When I joined Docplanner, the design team went through significant changes and growth. I helped them iterate how we work with each other and redefine our processes to become a more effective, efficient, and happier team.
DocPlanner is the biggest European booking platform and practice management software provider for doctors in Europe and Latin America, with 30 million monthly active patients. Its mission is to make healthcare more accessible by letting patients review over 2 million verified opinions, find the best doctor nearby, and book a visit in a few seconds. Also, doctors can attract new patients and manage their calendars via Docplanner's agenda management tool.
At Docplanner, we focus on two user personas: patients and doctors. Patients can find the nearest doctor and book appointments through the web or app. We also offer a web-based SaaS and a native app for doctors to manage their practice and build their online reputation.
Upon arriving at Docplanner as the new Director of Product Design, I found that the team had difficulty scaling effectively and often debated strategic decisions. The company was growing massively, we needed to increase the team's capacity by a factor without closing up shop, and our current structure and way of working prevented us from functioning at scale. My goal was to create a system to provide clarity to the whole design team and empower each individual. This way, we'd be able to attract talent and develop our capability as a department.
This article aims to share my take on building and leading a team of 30 designers working remotely, what strategies helped me assess the team performance, and how I built a collaborative yet strategic group of designers who are thoughtful about each of their roles. The key is simple: create a well-structured team where each person knows what is expected of them. When each member understands the roles and responsibilities of their peers, they can better cooperate and work together towards a single goal: making the product look amazing.
When I arrived at Docplanner, we had a group of roughly 14 people: Six product designers, three brand designers, and five content designers. The structure was not working. Designers were quite disconnected, and people in management positions had to part-time between designing and managing.
Providing clarity and focus.
One of the first things I discovered after talking with the team in my first weeks at Docplanner was that the design ladder was broken. We just had four loosely explained positions: Junior, Mid, Senior, and Team Lead. Also, it was clear that most of the team didn't understand the expectations for their seniority level and what they needed to get to the next level. It was even more confusing and frustrating for the people in Team Lead positions because they had to work part-time between managing and designing.
I started by completely overhauling the design ladder, removing the Team Lead role, differentiating between the individual contributor and management tracks, and elevating the product design and content design crafts to the same level in terms of career path and pay bands. As a result, I delivered a new Career Guide to the team, explaining the needed competencies for each role, expectations, and skills. Having a clear career guide was also very important for identifying skill gaps and better assessing how to build a robust hiring pipeline.
I created detailed documentation for the career guide, and I ran all design managers through it to understand how to use it with their direct reports. Soon enough, all of the design leaders were able to communicate clearly and successfully through the career guide's framework.
What we accomplished:
The career guide was a great success. For most of the designers in the team, it was the first time they had a solid reference to plan their careers and identify growth opportunities. On the managers' side, the career guide offered a better tool to level new hires, calibrate levels across their team, and assess who was ready for a promotion. Lastly, It was an excellent tool for design leadership to know where we should invest, which new skills and people we should bring, and constantly evaluate if we had a balanced team.
My manager was also taking care of the design, and he was less accessible. Now, everything is more organized. We have agendas for our 1:1s, clear career paths, and the design team has a better structure.
Mariana De León
Product Designer at Docplanner
"What can I do to get a promotion? I have no idea what to do now." The fact that people in different positions had the same question made me understand that we needed to clarify the expectations for each position and make the process of performing well more clear. The solution was the creation of detailed job level descriptions based on our competencies for each role.
After creating competencies and job levels, I also designed a new process for performance reviews that managers and employees could share to collect the necessary information for effective feedback. Performance reviews offered a unified approach that employees could rely on because they were standardized across departments and job levels. The process benefited employee performance, personal development, and communication.
Here's an example of the cheat sheets I created to help ICs and managers understand the available positions at Docplanner and the competencies needed to move to the next level. These cheat sheets also helped managers understand their employees' career progression paths more clearly and gave them tools to facilitate performance reviews.
What we accomplished:
I helped ICs and managers easily understand what was expected for each job level and which improvements they needed to make to move up. By documenting the job levels and competencies, we were able to get this information into the hands of employees, who in turn could make better decisions about their development and career growth through the performance review process. Also, we became more effective at hiring, as every hiring manager could use this documentation as a reference to identify the skills needed to reinforce the team.
Scaling the team.
When I arrived at Docplanner, we already had the product and content designers embedded in multi-disciplinary teams to mitigate centralization issues. They sat next to their product team, attended their meetings, and took design ownership of their projects. Still, it was challenging to align across different product areas and ensure that we delivered a cohesive product experience to our users.
