How to Manage a Design Team: 5 Tips Based on True Stories
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Managing a creative team is challenging, especially for those who’ve just shifted from being a designer to being a design team lead. Burnout and impatience, along with tight restrictions, are only part of the design team's problems. People of creative professions often painfully perceive criticism, they are constantly tormented by doubts, and the muse does not always come to them at the first call. The remote work, which remains in most companies today, only exacerbates the situation.
Still, it is possible to make the work of a design team effective with a competent management approach based on empathy and active participation in the life of employees.
We’ve asked our design lead at Eleken how to manage a design team and what advice he can give to those who’ve just started working their way into a creative lead role.
As we are going to give you recommendations based on our design lead’s experience, we want to first explain what a design team at Eleken looks like.
Design team structure at Eleken
First of all, it’s important to state that Eleken’s team composition is not a typical one. Usually, when building a design team structure organizations search for:
At Eleken, our team consists of product designers, who are responsible for user experience, visual design, and UX research, and a design lead, who performs a supervising and mentoring role. But we don’t have design team managers. Each of our designers is assigned to a specific project and communicates directly with the client, without any intermediates. This way, we believe there are no misunderstandings during the design process.
Here’s how the design department organization chart looks like in most companies:
At our SaaS design agency, the design team organization chart looks like this:
Now it’s time to introduce Maksym Chervynskyi - our lead user experience designer. Maksym has been involved in UI/UX and graphic design for more than seven years, two of which he has been working as a design lead at Eleken.
Take a look at his main responsibilities:
Now let’s see what answer Maksym gave us on how to effectively manage a design team.
Recommendations on design team management
Moving to a new leadership role is not an easy transition. You essentially go from performing your regular design duties to managing and mentoring designers. And in most cases, there is no coach to help you master this new position.
But don’t feel too stressed, and confused, here are five things to remember when you start managing a design team.
Understand your job
You can’t manage others properly if your own tasks aren’t clearly defined
For sure, there will be a substantial learning curve when starting a new position, especially for first-time managers. But get in there and figure out what you are supposed to do as soon as possible so you can start being an awesome leader.
Understand that your main responsibility isn’t to design anymore
Instead, your duties are now probably more about project management and client relationships. So take care of the bigger picture and support your designers in their roles. You can monitor a designers’ projects and progress, but don’t micromanage, that is don’t get involved in your team members’ day-to-day tasks.
Remember that your performance isn’t measured by your solo achievements anymore
Now your progress indicator is your team’s achievements. So your job is to inspire your team to do great design work.
Communicate your role
Tell your team what your job responsibilities are as a manager, on a regular basis. Just like designers give you an update of what they are working on, you should give them an update of what you are working on as well.
Communicate the company goals
Tell your team about company goals and big picture projects. Sharing big plans with employees makes them feel a part of something important. That’s how they become more motivated in their daily work and understand the “why” behind each task.
Speak with your team about potential new clients, profits, and plans for the nearest future.
If issues arise, you have to communicate in a clear, constructive way. There can be situations when your employees underperform or fail a certain task. Don’t keep silent, talk to your designers. To build a strong team, there's a need to always discuss every single challenge faced by designers.
As you get to know each designer, you will find the best way to communicate with them. Every individual responds in different ways so have some empathy, and accommodate each employee.
Speak to each designer one-on-one at least once a month. At general meetings, employees may be embarrassed to talk about problems and bottlenecks that prevent them from providing good results or working effectively as a team.
At individual meetings, you can discuss projects, successes, and failures, give your recommendations and support. In addition, one-on-one conversations are also a team-building tool: after them, team members begin to trust the leader more.
But what if your team is too big, or you are overloaded with different tasks and physically can’t conduct personal meetings each week/month? Here is a recommendation from Maksym:
“At general meetings, when we discuss regular updates, I listen carefully not only to what designers are currently working on, but I also pay attention to each employee’s tone of voice and emotional state. If I feel something’s wrong, for example, a designer seems tired or disappointed, I contact them to have a personal conversation.”
Make your designers feel appreciated, respected, and supported
“My team knows that they can address me anytime with any type of question/issue and find, if not an answer, then at least a piece of advice in which direction to move to find a solution. The least I give my employees each time they come to talk to me is moral support and the opportunity to speak out.” - Maksym says.
