How to become a better design manager

How to become a better design manager - design strategy guide

Becoming a design manager can be a little daunting, to say the least. There’s so much that comes into play – your design capabilities, your organizational and planning skills, your management and communication abilities, your strategic skills, and probably some more that no one really knows about.

Design managers have a lot on their plate and there is always room for improvement. But sometimes, it can be difficult to see the next step among the clutter of all the tasks and responsibilities.

That’s why we’ll be going through 4 pillars of good design management to find that next step together! By the end of the article, I’m sure you’ll have some new ideas that will benefit both you and your team.

#1 Communication

Shh, listen closely

Let’s start with the aspect of communication that is too often overlooked. You’re bound to have experienced working under someone who simply didn’t care to listen. It’s lip-gnawingly frustrating.

So, our first point is listen more than you speak. Get to know your team as well as you possibly can. Each person has different incentives, desires and opinions. It’s your job to learn about all of them.

You should hold 1-on-1s with each member of your team (more about them later), and then talk to them as a group to get an idea about their needs on both an individual and a team level.

You may not agree with everything you hear, but considering their opinions will go a long way in earning their respect!

I also suggest having a short design meeting about 3 to 4 times per week, in which each team member gets a maximum of 5 minutes to explain what he or she is working on. Combine this with a weekly design team meeting that takes 45 minutes at the most.

The key to keeping these weekly meetings efficient and worthwhile is to share the agenda before the scheduled meeting time. Give people a chance to add any comments or hot topics before you come together – that way, they won’t have to keep it in their head until there’s an opportunity to speak, and they can stay focused on the subject at hand.

Clarity = the key to symbiosis

Always be clear about the expectations and definitions of success for your team. Few things are more disheartening than “bring me a rock” style of management. Your designers should never feel like you already have a fixed solution in mind but are waiting for them to somehow guess what it is.

Your team should always know what good means. If they’re ever unsure, it’s your job to clarify it for them. If you’re working for a larger company, you should have a branding guidelines to align everyone’s definition of good as much as you can. I suggest you start with the design system (how to set it up) – it makes everything much clearer for your design team.

When you acquire a new team member, especially if they’re a design novice, let them know what to expect. You might have their best interests at heart but if they don’t know your intentions, they can quickly feel discouraged, useless or begin to think you’re a control freak.

My personal process for bringing a newbie up to speed is as follows:

Phase 1: Guidance and close supervision.
Show them how a task needs to be done without the option to incorporate their own style (process + outcome).

Phase 2: Explain and be open to suggestions.
Ask for their opinion. You decide what the next step should be.

Phase 3: Share and facilitate.
Show them the problem, ask for their opinion, discuss it. They solve it themselves, you help them and then it’s ready for iteration.

Phase 4: Let them do it.
They perform tasks autonomously – you just check and approve the solution.

I adapted the style from Situational Leadership® by Blanchard and Hersey. They developed a matrix consisting of four styles:

Situational Leadership diagram matrix

If you don’t know the answer to a question, be willing to say: “I don’t know the right answer right now, but let me get back to you.” That’s much better than giving uncertain or ambiguous answers that could possibly conflict with directions given at an earlier time.

Honest - be honest, expect honesty

Be honest, expect honesty

Your team should feel comfortable with being totally honest with you. Show them that you respect this honesty and give them the same in return.

If you need to confront someone, never insult or yell at them. Instead, proceed with the conversation in a calm and fair manner. Listen to their part of the story before deciding on what to say.

Showing people that you care about them will do a lot for your team, but we’ll come to that in a little while.

Being transparent is another way to make your team feel comfortable, and yourself well-understood. You have managers too, and telling your team what’s going on in the company and how their work contributes to the bigger picture can be important.

Collaboration

#2 Work process

Collaboration makes you stronger

A good design manager ensures that his/her team is producing good work on a day-to-day basis – work that is valuable for the organization as a whole.

This is much easier to do if you collaborate with your team to create alignment and formulate a strategy. Define what the problem is, its severity, how to approach it, and the best way to pursue a vision. You can also create a playbook that will help your team to use the tools at hand as intended.

You may have a general process in mind that you want to stick to, which you can then improve on by incorporating your team’s feedback. Even if you can’t please everyone, it’s important for them to understand why you’ve come to a certain decision. That way, you’ll get internal buy-in by getting everyone on board. This is crucial in keeping the team engaged and motivated.

Once you’ve settled on a process, everyone should be clear of their specific role. At this point, it’s your responsibility to make sure that your team has everything it needs to get the job done. You should take care of any obstacles that might get in the way of people doing what they need to do.

Bubble

When you have a prototype or a feature in front of you, try not to be subjective. If it’s useful, in-brand and solves the problem at hand, it’s probably fine. Some managers expect the same thing from every single team, which makes collaboration hard and leaves your team feeling deflated.

