After directing design on 25 products at Mail.ru Group, Yury Vetrov shares his thoughts
on Design Management

Matous Roskovec

Hi Yury. Thanks for taking the time. Let’s start with who you are and what you do.

Hi Avocode! I lead design teams and have some background in design agency management, as well as coding and writing. I live in Moscow now, but I was born and spent half of my life in Belarus. I started to do some design stuff at about 15, then freelanced for many years. Since then, I've been in many environments (design agency employee, design agency co-founder and manager, enterprise software company designer, major internet company design exec). I just left the Design Director position at Mail.ru Group after 8 years and about to start my new journey in design management.

Before we dive into your job experience, let’s go through your design journey. How did it all start?

It’s hard to remember what was first because it was mostly a series of disconnected events. Like my dad bought a low-level computer somewhere in 1987 and taught me to do primitive moving pictures with a Basic programming language. Or when he was working in the university and got Internet in 1996, I was downloading webpages to a floppy disk and tried to alter HTML code, so these pages show pictures at home. Or my love of scale models of planes. Or it was just my family where every other member was into some craft (not necessarily creative in a designerish way, but definitely to create something tangible).

Later I started to do some primitive design work to help my dad like the technical design to publish a university magazine or doing some web design concepts in Photoshop. I was into music heavily, so I joined a promo group in 2011 that organized club parties and created a website for them. It was a "webmaster" work, as it was called these days: I designed the website, coded it in HTML & CSS, developed a primitive CMS in PHP, and wrote all the copy. Now its called a "T-shaped designer". 🙂

I didn't study design or arts. My university specialization was "systems engineer" in AI (it was a much simpler thing than we know it today). However, I loved to arrange UI elements in my exercise software more than polishing its internal logic. I freelanced a lot and did some funny web experiments with my best friend at student time. I'm sure there were lots of other fun things in the past, but I consider these milestones as formative events.

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What was your very first design job?

If I take a formal job, not a freelance project which I did a lot, I would list two companies:

  1. A small design agency we started in 2003 with my university’s best friend. It was hardly profitable, but we learned and experimented so much in a year that it set up my expectations from what I would love to do. We created our CMS, tried to run UX research sessions, participated in roadshows to sell services, did content marketing, etc.
  2. The best design agency in Belarus (Red Graphic). It was my second attempt to get here — they were laughing at me a year before because we published free heuristic evaluation reports of well-known websites. It lasted for a couple of months before I left for a major enterprise software developer. Still, I was lucky to work a little as a junior business analyst (after starting as a front-end developer). The company had a terrific culture, and I met some friends here with who I hang around years later.

I was born in Minsk, but my parents moved a lot across USSR when I was a kid. I lived near Irkutsk which is close to Baikal lake, Velikiy Novgorod, and Kharkiv (Ukraine). I moved back to Belarus when I was 10, then left to Saint-Petersburg in 2006. I studied at Belarusian State University of Informatics & Radio-electronics. I don't have a formal design education, but I spent those 10 000 hours freelancing, reading, enterpreneuring, and managing around the craft to get that experience.

You recently closed a chapter of being the Design Director at Mail.ru Group. What was this journey like?

It was one of the best professional experiences I had to date. It’s one of the biggest internet companies in Russia (and Europe) with ~150 mln monthly users. It works in four areas: classic web services (email and portal), games, social networks, and sharing economy. I was responsible for the first area with ~25 products and led 5 design teams: Email & Cloud, B2B, Media, Search & Browser, and Brand.

It was a major challenge when I joined the company back in 2011. We got a momentum later and shipped 275 major product updates and launches. Every year I compiled a small annual report for my team. Here's the one for 2018.

Initially, my team worked for 4 products with 5 designers. Our responsibility grew gradually: by the time I left, we had about 30 designers who served ~25 products. We started being focused on just user interfaces. Still, year after year, we tried to influence the holistic user experience of our products — we felt it’s the only way to bring product quality to the top level. As a result, we covered all the bits, including brand, marketing communications, and ads.

It was an incredible source of professional growth and passion for me. However, working for 8 years in a company means you need to push your boundaries every year and launch as much new stuff as possible. You have already set up your team and work processes perfectly, you created a long-term strategy to get better every year, you gained solid credibility to make impossible things happen and solve deep-rooted problems. At some point, I saw that I couldn't deliver another stellar year because of career and professional blocks (organizational reasons came up this year). So I decided to draw the line and look for the next big challenge.

