Redesigning our job levels for product designers

Main illustration: YUK FUN

The only thing harder than designing a product is designing your career. And many organizations, unfortunately, don’t make it any easier.

For instance, the Design Career Index shows that 71% of design orgs don’t have a career progression framework. Less than 1% have documented competencies with scorecards for rating performance. But if you don’t have a map for your career, then how do you know where you’re going?

We’ve recently updated our product designer job levels to give our designers a map for advancing their careers at Intercom. Our goal was to make them clearer, more useful, and more realistic. We’re also sharing them publicly to help those design teams without job levels to create their own.

If you’re a design leader struggling to come up with job levels, expectations, and career paths, this post will help you get started.

We believe everyone performs their best when they know what’s expected of them. No one should ever have to read your mind or guess what they need to do to advance. That’s why we’re upfront with candidates about what we look for in designers before they interview with us. That’s why we use the same criteria to hire people as we use to evaluate their performance after they join.

That’s why we update our job levels whenever our team says that they’re not clear or helpful.

Start with the problems

Intercom regularly surveys employees to understand their experience and what can be improved. In a recent survey, our team let us know design career paths and advancement were pain points. We identified five key problems:

  • It wasn’t clear how ratings and promotions are determined; it feels like a checklist.
  • There was a big gap between our senior and principal levels; our highest levels weren’t described clearly.
  • We held people accountable for outcomes they don’t control.
  • Some competencies overlapped with others or didn’t align with how we work.
  • Many competencies we care about weren’t documented.

These issues blocked our designers from doing their best and advancing in their careers.

Determine what “good” looks like

After aligning on the problems, we reviewed public job levels across the design industry. Many organizations share these openly on Progression.fyi and we drew inspiration from the likes of Figma, Buzzfeed, Mia Blume, Mike Davidson, Jason Mesut, DesignerFund, and Staff.design. Invision’s Design Team Maturity Report and the book Org Design for Design Orgs also grounded us with visions of what healthy, high-performing teams can do.

We developed principles to help us make better decisions as we faced choices along the way:

We also thought about the outcomes we wanted to see:

  • Designers know what’s expected of them and control how they meet those expectations.
  • The path to the next level is clearer and more reachable for all designers.
  • Performance reviews are more effective and focused on what we care about.
  • Design candidates can better prepare for their interviews.
  • We all achieve better business outcomes faster.

Doing this work upfront gave us a sense of what “good” would look like to guide our efforts. It may sound like a lot of time to invest at the outset, but it saved us time in the end.

Make the complex clear

As we redeveloped our job levels, we consistently sought out feedback from our designers, peer leaders, and cross-functional partners. Here are the most important changes we made together.

Problem: It’s not clear how ratings and promotions are determined; it feels like a checklist.

Solution: We now show how to earn high ratings and promotions. We’re also clear that you don’t have to exceed expectations in every skill to get promoted.

“Our managers have built the new job levels into performance reviews and career planning, but we’ll continue to improve and refine this guidance over time”

We’ve made some progress, but this work is never done. Our managers have built the new job levels into performance reviews and career planning, but we’ll continue to improve and refine this guidance over time.

Problem: There’s a big gap between our senior and principal levels; our highest levels aren’t described clearly.

Solution: We’ve introduced a new staff designer level in between our senior and principal levels. This new level acts as a force multiplier for product teams while also increasing design quality and speed of execution.

We’ve also added a table that examines each level across several axes to make the differences between them clear at a glance.

Problem: We hold people accountable for outcomes they don’t control.

Solution: We leaned into our principle of “Encourage actions a designer controls versus outcomes they can’t.” Results are important, but we know that they’re never guaranteed. We can’t mandate that designers always achieve good outcomes, but we can encourage the actions that are most likely to make them happen.

For example, here are two expectations we had in the old version of our job levels:

  • Be recognized as an expert in the broad domain of customer communications inside and outside of Intercom.
  • Invent the future of interaction design.

The first example takes away your agency by giving others control over your career progression: what if you do expert-level work, but you’re not seen as an “expert”?

“Recognition is often withheld from women and people of color, so we shouldn’t set expectations that depend on subjective perceptions”

We know from study after study that recognition is often withheld from women and people of color, so we shouldn’t set expectations that depend on subjective perceptions.

The second is unclear: what does it mean to “invent the future”? Who determines if you’ve done it? How would you measure it? We can’t answer these questions in objective ways that reasonable people can agree upon, so the expectation itself is what’s unreasonable. Once we recognized this, we simply removed these expectations.

Problem: Some competencies overlap with others or don’t align with how we work.

Solution: In the old version of our job levels, competencies like “Moving things forward quickly” and “Being efficient” overlapped with each other, which was confusing. We solved this by making each competency mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

Now we have only one row describing each distinct concept. We also grouped our competencies into new categories at similar zoom levels that highlight the core areas of our design practice.

We also removed competencies that didn’t apply to everyone. For example, we had a competency focused on recruiting, but sometimes we went months without hiring anyone. This made designers concerned that they couldn’t advance because they didn’t have the opportunity to interview.

“This highlights the benefit of our job levels not being a checklist – you don’t have to do everything to get promoted”

We replaced this with a new competency, “Helping people & teams,” where recruiting and interviewing is just one of many ways to show impact – you can also demonstrate this quality by giving talks, supporting Intercom events, taking part in our InterCommunities, or helping your team be more inclusive.

This highlights the benefit of our job levels not being a checklist – you don’t have to do everything to get promoted.

Problem: Many competencies we care about aren’t documented.

Solution: We added many new competencies, including leadership, commercial thinking, research, prototyping, and more. These are all essential to designers’ success, but previously we didn’t reference them in our job levels. We added them because we don’t think it’s fair to have undocumented expectations of our team.

We think all designers are leaders, but hadn’t made our actual expectations for leadership clear until now. Now, we explicitly state that designers are expected to be generous with their feedback, to work beyond design with other teams and peers, to identify and anticipate risks, and so on.

Clarity is kindness

No one should have to guess what’s expected of them or how to get to the next level in their careers. Words like “expectations” and “accountability” are often used as weapons, but it’s possible to see them more like a warm blanket that helps you feel safe and cared for. Setting clear, realistic expectations and supporting people in meeting them is an act of kindness.

But it’s also hard work – that’s why we’ve shared our job levels with a Creative Commons license. This means you don’t have to start from scratch – you can re-use our job levels and adapt them however you like. We only ask that you share your work so others can learn from it.

Do you have questions about our updated job levels for designers? Let us know on Twitter at @intercomdesign. We’ll be happy to follow up.

By the way, we’re hiring designers. If our career paths sound exciting to you, then we’d love to chat. You can learn more about how we work and see our open roles on our design team site at Intercom.design.

Intercom careers