Keeping up office morale is a big part of team management. Morale has a huge effect on productivity and general well-being. Low morale can lead to decreased concentration and increased number of mistakes. Also, it can lead to a higher employee turnover rate.
Be your team’s biggest advocate and give them credit where credit is due
Here’s what Maksym tells:
“There are moments when designers are ready to give up because of complicated tasks they’ve never faced before, or discrepancies in design vision between them and their clients. I never let them think they are not good enough professionals. I say “Try more variants. You will cope with everything. You are doing everything great, just a little more effort. You can do it!” and so forth. I am my designers’ biggest advocate in any situation and they know about it.”
In general, managing a team is a lot like a relationship:
- get to know your designers
- understand their strengths and weaknesses
- help to highlight their strengths
- understand their life goals
- never stop supporting them
Don't forget about feedback
Develop a culture of feedback in your team: don't leave any question unanswered. It is not always easy to share your opinion efficiently. Sometimes, feedback can inadvertently demotivate a designer. Here are some rules to keep in mind when evaluating your designers’ works:
Do not correct, but ask
Before making any adjustments, the manager should ask why the designer decided to do it exactly that way.
Do not use the word "but"
It automatically crosses out the praise in the first part of the phrase. “You’ve done a nice job, but...” Sounds like you didn’t do anything correctly, right?
Don't put labels on your designers’ works
High-quality feedback is not built on the words “beautiful” and “ugly”. You should always provide arguments.
Here’s a word from Maksym:
“I never tell designers that they’ve created something awful, or that they can’t correctly perform their job. Even if I see that the developed interface looks not that good (such a thing often happens with newbies), I prefer to say that this design is not quite what we need, and then I provide arguments why I think so. As well, I give my employee some advice, in which direction to move to correct the situation.”
Give designers freedom to make decisions
Limiting a creative person or putting them in a rigid framework is a direct path to burnout and loss of interest.
Do not give direct instructions
“From my own experience, I never try to give people ready-made answers or direct orders. I strive to show them a direction and let a designer come to a solution on their own. And that’s not because I blindly trust people (though I always trust my team), but because independently they usually find unique and interesting decisions, that I personally, would never think about. The ability to make decisions and take responsibility lets designers grow professionally quicker.” - Maksym
Instead of solving the problem yourself, it is better to ask the designer's opinion or give directions for the solution. This will allow the specialist to develop soft and hard skills. To fix the problem in a piece of design, you need to point out mistakes that violate the design principles and let the person solve the problem themselves.
Allow designers to leave projects
To keep designers interested and prevent them from creative burnout give them the opportunity to leave projects. Let your team members know that if they feel devastated and run out of ideas, they can ask you to change the project.
“I feel comfortable working on one project for several years. However, it doesn’t mean all my colleagues feel the same. There are people that get bored and tend to experience burnout after spending four-six months doing the same thing. That’s why at Eleken we try to “leave the door open”, where possible, and let designers quit projects, if it decreases their productivity and emotional state.” - says Maksym.
P.S. Of course it doesn’t mean you have to constantly switch designers from project to project at their first call. This rule works in case you had a one-on-one conversation with your employee and understand that continuing working on the same project is affecting their productivity.
Final advice for those who just start their work as creative leaders
Final piece of advice from Maksym:
“Trust your team and do not be micromanagers. That is, don’t control each step of your designers, but rather create such a work environment that would let your employees blossom. Your task as a design lead is to direct people. Give your employees autonomy, but let them know you are always there, ready to help.”
Your task as a leader is not to give orders, but to create conditions that would give all your team members the ability to develop, improve and strive for better results. All the employees should understand that they work in a safe environment, where they can come to you in any situation and receive the support they need.
To sum up, even though our designers are dedicated to their specific projects, they all collaborate with one another, get their works reviewed by colleagues, brainstorm new ideas, and help each other solve problems and create better solutions. Learn more about us.
Hiring a Design Agency? Learn How to Share UX Design Requirements
In July 1938, a small silver plane made a wide turn over a city and started down to the airport. The pilot landed his plane, stepped out, and exclaimed: “Where am I?”
