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spotted an opportunity. As a designer at Netflix, he saw firsthand the need for someone to step up and bridge the gap between mobile design and the company’s engineering management. Things would be more efficient with some design leadership. Andy raised his hand and found himself in a new leadership position.
Though he had a clear understanding of the product and his craft, the mechanics of leading a team was new territory with an intimidating learning curve. He approached leadership as he would any design challenge—with research.
He interviewed managers both at Netflix and tech companies in the Valley to better understand what it means to be a design leader. Andy also carefully observed leaders and spotted the gaps in the organization where leadership was needed.
Andy Law — NETFLIX
Most designers, when presented with a leadership opportunity, leap into the role enthusiastically, unaware of the challenges ahead. Not Andy Law; he wanted to be sure he knew what he was getting himself into.
Figure 1. Andy Law had to plow through a stack of books to get his bearings as a design leader.
He spoke with people who’d once been managers but returned to individual contributor (IC) roles, asking what about management didn’t work for them, and what should he look out for. He learned that in most cases people struggled with the new duties required of them. Their talents as an individual designer didn’t translate into management.
Andy pored over leadership books like Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy and Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People to fill gaps in his knowledge. At first skeptical that some of these books from decades past would still be relevant, he found that the principles—largely based on human interactions—were still quite relevant.
Andy knew his new role would occasionally feel uncomfortable. Despite doing his homework, he would at times feel unprepared, and he would certainly make mistakes. But all great design leaders start their careers with doubts and misgivings. Andy once told his boss:
“I’m never going to be 100% prepared to be a design leader, but I’ll always be 100% committed.”
This philosophy guided him through the transition as he found his footing. As a manager, Andy learned how to deal with all types of personalities, how to motivate people, and how to develop rapport to be effective.
Andy Law’s preparation for his new role as a design leader is exemplary, but for the rest of us, a little guidance can make the transition smoother. This guide will help you get your bearings. We’ll show you the essential skills you’ll need to cultivate, and we’ll provide you with practical methodologies to be more effective in your role.
Here’s how to become a design leader.
John Maeda — Automattic
The transition to a leadership role is hard for many designers because their love of craft runs deep—leading design means less designing. As a leader, you’ll spend most of your time managing the team. That doesn’t mean you’re no longer a designer; it just means someone else will be implementing the design. Your new position is an opportunity to provide vision and guidance.
You’re no longer just playing an instrument. Now, you’re conducting the orchestra.
As a designer, you’re accustomed to thinking carefully about the customer experience, a skill that will also come in handy as you lead your team. You’ll be designing an environment and structure that brings out your employees’ best work to serve both the company and its users.
There are emotional challenges that come with a transition into a leadership role. As a leader among leaders, you’ll be working more often with people who don’t necessarily think like a designer, which is not bad—it’s just different. You’ll need to express ideas differently. To your design team, you might say, “This one feels like the right direction.” But to an executive, “This meets our business goals” will make more sense.
You’ll be adapting to new cultures and speaking new languages, but soon foreign territory will become familiar and you’ll find ways to be effective in most any situation.
Eric Quint — 3M
PRO TIP — What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
You’ll need to cultivate an entirely new set of skills to be an effective design leader. While Marshall Goldsmith’s book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There isn’t about design, it is about making big career transitions, and will give you the guidance you need as you make the leap from an individual contributor to a leader in your organization.
Design leaders do more than spend their days giving thumbs up or down in design critiques. In this handbook we’ll help you get your bearings on these essential skills:
As a design leader, you’ll have a lot on your plate! Let’s take a look at each of your responsibilities in detail, starting with how you’ll build your team.
Your team’s performance and culture will be influenced greatly by the people within it. As you build your design team, think not only of the talents of the individual, but how all the individuals will work together. Great teams are composed of individual contributors with complementary skills—they think we, not me. Chemistry is important—thoughtful leaders will choose people who unite, not divide.
PRO TIP — Look before you leap
If you’re stepping into a leadership role in an existing team, don’t rush to make changes. If you do, you’ll make enemies fast. Get to know each person in the team first.
In private conversations, ask each team member these three questions:
After you’ve gotten a good feel for the team, begin to enact the changes needed to make the team more effective.
Defining your team’s values will help you shape team chemistry and think more carefully about how you hire.
Your team is unlike any other team in your company—though your team is part of the broader company culture, you have your own sub-culture too. The act of design is uniquely emotional, as it requires exploration of new and uncharted territory. Because design is a qualitative endeavor—operating on feel, not numbers—it introduces a level of vulnerability that is atypical of product management or engineering. It is a unique discipline with its own set of values.
