Explore a Career In Growth Design - Discussion with Angel Steger, Director of Design at Meta (Facebook)
In this post, we catch up with Angel Steger, Director of Design at Facebook, on how she has built a career in Growth Design, what this function is and how it might differ from other disciplines in Design. She also shares numerous insights around how she has taken various steps in her career, and her tips for successfully navigating a long and rewarding career.
LED: Can you share a brief summary of your background?
Angel: I studied Architecture in school, not because I wanted to be an architect, but because it was a complex discipline and I felt that if I could do something as crazy as that, I could handle whatever I wanted in the future. After school, I knew I didn’t want to work in architecture, so I had worked at an art gallery in SF while figuring out my next move. I’d meet up with friends with a self-funded startup for really cheap food in Chinatown. Once their startup had been purchased, they asked me if I’d consider moving from physical to digital design. Would I enjoy designing for 100s of millions of users? I knew that I could never make a building that could do that! The idea of being able to touch so many people intrigued me. I sassed my boss and got fired, and , used my severance pay to buy a bunch of HTML and CSS books, taught myself to code, and got hired by my friends. I learned a ton on the job.
Then I was at 23andMe, I was a Designer at first and over time, I got moved into Product Management by our COO. When I was later trying to sell my startup, Colingo, I saw that companies were more interested in my design background and so I started pitching myself as a designer to sell the company—therefore moving back into design by accident and eventually into management.
LED: Why were you moved to Product Management at 23andMe?
Angel: There were lots of scientists at 23andMe, many of whom tended to be introverted. Contrast that with the C-suite, who were extremely type A and extroverted, with backgrounds in industries such as Finance and Healthcare, and so very used to quick debates and questioning. Almost everyone else was introverted.
So in exec reviews, you’d have the C-suite ready with questions and debate, and the existing product managers would not know how to interact with them. They would often have to regroup and schedule another meeting, instead of answering things in the moment, which slowed things down to the point where nothing was shipping. At that time, I was a Designer, and I was friends with lots of co-workers from different functions - customer support, community management, engineers, etc. I also knew what users were saying. So I just started building stuff and started shipping it. I was so young, I didn’t know I needed approval for shipping, I just shipped what I thought was right.
So at some point, I got called into my COO’s office. They were like - “you’ve been shipping things…” And I thought I was in trouble. “But you’re the only person shipping things, so I’m going to make it your job to ship things." I was moved into Product Management, while keeping my responsibilities as a designer.
I actually really liked being a PM. What you’re doing and how you’re doing it is not that separate. It was enjoyable, and a pretty steep learning curve for me. I talked to people who had transitioned from Design to Product to get tips. Product Management is not just about problem solving but also working with a lot of different people. You have accountability but no authority. That’s an interesting skill to develop–Persuasion.
LED: Do you think this was an important career lesson for you, in terms of how you got this job?
Angel: Yes - people ultimately care about results. As long as you‘re not doing something horrible, people will appreciate results. It takes courage. If you’re being able to make things successful while others are not, people will come to you to make more things successful. Sort of like being punished for your own success! In most organizations, there’s inherently some inertia and concerns about risk. You have to find your way through it, but if you’re able to get things done, it’s really valued.
<Continuing career journey>
After 23andMe, I continued with Product Management at Xobni. I enjoyed the variety. I think of myself as a person who really enjoys having millions of hobbies and creative projects. I also enjoyed the team aspect of things and getting good ideas out of a team. I started looking at opportunities where I’d be coached into a COO or CEO type of job. Today, I’m technically back in design, but I still operate from a very product-oriented perspective
LED: Why do you think there was a greater interest in Design over Product Management?
Angel: I think some of it might just be a numbers / demand thing. A typical ratio on a team is to have 1 PM, 2 Designers and 6 Engineers. So by definition you need more designers.
LED: It seems that you're one of the few leading figures in Growth Design in Silicon Valley - what is Growth Design?