It was Corrigan Douglas. He took off from New York, with plans to land in California, but the compass had malfunctioned, he lost his direction in the clouds and accidentally flew over the ocean. Due to a navigation mistake, Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan made a transatlantic flight from New York to Dublin.
Aviators will tell you that being off course by just one degree, after flying 60 miles, you'll miss your target by a mile. The further your road goes, the more remarkable your mistake gets. And harder to fix.
Designing a product doesn't happen overnight. Like with long-haul flights, going off course even a little will make a huge impact on the final result.
Initial requirements gathering is a preliminary phase of the design process that is crucial to setting the whole project off in the right direction by focusing on the right problems to solve and, consequently, building the right thing.
No other part of the conceptual work is harder than deciding on requirements. No other part of the work cripples the result so much if done wrong. No other part is as difficult to rectify later.
That's not hyperbole — 39% of failed projects fail due to inaccurate requirements gathering.
Seemingly both designers and clients are interested in getting the requirements right. So how is requirement gathering done and why does this process often go painfully wrong?
What makes UX design documentation difficult (and how to fix it)
So you have an app to build, and you’re looking for designers to help you with the UI/UX part. If you are lucky enough to have in-house design capabilities, you’ll explain to fellow colleagues what you want them to do and they'll be likely to understand. Those people have been sitting on hundreds of your weekly meetings, they’ve read miles and miles of your company’s Slack conversations. In other words, they understand the context.
But since you’re reading this article, you haven’t got enough in-house design capabilities. You're going to cooperate with a stranger who is a design and user experience expert but doesn’t know much about your context, your market, and your audience.
It’s like taking a taxi with a driver who has never been to your city and has no navigator on board. Before taking off, this guy will ask you about your destination and the best route. That's the same kind of thing any designer will ask you when getting to work.
The input information from clients usually sounds something like this:
“We need to design/redesign this MVP/app/website”
That’s not enough to open Figma and start wireframing. The designer needs to gather more information:
- To understand precisely what is required of the design. What is the idea of the product, its goals and objectives, its future functionality and competitors, its users and their needs;
- To decide on some basic schedule and roadmap for the design milestones;
- To agree on production control to ensure final prototypes satisfy the requirements.
The problem is that we have some obstacles that get in the way of making all the UI/UX requirements clear. The three C’s formula — Communication, Comprehension, Control — captures all the components capable of throwing any design project into chaos.
Communication: breaking barriers and building bridges
When you tell your designer you’re making a breakthrough decentralized P2P ecosystem, it’s quite the same as switching into the language of birds. What sounds just fine for you with your industry expertise sounds like white noise for a designer.
Software is complex, abstract, difficult to visualize and explain. That creates communication barriers you and your designers have to eliminate on the road to fruitful communication.
We at Eleken UX design agency believe that the ability to understand each other is key to a successful project. That’s why we literally built our working process around communication with clients.
- We don’t ask you to fill a brief — because no UX design specification document can explain customer needs better than a real conversation when you can ask what the heck “decentralized P2P ecosystem” is when you hear such kind of white noise.
- We arrange calls with clients, a lot of calls. In some cases, they are even meetings and workshops — all to discuss the product and clarify our next steps.
- We don’t have project managers in our agency — the person you talk to is the person who designs your app. Cutting out the middleman allows us to make sure the message always reaches the right person, and not in a Chinese whispers way.
What clients can do, for their part, is being responsive. If the designer has questions, try to answer them fast to optimize their time and your investments. A designer that doesn’t get timely feedback can either wait for your reply, thus being blocked, or continue working on assumptions that might lead the project down the wrong way (ending up somewhere in Dublin).
Comprehension: how to define requirements for a project
Maksym, a UI/UX designer at Eleken, provides a typology of projects based on the level of the customer’s comprehension:
- Smooth projects, when clients know what they want and how they want it to be done. Designers, in such cases, are not involved in any conceptual decisions, but simply work according to specifications given. Not the most creative stuff, but smooth sailing from day one. The result is usually assured and the customer is satisfied.
- Successful projects, when clients know what they want, and trust designers to define the best ways for things to be done. Clients’ knowledge and designers’ expertise unite for synergy and success.
- Fun projects, when clients don’t know what they want but trust designers to help them figure things out. Eleken specializes in designing apps for SaaS startups, so we basically specialize in fun projects.
