Scaling Design at SumUp

How SumUp scaled design to create a cohesive merchant experience that focuses on merchant value, while empowering autonomous teams to launch products.

Scaling Design at SumUp

SumUp is a global financial technology company that supports more than 3.5 million merchants in over 30 markets worldwide, and operates a product suite of tailor-made business tools created specifically for the micro and nano segment.

What is the challenge that you are facing?

For a long time we were a single product company influencing the merchant experience but now we are a multi-product company. On top of our card readers we now offer invoicing, selling online, mobile payments and gift cards. We have all these new products, functions, and tools that can allow our merchants to be much more successful. But how do we integrate these products into a cohesive experience?

At SumUp, we’re scaling fast, over 16 teams now, and are quite distributed; we have offices in Copenhagen, Sofia, Berlin, Cologne, and São Paulo. The challenge became how do we - as distributed teams - evolve in a way that allows us to create a cohesive merchant experience that focuses on building value for the merchant, while we empower autonomous teams to launch products and features. This is what keeps me awake at night. And this is what I look to address as we go on the journey to scale design.

How are you tackling this issue?

I have three pillars or areas that I focus on as part of this journey.

  1. The design organisation and structure
  2. The practices and community
  3. The UX strategy and product vision

Let's start with the design organisation structure. What challenges did you face?

I have worked in other companies where the design organisation didn’t quite match the rest of the organisation. This difference made us special, but not always special in a way that was good for Design. Rather, Design was blamed for any hindrance, delays, anything.

As we move toward autonomous teams, the focus for growing a design organisation needs to be on empowering designers within these teams.

SumUp very much believes in autonomous, self-organizing teams, and having these teams obsess about solving merchant problems in their value stream.

We now have seven self-organising tribes now. Designers are embedded in these tribes, on the ground, performing real-time collaboration.

These embedded designers need to be generalists. I’ve watched over the last five years, the rise of product designers, which I don’t fully believe in. Product designers are as a single designer who needs to be great at UX, great at UI, great at user research, great at pixel iconography, and maybe even also copywriting. I may know a handful of people who are really great at all of them. Most designers that I know are strong in one area where they really excel, and then they have complementary skills. A design organisation structure needs to honour those strengths and focus on bringing additional expertise as needed to build out skillsets where needed.

Organizational framing: Autonomous teams complemented by a Global Platform (Brand Design, User Research, Design System)

As a co-leader of the Platform Tribe, I’m looking to build an empowered transversal design organisation. We have teams that provide specific expertise like motion design or UX writing,  and experts who focus on the merchant journey. This includes brand design, user research,  design system, service design and DesignOps. The idea is to have centralised experts supporting decentralised generalists in a scalable way.

This approach to structure gives me a chance to scale design at a pace that the company can actually handle. For example, our first UX writer is part of the global design organisation. With his hire, we can on one hand fulfill specific needs, and on the other hand create a “demand” for a UX writer because teams see the value that this skill and this person can produce.

So, rather than me needing to convince the people, I can bring somebody in, I can show what value they can produce and scale from there as the organization can support it.

Is structure enough or do you have to also change how people interact?

I’m a big believer in what I call the Magic Triad, where design, product, and engineering collaborate together in solving the problem that we’re trying to solve for our customers because real innovation comes at that intersection. In a lot of organisations, design reports to product, and this creates a slightly lopsided relationship. I’m looking at reinforcing the equilibrium by setting up a parallel reporting structure. Design will have a Design Lead, reporting to the Tribe Lead as a peer to Engineering Leads and Product Leads, then have Designers actually reporting into them. This creates a structure, at the most senior level in the tribe, where the disciplines are treated equally.

A separate design organisation

You also mentioned design practices. Can you elaborate on this?

As we shift the organisation towards embedded tribes and teams, we need a way in which to have cohesiveness across them. Remember the 16 teams that are all working into one interface? While those are all individual teams and individual tribes, I need to find a way in which we know what we want to be building for our merchants and ensure we have shared practices to get there through design, product and engineering.

Design sprints have become a very loved practice. I personally believe workshops are the answer to close collaboration. It’s about sitting down and working together to solve problems. When we - product, engineering, design - sit in the room together, we create that bond.

An example is the enthusiasm one of the designers from the Sofia office had for merchants in Brazil - very diverse from their day-to-day, yet they became vocal advocates of merchants half-way across the globe.

A screenshot of a zoom call with multiple participants and a shared Miro board where they are using sticky notes to share ideas.

We’ve all been working from home, It is not the same thing as working in a room together and whiteboarding. But we need to embrace the technology, and not forget the practice and the importance of collaborating and working together, which is super important to create that shared knowledge. Especially when we’re in an organisation that is so distributed like we are . Developing in Berlin and in Sofia, for our merchants as far away as Brazil.

Another practice that I really focus on, is a design crit as part of the way in which we can come together, review, and input into each other’s work. We’re finding at SumUp that frequently two or three teams are working on very similar problems or views into a portal. We’d like to bring them together, and I’m going to start to have a conversation about do we really need to do different list views or can we have the same, and how do we agree to that?

Coming from consulting, for me design critiques are common practice. I found in organisations this practice it is much less common and frequently quite uncomfortable. I see this as an important part of the design practice. But we need to figure out how to bring designers to a place where they can value it, they can work with it, can separate themselves from their work, and really engage in dialogue, so we can strive towards much better solutions and much better quality of output.

Part of this process is establishing a common language for Design Excellence. We’re looking at how we take our brand values to define Design Excellence as a part of our process tool, part of something we can use for developing language to do design critiques and link to metrics to measure the output. This will eventually deliver a common language with the product and engineering organisation for providing feedback that’s constructive, not opinion-based, and then we can overtime actually tie to different metrics.

Common language is so important. Does that tie in with the UX Strategy and Product Vision?

We believe in creating a shared UX Strategy and Product Vision as a tool to give framing to teams with knowledge about specific customer needs. A product vision takes advantage of the power of story telling to inspire and bring people together. I believe autonomous teams will gravitate toward saying, “Yes, we want to make that happen, and we’ll go that extra mile to make it happen.”

When I started at SumUp, a month in, I was asked by one of the tribes to talk about design and what we want to accomplish I put together a provocation to tell the story, to start to open up everybody’s mind to what could be the experience of SumUp to our merchants. It was provocative in the context of where the company and service thinking were at. From my end, I did a lot of hand-waving but was able to engage with a story that made sense and moved critical conversations to the intersection of products that was necessary.

The particular tribe did their Q1 planning as a follow-on to this, and immediately changed their strategy and started to focus on how SumUp would deliver a unified experience.

We have multiple products that are being experienced through one interface. The question we - as a company and a design organization - have to answer is, how do we deliver an experience that’s cohesive and of value?

One merchant - one product. A coordinated experience across all touchpoints

The way we want to think about it is that no matter where we are in the organization, we are serving the same merchant. In addition to developing a design system, we are building a knowledge base that allows someone from Sofia to be empathetic to a merchant’s experience in Brazil or Chile.

How effective has this been for you?

A recap of the effectives across the design organization, community and vision.

It’s an exciting journey and we’re still in the middle of it. I think these are fundamental tools and ways to think. But of course, they all work a little bit differently in each organisation. And you need to figure out what makes your organization unique and how to adapt the process to your context to take them on this journey.