You might still be doing some day-to-day execution work yourself, which is great as it shows your team that you’re leading from the frontline. But what should you do if you see someone heading down the wrong path? If it’s likely to end in disaster and you’re strapped for time, jump in, take over and explain their mistake later on.

However, if it’s not imperative to the success of the project, I’d suggest that you let the team member make a mistake. It’s a development opportunity and will help them to understand your work process even better once you review where they’ve gone wrong. It will also demonstrate that they own their work – in other words, you aren’t going to take over every single time. Let them know that you prefer the ”ask for forgiveness, not permission” attitude. It’ll show them that you trust your team members and probably make them more proactive.

Be one step ahead

Be one step ahead

Once you’ve got your process down and your team engaged, you should focus on your system’s workflow.

Identify what factors restrict your team’s ability to finish their work. It could be a person, a tool, or a specific method. Find the constraint, improve it and reassess the situation. You might find that an improvement is an illusion and you’ll quickly notice if the flow doesn’t actually get any better.

One constraint might be a client who takes too much time to deliver feedback. You could solve this with a simple request for timely feedback, fewer check points, or perhaps an additional contact provided by your client so you can keep the process moving forward. It all depends on why the client is taking so much time to respond.

Another constraint might be your chosen method of receiving requests from other departments and teams. If this is done via email, Slack and other channels, it can get very chaotic very quickly. You can eliminate this constraint by implementing a request form, which must be filled out by anyone who needs anything. Make it your single source of all requests and seamlessly funnel them into your workload.

Once you’ve successfully eliminated a constraint, find the next one and repeat the process.

Finding constraints is much easier if you break down your workflow into specific steps and keep track of your projects in Trello, Asana or other similar organizational tools. Be careful not to use too many apps.  Keep the process simple as possible. If the tools confuse your team, they become a constraint in themselves.

Here’s an example of a breakdown that’s detailed enough to be helpful:

Backlog

To-do

Review

Done

Blocked by “John X”

Not feasible / On hold

Such workflow structure will also make scheduling a lot easier. It will show you whether a deadline is feasible and will help you to ensure that your team is not overworked or constantly fighting fires. You really don’t want that – it’s not good for your people and it’s not good for the quality of your design.

Design Critique

Embrace design critique sessions

A great method for improving your design process (and design in general) is through a design critique. Despite this, many managers avoid them… in fact, they’re almost regarded with a sense of fear! These managers have probably experienced first-hand how disheartening it can feel when something they created wasn’t received in the way that they’d hoped.

However, it’s possible to run a design critique in a way that’s positive, constructive and leaves your team with fresh ideas on how to improve their work.

As Anthony Lamont said in our recent interview:

“Design critique sessions done well can leverage the superpowers of your team members to improve the quality of each individual’s work.

Critiques should leave designers feeling inspired, challenged and empowered. We all want to make better products and get better results. Critiques don’t exist so that people can air their unfounded opinions. They exist so you can accelerate the time it takes to get to the best possible product.”

First of all, you or the designer must outline some specific questions that need to be answered. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a brainstorming meeting instead of a focused critique.

Here are some typical critique questions and goals:

  • Take a retrospective look at a project or feature. You’ll often work in sprints and many teams don’t ever revisit a project once it’s finished. That’s a shame, because you can learn so much from doing so. Ask your team what went well, where they encountered issues and what could be improved. By doing this, you can sync your expectations for the next sprint.
  • Create a scenario for the user and test it – go through the user flow, check feature clarity, etc.
  • How do you solve your user’s problem? Why is your solution better than your competitors’?
  • Compare different components of the same product. If you have a design system in place, check if the solution follows it. Should more elements be reused? Do things that look alike function in a similar way?
  • Get feedback on an important feature from people with different backgrounds. They might see and approach it very differently and their point of view could produce some valuable insights.

Once you have established your questions and goals, try to follow the steps and tips below:

  1. Present the design in question. To kick off the session, explain the goal of the critique, what you’re looking for and then guide the participants through the design. At this stage, they should only be listening and taking notes. You might do this step yourself, or alternatively let the designer of the piece take charge.
  2. Start by clarifying any questions. There shouldn’t be too many of these if your presentation was clear and your project goals are aligned. Still, if anything is unclear, address it now.
  3. Explore alternatives. Ask questions highlighting other options and aspects that the designer might not have considered. Point out situations, sequences or elements within the design that may be problematic given what you know about your users, the scenarios involved or the project goals.
  4. Avoid absolutes. Instead, explain your feedback by referring to the design goals that were presented at the beginning of the critique session. Don’t say: “Oh, that screen is ugly.” Say: “Hmm, if the goal is to make the app feel warm and friendly, those grey and blue colours aren’t really doing it for me” or “It’s not clear what I should do between steps 3 and 4 and I get stuck. It feels like there’s something missing. Is there anything you could do to direct my next action?”
  5. Make it known that what you’re saying is your opinion. Hopefully, you have data and research indicating what your users want. If this is the case, make sure that the team knows when someone is providing their own point of view, and when someone is referring to what your users might think of the design.

