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From agency to in-house: a designer’s perspective

Katie and Sandra have recently joined FutureLearn as product designers, making the move from digital agency to in-house. In this post, they discuss what they’ve learnt so far and how working for multiple clients compares to life in a product team.

Katie and Sandra have recently joined FutureLearn as product designers, making the move from digital agencies to in-house. In this post, they discuss what they’ve learnt so far and how working for multiple clients compares to life in a product team.

Some of the design team on a team away day.

A product designer’s work is never done

The pressures of client presentations and fixed deliverables make agile ways of working difficult in an agency environment. At FutureLearn we don’t have final deadlines or contracts that end, so our work is never finished. The FutureLearn platform is constantly evolving – this is both thrilling and challenging to work with! It also means that the traditional ‘discovery’ phase of an agency project – where you carry out research and uncover insights – is no longer fixed. We continually test designs with learners and partners so we can build the best experience.

Seeing the big picture helps you see the smaller details

At FutureLearn, we iterate on smaller features across the website but we always keep in mind the bigger picture – making it easier to tackle overarching challenges along the way. And rather than taking a client’s brand guidelines and translating them into a digital experience, we work with the FutureLearn pattern library. Every product designer brings their own broader thinking to the product whilst the pattern library ties it together.

Collaboration is everything

Each designer at FutureLearn is embedded in a product team, and every team has different goals. There is no set ‘design’ process at FutureLearn so we often work together to find new approaches for solving problems. We are all part of a larger group of designers, and it’s important that we work closely to ensure FutureLearn makes sense as a whole. It’s not a case of showing work to a client and getting sign-off. It’s about sharing, encouraging, discussing, and working together towards a larger mission – we are always learning from each other.

You can be bold and take ownership

We’re not as deadline driven as agencies, which means we’re freer to experiment and can take a step back to fully consider implications of our decisions. Each product team sets their own direction, giving us the freedom to change things if needed. One of our teams recently took two weeks out to focus on exploring new feature ideas. This gave them the space to make some bold decisions, and to take ownership of what they could work on, meaning that the whole team felt enthused and involved. There’s no fake autonomy at FutureLearn, no hierarchy. If you have something to contribute, you are encouraged to do so, whatever your level.

It’s not always about designing

Our role as product designers at FutureLearn is as much about facilitating people as it is about creating designs. Whether it’s planning and running a workshop or helping your team break down and understand a bigger problem, designers can bring clarity and focus. We are both advocates of co-design methods; bringing out the best in people by involving the whole team in design decisions through story-mapping user journeys, brainstorming ideas and encouraging group sketching sessions.

There are still things we miss about agency life: the exhilaration of pitching to clients and persuading them to do business, or the constant stream of different projects. But after 10 years of working at agencies, FutureLearn is a revelation – we’re designing a product we believe in and most importantly, our work has a real impact on people everywhere.

Want to learn more about how we design and build FutureLearn?
Check out Making FutureLearn.

(p.s. If you want to work with us – we’re hiring for a digital product designer)


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