We decided to continue with the same team structure and introduced new levels to solve these problems. Each designer on the product team was responsible for designing their piece of the puzzle. Still, for each product vertical, we would have dedicated designers guiding them. Principal and Lead designers were responsible for keeping designers aligned to work toward the same end goal, recognizing where needed changes or improvements could occur, and keeping everyone up to date about new design decisions.
I set up a hierarchy of roles that begins with designers, who design features for our products. Managers are responsible for managing a group of designers within a product area. The director is responsible for the design strategy, and the head of Design is responsible for growing the practice.
What we accomplished:
In the past, we had a fairly flat structure where designers were involved in projects from start to finish—but there was no clear ownership and responsibilities. Designers often felt like their work was vulnerable at any point. It also meant that consistency across product areas wasn’t clear or enforced, hurting the overall product experience. The new structure helped us keep designers empowered and engaged as full team members. At the same time, the design outputs were better aligned by introducing new roles that let us keep consistency across product areas.
DesignOps vs Design system.
When we started to grow the team, it was clear that the Head Of Design had too much on his plate. He was responsible for many things, but most importantly, he was in charge of hiring, running operations, onboarding new designers, and budgeting. It's no surprise that this created a lot of stress and burnout for him. This is how the DesignOps team was born. I set up a team to ensure that we had the right tools, components, and patterns for designers and engineers to craft high-quality design work at scale. They also should provide the needed processes and tools to improve hiring practices, help with skills growth, and ensure overall team effectiveness.
After some weeks, I realized that there was too much work for one team to manage. I decided to split the DesignOps team into two teams, each with a clear mission: one focused on optimizing our processes and way of functioning as a team (DesignOps) and another focused on designing an interface system (Design System).
"Amplify design's value, increase the design team's efficiency, and improve the quality of design outputs by optimizing processes and rituals."
Design System Team
"Provide the design foundations, components, documentation, and support needed to build new product capabilities for any product team."
Creating a team from scratch is not an easy task. You need to get buy-in from many different parts of the organization, a budget for hires, and a clear mission and tasks for them to start working. In this case, it all started by writing a document to explain why we needed to invest in it.
Here's a screenshot of the first version of Docplanner's design system. It was essential for us to have a single documentation source for anyone in the organization (not only designers) to understand how we built the product.
We introduced many improvements to enhance communication between designers and the design system team to capture feedback and requests in a more structured way. Using Github issues helped us give answers to everyone and prioritize the work on the platform, but we put many other processes and channels in place.
What we accomplished:
Putting together these teams was not an easy task. We needed designers and engineers working together in the design system and building a practice from scratch for DesignOps. That required a lot of negotiation and explaining the value of investing in it, how we would impact the business, and how we would measure success. Still, the team's results in the first months were remarkable. We made it easier for everyone at Docplanner to access our interface documentation in one place, provided a better structure for projects in Figma, and created the needed process and help channels to capture bugs, issues, and feature requests. We also improved many internal processes, from hiring and onboarding to improvements in how we tracked budgets and organized team rituals.
Take a look at Docplanner's design system →
Setting a strategic vision.
When I joined Docplanner, the design team struggled with proving value because we followed internal-facing metrics that were difficult to link back to business outcomes. The product organization shared their concern about the alignment problems with the design team, and we needed to agree on a set of shared goals around business outcomes. Business metrics like acquisition and retention were super important, bet we also needed to define solid metrics on how much we were improving the quality and consistency of the product experience and its impact on those business metrics.
We first needed to define what the design team was supposed to accomplish and what we needed to get there. After a series of workshops with the design leadership team, we defined our three strategic pillars, how we could get there, and a way of measuring our level of accomplishment.
The design strategy was created to clarify designers and the rest of the organization about the design team's responsibilities toward our shared business goals. Still, creating a strategy was not our end goal but a medium to get more alignment between design and the business. Also, to clarify how design contributes to the overall company objectives. Using the strategy document as our north star and the business goals defined by leadership and product, we established a process to build the design team's quarterly commitments and frequently sync with product managers to have a consistent way of understanding what we set ourselves to accomplish and how we were going to measure it.
After a series of workshops and conversations with product management, we defined design's three strategic pillars: deliver a top-class product experience, build a high-performing design team, and provide robust design guidance. I formalized them in more detail in our design strategy document, together with some reference metrics we could use to track progress.