I had a mini-sabbatical with a month-long vacation and another two months to have a good time with my family, finish the draft of my book on design management, and find that new challenge. It’s the first time I have this luxury of having a break, and I strongly recommend to do the same between jobs. It helped me so much in understanding what do I want from the next chapter (and be a better dad and husband).

Now I'm in talks with some companies to find that new professional challenge. The best option will be a mix of the mono-product company where I’ll be responsible for holistic user experience again (user interfaces, brand, marketing communications) and medium- or large-sized design team. There are a couple of companies that match these criteria, and I hope it will lead to a great collaboration.

Can you pick at least 3 most interesting project you have worked on at mail.ru?

Rebranding of Mail.ru product brand and Mail.ru Group corporate brand (2017-2019). They badly needed a refresh, but we were the first in about 6 years who made it happen. We did a lot to have a green light for this project, then led it from early concepts to final result with lots of tiny research activities to validate visual directions, then shipped the update. I wanted to connect a brand and user interface for many years, and this project helped a lot here.

New email client in (2014-2015). We worked in 4 groups to explore different concepts for a new user interface that should be fully responsive and coherent in all versions: web, mobile web, Android, iOS. It led us to a new foundation of our Paradigm design system and a redesign of a flagship product that was shipped last year. The project will have a long-lasting legacy (in a good way).

New mobile websites for media products (2012-2013). We had to redesign 12 websites in a unified way. We tried to create a style guide in Confluence (with hundreds of screenshots) and a UI kit in Photoshop to handle them. However, we quickly realized it would be a nightmare to design, ship, and support. We explored an idea of reusable components with our developers, which led to a design system in code. It was before React, so we used our own technology stack. It was incredible to get the idea of component-based design systems before it became a worldwide thing.

How did your workweek look like as a Design Director at Mail.ru?

I was looking for the answer to this question for a long time. The more designers I managed, the more scattered my time become. At some point, I started to calculate my primary efforts looking back at calendar weeks.

This is how my week looked at the end:

  • Hiring [5%]
  • Designers’ growth and happiness, including 1:1s [20%]
  • Product work (mostly at the conceptual stage) [20%]
  • Rebranding project [20%]
  • Setting up a corporate brand work process [20%]
  • Strengthening the employer brand [15%]


There are some recurring events each day:

  • 1 hour in the morning to read emails, messengers, and Jira comments, prepare a plan for the day.
  • 1 hour for lunch. Sounds obvious, but it helps me to be in control of my energy, as I don't have to think about it and have good stamina throughout the day. And we can go here with the team as the time is standard, so it's an excellent connecting activity.


…and each (or each other) week:

  • Friday: planning for the next week. Several half-hour meetings with different design teams and their product managers.
  • Every second Friday: design critique sessions for each design team (1h). That's where designers can have in-depth feedback.
  • Every month on Monday: a cross-team design critique session (2h). It's more like a demo because the goal is to stay updated (there’s no time to go in detail).
  • Every second Monday: an hour meeting of all design managers to align our plans and improve overall design capabilities with new methods, tools, etc.
  • Every two weeks: 1:1s with design managers about their teams, problems, and needs.
  • Every three weeks: 1:1s with designers about their growth and personal things.
  • Every two weeks: meetings of workgroups that implement new design methods (design systems team, voice & tone, CJM, etc.) (1h).


The rest is for product work. It could be:

  • A co-design session where a small team discusses key ideas and creates key concepts on a whiteboard.
  • A detailed discussion about a recent prototype.
  • UX research session or debrief of a research study.
  • Project kick-off (new feature, new product, new event, etc.).
  • Design something myself. Unfortunately, I was able to spend less and less time here as the team grew.


If I look back at how my time was distributed four years ago, it would be:

  • Hiring [10%]
  • Designers' growth and happiness, including 1:1s [5%]
  • Team resource planning [25%]
  • Product work [50%]
  • Strengthening the employer brand [10%]

As you can see, I spent more time on product work. However, I spent less time on systematic work to make designers’ grow. I also did too much resource planning; after we restructured the design team into several sub-teams, their design managers became responsible for that.

Do you have any tips on leading an efficient 1on1 with other designers?

I did 1:1s with designers and design managers. The first one consists of two parts: professional growth (hard & soft skills) and personal things. As for design managers, it’s about their design team, professional growth (coaching leadership skills), and personal matters too. The meeting is 30 min, divided into these parts.