And those values are important. They will shape your culture, hiring decisions, team member evaluations, productivity, and ultimately the happiness of each person on your team. As a design leader, you should work with your team to define the core values that will shape your culture and . When there’s buy-in from everybody, teams operate more cohesively.
This process will help you identify your team’s values:
Figure 1. When your team’s values are visible they remain on everyone’s mind.
Consider making your team values visible. A series of beautiful posters can help them sink into your team’s culture more effectively.
Pay close attention to these values over time. Do they remain an accurate representation of who you are as a team, or are they merely aspirational? If the latter, realign the values to better reflect the team.
Ian Spalter — INSTAGRAM
Whether you’re at a startup that’s doing well or a more established enterprise, your team is probably growing (as Y-combinator founder Paul Graham writes, ). To keep pace with your current and future growth, you’ll need to ensure hiring is ingrained in your workflow.
Hiring the right people is actually your most important job. The people you hire will form the foundation of your team, and may in turn hire others as growth continues. They’re also your greatest legacy. Some will outlast your tenure and carry on the work you started. Think carefully and invest your time accordingly.
If you’ve ever freelanced or run an agency, you know how critical it is to keep your project pipeline full. The same goes for hiring; if you wait until you have an open position to begin searching for talent, you’ve waited too long!
Doug Dietz, GE Healthcare
Think carefully about the needs of your team and the company as you consider candidates. You may be tempted to evaluate candidates based on their technical skills, and you may write them off if they’re missing one skill you think critical, even if they fit other requirements perfectly. The primary reasons for letting an employee go rarely relate to a lack of technical prowess; rather it’s a shortcoming in . Missing technical skills can be remedied with coaching, but shortcomings in soft skills are much more difficult to correct.
Assessing soft skills can be difficult, especially in the constrained environment of an interview—the interviewee is likely anxious and trying to impress you. You want to set your interviewee up for success, so get to know the person before discussing technical stuff. Find out what they’re passionate about and how they see the world. It can sound like casual chatter, but it provides the clues needed to evaluate soft skills. Here’s what to look for when interviewing candidates:
Diverse backgrounds and interests introduce different perspectives to the team. You don’t want to hire a bunch of employees who are just like you; this is why it’s best to avoid hiring for “culture fit.” Instead, to really foster innovation, look for people who bring new dimensions to your company, and strive to build teams with a variety of voices and outlooks.
Listen hard to your candidate’s life and work experiences. Stories of overcoming adversity, not fitting in, or moving to a new country, for instance, provide clues about how someone deals with challenges. Adaptation skills demonstrate that the candidate has the aptitude to overcome a tough problem, team change, or new project.
MacArthur Fellow and psychologist Grit is more than just perseverance; Duckworth ties grit to a focus on long-term goals and a commitment to following through on them. Candidates who’ve overcome adversity over a long period of time because they can see the payoff are gritty, and usually make great hires.
Few skills are as important to a team as collaboration, but it can be hard to gauge during an interview how well a candidate will work with others. However, there are ways to pick up signals, like by asking the candidate about the dynamics of other teams they’ve worked on, and discovering how they like to collaborate. Look for red flags, like if the interviewee blames failures on other team members.
It might make sense to create a small, tightly scoped project to help you evaluate candidates. Here are 2 project ideas:
Assemble your team and the candidate in a room with a whiteboard for a 1- to 2-hour ideation session. Identify a product idea to explore as a group—one that you and your team have no prior knowledge of so you’re on equal footing with the candidate. Work through a simplified process to explore design solutions to the presented problem. Sketch individually, present ideas, and discuss. Work through revisions of the ideas together and observe how the candidate works with your team.
Invite the candidate to conduct a detailed evaluation of an existing product (it needn’t be yours), identifying flaws in the user experience. From those observations, have the candidate design an alternate solution and present it to the team for discussion.
When the design is presented, listen carefully to how the candidate responds to critical feedback from the team. Are they defensive or open-minded? Do they talk more than they listen? Do they seek credit? You’ll learn a lot in that short exchange.
Doug Dietz, GE Healthcare
Beyond structured collaborative activities, social time with a candidate provides everyone a chance to get to know each other—invite candidates to lunch as part of the interview process.