I created a document with the strategy explained. We considered it important to have it in writing, not that much as a working document, but to serve as our north star and guide us in making decisions on why we are doing what we do.
We created a single source of truth for Docplanner's design system (aka Watson), that was intended to rethink our approach to designing and building the product from the core.
What we accomplished:
For the first time at Docplanner, we managed to have an agreed set of global design OKRs aligned with our business goals as a company. Internally, we call them OITs (Objectives, Indicators, and Tasks). Each objective is rooted in one of our strategic pillars, and then we define the tasks and indicators that we are going to work on based on our business goals and the design strategies we defined. This approach lets us know what we should do, but most importantly, why we should do it and how we will know that we are moving in the right direction to improving the product experience.
Sergio is passionate about making a difference, and people appreciate his humbleness and capacity to give constructive feedback. I'm really glad that we are on this journey together.
Head Of Design at Docplanner
Designing the team rituals.
In my previous professional experience at New Relic, I was the manager of a small team of three designers. Each of them worked in a different product team. They felt frustrated because working alone made getting early and continuous design feedback harder. As we grew the team up to ten designers, I realized that we needed a set of team rituals to shape the team's culture and drive designers into action. Some of these rituals already existed when I arrived at Docplanner, but they are quite loose. In most cases, there weren't clear agendas and owners, we didn't have facilitators, and their meaning was not clear. This took us to a situation where any other meeting was more important than the design team meetings. I took on rethinking all the meetings and defining clear steps, agendas, frequency, and meaning for them.
Here's a view of the team's recurrent meetings in a week. It's essential to keep them always at the exact times and same days to create a routine. Also, every meeting should have an agenda and a shared understanding of the goal and the topics we will cover. (Calendar illustration by Hoang Nguyen available at Dribbble).
What we accomplished:
By establishing these rituals at Docplanner and facilitating most of them myself, designers were encouraged to share their work and interests with the rest of the team. Keeping team members informed about what's going on with the business, celebrating individual accomplishments, and sharing a genuine interest in what people do outside of work were just some tools that kept our team feeling energized and engaged.
Telling the world.
The best part about working in Docplanner’s design team was the transparency we strived for. We wanted to show the world what the design team was working on, our interface libraries, and who the people behind it all were. So we decided to start with a website explaining all of this, and we’re frequently working on it to add more information that could help us explain what we do better and attract talent. Guglielmo Pardo, one of our Design Managers, took on the lead to our first version of the design website, and many designers on the team jumped in to collaborate in putting it together and iterate on the content. This is just one small example of all the efforts we put together to spread the word beyond the walls of the company, but we have so much more, like meetups, online gatherings, and Docplanner's Design Week, where we bring all the team to the same location to talk about design and interact with each other.
Check Docplanner's design website →
Every situation is unique. Therefore, a formula to build the perfect design team does not exist. This is especially true in tech companies, where discovering new business and organizational models is key to success and where priorities and focus change quickly.
During my time at Docplanner, I had some major successes while doubling the design team's capacity. This massive learning experience allowed me to deliver strong processes to identify skill gaps, set up systems and goals for upskilling the team, and put an even stronger focus on hiring for roles that would make us more robust. Putting all this work in place let us scale the team and remove most of the tensions due to the previous horizontal and siloed structure.
After one year as the Product Design Director at Docplanner, I decisively contributed to shaping a positive working environment, establishing clear growth plans, defining role expectations, setting the design team's strategic vision, building a DesignOps strategy, and untangling the Design System effort. As a result, I was promoted to Global Head Of Design.
But that's another story.
I want to thank my wonderful design team. Without them, all these changes would not have been possible. Thanks to their work, feedback, willingness to adapt to change, and focus on delivering awesome results, we created a strong craft that massively contributed to business growth.
David Ferreira, Luciana Freitas, Kasia Ksiezopolska, Sígrid Degobi, Joost Kuitert, Jardi Kroes, Sergio Valero, Martyna Zigouras, Kalina Tyrkel, Bruno Ferrari, Wojtek Aleksander, Pepa Fernández, Guglielmo Pardo, Juncal González, Mariana de León, Nadiia Shymchenko, María Varo, Ainara Carreras, Miguel Alonso, Julia Pereira, Nadia Herrera, Patryk Szaflarski, Mariam Qasim, Denis Karchenko, Agata Orlowska, Clara Andrada, Patrick Harris, Pawel Chlodnicki, Jose Martins, Juan Sancho, Rafal Ziolek, Aga Kijek, and Dawid Liberadzki.