When contemplating what to write, I reached out to the broader design community for topic suggestions. Through posts and LinkedIn messages you asked me to continue speaking about the business of design and the steps necessary to grow as a team.
In the last article, “5 Easy Steps to Scale a Design Team” I spoke holistically about a newly formed team. This time, I will bring the discussion in and talk about ways to directly nurture a design team.
1. Go beyond the skill matrix
One of your favorite topics in the last article was the skill matrix. Blythe even asked me to expand on this subject. Instead of discussing matrices, which are well-defined documents readily available online, I felt the more fulfilling topic would be what design leaders could learn about their teams. Patrick posted vision as one vital characteristic to include, something I had yet to consider. However, what if we take this a step further.
Go beyond a title
Who on your team plays soccer over lunch or jams with a band over the weekend? Many times in life we are solely defined by our career. Our team environments can be a better place where we see multifaceted humans.
Create a shared experience
At Whiting House, our CEO placed his baby grand piano in one of our open office spaces. For a couple of minutes each day, I improvise a piano composition. Through this expression, I have quickly learned of other musicians in our office.
At Nintendo, a talented developer created a team database after interviewing each employee in the department. The result was an internal searchable website with fun facts, in-depth knowledge, and skills beyond work. One Nintendo employee is a metalsmith!
Know the limits
These topics should not get personal as there are questions you should never breach with employees. For instance, never ask about their religious background, political views, or family matters. However, if you just speak to an employee as a human instead of as a title, your actions will strengthen the team.
2. Contribute to the culture
While we are not solely responsible for our team environment, we can contribute to it in positive ways. Many times the company defines the culture, while our teams have a diverging subculture that lives within the larger one.
Setup social times
Excellent leaders carve out time for employees to socialize with each other during work hours. These events are best when the team defines their activities. Honestly, they will find a way to socialize, even if it is over lunch or after hours, but when done at work, socializing contributes to the team culture.
Understand your company culture
I have found alcohol to be part of the culture at many advertising agencies. This cultural attribute will not attract all employees, which is why leaders must understand their own company culture before inviting a candidate to join.
Encourage employee defined events
While at VML in Kansas City, we had a Friday social hour. Through this, our team assigned one person per week to design a creative alcoholic beverage. At the VML office in Seattle, the social hour was used to watch a movie with a themed drink. Alcohol was a part of the VML culture, but it was the team which defined how they would express this attribute.
Nintendo team members would often congregate around a TV to play Smash Bros. or around a circular table with their Nintendo 3DS devices paired. Again, gaming is a massive part of the Nintendo culture, but it was the individuals who decided how to reflect this.
In both examples, the employees decided on the event while the company provided the leniency, time, and culture for the social hour to thrive.
3. Redefine design roles and responsibilities
While user experience is beginning to find its way, there is still misinformation online and within companies. Many times this is reflected outside of a firm on their UX job postings.
Write your team job descriptions
One of my first tasks when joining a new company is to review the roles and responsibilities of the design department. If the job req needs to be updated, I will make or suggest a change. To do this, I ask myself a few questions. Will the teams be made up of Product Designers or UX Designers? Will there be a dedicated research team? Should we hire generalists or specialists?
Four types of design teams
A lot of this will depend on the company. The four representations below belong to the knowledge I gained while employed with each. Please tell me if you had a differing experience.
- Small businesses typically hire only one or a few generalists to wear many hats.
- Advertising companies often separate their UX teams from their Creative teams.
- Consultancies look for unique specialists who excel, for example, in SharePoint design, Power BI visualizations, or UX for mobile applications.
- Enterprise businesses can afford dedicated design departments with specialized teams.
Through this understanding, I craft my department objectives and with it the roles and responsibilities of each team member.
4. Carve the path forward
I discussed last week how it is essential to understand the career goals of your team even if they only plan to stay for a few extra months. However, for the dedicated employees who would like to grow with the company, we need to ensure they have a clear path forward.
Learn your company’s career path
Many companies have already defined their career paths, so before branching out on your own, ensure you stay within your company parameters. At a startup, you may need to create this, but once you do, it could be adopted companywide.
Define your team’s career path
Once you understand the company, leverage this knowledge to define your team career path. It is best to base this information on the direction of planned growth. For instance, I would probably create the job description for every User Experience Researcher title from Intern to Manager, as well as Usability Analyst, if we planned on developing a research team in the User Experience department.
Setup official reviews
While weekly informal touchpoints are essential in keeping your team on track, formal biannual reviews can help employees know they are advancing in their careers. During the discussion, I have each employee write what they have accomplished in the past six months, plus their short-term and long-term goals. With these documents, I justify raises and promotions within the department.
Offer training events
One significant culture differentiator is whether a company will help their employees advance through certifications, training, and conferences. Sometimes there are budget constraints, but I believe that at least one yearly conference per employee enriches the entire company. Once a team member returns, they should disseminate the knowledge through a presentation to their peers. The image is from an interactive keynote by Google’s “Head International Troll Slayer” Yasmin Green at SXSW 2017.
Offer soft skill improvement opportunities
According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, 5.3 Million Americans “have a social phobia,” while 74% of their research participants “suffer from speech anxiety” (statisticbrain.com). This fear also resonated with my prior self.
I remember a past manager asking me to enlighten the company on user experience through a departmentwide presentation. The first time, I stood behind the podium reading from cue cards. By the third public-speaking engagement, I walked the stage and spoke candidly.
This experience was crucial to my success as a leader and is also why I motivate team leaders to find presentation opportunities for their team members.
Here are a few techniques I have picked up on my path to sell a design team, accomplish assignments with less, and temporarily expand a team when the budget is tight. Most of these steps could apply to any team, but all of them focus on aspects relevant to User Experience Designers.