For sure, it’s an ideal scenario when you come to a designer and clearly know how your app is going to work and look like — it just saves your time. However, our experience shows that clients rarely know what they want (until they see it). Not in the detail necessary for design specification, at least.
And it’s okay. Bring a vision, then let the agency figure out the details. Experienced designers can help you define requirements for a project. It just means that you’ll go all the way carefully testing the waters, and you’ll participate in communicating on a daily basis for the feedback exchange.
A designer will show you various types of products to understand your preferences. They’ll study all the existing written materials on the topic, and check their findings with you. They’ll do user experience research, and validate it with you. They’ll create user journeys, and show them to you to obtain your feedback. They’ll make wireframes and prototypes, and show them to you many, many times until the result satisfies you.
Deep comprehension can be replaced by the customer’s trust and active cooperation.
Control: navigating through the fog of uncertainty
The saying was that two things in life are certain: death and taxes. A design project plan is not on the list. Because the product design process is hard. It’s nuanced. It takes months (and sometimes years) to bear fruit.
Yet precision is what designers often asked for. Clients want to know exactly when the project will be done, how much time each step will take, and what the schedule is.
At the beginning of any project, we don’t know how long this is going to take. We can compare it to our previous experiences, but no two projects are the same. They never have the same requirements, the same people, the same priorities, the same UI/UX design tasks. Each is unique.
At first glance, we can say whether the UX scope of work is going to be large (6+ months), medium (2-5 months), or small (a couple of weeks).
As more research and development is done, more information is learned about the project, the uncertainty tends to decrease. After a couple of iterations, we can learn and create something, measure how long that takes, and then give you a much better sense of how big this thing is.
To make gathering customer requirements in the fog of uncertainty easier, we at Eleken provide you a 3-days trial free of charge. On the expiry of the trial week, you can make an informed decision on whether you want to go on working together, and we can make better estimations on the scope and schedule.
Wrapping up our little guide to UX design process & documentation
Product design for SaaS startups is where outsourcing never works, but collaboration always does. Collaboration is especially important at the initial phase of UX requirements gathering. If you give agency money and then sit around waiting for them to impress you, you’re risking ending up in Dublin instead of California.
But the effort is worth it. After all, we seek to create something that people love and have value from — this is the real magic of being either an entrepreneur or a product designer.
We’ve been talking about business requirements. If you want to read about how we elicit user requirements, read our piece about the UX research process.
And if you’re ready to discuss your design requirements with us, drop us a line.
Story of One Product Design Trial that Started Messily but Still Succeeded
How do you cope when a project doesn’t go as planned? Unexpected situations can set you off. Yet there are always ways how to turn them into positives.
"In the midst of a three-day trial with my first-ever client, I suddenly realized that I was doing something completely wrong."
That’s a quote from Anastasiia, Eleken’s UI/UX designer. From the comment, it may seem that her first project resulted in a failure. But the thing is that it was nothing but a success after that episode happened.
So we could not miss the opportunity to ask her for more details. Here is what Nastia told us.
The situation you faced is quite stressful. How did you handle it?
Our client, ClearPoint Strategy, was looking to design an MVP. But when I was presenting them the first screens and collecting feedback, it turned out that they misinterpreted the word MVP. What they really needed was a product extension design.
The situation was indeed stressful, but thanks to an iterative process we follow at Eleken and timely feedback from the client, the failure turned into success.
Within less than two days after the presentation, I created completely new screens. I managed to meet deadlines and successfully ended the trial.
We appreciate you sharing your insights and would love to hear more. What are you working on now?
As of now, I’m designing a new in-product feature for ClearPoint Strategy. It will help users create dashboards easier. At its core, the feature is similar to a mini-site builder with a few visual customization options. I’ve already created some variants to choose from.
Together with the team, we’re checking the product’s usability to ensure the elements are not too complicated for users. I'm also trying to define potential challenges or identify elements that can affect the final solution.
While working on your trial, you successfully adapted to sudden changes and adjusted to unexpected challenges. What can you advise UX designers who will have their first trial?
Looking back, these three approaches have worked for me and I'd like to share them with you:
- Develop communication skills. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions to both the client and your design manager. If you don’t understand something, it is better to ask, instead of trying to guess.
