Going ‘in-house’ is sometimes seen as heading to the dark side. No more pitching, no more ‘new clients’, no more ‘exciting, one off briefs’ – just one product, one brand and one style.
Is that actually the case?
After spending a year escaping the agency band myself, it’s something I now regard as an incredibly valuable move. As a designer it can teach you to execute with a different thinking cap on whilst gaining more in depth experience into how business and design must co-operate and work together.
In this new series of interviews I wanted to get away from talking to designers within ad agencies and graphic design studios and focus on designers within technology focused comapanies. People making real things, better. From how they got there, to their companies process, to how they value their work whilst constantly innovating.
Oh, and their favourite coffee.
We’re kicking things off with Percolate, The System of Record for Marketing. A software platform for all marketing operations.
Founded in 2011 by Noah Brier and James Gross by Noah Brier and James Gross. Since it’s birth they’ve had an estimated total backing of $74.5 million – gone from 7 to 250 employees – named No.6 on FastCo’s ‘Most Innovative Companies of 2015’ and shown no signs of slowing down on fulfilling their ambitions there.
Why are we talking to these guys?
Well, Design Director, Dom Goodrum shares a similar path to myself and a move a lot of designers are following from starting agency side then moving with experience into a product lead design space. Having previously worked at Poke London and now having four years at Percolate under his belt it felt like a really interesting and perfect place to begin this new series.
So, I guess we should start with how you arrived at Percolate?
The year was 2010. The city was New York. I found myself in a place that was mad about technology. Companies were popping up everywhere across the city. Foursquare, Tumblr, Kickstarter, Bit.ly, Buzzfeed.
I instantly got attracted to the energy of the growing startup community and started to test some ideas of my own. Doing side projects gave me an appetite for making things from scratch. By early 2011, I had started speaking with early stage startups looking for designers to come onboard. One of those conversations was with my friend Noah Brier, Co-founder of Percolate. He said ‘Why don’t you come and help us?’
What was that personal selling point of joining Percolate over… someone else say?
It began with a passion to bring the Percolate vision to life.
Having worked at agencies for several years before joining I was interested in designing products that would transform the way marketing was done. This selling point has matured well. The invention angle is still number 1, today it’s followed closely by being able to implement design practices across the company, and having the chance to help a group of amazing designers develop confidence and grow.
There’s a strong distinction between working as a designer in start-up land vs agency world. Aside from the Google set expectations of bean bags and slides connecting each office floor, what would you say the major principles and differences are for start-up designers?
My earliest impressions still feel pretty much on the money. To add to this there’s our company design principles we use to get designers in the startup mindset when they arrive at Percolate:
In Beta – Understanding that everything we make is in a state of ‘testing’ helps us continuously learn, iterate, and improve our products. This value aims to encourages all of us to experiment and work in an agile manner.
Together – We design with people. Externally, we gather customer needs through our client relationships and field research. Internally, we work with every department to ensure our products and communications deliver value.
Visible – We believe the intention of our solutions should be obvious. Design helps us create intuitive interfaces and structured communications. We are not simple for the sake of minimalism, we are simple to focus users.
Speaks – Our products and experiences should lead with the Percolate personality. From the tone of our language to how we frame insights. Our clear and concise wording presents a thoughtful, human voice, one which inspires.
Organized – The execution of our work is guided by our brand identity, and specific style guides. These tools ensure everything we make both look and feel like they belong to Percolate. These tools evolve overtime with new applications.
Read more about the Percolate Design Culture here.
Would you say it’s easier for designers to have a greater passion for product work compared to everyday client projects?
Well, we all get out of bed for different reasons, but yes, we have some pretty damn passionate designers at Percolate. The cause for this passion I put down to a few things. Designers at Percolate get some big hairy system problems to solve with their teams. Secondly, they are given the autonomy to figure out how to go about solving these problems. These experiences result in designers developing deep knowledge and ownership for our platform, which in turn gives them a sense of pride when they see their work impacting the growth and success of the company.
It becomes more than a job.
How do you guys measure the success of a piece of product design, whilst you’re constantly trying to make sure you’re innovating and amending the product to tick the right boxes?
It’s easy to begin with. Invention is what starts your company, in that you have to bring something new to the market that provides value and solves a problem to stand a chance. As we moved forward we’ve worked hard to maintain a balance of shipping products that extend the unique offering of Percolate, and updates that improve our existing products.
Managing that balance and focus of good design practice whilst making sure business requirements are met is sometimes a ‘designers’ biggest challenge, how’s that dealt with at Percolate?
They go hand in hand. Business objectives guide the design process. They shape the briefs our Product Managers write for our teams. Designers then take the brief and evaluate the business objectives to inform user stories. From here we have an established product development cycle that includes design practices such as research, user experience and visual design. These are the practices designers use to design product solutions that deliver on the user stories identified. At each stage of design development the solutions recommended by designers are evaluated with business objectives in mind.
How do you go about choosing what part of the Percolate product to focus on next, or is having a larger team allowing you to do everything at once?
Yes, a product team of 70 does help us do more than we did at 7 people, but prioritization is still key. Last year we broke our product team into 5 smaller teams; made up of designers, engineers, a product manager and representatives from our business team. Each teams owns a part of our platform, for example Team Planning & Collaboration own our planner, brief, activity stream and marketer products. The Product Manager on each team runs their roadmaps week to week and prioritizes the problems they want to solve through an understanding of what are most important to our clients, and marketing at large.
How do you find managing a team of that size? Any top tips?
Managing is a people game. By default I’m pretty relaxed and take a friendly, enthusiastic approach to working with people. It turns out that you need to adjust your style to suit the personalities and needs of individuals. Working out people’s motivations and quirks early on is key to managing them effectively so that they grow, and ultimately contribute great design work.
Is there a certain fit for a designer wanting to get involved in Percolate? and what are the expectations?
We’re pretty fussy. We want designers to able to own the research, user experience and visual design of projects, so their previous experiences need to show they have the potential to be able to handle these pieces. We have brought people on who have had 2 out of 3, and through practice they have become well rounded and are now able to own the design process.
We also tend to have a bias for good visual designers, as having good taste really counts when you’re asked to craft products that are both intuitive and beautiful.
Any last words?
I’ve got two brilliant things for you. Today we’re hiring amazing designers, and next month we’re hosting our first Percolate DesignTalk in San Francisco. We’ve got a great line-up of speakers in California Sunday, Storq, Stripe, Uber and Zendesk.
We’ll be expecting you.
Last but not least, for those in NY anytime soon – Favourite coffee joint?
These New Yorkers really like their coffee, so you’re definitely spoilt for choice here. I used to live in the East Village a few years back and loved going to Bluebird. If I’m ever over that way I pop by.
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Find Dom on Twitter @domgoodrum
and the Percolate Design team at @PercolateDesign
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Further articles from Dom:
– Permission to Daydream
– WhyYou Turn Up
– Making Design Bets to Knock the Blurs into Shape
– Turning Growing Pains into Gains