Would This Company Make Me Happy as a Designer?

Developing your design career and choosing the right job is a delicate process.

A lot of companies post job offers on LinkedIn and other platforms using buzzwords like “innovation,” “design thinking,” and “customer-centric approach,” but they don’t always possess the knowledge or culture required to implement these processes successfully. It can be hard for design professionals navigating the hiring process to assess whether design plays a significant role in a company’s efforts towards becoming a truly customer-centric organisation. So how can you tell if a company has the potential to help you grow as a creative professional?

Last year, with seven years of branding and design experience (as well as my fair share of interviews) under my belt, I started my current position as a senior product designer at Zalando. I used the following checklist of key criteria to evaluate companies during the hiring process and it happily led me to my role in the Plus team — where I help define what it means to offer an “elevated” customer experience and build new benefits for our inclusive membership programme.

1. An emphasis on customer impact

Valuing design means valuing customer problems (and opportunities). Organisations that culturally ignore or diminish their customers’ needs will rarely see design as a way to solve them or to improve the quality of their value proposition. In such companies, your expertise as a designer would in all likelihood only be utilised to make things “pretty.”

A company that has the right approach towards customer problems rigorously and regularly documents customer feedback, identifies challenges, and transforms them into initiatives that are given priority within the organisation. If they don’t have user researchers yet, they could use other channels like customer care and social media.

Interview tip: Ask what their current documentation process looks like and how they are planning to improve it in the future.

I was pleased to learn that, as a customer-centric company, Zalando has a dedicated team of 14 qualitative and quantitative user researchers — the Voice of Customers — who run research projects in order to deepen our relationship with our customers.

2. A design chief

I often hear of junior or mid-level designers who are hired as the first designer in their team and asked to lead new projects and design initiatives. That’s a red flag. As UX research and consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group identified in their corporate UX maturity scale, a company’s approach to user research evolves over eight stages and although a company may have a dedicated budget for design projects and user research, it’s difficult to become a truly customer-centric organisation without an experienced leader at the helm.

To be able to create authentic value and make an impact as a designer, your team needs to be supported and protected by a leader who prioritises the quality of the experience delivered by a product or a service. In addition to allocating a budget and resources for research and design tools, a leader acts as an advocate for the design team in conversations with upper management, demonstrating the return on investment created by delivering smooth and consistent experiences.

Interview tip: Ask for information about the company’s design chief: their background, previous experience, and achievements. This will give you a better understanding of their approach towards design activities and what to expect from them.

If you haven’t had the chance to read our interview with Anne Pascual, our Senior Vice President of Product Design, I highly recommend it. You’ll find out about what she has achieved over the last three years at Zalando and her future goals.

3. A professional development framework

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced friction in the past due to a lack of proper guidelines defining roles and paths to promotion (especially during evaluation cycles).

Professional development frameworks are valuable tools that countless companies use to ensure that their employees understand the expectations of their roles and how to grow their careers. These documents state the different skill sets needed to fulfil specific roles in specific job families and act as a reference to successfully evaluate team members during personal review cycles. Without this, any designer would struggle to demonstrate the contributions they’ve made, their professional progression, and their impact within an organisation.

Interview tip: Ask if the company has or is planning to create a career progression model. Find out how a designer would grow within their company, and what different career paths are available. Do your research — there are lots of great examples of public and open source progression frameworks that you can peruse online.

Zalando’s Head of Design Operations, Jay Kaufmann, and the leadership team have created an internal document which maps out the different career paths a product designer can take based on their expertise and orientation.

4. A safe space to grow

In order to turn designers into outstanding designers they need a safe space where they can learn, exchange knowledge, and inspire each other on a regular basis. As a design professional on an endless quest to make meaningful things and experiences, working in a collaborative environment where your creativity and ideas are able to flourish is crucial.

Interview tip: Ask for information about the design team:

  • How diverse and inclusive is the team?
  • How often are they given the chance to experiment and fail?
  • How often do they take part in design rituals and community gatherings?
  • How do they exchange knowledge with each other?

In my case, I was amazed to discover that Zalando’s Product Design team comprises around 130 brilliant designers, researchers, developers, writers, and analysts from more than 30 different countries. Being exposed to such a strong design community is priceless. We have regular community rituals where we exchange knowledge, bond, and have fun together.

Final thoughts

As I said, this checklist of criteria is based on my own experience including the mistakes I made in the past when I joined companies that were not even close to having the right assets in place to enable career growth. I’m curious, what other key criteria do you think designers hoping to advance their careers should consider?