.
- Point the team in the right direction: With a broad mandate to fix users’ problems, a growth designer’s talents could be aimed in several different directions. In Steger’s experience, acquiring, onboarding and activating users are the most significant areas of impact for a growth designer. “The sweet spot is getting people through that key phase from ‘I might be a user’ to ‘I’m fully committed’. If your startup is in that earlier company life cycle of trying to find product/market fit and build a user base, then onboarding and activation is a growth designer’s jam,” Steger says. “But if your company has ubiquity in the market and the goal is for users to stay engaged, then growth a designer would focus on retention and expansion. The question they’d solve then is ‘How do we make sure that our users continue to get value, and that they're continuing to have diverse use cases so the product is sticky for them?’”
- Continue learning from these growth design gurus: In a still developing field, it’s helpful to know who’s leading the charge and paving the way. Founders and growth leaders facing unfamiliar terrain can learn from the rising stars who are shaping this new discipline on the ground. Here are the growth design leaders Steger would shout out to take inspiration from: Scott Tong who was recently at Pinterest, Opendoor’s Paul Smith, Instagram’s Maria Ioveva, Lyft’s Audrey Liu, and Facebook’s John Evans and Raphael Grignani.
“Some of these folks don't actually work on growth design specifically, but they leverage the same kind of thinking around, asking ‘How can we bring rigor to our metrics? What is important? How do we solve for user needs?’’ says Steger. “At the end of the day, being a growth designer is more than having that title — it’s a way of thinking, a way of solving problems quickly, all while keeping the customer at the center of all you do.”
Photography by Brandon Smith.