Creating Design Job levels
Looking back on my time at Userlane, one thing I’m most proud of is a system of Design levels that help designers grow and progress in their careers. As this seems to be a hot topic in the Design leadership community, I thought I’d talk a bit about how I’ve approached it. I’ve also attached a template you can use if you’re in a process of creating or revisiting the levels for your team. You can find it at the end of the post.
Before I go into the details, it’s important that you understand that the Design job levels were created with a few points in mind:
- Smaller existing team (5 designers)
- Different types of designers (visual and product)
- Centralized partnership (inspiration from Peter Merholz’s book: Org Design for Design Orgs)
- Dual track support – IC and Managerial path
- MLP: First three levels + lvl 4 IC as the management position was already taken at the time
- The company already had a structure for job levels, so ours needed to fit into that
As with anything I do, I used a Design thinking approach. I started with RESEARCH.
I’ve looked through countless other Design job levels, tried to understand their approach and to find patterns. To say that I was surprised by how different these are is an understatement. Every company I’ve looked at had a different approach to job levels. But they did have one similar thing – the levels themselves and those that offered dual track were similar in that as well.
Some of the level systems that were most useful for me were:
Going through these and more, I’ve decided not to discover hot water and leave the names as they were recognized in the industry:
Lvl 1: Junior
Lvl 2: Mid
Lvl 3: Senior
Lvl 4: Staff or Team lead
As the team was composed of two types of designers, I’ve decided on the terms Product designer and Visual designer. These fit best in our scenario.
Then I dived deep into IDEATION.
I played around with different structures and approaches to describe the levels best and, in the end, decided to go with a structure of base skills and differentiators between levels.
Once I had my draft written, I wanted FEEDBACK. My stakeholders were my team, the People team, and the CPO. Feedback was crucial for me as I wanted to ensure that the Job levels document isn’t a document hanging above people’s heads and keeps them locked in levels they are at already but motivates them to grow.
After a few rounds of ITERATIONS and matching it with the existing Job levels structure, I’ve finalized the document.
In the end, we’ve agreed on one document encompassing skills for Visual, and Product designers split into Hard skills, Soft skills, and Level differentiators.
These apply to all levels. These are personal attributes that influence how well one can interact with others. Unlike hard skills, soft skills are harder to measure objectively. Most of the time, we can best understand the level of development of our soft skills by eliciting feedback from people we work with daily.
The list below shouldn’t be used as a checklist but rather as a starting point or a guideline to help one think of where and how they demonstrate them in their work.
Depending on the frequency of how often one demonstrates the use of soft skills, we distinguish between:
- Never demonstrates
- Sometimes demonstrates
- Often demonstrates
- Always demonstrates
These skills need context and can instead be evaluated in relation to the number of opportunities in which they could be demonstrated. If, for example, one had only a few opportunities to demonstrate a particular skill and they have demonstrated the skill on every occasion, we evaluate it as “always demonstrates.” If they’ve failed to demonstrate it on a few of the presented opportunities but still demonstrated it on more than half of them, we evaluate it as “often demonstrates,” etc.
Most important skills: Empathy, Quality standards, Feedback, Listening and communication, Collaboration and facilitation, Problem-solving, Value delivery, and Leadership.
Compared to soft skills, these skills are easier to quantify and present the abilities that let you tackle job-specific duties and responsibilities. These skills apply on all levels but differ based on the role.
Skills are assessed on a 6-level scale:
0: Does not understand this competence and/or it is non-existent
1: I have a basic understanding of this competence
2: I can demonstrate this competence under supervision
3: I can demonstrate this competence independently
4: I can supervise other people in this competence
5: I develop new ways of applying this competence
Hard skills for Product designers: Strategy, UX Research, Ideation, Information architecture, Interaction design, UX testing, Visual testing, Microcopy, and Data.
Hard skills for Visual designers: Strategy, Design Research, Ideation, Visual design, Brand design, Interaction design, Evaluation and Validation, and Specialised knowledge (Illustration, Motion, Icons…).
This part is very specific to this company. When creating Job levels on the company level, it was decided that each level would have sub-levels – mastery levels. I’ve incorporated these into our document and slightly adapted them to our context.
Each level has 4 mastery levels that are equal across the company:
1: Learning – Recently promoted or new to the role. Needs a lot of guidance from the manager with the majority of tasks to understand the role’s requirements.
2: Growing – Understands most of what is expected for deliverables but needs some guidance with understanding the role.
3: Thriving – Understands all aspects of the role, needs limited guidance.
4: Expert – Understands all aspects of the role with no guidance. Once a team member becomes an expert within their current level, the next step may be a promotion if a role at the next level is needed at the company.
Even though there is no differentiation between hard and soft skills per se between the levels, there is a difference in: experience, impact, independence, and level of demonstration of hard and soft skills.
I’ve made sure that all of the skills, impact, independence, and level of demonstration have practical examples so that they are easier to understand.
In the end, it’s important to understand that even though the document has a very clear structure and one could almost create a matrix out of it, it’s important that this document isn’t taken as a checklist but rather as a start of a conversation between designers and their manager. Each designer is an individual, and we shouldn’t forget that.
- The best thing I did while creating this document was to involve my team in the process. Job levels need to serve both the company and the team.
- The document needs to be easy to understand, or it’s completely useless.
- If I could change one thing, I would only create a document to a level that made sense for us at that time. The company created a complex level system across all departments that was at times, rather disruptive, and it set unrealistic expectations from people.
- I now see writing Job levels as an investment in my team. They bring structure, safety, and opportunity for growth. At the same time, they shouldn’t be a one-off activity but a living document that changes as the team changes.
- There is no formula to write the levels. In the end, Job levels need to serve your company and your team, so even if I’d go to a new company as a team lead, I wouldn’t take them as they are but as a starting point.
If you need a bit more help creating your Design level system and your team is small to mid-sized, feel free to use the Google doc template I created. You should be able to download it or make a copy, but if you have any troubles, please reach out.