Ownership

#3 Responsibility and ownership

This is going to be a short but very important point. In a nutshell:

You take the fall when something goes wrong and your team gets the credit when things go right.

That’s part of your job as a manager and too many managers disregard it. You are the buffer between your team and everyone else. If something fails or project deadlines are not met, don’t throw anyone under the bus. It’s your job to ensure that your team delivers.

Of course, you should also be honest with your team about feedback. If they’re doing something poorly, they need to know about it sooner rather than later. Tell them, but don’t complain to others about your team. Trust your people to do their own work or find new people who you can rely on.

When a project goes smoothly, be sure to give your team the credit they deserve. In return, they’ll make you look good with their excellent work.

#4 Development and growth

Teams, like all relationships, evolve over time. You need to understand your employees. It is so important to let them know that they are valued, and that you really do care about them as individuals, as well as their goals and dreams. That’s hard to teach, but without basic empathy, it’s tough to create a rapport.

If possible, try to match their motivations with the tasks you give them – help them to achieve their next big thing. Talk to them, see how you can help them reach their goals. I mean, that’s something we’d all like from our superiors, right? Be their manager and their mentor.

Another very important thing is to respect your team members’ work-life balance. Let them know that you don’t expect them to work during the weekends or late into the evening.

Encourage them to do whatever they love during their free time and not to stress about work too much. That’s the best way to keep your team feeling high-spirited and energized.

One on one

A 1-on-1 can be fun

Here’s where 1-on-1s come into play. Having a good talk every so often will demonstrate that you’re interested in how your team members are doing and let you know if they’re happy with their jobs. As their manager, this is something you should know.

My first rule is to have a 1-on-1 outside of the office. It’ll make the talk less formal and more relaxed. If you have less than 10 people on the team, you can have bi-weekly 1-on-1s with each of them for at least 30 minutes.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to talk strictly about business every single week.

  • Talk about design in general, their passion for it and how they perceive it.
  • Show off a new gadget or tool and geek out with another talented designer about the best applications for it.
  • Talk about ways to engage with the design community.
  • Discuss the roadblocks that every designer hits and techniques you can use to overcome them.
  • Talk about their design methods and hacks you’ve used to produce better work.

Notes icon

I would suggest you take notes about anything interesting that comes up during the 1-on-1. However, do it immediately after the meeting, otherwise your team member might feel like they’re talking to a certain Mr. Freud.

Notes are great when you want to refer to something from a previous session, or simply remember what’s important to them. They might also help to generate an idea that could improve a project.

Another advantage of a regular 1-on-1 is that you can always say: “Can you think about it for our 1-on-1?” That’s handy when someone doesn’t have an immediate answer to a challenging question, or when an issue arises that demands some time to think it through.

And if, for whatever reason, you or the other person isn’t feeling it one day, you can always end the 1-on-1 early. Don’t force it.

Yes, 1-on-1s take up some time, but there’s really nothing better when it comes to showing your team that you genuinely care for them while gaining some useful insights at the same time.

I advise that you even create a personal development roadmap for each member of your team. Write down their goals and dreams, how they’d prefer to grow and develop, what they are proud of, what they are interested in, etc. That way, you can congratulate them when they achieve something important to them and even send them an unconventional birthday card.

BAM, you’ve just leveled up!

I hope this article has given you some ideas that are going to work for you and make you and your team shine.

Surround yourself with the dreamers and the doers, the believers and thinkers. I truly think that you cannot achieve anything great on your own. The ultimate goal is to have a team in which everybody is rowing in the same direction and  rigid formal hierarchical structure is not required. Regardless of what they are doing, everybody should be capable of making decisions, managing themselves and taking responsibility for their actions.

Curiosity

Foster a culture of curiosity and tell people what is expected of them, not how they should do it. They might surprise you with a remarkable outcome.

Authentic

Strive for authenticity over perfection, because perfection does not exist in the human experience. Having a team with heart and hustle is worth so much more than a group of people who seek entitlement.

I’ll leave you with one last tip: If you’re ever unsure how to react to a situation, imagine what you’d like your manager to do if you were in the team member’s shoes. That’s usually the best call. 🥰

P.S. If you’re a design manager in a larger company and are constantly fighting design chaos, I urge you to read my article about design systems. They can help you to align your team and create consistently great products.

About the author

Oh hey, I’m Romina Kavcic

I am a Design Strategist who holds a Master of Business Administration. I have 14+ years of career experience in design work and consulting across both tech startups and several marquee tech unicorns such as Stellar.org, Outfit7, Databox, Xamarin, Chipolo, Singularity.NET, etc. I currently advise, coach and consult with companies on design strategy & management, visual design and user experience. My work has been published on Forbes, Hackernoon, Blockgeeks, Newsbtc, Bizjournals, and featured on Apple iTunes Store.

More about me Let’s connect on Linkedin  *  Twitter

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