- Don’t be nervous, just do your job. What I liked the most about the trial with the Eleken team is that while having the freedom to create, you get support from an expert manager as well. You’re not alone. Your supervisor is always there for you.
- Do a lot of research. Look for similar solutions on the market and determine direct and indirect competitors. It’s OK if you don’t know how a product should work at first. Focus on interfaces instead. Additionally, ask the client to send references and evaluate how they work.
Great! Let’s talk about your work process. Can you please describe it?
Everything starts with good well-established communication with a kick-off call where I collect information, clarify project details, and try to understand the client’s pain points and expectations.
Next, I draft my ideas. It can be done in any form, even a sketch on a piece of paper. This is what I often do. Then, I switch to searching for references to find similar patterns. Primarily, I focus on logic, not visual looks.
As a result, I create three screens and present them to the client. During the research and development process, I collaborate with my design manager and collect feedback.
If you don’t mind, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
Sure! By education, I’m a translator of the Indonesian language. My first job was as an embassy employee. I spent some time working there but then understood that it wasn’t my career path.
Your education is non-technical. How did your journey in UX design begin then?
During my university years, I got interested in front-end development. But for me, it lacks creativity. Yes, in terms of how the work results look visually, it is interesting. But the design needs a greater degree of creativity. And it was what I wanted. So I enrolled in a course to get the essential skills.
What or who inspired you to pursue a career?
Perhaps it's Darina Silchenko, Eleken’s leading UI/UX designer. Darina was my teacher in the design course. I enjoyed her lessons and looked forward to them. So I believe she was the person who inspired me to pursue a career in the field.
How do you stay motivated and inspired in your work?
There are several factors that motivate me. First, I actually found my dream job that I’m passionate about and that doesn't feel like work at all. I don’t think like, “Tomorrow is Monday, I have to go to work again”.
Secondly, I like that everyone on my team is trying to keep their finger on the pulse. Every Friday, we have design sessions where the team shares some cool resources, courses, books, and more. It's so energizing and empowering.
What's more, there are so many various activities at Eleken like lectures from senior designers, workshops, or UI Mini School. They help me find out what I don’t know and self-motivate to get more things done.
Finally, I try to surround myself with a "designer" environment outside of working hours. As of now, my social media bubble is mostly about design.
How do you continue to learn and grow as a UX designer, and what resources do you rely on to stay current in the field?
This is an interesting question. I usually read articles on Medium, as this resource provides a wide selection of expert stories. Sometimes, I visit the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) website or just browse the Internet.
If I’m looking for a UX solution, I don’t try to re-invent the wheel. Instead, I look for product samples where the solution I need is already implemented. Resources like Mobbin help here.
There is also a classic method where you test the product yourself and analyze how the elements are arranged, click on it, register for the demo version, look at the patterns, and so on.
By the way, we at Eleken developed our own "Mobbin". It is organized into a SaaS book where we analyzed various SaaS products in a flow. It helps me a lot.
A "fresh look" from a supervisor or a teammate can assist with UX problems that may arise. This is what we do every two weeks on Thursdays. During these meetings, we discuss problems, think together, generate ideas, and offer our own options.
What is the most interesting part of the working process of a UX designer?
The most interesting part for me is dealing with and overcoming the challenges that may arise while working on the project. These questions always help me to find the right solution:
- How to make my design both convenient and easy to use?
- How to make it visually appealing?
- How to please the customer and keep the user in mind?
I also use several checklists to ensure I haven't missed any necessary steps as well.
Can you share some tips for anyone looking for a UX designer?
To get started, I’d advise turning to the platforms where designers showcase their portfolios, such as Behance and Dribbble. While looking for a designer, I also recommend visiting several reference websites like Clutch. Once you've found designers that caught your attention, reach out to them and schedule an interview.
By the way, Eleken’s 3-day trial period is a great way to see in advance how your future product may look and function. At the same time, it gives designers plenty of great opportunities to express themselves.
Each Eleken client has a responsible designer and a design manager that are working hard to offer the best option for their specific business needs.
Thank you Nastia for the interesting conversation!
Thanks for the talk! Good luck to you! I hope your readers will find some helpful insight from my story.
Curious about Eleken's trial? Drop us a line and we’ll contact you shortly to see how we can help.