We use a skill-knowledge matrix to assess the current skillset of a designer and create a yearly personal development plan. The tool is a part of our intranet; it lists all the skills that a product designer should and could have. A designer does self-assessment, then his/her design manager fills their marks too. Then a designer picks 3-7 skills to enhance this year. A skill becomes one of the personal development plan goals for the year; it has a clear todo that consists of theory (books, courses, etc.) and practice (real tasks from a product roadmap). We track progress on every 1:1: we take several todo items from yearly plan for the next 3 weeks if there's progress — excellent! If not — a design manager tries to help (either solve org / administrative problems or do some coaching). By the end of the year, a designer becomes stronger.

We have a checklist of methods that every design team should use. It was an indicator of their maturity, and 1:1s with design managers were about progress here.

Frequency of 1:1s depends on the design team structure. In embedded or distributed teams, they need to happen more often (once a week). In centralized teams, they can be less often (once in 2 or 3 weeks) — designers already sit together and talk regularly.

How important is it for you as a design manager to still do design work?

It's critically important to "feel" the product by doing design work yourself. I tried to design a feature or do a less significant redesign to understand the problem space and limitations of our products. It also builds trust within the team when a manager is a playing coach.

Actually, I’m an interaction designer with less visual design skills. I spent lots of time to be good at visual design theoretically, but there are obvious limits. However, when you have a mature design system, even folks like me can do good product design in all aspects.

Unfortunately, I had less time for that work as our team grew. I tried to do something myself as long as it was possible. However, at some point, I realized that because of my tight schedule, I'm doing design tasks so slow that I'm becoming a problem for product managers who wait for their tasks for weeks. I made a hard decision to stop doing product work to avoid being a roadblock. I still participated in hackathons and conceptual work, but it's less than I wanted.

You’re one of the contributors to UXmatters and Smashing Magazine. How do you find time to write for external writing?

These articles help me in many ways. I structure my thoughts on a significant method we use — it helps the team to implement it more efficiently. I have lots of feedback from readers, which allows me to improve this method. And it helps to strengthen our employer brand because potential candidates see that we do cool stuff here. So it makes me a stronger professional and helps to do my work better.

You have published a book. Can you tell me a bit about it?

The book is about digital product design management. It’s called "Design Management Patterns". The goal is to help other companies and design teams to speed up changes in product and organizational design or start these changes. My company took a long way to become mature in design, starting from a pretty sad state. I want to share our approach with other design managers.

Why patterns?

I try to make design management methods reusable. Many companies solve the same problems; they use similar product and organizational design methods. They could apply these patterns to their companies and design teams.

A book project is extremely time-consuming, as every other author says in their "Acknowledgements "section. It takes all of your available time, then makes it triple times more.

That’s why I decided to make the process iterative:

  • Write a series of articles for UXmatters about my design maturity model. It proved the concept of a framework, got me some citations, and helped to write initial content.
  • Create a book draft (2017-2018). I put the content of these articles into a new structure. It helped me to start conversations with publishers.
  • Run an online course (2019). I filled all the gaps in the book draft, created a design maturity assessment algorithm and other templates. 120 design managers already went through it, which helped me to find problems and fill more gaps, as well as understand the need of my potential readers better. It also earned me some money to invest in book promotion.
  • Go from the book draft to a published book (2019-2020). I updated my book draft using new material from the course (it went from 30% to 70%). Now I have a publisher in Russia and the talks with a global publisher. I hope to finish the contract work in a couple of months and finalize the book by the Spring of 2020.

It took me about 7 years. However, all the writings on this topic helped me incredibly in managing my design team at Mail.ru Group. It served as ongoing research on the best design management practices and formed our long-term design strategy. Funnily, I remember having an initial interview with the company before joining it: it’s a major challenge, and I could write a book about it if we’d succeed. I forgot about the idea immediately, but recalled it a couple of years later, when my articles series for UXmatters was catching on.

Do you have any other side projects?

I do the most popular product design digest in Russia since 2010. It’s a monthly article and newsletter; later, I added a bi-weekly mini-newsletter in a Telegram channel (a popular way to read the news in Russia instead of newsletters). It helps the community to get better (I curate this content, so other designers could get top-notch content and spend less time filtering it). It also helps me to do background research of methods and tools, so I can introduce them to my team or make them better if we already use them. It takes lots of time, and I wanted to drop it several times, but with every issue, I get so many thankful messages so that I couldn't let these people down :)

I also collect examples of algorithm-driven design tools that can help us to construct a UI, prepare assets and content, and personalize the user experience. It had success on Product Hunt and I also got lots of thankful messages here.

The last one is my book and other activities around it.

How do you educate yourself?

