Never design solo: The case for the product design squad

We’ve got a bit of an unofficial motto at Hanno: Never design solo.

It wasn’t something we realised right from day one. In the past, we’d divide up projects amongst the team to try and juggle many tasks. Inevitably, some people would end up working on their own on a project to help us hit the deadline.

But we soon realised that while this was impossible to avoid, it was a bad precedent to set.

Battling creative block


The first, most obvious problem is dealing with creative block. We’ve all faced it from time to time and there’s an argument that forcing yourself to think deeply about a creative challenge is a good thing.

But when you’re stuck on the same creative problem for days or even weeks, desperate for fresh inspiration, we have a problem.

That’s where we’ve realised that teaming up on projects makes creative block far rarer. It sounds obvious, but having other designers working alongside you means you face creative block far less often. When you get stuck, you bounce ideas off each other and you’re moving on your way again.

Collaborative UX: here’s to the product design team

product design squad

‘UX’ is such a broad discipline. What we call ‘UX design’ might cover anything from copywriting, UI, interaction design, front-end development, brand identity, art direction, user research and testing and much more.

It seems obvious, when you put it this way, that no single person can do everything needed for great UX.

That’s why we’ve started to find it valuable to stop thinking of ourselves as ‘UX designers’ and instead as a product design team.

When great industrial design companies like IDEO design a healthcare product, they’ll bring medical experts onto their teams for the project. These new team members aren’t what you might usually consider UX designers, but they’re a crucial part of the product design team that IDEO might build.

Fluid teams lead to better results

When you’re working on a product design team, you’re practising collaborative design. You’re running design thinking exercises. You’re tackling the problem together.

This doesn’t just solve the problem of creative block. It actually elevates the design quality of the entire project.

And that specialist doesn’t need to be involved for the whole project. If you’ve read Sprint by the Google Ventures design team, you’ll have seen how they involve experts at different points of the process. Going back to healthcare product design, there’s huge value to bringing a family doctor into the design process at just the right time to get their perspective and input. But that expert can easily enter the project for a few hours or days, then depart again.

We’ve taken this approach not just with external experts, but also with our own team. Building a product design team doesn’t mean you need 15 skilled people all sticking their heads in and creating chaos on the project–it’s very doable with a small team and a more limited budget, too.

You need consistency on a complex project of course–things start to fall apart if your entire team changes on a weekly basis. But that doesn’t mean you can’t switch members on your team as the project develops.

We might start off a project with a UX researcher to carry out market and user research and swap them with an engineer after 3 weeks once we have a clearer idea of what we need to build. That same researcher might return a little further in the process to help us carry out UX usability testing on prototypes or products.

Our product-design squad formula

hanno team

When we’re working with clients, we’ve started to settle around teams of 3.

This tends to be a nice number when working on a product–a team of 2 is too small, but once you get to 4 or 5 people, things start to get a lot more complex. I like to extend Jeff Bezos’ 2 pizza rule to this situation: for fast and efficient projects:

“Never have a team so big that it can’t be fed with 2 pizzas.”

You can see how this works by reading our guide to how we run Google Ventures style product design sprints or checking out how we ran a UX project to build a bitcoin trading platform

Segmenting our team into smaller, cross-functional teams to work on projects has been key in creating winning projects for our clients. After all, creativity thrives in groups! Merging our design strengths, we’ve become stronger mini squads that get things done more rapidly and with higher quality results too.