Spending time together benefits both you and the candidate. You can determine if the candidate is still excited about the job opportunity. Do they gel with your team? Can they hold a conversation, or is there awkward silence? Discomfort in the interview process will be amplified if the candidate joins the team, so pay close attention. For the candidate, social time provides a preview of the working relationship.
Liz Danzico, NPR/SVA
Humble people make great teammates, as they’re willing to listen to and learn from others. They don’t crave credit, so they’re natural collaborators, and they treat others fairly and with kindness.
A candidate’s humility, or lack thereof, comes through in a longer interview process. When they checked in, how did they treat the people at the front desk? Did they ask a lot of questions of the people they met? Did they take the time to learn about the company, you, and your team before the interview? It’s hard to ask about humility directly in interview questions, but tune into the language your candidate uses and you might get an accurate reading. Listen for an abundance of self-congratulatory statements and a lack of shared credit.
Though humility is an attractive virtue in a candidate, be sure it’s balanced with confidence; confident designers act upon their judgements but are humble enough to know they could be wrong.
PRO TIP — Genius designers
It can be alluring to hire a genius designer with an ego to match, but be sure to consider the costs to the team. A strong-willed designer can intimidate others—intentionally or unintentionally—and make people feel like there’s no place for their contribution. Thoughtful leaders will choose people who unite, not divide. There are, however, rare cases where a genius can be a great hire. When given the independence to experiment, a relatively isolated genius can produce innovative results.
It can be tempting, as a project grows and existing team members are overburdened, to try to save the day by hiring the first halfway decent candidate that walks through the door. But it’s critical to take the time to make an informed decision—hiring too fast fills your company with people you don’t want to work with, who will derail your progress, and who will demoralize your best performers. Fast hiring often leads to slow, painful firings.
PRO TIP — Design/UX recruiting resources
Remember, as a design leader there is nothing more important than hiring. Put in the time, get to know each candidate well, and choose people who bring new perspectives to your team.
Jared Spool — UIE
This hiring schedule will help you get a good read on design candidates and help you see how they’d fit into your team:
PRO TIP — How Facebook hires designers
Sometimes, even if you follow a great hiring process, things just don’t work out. Before the situation becomes unworkable, take the time to coach your employee, and communicate feedback clearly and often. If things aren’t headed in the right direction, the employee should know and have a chance to improve. A firing should never be a surprise.
David Heinemeier Hansson — BASECAMP
Firing is painful for all involved. It can cause you sleepless nights, and inspire doubt in your abilities as a manager. But the sooner you fire a bad employee, the quicker you and your team can right the ship than if you put off the painful task.
You may also inherit a team with mediocre players. Unfortunately, mediocrity begets more mediocrity—it’s hard to attract top talent to the “B” team. Make improvements to the team quickly or you will find yourself stuck with a second-rate team.
A toxic team member can pollute the whole team and give other teams pause before collaborating on a project. If you have a bad apple, experiment with a temporary reassignment to see how the team dynamic shifts. A dramatic, positive change in your team with the problem team member absent will be a clear cue that stronger measures are needed.
Bob Baxley — FORMERLY APPLE, PINTEREST, YAHOO
If you do get to the point where the employee needs to be let go, be respectful, and help them find a new opportunity. This transition will help them reflect on their career and could be the change they need to rekindle their passion for their work.
PRO TIP — You should have fired them sooner
You’ve done the hard work of hiring the right people for the right roles, and now you need to organize your team so they can be most effective. What organizational model should you follow?
John Maeda — AUTOMATTIC
There are many possible team structures, each with benefits and challenges. None are perfect; instead of searching for a single solution, consider what’s right for your company right now and craft what’s right for you.
PRO TIP — Optimize for today
The team structure you choose today won’t fit your organization in the future; no doubt you’ll have to change course at some point as the team and company evolve. Optimize for today, but be prepared to change.
Let’s take a look at 3 different models and explore what they have to offer.
A centralized team structure keeps all designers in the same team in a shared space. Some refer to this as the “agency model” as other teams come to the centralized design team for their services—much like the way a client would approach an agency.
Centralized design teams can work in a shared studio space where work can be posted and discussed regularly, which can help designers grow in their craft more quickly.
Andi Law, Netflix
In an embedded model, designers are positioned in cross-functional teams with engineers and product managers working on a specific product or feature. Cross-functional teams are a hallmark of . This model is often referred to as .
Alex Schleifer, VP of Design at Airbnb, likens EPD to a 3-legged stool: if the team was lacking a design role from the onset, or if the role was added after the engineering and product management team had already matured and grown, then the design leg ends up being shorter and the stool topples over.