I have a concept of "Background research." It helps me to stay relevant and be on the cutting edge of my profession. How it works for me:

  1. Information sources (get new ideas):
  2. Feedly. Old-fashioned RSS is the best way to read articles. Magazines like Smashing Mag and UX Collective, design team blogs, personal blogs, etc. I read all of them, not just skim.
  3. Visual inspiration: Dribbble, Behance, Awwwards, OnePageLove, Pinterest, Instagram, Under Consideration. I skim them from time to time to see visual design trends and look for patterns. Panda Chrome plugin helps to see more of it just bypassing for a new tab.
  4. Social networks: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. I follow lots of Russian and global designers here and see new ideas from them.
  5. Tech press: Engadget, Fast Company. It helps me to see what's happening in the industry.
  6. Books.
  7. Knowledge bases (store insights):
  8. I use OneNote as my notebook (my computer is a Microsoft Surface, and OneNote works perfectly on Windows, unlike Mac). I have drafts of my articles here, all the related links, collections of new tech (automotive, wearable, smart assistants, AR/VR, brain-computer interface, etc.), UX history (people, companies, key technologies, etc.), market statistics (sales & adoption of new tech).
  9. Confluence for the products I work on. The idea is similar to OneNote but available to all the colleagues.
  10. Pinboard as my online bookmarks. It looks dated, but I use it more like an API, so I don't bother. The key idea is to tag links really well, so I could search them later. I can get a specific selection with tag combinations (e.g., design teams blogs, news websites redesigns, CJM tools, etc.).
  11. Pinterest as my pattern and mood board collection: design process models, animations, mobile onboarding, calendar apps, lime color, etc. I want to replace it with some desktop tools — it's easy to collect images on Pinterest, but it's hard to view them full-size; browsing and search have problems too.
  12. I also store scripts and code snippets (GitHub, CodePen), videos (YouTube, Vimeo), books (Goodreads). I create collections by topic here if it's possible.
  13. Product design digest I mentioned earlier. I post the most exciting new links here with an annotation. It works as a highlight for me, and I can go back to what was relevant 4 years ago.
  14. Use this information. I lean on pre-curated collections, as I described for OneNote or Pinboard. Search also helps, but collections are better. As a result, I have several benefits:
  15. Quick and in-depth research of new tech and market niches.
  16. I am hands-on with the newest platforms (like voice UI) and paradigm shifts.
  17. Gaining more credibility.
  18. Faster market and competitor research, because you’ve done part of it already.

I love to gather patterns because I connect them into something new and see emerging trends earlier.

As the information flow gets faster and faster, most ideas are being uncovered in all the details before a book could get published. So my main focus is on articles, presentations, and videos. I spend about an hour each day here, which gets me to 150-200 articles a month. I read books for structured information, but it's mostly about topics I don't read many articles about (i.e., management).

What excites and also what frustrates you the most about design in 2019?

Digital product design is in its best form right now. There are so many new tools, methods, and best practices that help us to make better products faster. It's incredibly easy to start your career, so a new generation of designers is younger. So there's a little to banter about.

However, our profession (and tech overall) has a major problem for many years — reinventing the wheel and needless hype. We have so many design methods, but they're not used widely. However, we continuously rebrand existing methods. Designers drift from trend to trend like rolling stones; they love shiny things. So they jump on those bandwagons, forgetting other ways they should also use to create a great product. And then wane that we don't have enough tools. Of course, our profession needs to progress and update methods to stay up to date with new challenges, org structures, and product development approaches. But the biggest problem is that we don't apply already existing methods due to org problems and company immaturity.

Although, if a new buzzword helps to sell the idea of a design method to more people (including non-designers) — I’m fine with it, as soon as we remember that it's just a new label for the old thing.

Saying that I’ll skip my trend prediction. I think the basic premise of what we do - understand the business problem & users, find the right solution for it, produce and ship it, get feedback from the market and enhance the solution) stays the same, we use more and more progressive methods to do it.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I spend time having fun with my wife and son, collect vinyl records. See my Discogs account. Explore burger joints. I've been to 400 places around the world. Watch obscure movies from the 60s and 70s like blaxploitation, polizziotesco, spaghetti westerns, etc. We travel a lot too.

What’s an interesting or fun fact about yourself we wouldn't find on your social media?

My friends call me a "listman" I love doing lists and lists of lists on any topic I'm interested in — UX, design management, music, burgers, movies, etc. If I’m passionate about something — I’ll have a list really soon. For me, it's the best way to arrange my knowledge and see patterns.

Where is the best place for people to connect with you online?

LinkedIn is the best option. You can find more contact details at DMPatterns.

Bonus Question: What’s your favorite way to eat avocado?

I ate a terrific burger with mashed avocado somewhere in California several years ago. It was the best way I had it.

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