You’ve probably seen commercials for FanDuel, the popular daily fantasy sports app that lets users compete against their friends (or in a public league) for cash prizes. Founded in 2009, FanDuel has exploded in size, and now serves over a million active users.
We spoke to design director Chris Leckie about FanDuel’s design culture, as well as collaboration and the importance of seeing design’s role clearly.
How did you start at FanDuel?
Edinburgh has a pretty tight-knit tech scene so everyone seems to have at least one friend in each company. There’s a tech incubator here as well, and FanDuel was in that incubator when I was with my previous employer, RightScale.
I had a few friends who were working at FanDuel when they moved into their new office, and I was invited along to their office warming/thanksgiving party there where I met Rob Jones, EVP of Design at FanDuel and one of its co-founders. We got chatting, had a few beers, and a few weeks later we met up and talked a little more seriously about a role in the company. I handed in my notice at my other job a few weeks later.
How does design fit within FanDuel’s culture?
It’s a really big part of the culture. As I mentioned before, Rob, EVP of Design, is also a co-founder, so there was always a design eye for the company as a whole.
With that said, design wasn’t a prime focus to begin with. There was a lot of time spent on customer validation and concepts in the early days, to get the right product/market fit. We’ve now ballooned in size — in the last year, we’ve gone from around 100 employees to about 400 — and that was focused around growing the marketing team, as well as engineering. Around the time that I joined the company, we started to think about scaling the design team.
Whenever I tell anyone this story, they usually say, “Well, that’s at odds with how I think a company should be built.” But it was a strategic play — we needed to get the company to a level where everyone was comfortable with where it was, and where it could support the design team.
Design was always in mind, but it’s a much bigger part of the culture now. We’ve adopted a “streams” model where every area of the business has a small self-contained team that works on a particular project that’s aligned to either a business goal or section of the application itself. There’s a designer eye on every single thing, so everyone has a view into design and the process. It’s much more inclusive than it was twelve months ago.
How large is the design team?
We’ve just over 20 designers now. Some of them are more marketing focused, the product design team itself is sitting at 16.
How do you guys collaborate?
As I mentioned before, we’re organized into cross-functional teams, so the design team is spread out across the company. Each stream aligns around a business goal or an area of the application. For instance, we’ve got compliance, and that team will focus on the development and improvement of that business area.
The design team also collaborates at a level above that, to ensure we don’t become so insular that we forget about the product as a whole. We’ve always got an eye on creating reusable components. We have all-team meetings every two weeks, and off-the-cuff meetings across different streams. It’s one of my responsibilities to ensure that the right designers are talking to each other, so if they’re working on something brand new, they’ll collaborate with another team who might have use for that exact component.
We’re also closely aligned around building a brand-new design system for FanDuel. Previously, FanDuel was structured in such a way that we’d be thinking: “What can we do for NFL? What can we do for NHL?” whereas now we’re starting to look more holistically at the next five to ten years of the product, and what the design team can do to get us ready for that. That’s what we’re trying to do with the design system, and that’s probably our firmest point of collaboration. We’re not just looking at the web platform or the native platforms, but rather the experience across the board so our users have a coherent, consistent experience no matter what device they use.
Do you guys use Wake?
We do! It’s working really well.
Wake was one of the first things I implemented when I joined FanDuel. Design was viewed as a bottleneck; designers were assigned something, and they’d work on it in isolation, and then there’d be a Big Bang-type reveal. It’s a common problem that I’ve experienced at other companies, and we needed to work on that. We wanted design to be much more inclusive across the entire company. This was a long-term strategy involving a lot of reorganization — and not just in the design team. We wanted some short-term wins as well, so we implemented Wake, and gave designers a mandate to share — and share often. We want to see sketches, photos of design sprints… anything that represents a stream of consciousness for the design team and the company as a whole.
We also have the added challenge of having the team based across different offices. We’ve got our marketing and experience designers in New York, to be close to our customers and we’ve got a designer in Orlando whilst the majority of the engineering and product design team is here in Scotland split between Edinburgh and Glasgow. So we sometimes miss out on those discussions that take place outside of meetings and the ability to share ideas informally and say “What about this, what about that.”
