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Lyft’s VP of Design: 8 Principles on Scaling a Design Team

For Lyft's VP of Design Katie Dill, building a team is like mixing a great cocktail – it’s about finding the right balance of ingredients. Here’s a peek into her approach.

When Katie Dill joined Lyft as vice president of design, she had a team of 40. In just over a year, she’s grown that number to more than 100.

Dill, who was formerly the director of experience design at Airbnb, knows a thing or two about what it takes to build a thriving team at a fast-growing tech company. In a recent interview with 99U, she shared her strategies for hiring the right people, executing on a vision, and creating a culture that scales with the company.

Here are her top principles for building a design team.


1. Get designers involved from the ground up.

Lyft’s design team used to operate as a centralized design agency, coming up with solutions when approached by product teams. Today, the team is integrated in every step of the product development process, which Dill says has led to more creative, customer-driven results. “It’s a great example of how design is a part of the product development process at all stages, and how design is partnering with product management, engineering, and data science to determine the right thing to do for our consumers and our drivers,” she says.

“For example, we go on city tours with our product partners which helps us identify opportunities together.”

2. Think of building a team as mixing a great cocktail.

One area where managers tend to develop a blind spot is in who they hire – often, they look for the same type of person over and over without thinking of the overall mix of skills, backgrounds and perspectives needed for the team to thrive. Dill, however, likens her approach to building a team to mixing a cocktail. “You really have to think about the different way that ingredients play off each other – to create a nice comprehensive and elegant composition,” she says. “When I think about building a team, I look at all of that. Do we have people who are going to lead? Do we have people who are going to support that leadership? Are we going to have people to fill the different skills that we need? Having a diverse team not only leads to more comprehensive work, but a greater diversity of ideas and learning opportunities for all.”

Designers at their desk at the Lyft office in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Lyft

Designers at their desks at the Lyft office in San Francisco.

3. Look for designers who ‘think beyond the pixel.’

It’s easy for design leaders at tech companies to get swept up in the online experience, but the offline experience is just as important. “Yes, a lot of our work is related to those pixels, but as a customer, your experience of us isn’t just in the app – it’s on a street corner, it’s sitting in the back of a car, it’s riding a bike, it’s talking to someone who moments ago was a stranger,” says Dill. That’s why she looks for designers who pay attention to more than what is on the screen. “Do they think beyond the pixel? Do they think about every moment of the journey and all of the different modalities of that interaction — from a billboard, to an app, to a seat cushion, to the person-to-person interaction? That’s what we want.”

4. Translate your mission into values.

As a design leader, it’s important that you find people who have the necessary skills and experience, but it’s also important that they demonstrate the values that reflect your mission. At Lyft, Dill looks for people who have “humility, strong proactive hustle, and great craft.” All three things tie into the company’s mission of changing the world through better transportation, which requires employees who have a great deal of user empathy, passion and quality standards.

5. Remove barriers to productivity.

Look at the way your organization is structured, how people communicate and the systems they’re using. Are there problems that can be fixed to make things more
effective and efficient? “You can hire the best people in the world, but if they have everything working against them, interference in the system, or interference based on the company itself, it’s going to be hard to get the best out of them,” says Dill. “It’s related to my favorite management ‘formula’: Performance = potential-interference.”

Designers collaborating in a common area of the Lyft office.

An employee walks through the Lyft office.

6. Get creative with the way you communicate.

Today’s 24/7 hyperconnected workplace means people can work from anywhere in the world. While there are many upsides to that, one downside is that people have less of a chance of bumping into each other and discussing what they’re working on. To invite sharing across the organization, for the last 5 years, Dill has been having designers share weekly screenshots of their work in a shared Google Doc — she calls it a “visual stand-up”. “You get to see what 100 different people are doing, which gives you insight into what’s going on.”

7. Recognize that not every tradition scales.

What works in a small group doesn’t always work when that group grows. A perfect example is birthday celebrations – Dill recalls how her team used to have cake when it was someone’s birthday or for a new hire’s first day. It was a wonderful tradition, but when the team size ballooned, it became a bit ridiculous. “It was like that Seinfeld episode where Elaine’s coworkers bring a cake in for some celebration every day,” she says. Instead, Dill encourages managers to think about bringing the organization together in ways that are more scalable. “We do have at least one opportunity every week to bring the whole team together through bi-weekly stand-ups and all-hands. We are constantly sharing information with each other. We’re highlighting people from the team so others get to know them, see what they’re all about.”

8. Encourage a culture where people feel comfortable sharing lessons learned.

Teams, especially fast-growing ones, can benefit when their individual members are open about mistakes they’ve made and the lessons they learned. One thing Dill does is send her team an update every week that often includes some insight she recently learned. “I say, ‘Hey, I did something last week where I accidentally switched off a tool and it didn’t go well. Here’s why, and this is what I learned.’ I do think it helps to set an example with the team, and it’s kind of become part of our culture.”

More Posts by Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.

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