At Airnnb, each EPD function “is involved and aligned from a product’s inception to its launch.” At least one member from each of the 3 teams is involved with working groups for new features, or in product marketing, or user feedback sessions. In Alex’s observations, companies that successfully grow these functions in parallel as the organization scales do 2 things: they hire and unleash a design lead from the start, and they grow the headcount of the design team in step with engineering and product hiring.
Designers have the opportunity to learn from and build close relationships with colleagues from other domains in a cross-functional team, and can gain a better understanding of the technical and business requirements of a product. But designers are often outnumbered by engineers and can feel pressure to conform to engineering values.
, former VP of Design at Twitter, says that “designers in product teams are vulnerable to ‘path of least resistance’ behavior—engineers will ask the designer to make things simpler so implementation is easier. You’re accountable to a different set of values when you’re working with other designers.”
PRO TIP — Stranded on an island
Diógenes Brito — SLACK
Andi Law, Netflix
There are many ways to organize a cross-functional team. You can organize around:
You can, of course, blend models as well to create a hybrid design organization. You can position designers in a temporary cross-functional team to work on a focused project with a clear deadline, as is common at MailChimp. When they’re done, they return to the centralized design team.
You can distribute your designers in cross-functional teams, but pull them back together for design reviews, stand-ups, and fireside chats as Twitter does.
When a company has reached sufficient scale, a centralized team can manage a code design system that serves designers distributed in various cross-functional teams. This is Spotify’s approach—they bring designers together in a for design reviews, but with a focus on adhering to design systems.
Sometimes a change in your seating chart is all you need. Lendingtree has positioned their centralized design team among engineers and product managers to promote collaboration, but each designer still reports back to a design leader.
Irene Au — KHOSLA VENTURES
Team structures evolve over time, especially as a company scales, and there’s no single path to building great design teams as a company grows. However, we can apply the problem solving skills and iterative approach that we use to build great products to also build great teams.
It can be tempting, now that you have a team that can execute quickly, to dive in and start building. But as Laura Martini, product designer at Google, writes in her article , it’s critical that your team is headed to the right finish line, and user research can help you get there. However, it’s not always easy to convince stakeholders that this is a pivotal step in the design process.
Laura Martini, Google
When your team is under the gun to produce results quickly, baking research into the design process can seem like a daunting challenge. Just mention of the word “research” seems to imply that it will be expensive and time consuming—something more suited to a particle physics lab than a product design team.
But research doesn’t have to be difficult or take a lot of time. Erika Hall, partner at Mule Design, outlines a wealth of techniques for low-effort user research in her book . And if you’re too constrained on time and resources to read the book, you can use her great technique—a —to get invaluable insights for less than $300 over 3 days.
Using an approach like this, you can often sneak research in under the radar. When you share the wins with stakeholders, you can show that a little research helped you get big results. This may give you more latitude to include research in your design process for future projects.
Irene Au — KHOSLA VENTURES
Kate Aronowitz — WEALTHFRONT
The primary job of a manager is to manage the careers of others. Though management may not be your passion, it will be an important part of your work. As a design leader you’ll help people do great work and develop fulfilling careers, which can have a profound influence on your organization.
Great managers are not bosses, they’re who wield their power to help others. Your service will be an example to your entire team, and will encourage behaviors that will make your team strong. Your actions are a far more effective coaching tool than words alone!
PRO TIP — Managerial wisdom
The way to deliver on each of these responsibilities is to schedule 1-on-1 meetings with each team member.
1-on-1 meetings are a great way for managers and their direct reports to connect individually on pressing issues, develop a strong relationship, and ensure that employees feel like they’re working toward their goals. These are not status update meetings; they’re an opportunity to give regular feedback and foster growth.
Feedback flows both ways. Smart managers ask team members for insight into how they could serve the team better. These honest conversations can help everyone improve.
1-on-1s are also an important time to get to know each team member personally and build rapport. The complexities of life often follow us into work and can affect our performance. Making time for personal conversations can give you insight into a team member’s emotional state.
PRO TIP — 15five
You can keep your 1-on-1s on track and make them more productive . Each week, 15five.com emails team members a short survey that helps them reflect on their work. It takes them 15 minutes to complete, and you 5 minutes to review. Their responses will spark discussion in each 1-on-1 meeting.