Angel: As a Growth Designer, you have to think about what does it mean to design for Growth? Any product designer would think about these things too, but typically, in Growth Design, you have to look very closely at how you’re executing. You have to be really strong in product thinking - what problem are you solving, and how will users interact with your feature and product, ie, what will inspire them to take action. You have to be able to find moments where you offer the right functionality at the right time, as opposed to forcing them to do something. This really impacts metrics.
Growth Design needs you to be a good listener, and trains you to build intuition around what feels natural for people.
The granularity of what you’re going after also tends to be more fine grained in Growth. A lot of growth at a large company is post product market fit, so you already know what to build. You just have to build it right, and so a lot of the design is around refinement and polish. But at earlier stage companies and startups, you have to discover what’s the right thing to build. You’re putting together experiences that are very opinionated, because you need people to react one way or another, and you need to be sure that your signal is crisp and means something.
LED: What is the difference between Growth Design and other Design disciplines?
Angel: Growth Design is very much about understanding the customer and building for them. When you get into feature teams, I find that they can be less rigorous about what problem they’re trying to solve. When they set up experiments, it’s often unclear exactly what happened and why. In such cases, you can be left fumbling in the dark - Was the problem wrong? Was the hypothesis wrong? Did something go wrong during execution? If the rigor is not there during experimentation, it can have cascading downstream effects.
Here is an example of how this rigor comes into play - At Pinterest, I was working on building notifications. All users of all types have notifications of some type - emails, badging, push notifications, etc. But instead of sending the same thing to all users, we first looked at which users are critically driven by notifications. A power user who is on the app all the time, they don’t need notifications to come back. Similarly a very low frequency user - they probably have notifications turned off. So which users do you go after, whose health is driven by these notifications? We decided to target casual users whose sessions were driven by push notifications. So the problem statement for the growth designer is - How do you move casual users into deeper states of engagement? What experience do you design for them and what kind of specific outcomes will we see? Even this kind of rigor, I think can be missing in feature teams, whether they have clarity around who they are going after and what problem they’re solving.
To do this well, we had to make sure we do our research and really understand the user mental model. There are so many notifications that exist already - what works for the casual user? What does not? How do they think about it? We really built confidence around our approach before we flipped the switch - we iterated via prototyping and not experimentation and de-risked the project. With these new notifications, users were likely to engage more over time.
Growth Design is really about thinking end to end. How do we build habits? And in fact, end to end is not linear but cyclical. What will inspire users to come back? I’ve seen a lot of teams not think that way. They’re not designing for why users should care, for what they value. Thinking about the emotional state that a user will be in and how will they respond to your design? What makes it memorable and story worthy? Do you get virality and word of mouth so that others come? And these things are not a given in feature teams sadly—and to be fair, are missing from many growth teams as well
LED: How did you carve a space for yourself as a "Growth Designer"? Was it challenging to explain it to others at the beginning?
Angel: I was one of the first few designers on the Growth team at Pinterest. At that time, there was tension between feature teams and growth teams. Growth teams were very methodologically rigorous. And they were being given increasing amount of room to build things. Going back to what we discussed around how people will value results, this is definitely true for Growth.
There are bad ways to do growth that are irresponsible, and not great for users or for the business. But done well, it’s super valuable for the company.
So I started seeing this narrative around growth, and how it’s critical for the company. And then I also saw the narrative around “If you work on growth, you’re not a real designer”. I was moving into leadership at that time, and when I moved over to Dropbox, I needed to hire very quickly, from 6 to 24 people in a few months. In such circumstances, people need a way to identify and feel proud about the work that they do. I didn’t create the term “Growth Design”. I simply wanted people to feel proud about their work, so spent a lot of time evangelizing about how growth can help you develop special skills. I personally feel that this is not “growth design” per se, it’s simply design. A good designer should be thinking about this stuff anyway. But then you also want something that stands out, feels challenging, and I wanted to create a sense of being a part of something. This approach helped me educate as well as attract new hires.
A lot of my work since Dropbox has been moving products from 0 to 1. And how to take big risks and move in highly ambiguous territory. Regardless of whether you’re pre or post-product market fit, Growth helps you to be very structured and define the problem and structure the problem well. And figure out a real path in unknown territory. And you have to figure out what would get users to come back - is what you’re building memorable, storyworthy with in-built virality? It’s a very helpful skill to have. It forces you to be precise about what to build and how to measure the outcomes.
