Many books and articles explain the ins and outs of team building, but very few focus on design. In this article, we will look at ways to scale a Design Team. Most of these steps could apply to any team, but all of them focus on aspects relevant to User Experience Designers.
1. Understand the project requirements
Initially, I thought design began with research until gaining a team of designers to manage. This experience helped me quickly realized strategy needs to be considered first and foremost. Analysis and design can become a void without direction, which is why it is best first to understand the project requirements and objectives.
Leaders own strategy
It is our job as team leaders to see the finish line and work with the right tools and team members to arrive there. Each one of my past and current employees desired a sense of purpose through a defined structure. This clarity provided them the direction they needed to keep moving forward.
2. Learn about your team
One question I ask in any design interview is, “Which part of the user experience are you most passionate about?” From this answer, I quickly learn where they will excel in the design process and on the team.
Passion breeds success
Even as a leader joining a pre-built design team, you will notice the passion team members have for particular areas of UX by observing the skills they excel in. Once I learn what each does well, I ask them which skills she or he would like to improve. Visual Designers typically say coding; Interaction Designers often say Usability Studies.
Another technique used to match abilities is a skill matrix. The concept is simple. Rate your skills on a scale of 0 to 3. Zero represents no desire to learn, while 1 – 2 – 3 indicates beginner, intermediate, and expert.
Once I understand everyone’s strengths and desired level-ups, I then dedicate 80% of their tasks to perfected skills and 20% to expand themselves beyond their comfort zone through assignments they have yet to accomplish in a professional setting.
3. Create design leaders
As leaders, it is our job to solve and unblock issues so team members can focus on the user experience. In this way, I am as much my team’s resource as they are mine.
One way I empower individuals is by assigning ownership of a particular project or deliverable to each team member and allow them to delegate tasks to peers, myself, and themselves. I never tell owners how to achieve a particular goal, but instead, provide suggestions and resources. In this way, I remove myself as a blocker in case ego or old patterns are impeding innovation.
Some employees thrive on deadlines while most creatives prefer timeline leniency. Because of this, I handle deadlines differently than most leaders. I ask each team member to give me a delivery timeframe and then hold them accountable to the date they choose. Employees happen to be more stringent on themselves than I would have been. By being responsible for their deadlines, team members quickly learn how to estimate time to completion.
This topic caused some stir, so I designed a short, anonymous four-question survey to help better understand how deadlines affect us. Please contribute by taking this quick questionnaire.
4. Set design standards
We are all building on the success of someone else’s creation. Each day we leverage tools and processes made by our past, so it makes sense to stay openminded towards design frameworks from our peers. The canvas does not limit a painter, and creativity will not escape a designer who has requirements.
I profoundly believe in frameworks for two reasons: 1. They provide a starting point beyond zero. 2. They create consistency in our deliverables. Unfortunately, there are only a few places online with well-made user experience templates. Because of this, the team directive states if any person is the first to use a particular design method, they are also responsible for setting the standards. In this way, all of our experience documents use the same elements and only get better with each iteration instead of built time after time from scratch.
Consistency begins with the designer and continues to anyone who interacts with our products. Through style guides and component libraries we ensure our team deliverables are consistent and our project designs are uniform.
5. Be worthy of trust
One of the many reasons I respect Google is for the multiple research projects they initiate and then share with the world. One recent study called Project Aristotle uncovered the secrets of an efficient team. At the top of their findings is psychological safety, which “refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.” (rework.withgoogle.com)
For me, this arrives in the form of understanding every person is a little bit selfish but mostly selfless. When I talk to employees, I speak to them about their real future instead of the one where they stay at a company forever. If there is no foreseeable future for departure, excellent! Let’s set you on your career path! However, realistic expectations allow me to communicate with individuals about their actual goals and respect the time I have left with them before they leave the nest.
Another way I create psychological safety is through weekly heuristic evaluations. Any team member can sign up to present creations. This open forum provides a method for peer to peer critiques and often becomes a fantastic team building opportunity built on respect for each member’s ability to solve user issues.
Finally, there is the fun. While at Nintendo, I took the team to Red Robins for a team-building exercise. While there we conducted a usability study on the table-top kiosk found in most American casual dining restaurants. During our usability study, we recorded ourselves ordering food and drinks. Another similar outing was a trip to the movies where we tested the ticket ordering kiosk and touch screen beverage machine.
Google Project Aristotle – A study of 115 engineer teams and 65 sales pods to identify what makes an effective team.
Google Project Oxygen – A study to learn which traits make excellent managers.
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. This time, I will bring the discussion in and talk about ways to directly nurture a design team.
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.