Ask these sorts of questions in your 1-on-1s:
With all of your responsibilities as a design leader, you’re going to be busy—very busy. As you focus on pushing projects forward and running your team, don’t forget that people need to be recognized for their contributions. Make a habit of saying “thank you” to each team member for their work. Everyone needs to hear it individually and as a team.
After wrapping up a big project, take time to celebrate with your team. They need to feel a sense of accomplishment and recharge their batteries. If you move on to the next project without recognizing the team’s accomplishment, you risk them feeling empty and uninspired to climb the next mountain with you.
Etiquette tip: Criticism during a celebration will just demoralize your team. Save your feedback about the project until after the celebration!
PRO TIP — On managing a UX team effectively
As your team grows, you’ll need to introduce additional layers of management to keep the team and their projects on track. You’ll know it’s time when you no longer have enough hours for all of your 1-on-1 meetings.
When you reach that point, you’ll be anxious to get extra help to relieve some stress, but fight the urge to take quick action. Putting the wrong person in a position of authority will only make your work harder.
When you’ve identified a prospective manager, assign them just 1 employee to manage and observe how they handle the shift in work. If they neglect their new management responsibilities in favor of design work, you know you’ve got the wrong person for the job.
If the team member performs well, add additional direct reports and remove design tasks from their to-do list. Continue to monitor and coach them regularly to help them get their bearings.
Twitter has a unique approach to how they transition individual contributors into management. In other organizations, career growth is often closely connected to a company’s org chart—to make more money you have to become a manager, which incentivizes the wrong people into positions of power. In contrast, Twitter sees the transition into management as a lateral move, and there is no pay raise associated with it. Raises are performance-based, which incentivizes the right behavior—designers who want to further pursue their craft will develop their career without sacrificing their passions.
There are 2 very different types of designers: hunters and farmers. Each is essential to a design team, but—as Aarron Walter discovered while leading the UX team at MailChimp—when matched with the wrong project, chaos ensues.
PRO TIP — Hunters and farmers
The MailChimp UX team was shorthanded as it wrapped up a key project, and to help us meet a deadline I brought in another designer to help. The product workflow had been sorted out—we just needed some details polished. After reviewing the work in progress, the new designer immediately started redesigning everything. These were interesting ideas, but none of the work was in the project scope. In the end, the designer pushed the team further off course, making it even harder to hit the tight deadline.
I had sent a hunter to do a farmer’s work.
Late 1 year, with some extra time on our hands, I asked 1 of my designers to begin exploring ideas for a major redesign of MailChimp. She created dozens of concepts, but I could see it wasn’t going well. Her stress was palpable. She continually sought guidance, but we had little to offer—we were venturing into new territory. After 2 months of exploration, she could take it no more—operating without constraints proved too stressful.
I had sent a farmer to do a hunter’s work.
Put your designers in a position to succeed by playing to their strengths, and look for traits in each of your designers to identify farmers and hunters:
PROTIP — Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen
You’ll hear echoes of farmers and hunters in Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast , in which he compares the creative processes of Dylan and Cohen, and Picasso and Cezanne. Turns out farmers and hunters exist in every creative medium.
Conflict is uncomfortable, but it’s inescapable as a design leader. When conflict arises in your team, confront it early to maintain the health of your team.
Each 1-on-1 meeting is an opportunity to listen for the stirrings of conflicts. Don’t wait until deadlines are missed or the team seems ineffective. If a designer reports conflict between other team members, talk with everyone individually before taking action. Matters can be blown out of proportion when information is second hand, and you can make things worse if you act before you’re fully informed.
When you’ve identified a conflict, get all parties in the same room to have an honest conversation. Let everyone have the opportunity to be heard, and don’t conclude the meeting until you’ve collectively identified a pathway to resolution.
INTRODUCING DESIGN SYSTEMS
DESIGN SYSTEMS HANDBOOK
To do their best work and hit deadlines your team will need structure. They’ll need clarity on the work happening within the team, and regular feedback at each step of a project. By formalizing the feedback process, you’ll help your team operationalize their work without compromising on quality.
Building feedback into your design practice will help in so many ways:
The first step to operationalizing feedback in your team is thinking carefully about how designs are shared.
By changing your space to create the right environment, you can set the stage for feedback and collaboration in your team. For distributed and remote teams, this is doubly important—establishing dedicated times and places for sharing works in progress keeps everyone connected.
The walls of your design studio are a sacred space. This is where your team’s ideas can be shared, debated, retooled, and celebrated. Make it clear to your team that the studio walls are not a gallery—this is work space!