LED: Over the years, you've held major roles at many large companies - Dropbox, Pinterest, Xobni, Facebook. At each stage, what factors did you consider when making the move?
Angel: The factors I considered changed over time. Early in my career, I was very focused on what I wanted to learn. I would choose problem spaces based on what I wanted to learn. Over time, this changed to what people will I be working with. If people are smarter than you and share the right values with you, then even if the product is not ok, you can fix it.
Now, it’s a combination of meaningful problems to solve as well as people I’ll be working with and what do I bring to the table. Core values and the culture set by the leadership is very important - and this is hard to change. You need to make sure that you agree with the culture and assess if you agree with how founders make decisions. Where do they naturally lean, and that intuition needs to be something that you can trust and get behind. You can always present data and stuff, and that’s fine, and sometimes you’ll disagree and commit. But ultimately if the org is not aligned and does not care about the stuff that you care about, or they do not agree with the opportunities that you’re seeing, then it’s a tough road. I pride myself on being able to win people over to things but it’s easier and more enjoyable if you have that baseline spiritual alignment.
LED: How do you figure out this alignment while being on the outside?
Angel: Whenever you interview, don’t just accept the interview process as is. If you are a candidate that they’re interested in, think about who do you want to talk to and ask questions. Eg: If I have to work with the CEO, I need to talk to him and see how it’ll be working together. Is it generative or taxing? Talk to people who’ve worked at the company for a while. Ask about the founders. Even if you’re not super senior in the stack just yet, that stuff reverberates down to ICs, so know what that is. In the past, I’ve made decisions while ignoring these signals, and it usually leads to regret later. You’re not excited to move up because you’ll have to work with them!
You can hack the interview process by talking to people. Look at their public talks - how do they show up? Some people are open, but many are closed. Many companies in Silicon Valley are super toxic, and the only way to find out is by talking to people who work there, not through the interview process. You don’t want to be in an exploitative culture that does not encourage growth. And this is especially important if you’re a woman or part of an under-represented community.
LED: If you were to look back, what are the top 2-3 things that you've done that have helped you get to where you are today?
Angel: Saying yes to things to push yourself to grow. Eg: Say you’re a swimmer and your coach asks you to try using a different stroke. You trust them and you try it, even if you don’t know how to do it. Similarly, say your manager asks you to do something that feels scary. Say yes. They’re seeing something. Have faith and try.
Another thing is that treat your career as a set of experiments, rather than a linear arc. There are very few people who know exactly what they want. For most others, it’s an evolution. Interests change, so you need to create space for them. Keep discovering stuff. Every career move can’t be amazing. Think about the types of futures for yourself, try them out and if it doesn’t work that’s fine. Don’t treat something that didn’t work as a failure, but as a learning for the future.
And lastly, (assuming you can afford to and aren’t breaking the law) don’t live in fear of being fired . When I knew I was leaving Pinterest, I had the best 2 months of my time there. I stopped caring about what people would think and just did the right thing. I learned all of the ways in which I was stopping myself. I got so much done! I had so much more fun that I almost regretted quitting! In my next job - I tried adopting that mindset from day 1. It was so much better and effective. I’ve been fired before, and it helped me exit a bad situation. I stood by my principles, and used my firing to launch myself into a better career. Don’t live in fear all the time, live in an unconstrained way. It’s not fun to get fired, but realize that it’s not the end. It was not a good fit. There are lots of jobs in tech. Give yourself space to take risks. Worst case scenario: you’ll find a different job.
LED: Any recommended resources for Growth Design as well as Career Development overall?
Angel: There’s a Growth Design community similar to usertesting.com that does teardowns from a growth perspective. All of it is online stuff, lots of case studies that I find very interesting and helpful.
Another is Reforge (Note: I am an investor in Reforge). They teach practical methodologies and have a product centric approach to growth. All functions can find their insights helpful - product, design, engineering. They show how to translate ideas into outcomes. They also have these unique things such as calculating word of mouth - they’re working on that too.