“It has been so successful that when we were initially experimenting with new patterns and components, people were picking them up and using them before we’d had the chance to flesh them out and conduct any user testing.”
Wake has also proven to be a bit of a double-edged sword. It has been so successful that when we were initially experimenting with new patterns and components, people were picking them up and using them before we’d had the chance to flesh them out and conduct any user testing. We had to pump the brakes a little bit on that and say, “Whoa, guys, just wait until we’ve firmed that up and then we can get it into production.”
We’ve also got Wake on TVs in our office, so you can see what we’re working on. That hits the transparency aspect for us — we don’t want to feel like we’re hiding stuff. Before Wake, we would print stuff out and put it up on a wall, and the challenge was replicating that across multiple offices. For us, Wake is doing that, alongside other more robust documentation tools.
What does your team do differently than other design teams?
To be honest, I could only answer that if I knew what every single design team was doing. I would assume that there’s a lot of commonalities between what we do and what other design teams do. What we do well is we play on the strengths of our individual designers, we have a very eclectic team. What I’ve seen from other design teams and other companies is that they try to hire these fabled “unicorn” designers, where designers must code. We definitely have designers that can code — it’s very advantageous and good for prototyping — but it’s not compulsory. We don’t say “you must code,” because that would cut out so much talent. We have a bunch of designers who can’t code, but they understand the engineering process enough for it to be reflected in the way that they work. This gives us a team of designers with a broad skills set that perhaps other design teams don’t have. We have some that are good at motion but don’t code, we have some that code but are not as strong at pure visual execution. We try to pair them up and balance them, and those skill sets rub off on each other.
What’s something non-design-related that’s helped you in your career?
That’s a really interesting question. This might be a slightly odd answer, but I’m going to say Japanese animation.
It’s kind of how I ended up in web design. When I was a teenager, I was really into anime — totally loved it. There was a really big community centered around anime music videos, and I got right into that. I met a few friends through it, and I decided that I wanted to give back to the community as a whole, so I started experimenting with websites and hosting content for those that wanted it. For me it wasn’t about getting into web design — I used to want to be a dentist even though I’m terrified of them — it was more about how I could give back to the community. And that segued me into web design. I learned front-end development, I learned design, and that’s what I ended up doing at university and then choosing as a career. So anime was really influential.
What does your team do differently today than it did a year ago?
We’ve had to adapt our processes over the last year. I gave a talk at a conference recently about FanDuel’s activities over the last nine months and our experiences. Our growth has had a real impact on the company as a whole. We’ve had to get better at sharing information among the team, no one person can be the single source of truth. When I started, there were only a couple of product designers, and now we’re up to 16. Moving parts and additions start to show cracks in your process and the way you communicate — it’s been painful in a lot of ways but also enlightening. It’s shown us where we need to improve and that’s something we’re really committed to. The design system was a big one that came out of wanting to function better — how we deal with cross-platform long-term, as I mentioned before. I’m sure it’s something that most companies have experienced with similar levels of growth, it’s been a real learning experience for everybody. There’s a degree of getting used to that, recognizing when something isn’t working and getting into the meat and bones of it to try and find a solution, something we empower all of our employees to do.
“I think we need to get out of our heads and be okay with the fact that we are designers, and sometimes we will work on things that aren’t going to change the world, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value there.”
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the design world today?
Being okay with not changing the world. You see these posts all the time about how it’s our responsibility as designers to change the world, and I’m sure in a lot of circumstances that might be the case — especially working with non-profits or educational institutions, you have the ability to make a real change to someone’s life. But I don’t do that. I work for FanDuel which is an entertainment product, and I’m okay with that. I’m not going to change the world. But what I am going to do is let people have a bit of fun. I think we need to get out of our heads and be okay with the fact that we are designers, and sometimes we will work on things that aren’t going to change the world, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value there.
I think that needs to be said a lot more often.
Absolutely. I’ve got a bunch of friends who work for large companies and we’re all of the same view. For instance, some social networks are very big on projecting the changing-the-world view, and whilst some things may well change certain aspects, at the end of the day they’re hub full of selfies and Game of Thrones spoilers.