If you don’t already have one, invest in a large format printer and get the whole team connected. Print design work daily and post to your studio walls for scheduled design reviews and casual conversations.
If your walls aren’t ideal for posting work, you can buy and lean them against your walls. Get some to post your designs in style (and easily peel off later). Leave markers and sticky notes nearby so your team and anyone in the company can easily jot down a bit of feedback and post it.
Figure 1: A project bay at Greater Good Studio.
The fidelity of the work you post can influence the feedback you get. Pixel-perfect comps may lead others to believe the work is finished, which will inhibit feedback. Work that’s a little lower fidelity or with notes scribbled on it will make it clear to all that you’re still working through ideas.
PRO TIP — Don’t forget the screen
Be sure to work through design ideas on the screen too. Interaction design, animation, and responsive design aren’t easily communicated on the printed page. Print brings more people into the conversation (which is important!) but ultimately you’ll need to solve for screen display.
Remote teams can also set the stage for feedback using tools like , , , and of course,. The entire design team at InVision is distributed and uses their own product to conduct design reviews. , a design collaboration feature in InVision, lets the team present their work and get real-time feedback. Early ideas are explored with , later becoming that are again shared with the team for feedback.
With so many affordable tools at hand, remote teams can easily build feedback into their design process too.
With the stage set for feedback in your team, you’re ready to establish the format for each type of feedback your team will need.
Designing out in the open is just the first step. Your team will also need to get feedback on their designs, sync with teammates to make sure progress is being made, and learn from mistakes so they can improve. This is a tall order, and calls for different types of feedback processes.
Let’s take a look at a few ways to get your team the right feedback at the right time.
Katie Dill — AIRBNB
When they should happen: All the time! They’ll keep your team moving forward
Who should be there: The designer plus no more than 7 people
How it helps: Designers get the feedback they need to refine their work
Design reviews are critiques that let designers get detailed feedback that’s framed by the project goals. Design reviews can happen at a number of different points in a project. It’s often helpful to do one early on so the designer can get fresh perspectives before investing too much time in an idea that may be misguided. The midway point and toward the end of a project are also natural times to get additional inputs.
Never use a design review as a big reveal of project. If you wait until you have everything polished, you’ll be too invested to accept the feedback you’re given.
Design reviews are a great opportunity to bring in experts from other teams to make the work better. Colleagues from support, engineering, product management, QA, legal, marketing, or even an executive may have a new perspective to help you see the problem differently. But try not to overload the guest list in these reviews—too many people and you’ll have a hard time guiding the conversation.
PRO TIP — Design reviews at GV
When they should happen: Daily for large or distributed teams, less often for small teams
Who should be there: Everyone on the design team
How it helps: Your team gets the chance to sync up on projects
Design standups are short, daily check-ins that help your team stay abreast of the work that’s being done. As the name suggests, everyone remains standing in these meetings so no one can get comfortable enough to launch into a soliloquy.
In a standup, each team member answers 3 questions:
While most teams choose to conduct standups in the morning, you may want to consider doing them after lunch—the morning is when our minds are clearest and ready to focus on creative work. For remote teams, pick a time that accommodates multiple time zones.
Don’t let standups turn into impromptu design critiques. If someone needs immediate design feedback, ask that they hold the request until after the meeting—a standup should be short and focused on project progress.
When they should happen: After a project is launched or a sprint is completed
Who should be there: Everyone who worked on the project
How it helps: Your team will internalize lessons from each project
Every project is a learning opportunity, but if you don’t pause to take stock, valuable lessons will slip away. When you’ve launched a project or completed a sprint, it’s a great time to reflect on what went well, what was confusing, and what didn’t go so well.
, Director of Design at , conducts retrospective meetings regularly. He sends a pre-retrospective survey to the team before the meeting to capture each person’s perspective individually. This helps to eliminate the , which happens when the views of the group conform to those of a few vocal people.
Matt asks his team to rate their performance both as a group and as individuals on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest. Ratings tend to cluster in a similar spot, but occasionally there are outliers. Team members who’ve given starkly different ratings are asked to share their views in the meeting to promote transparency and honesty.
Discussion in Treehouse’s retrospective meetings is centered around 3 questions common to most Agile retrospectives:
These questions are sometimes referred to as Start, Stop, Keep—what should we start doing, stop doing, and keep doing?
Honest conversation about each of these questions becomes easier with the cultivation of trust and plenty of practice running retrospective meetings.
