How to Improve Your Design Team’s Productivity

Tips for working with Designers, from a Designer.

If you’re a Designer and if you’re lucky, you’ll have a Design/UX Manager who understands how to run a Design Team. Most of the time though, for whatever reasons, Designers work directly with other stakeholders, such as executive teams, PMs, Engineers. With no Design Leader to shield us, there can be tension between Designers and these stakeholders due to various reasons.

To improve your working relationship with Designers and in turn, help us work more effectively, there are several things you can do as stakeholders.

Get disciplined with scoping.

Designers tend to get more and more burned out the longer the project is. If not careful, scope creeps happen too often making us feel like more work gets added to our long list of to-dos without anything being shipped. It can feel very daunting, and our passion gets snubbed at the bud.

The lack of discipline to hold back ideas in different phases of the design process affects your designers’ productivity. Keep in mind there are no small design changes. Although iteration is a part of Design, pro-longed iterations with no boundaries can cause the scope to explode, which can cost your company a lot of time and money.

Design is hard and we need to make trials, fail and learn from our work. Seeing what is working also motivates us. Therefore, when we keep solving problems without understanding how people react to our work, we “spin our wheels” and get bored, agitated, frustrated or all of the above.

Not everyone is the same, though, so it’s best to talk to your team members and keep an eye out for burning out signals early on. You can achieve this by just saying, with the most empathy you have, “I know the project has been long, we’ll get this over the line. What can we do to help to contain the scope better?”.

However, women, people of color and marginalized designers may not raise their concerns. If you’re in a more privileged position, pay attention and reach out.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Create space for creativity.

Creativity is NOT infinite. There are days we are more creative than others. Many of us have faked creativity (I certainly have). From my experience, there are 2 ways to create a more creative workspace.

  1. We all can accept imperfection and continuously ship products that aren’t great but will get great over time. Be very disciplined with the timeline you set, commonly 2-week design sprints, and again, get disciplined with the scope of what you’re doing and how much you’re doing, and why. This goes along with the Lean UX methodology. It’s cheaper to start with, so it’s suitable for smaller organizations or startups.

  2. The second method is more on the line of the more traditional design process and Agile UX. You design everything beforehand and then move to development for the whole design vision to be executed using Agile Development and/or Scrum. Be mindful that burn-outs can happen with big projects. So, to maximize your team’s productivity and creativity, give them space and create time pockets for generating new ideas with playing and allowing designers to go out to the world and explore. Or letting them work on their side projects. This is much harder to achieve, more suitable for large organizations with more resources. It also takes a lot of culture and people work, to understand how your team work together and how they work individually. Meanwhile, you have to actively promote a free-to-create environment for everyone (within reasons and deadlines, so your projects are on time).

Be explicit about which way your team works best and stick to it. Either way, great designs take a lot of time.

How to give better feedback.

We’re gentle creatures who can get thick skin built up throughout our careers. Learning how to take feedback gracefully is on us. But being a graceful feedback giver is also a skill.

Feedback givers can criticize our work, but we take the advice with a grain of salt and decide to implement them or not. Feedback givers can’t get upset if we don’t take their ideas on board; most of the time not because they’re not good ideas, but because we don’t think they fit into our vision. If we disagree, that’s okay, just move on from there and spend that time working and shipping instead.

When giving feedback, also remember that you’re criticizing the work, not the person that doing the work. Don’t afraid to speak your mind, politely, and let us know where we can do better. Never, never attack the person on a personal level and tell them that they suck.

Feedback giver can criticize our work, but we take the advice with a grain of salt and decide to implement them or not.

Lastly, try to focus on the problems, not the solutions. We’re problem solvers, we like solving problems, so let us. Don’t try to solve the issues for us. Allowing us to keep solving the problems ourselves empowers us and helps us grow, not when you give us what you think is the solution. Trust that we’ll come to the best solutions for the problems, eventually.

Give us constraints.

It’s dangerous to tell designers that they have no restrictions, that they can do whatever they want. Paradoxically, constraints are what fuels innovation. That’s why Design Sprint Methodology can help to create innovations in just a week, a part of the process is to identify the constraints early in the process.

Let’s take the example of a Product Designer, these are some constraints we work with.

  • People constraints: How much do my teammates understand Design? Who am I designing this product for?

  • Money constraints: How much are we willing to spend on the project? How long will it take for what value?

  • Technology constraints: What type of tech stack are we using? What are the limitations of the stack?

  • Hardware: What type of device(s) am I designing for?

We haven’t even touched on Design Principles yet.

If there are no constraints, what we’re creating is not Design (the act of creating for a specific purpose), it is Art (the act of creating to invoke feelings from an audience). Great designs happen with good constraints, not without.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Be clear about design responsibilities.

In her book Dare to Lead, Brené Brown said “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” When you’re unclear about Design’s role in your organization, designers don’t know what the extent of their responsibilities, which can create miscommunications. Work goes undone and/or unchecked. Or maybe different people work on different parts of the projects instead of working together collaboratively.

“Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” — Brené Brown

Be clear to us and to all stakeholders about the role of Design. And be exceptionally clear about what you expect from us for each project. If you’re confused about what we do, ask us a lot of questions. And we’ll be happy to explain what we know so we can both be on the same page. And if you’ve made this far, then kudos to you. Continue to read more and learn about Design and we’ll both have better conversations.

Be comfortable with the unknown.

If you’re trying to create something new, then be ready to be comfortable with the unknown. If you haven’t seen it, your audience hasn’t used it, how do you know the Design is good or not. Instagram's new logo took 2 years to be accepted by its audience. Everything you’re doing before your product is out in the world is based on your and your team’s assumptions.

Because of this, we also need to continuously validate our assumptions to make sure we’re on the right track. But using other products to validate our designs might not work for your products due to different requirements and constraints. Their products and our products will never be the same. I heard someone said, “Comparisons will always end in heartbreak.” And indeed, comparisons amplify your fear of failure, and that’s not where you want to create your products from, it is definitely not where creativity lies.

So be brave, be patient, and come on this wild ride with us and let’s explore the unknown together. Let’s fail and succeed together because that’s where all the excitement lies. And along the way, please take care of us and we’ll take care of you, the best we know how.