This article is part of our Design Impact Series, where we explore inside stories from our portfolio companies. From internal team structure to design philosophy to UX, this series looks at the ways design can lead to greater impact. If you're interested in unique opportunities to join companies who value design, sign up here.
Gusto is truly a ‘People Platform’. In the most obvious sense, it’s a B2B technology company tackling HR challenges for small to medium-sized businesses — starting with just payroll almost ten years ago. They built a user-centered product and grew the platform to include more and more products. That is, in a nutshell, the story of Gusto, which recently raised a $175M Series E and and currently serves over 200,000 small and medium-sized businesses as customers.
Although “user-centered” can feel like an empty promise, the specifics are what matters. For Gusto, this means investing in a customer-centric process and encouraging everyone to embrace research and think like a designer.
That isn't to say it's been without hiccups. Gusto's customers were hit hard by the COVID pandemic and needed help navigating the changing landscape of work. For example, the shift to working from home happened quickly and has resulted in a permanent remote reality for many industries. This has sometimes meant being reactive and flexible in responding to the most pressing customer needs in a time of huge upheaval in the world of work.
We spoke to past and current designers — Amy Thibodeau, Micah Panama, Katrika Morris, and Namhee Koo — to better understand how design works at Gusto. At the center of it all is the fact that both the product and the company put humans — and their full humanity — at the center of everything they do.
Look at most job descriptions and you’ll see the word “collaborative.” But so often, incentives are built around internal competition, and connections between teams are thin at best. It doesn’t matter how collaborative an individual person is, if the structure isn’t in place to allow for cross-department collaboration, the full organization will never feel like a cohesive unit.
At Gusto, engineering, product, data, and design leads work very closely together, meeting frequently and collectively setting strategy and road maps. Similar to other design orgs at their scale, the design practice is split into two distinct areas: product and brand (there are about 60 designers on the team total). Micah Panama, Creative Director in charge of brand, told us that the separate team structure works at Gusto because the teams have such a strong relationship. Instead of waterfall-style handoffs, the Gusto teams work collaboratively from ideation through execution.
Recently the product and brand design teams brought Gusto Wallet to life – a mobile app that helps employees track, save, and access their pay. The driving force behind the app was to give employees a place to receive and manage their financial wellness. Many Americans still struggle to secure a bank account, which makes so many things difficult: getting paid, paying rent, and saving for the future. Rather than just being a bank account, Gusto Wallet aims to help people get on top of their finances and build towards a future of financial independence. Now the teams are working together on video scripts for onboarding. Instead of a run-of-the-mill tutorial, they're using storytelling and delightful animations to bring the story to life.
Meanwhile, Amy Thibodeau, Gusto’s Chief Design Officer, has been focused on scaling processes across the board, including how the design team collaborates with cross-functional partners in product, engineering and data. She hosts “quality reviews” with design teams and their collaborators to create a moderated space for discussion and debate where Amy can weigh in on the tradeoffs and assumptions teams are making. She said, “I can connect the dots around themes I’m seeing across areas to notice patterns that are coming up again and again, or connect one team to the work another team is doing...” Quality reviews also create space for teams to talk about Gusto's experience principles and how they're applying them. If a project is close to shipping, they provide a fresh perspective so the team can close out any small inconsistencies and sweat the details that make an experience feel crafted. One important philosophy in how reviews are structured is that they should feel like a conversation — an opportunity to talk honestly about the experience, the problem the team is trying to solve, and the customer needs.
One major challenge in maintaining connection — within and across teams — has been due to the nature of remote work. Micah said “With a design team you have to make space for inefficiency. You’re not trying to drive toward the most agreeable decision, you’re giving folks time and space to think about things so you can arrive at the best decision.” For him, it’s critical to resist the temptation to say “this is the decision we’re making now” just because everyone is on a zoom call.
The team figured out new (remote-friendly) ways to maintain two key types of connection. First: unstructured, creative team-building time. Every morning, the brand design team spends 30 minutes on a creative task, whether writing, sketching, or playing online games together. A year and a half in it's still going strong — and serves as a key onboarding tool for new team members. The other thing missing in remote work is the "just gonna sneak a peek at your screen" move. Here, the solution involves a Slackbot that reminds the team once a week to post a quick screenshot of what they're working on. (Appropriately, it's called WAYWO - "What Are You Working On," an idea that originated at Deliveroo). This simple tool has helped spark feedback and cross-pollination of ideas that otherwise wouldn't have been possible.
It’s hard to know if being customer-centric led to design thinking or the other way around at Gusto. What is clear is that customers’ needs and pain points drive everything.
Everyone, no matter their role, cares about customers, and there is an expectation that designers and product managers speak to customers directly. There's a culture of bringing people from different functions in to participate in design sprints and workshops. Everyone is excited about participating in the creative, generative process, and team members are inspired to speak to customers directly.
Now, Amy is focused on growing and elevating Gusto’s research practice. Teams will continue to conduct their own low-stakes usability and qualitative research. More strategic, forward-looking research will be driven by a new Head of Research, who will invest in strengthening and supporting the craft.
Gusto has invested heavily in creating a more equitable and inclusive culture, in order to make sure the folks building the product better reflect the business owners and employees they serve. Gusto increased Women in Leadership roles from 37.8% to 41.6% and Black+ from 5.2% to 7.5%.
You can read more about their goals and progress so far in Gusto's recently published RISE Report.
What’s made design (and designers) so successful at Gusto is simple — let design do what it does best, and as a designer, use your unique skills. Using design thinking and pushing beyond the obvious is what’s made Gusto stand out. What could have been a dry technology play instead became a company that celebrates payroll, that tries to make the lives of small business owners easier, that helps their employees with planning and saving money. Design, and storytelling, have played no small part in that.
The Gusto design team has helped the whole company better understand its customers by using personas and storytelling. Not just for the employer and employee, but also for accountants and even developers who might integrate Gusto into their own products via API. Customers featured in Gusto marketing are real customers — in ads and photos on their website.
When we asked Amy what advice she would give designers at start-ups, she said, “Assume no one knows what design can do, the strategic impact it can have. Figure out how to tell a story about it. Be opinionated about the role design can play and don’t be shy about that.”
Katrika echoed that sentiment, adding that it’s important to learn the language of business: “Bring what design does best - talking through storytelling, video, communication. Those skills come naturally to designers, so use that to amplify the company and the company’s mission. Also learn to talk everyone else’s language. If creating a meaningful user experience isn’t important, no one adopts it. How can you talk about business metrics, engineering feasibility, and find the ways to get the designs into a product in a way that makes sense with road maps, business goals, and the capabilities of engineering?”
Micah returned to the themes of collaboration and low ego: “Creating a culture of customer-centricity and valuing design and creativity is core. You don’t need a single genius head of design to do that. It’s about giving those teams the permission and resources and space to do that work. And encouraging that culture of collaboration and low ego. That’s where the magic happens.”
So what’s next for Gusto’s design team? Amy is focused on building an even more solid platform to allow for designers to focus on big thinking and innovation. She's excited about the team's focus on solidifying the design system, establishing clearer career paths including an investment in IC leadership, and building the scaffolding to create meaningful insights that transcend data or research to inform product strategy and direction.
For her, an ongoing question will be, “How do we continue to build connection and community and meaningful rituals as we continue to scale?”