When they should happen: After a project has gone poorly
Who should be there: Everyone who worked on the project and an impartial facilitator
How it helps: Your team will learn from their mistakes and find a way forward
Not all projects go well. Some go horribly wrong, requiring all teams involved in the project to come together to consider and learn from the mistakes they made.
Though projects rarely go awry at Etsy, they’ve established a strong process to guide them through those that do. Their process follows many of the recommendations set forth in the Agile methodology.
Here’s how to run a postmortem:
Postmortems can seem rough, but they’re far superior to repeating the same mistakes. They’re a powerful opportunity for your team to learn and improve your processes.
Once your team’s operations are sound, you need to start thinking beyond your borders. How will you interact with other teams in the company? This challenge is less about operations, and more about just getting to know people.
Great design leaders recognize that their team’s work is but one piece of the broader ecosystem of their organization. Engineering, Product management, Research, Support and many other teams play important roles in creating a great user experience. You’ll need to build social capital across your organization by developing rapport with your colleagues.
Andy Law — NETFLIX
Get in the habit of stepping away from your computer to get to know people. Grab lunch with a developer who may build out your team’s next design. No need for an agenda—just get to know each other. Spend time with researchers who have their finger on the pulse of your customers, sales people who hear frequent requests, product managers who understand schedules and scope, and customer service agents who know where users struggle the most. All have valuable context to offer you and your team. Each one influences the success of your team’s work.
PRO TIP — Design leadership: How top design leaders build and grow successful organizations
And don’t just network laterally—spend time with different stakeholders and executives to understand their roles and expectations. Ask questions about the broader strategy of the company. You’ll need to understand the big picture to design products that fit into the company vision.
As you become connected to colleagues on other teams, not only will your team’s designs be more informed, you’ll also put design on everyone’s radar, which is critically important. Your conversations will educate the rest of the company about design as a function, profession, and mindset. Your outreach to colleagues over time can change your company’s culture, making it more compatible with the needs of designers.
Rochelle King — SPOTIFY
Design is often protected—intentionally or not—from those who are perceived to be outside the process. That’s a shame, as often there are experts that are excluded simply because they don’t move in the same social circles at work.
It’s important to bring stakeholders into the design process early and often to get feedback and fresh perspectives. Sharing your work digitally makes it easy to gather feedback from specific people, but there’s value in setting the stage for unsolicited feedback too. As mentioned in the previous section, surprising things happen when you print screens and post them in a space where passersby can catch a glimpse. Leave Post-it notes and pens nearby and see what happens—you’ll get surprising feedback from unexpected sources with this approach.
Unlike digital, print is persistent and casual. It invites spontaneous participation even when you’re not around, which is perhaps its greatest strength. Take note of who leaves useful feedback so you can include them when you share your team’s next prototype.
When design is accessible to all, the process feels inclusive.
Regularly scheduled design reviews can be a great way to not only keep your design team synced, but to forge connections with other teams. At the health tech company , (now at Google) made a habit of inviting engineers and execs to design reviews to get new perspective for her team, but also to put design on people’s minds.
PRO TIP — Empathy at scale
In his article for 99U, , 3M’s global head of design Eric Quint talks about how he translates empathy for customers to empathy for his colleagues, helping him build inroads into design within a massive organization.
In addition to design reviews, you can make colleagues aware of the work happening inside the design team by delivering presentations as a coffee hour or a lunch and learn. You can present your work on an important project, or deliver . Create a design Slack channel to share books and articles with those who want to learn more about your discipline, and share updates on your work.
Irene Au — KHOSLA VENTURES
The more visible your team is in your company, the easier it will be to connect and collaborate with other teams.
Andrea Mallard — OMADA HEALTH
Even if your team is already visible within the company, it can be challenging to find ways to focus the company culture on design without hiring more design resources. One method is to find alternate means of educating non-design colleagues about how designers solve problems.
At Netflix, Andy Law approaches this in several different ways. Once a quarter, Netflix holds a “UX Progressive,” where engineers and others can visit a designer’s desk to get a demo of current work in progress. Andy has also used screenings of InVision’s film as a way to educate colleagues about design: “There are a lot of people interested in how designers approach and solve a problem, and DESIGN DISRUPTORS does a really good job of synthesizing what that is.”
Another approach is to host one-on-one sessions with colleagues who are interested in learning more about design, or who seek design help with a project. When Irene Au was at Google, the design team held weekly “office hours” where colleagues could come with questions and get feedback on their projects.
No matter the approach, educating colleagues about design and empowering them to use elements of the design process offer opportunities to increase the visibility and influence of design within your company.
Irene Au — KHOSLA VENTURES
“…authors trick us into doing most of the imaginative work. Reading is often seen as a passive act: we lie back and let writers pipe joy into our brains. But this is wrong. When we experience a story, our minds are churning, working hard.”
We evolved as storytelling creatures, and the power of story has never left us. As companies scale and teams sprint through product iterations, it’s easy to lose sight of how your product should fit into the lives of your customers. The best way to keep everyone pointed in the right direction is with a clear, compelling story—a story that will unite and guide teams toward success.
Stanley Wood — SPOTIFY
Product roadmaps guide team milestones, but they only show us what to build and when. They don’t show us why we’re building a product. Stories, however, are great at explaining why. In Start with Why, author Simon Sinek proclaims that, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.” Similarly, the best product teams don’t merely follow a process; they march toward a shared destination—a vision of the future presented as a story that answers, “Why are we building this?”
Design leaders need to craft the vision for a product and communicate how it fits into the lives of others. There are many mediums for conveying this story; some design teams create large boards that show design style or tell the story of how their product will fit into the lives of their customers. Others create short videos to illustrate to all how the product will fit into the customer’s lifestyle.
PRO TIP — Start with why
The research team had noticed after a number of customer visits that people were doing work differently. Persistent internet connections on phones and tablets let people work anywhere and all the time, ducking in and out of small tasks. This created a sense of found time that was quickly being filled up with more to-dos.
As people became overwhelmed with their work, they needed to hand things off to others. Seeing these behavioral patterns, the UX team realized they needed to rethink how MailChimp handled collaboration across many devices.
The project required the collaboration of many teams. They wrote a short script and worked with their in-house videographer to produce a brief vision video in about 10 days.
Faced with a major redesign of their platform, MailChimp created this vision video to guide all teams.
The production was inexpensive and relatively fast, but the outcome was of high enough fidelity to guide designers, developers, marketers, and other stakeholders around the company as they worked to realize the vision set forth.
Sketches and storyboards are another great medium for conveying stories. that showed how their products would fit into the lives of their customers. Their storyboard gave everyone a vision of the product experience they wanted while still giving each team the freedom to solve the problems as they saw fit.
Daniel Burka, Google Ventures
The storytelling mechanism you choose is less important than the story you tell. The act of creating a product story before you begin the design process not only helps you mobilize your teams, it also forces you to clarify your intentions for your product. You’ll step out of the maker’s mindset and consider how your product will fit into the lives of others.
Vision—whether presented through a video, storyboard, or some other means—gives purpose and clarity to our work. Without it teams often lose sight of their mission.
John Maeda — Automattic
As design leaders, we are often thinking and communicating in terms of how design ties into company strategy, and we become less focused on craft. This is just a normal part of how a role evolves as responsibilities grow. As a company scales, CTOs don’t often do much coding, and CMOs rarely have time to write a blog post or draft an email campaign.
But as designers, we are in a somewhat unique position where our craft can inform our thinking. Don Norman, Director of the Design Lab at University of California, San Diego, writes about the tension between craft and design thinking in his essay :
The fork in the road does not have to be a choice between two options: this is an opportunity to pursue both. Design as a craft has a long history of providing great value to humankind. Design thinking is as yet unproven, but it has the potential to provide a different kind of value to the world. Both are essential, so let us take the fork in both directions.
In Don’s view, we don’t necessarily have to give up the craft of design to become leaders, or to convey the vision for a product. In fact, this vision could be stronger if we “learn and think by drawing and doing.” So sharpen your pencils, dust off your sketchbook, and start telling better stories to guide your team to success.
Our hope is that, after combing through this guide and the readings we’ve recommended, you feel better equipped to lead your team. You now know how to build and manage a team, you have a plan to operationalize design, you recognize that you’ll need to forge alliances to be effective, and you know how to shape a cohesive design vision so everyone in your organization has a North Star to guide their work.
Though your learning curve as a design leader is steep, the rewards are great. You’re in a position to influence the trajectory of your team and your entire organization—that’s exciting.
Design leaders like you will reshape teams, companies, and ultimately our industry. Your wisdom will grow with practice, and as it does we hope you’ll share what you’ve learned with others. Leaders teach, and in doing so the depths of their wisdom deepens.
Thank you for being a leader! We’re rooting for you.