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November 7, 2022

 mins to read

6 Things I've Learned as a Product Design Manager at Eleken

Hi, my name is Maksym Chervynskyi and I am the head of design at Eleken - a UI/UX design agency that helps companies all over the world build great SaaS products.

Since 2019 our team has scaled from less than 10 to about 30 product designers, all of which are under my supervision. I mentor, guide, and assist them when they take on new projects, onboard newcomers, helping junior designers successfully get through their daily tasks, and perform all the other responsibilities that a product design manager is supposed to do.

Now all the above-mentioned duties are my daily routine that I truly love, but three years ago when I was just starting my new career position, I felt both excited and challenged with upcoming loads of work to be done. And recalling myself back then, I would have been very grateful if someone had provided me with a piece of valuable advice.

This post contains important lessons that I’ve drawn out from managing product designers that I believe help us move forward as a strong and productive team. 

1. Managing designers is impossible without trust

Personally I’ve always been a great believer that prominent design teams are built on trust and autonomy. And my goal as a design manager is to bring my designers to the level where they have enough knowledge and skills to make important design decisions independently, without my supervision or approval. 

We can draw a parallel with the Ukrainian army here. Current successes of our armed forces are possible, to a large extent, thanks to the decentralized management system. Our officers don’t have to wait for orders from on high to take any single action, instead, they have the freedom to make their own decisions and can act quickly depending on the situation.

This way, giving your team enough autonomy helps to get rid of unnecessary bureaucracy and speeds up all design processes to let your designers work more efficiently. Full autonomy, freedom of actions, and complete trust are what ensure smooth design processes that lead to a satisfied client and a happy designer.

2. Don’t be afraid to let your team feel responsible for what they create

It really takes some time to learn how to cope with the desire to improve each design your team members create and stop being overprotective. Thoughts like “This could be done in another way”, and “I’d better change the interface color” are not that easy to ignore but they can lead to the situation when workers put full responsibility for their final result on you.

I found my own way to cope with this issue with the help of a long-lasting boot camp that each novice designer has to go through. At Eleken, newcomers’ onboarding lasts about three months, during which they have to develop a design concept from scratch under my supervision. 

That’s the time I do my best to share my vision of what good design is, teach newbies best design practices and approaches, show them the right direction for further self-development, as well as adjust their way of thinking to the one that supports our company’s values.  

Putting so much effort into newcomers' education helps me ensure that they are ready to work with real clients, that they feel ownership and responsibility for the work they do, and won’t ignore occurring issues and deadlines.

My task as a product design leader is not to watch each designer’s step and strive for perfection but to ensure the final design satisfies the customer and is good enough to perform its goal. 

And though my designers know I am always there, ready to help, they are accountable for what they deliver.

3. Allow other team members to help you

As the team grows, it becomes harder to give enough attention to each person and provide your assistance to every minor issue they have. Therefore, a design manager role requires you to be able to delegate effectively. 

Delegation helps you: 

  • Get things done faster
  • Develop your designers
  • Motivate them

Additionally, sharing your product design manager duties among workers promotes team collaboration and helps your designers come up with better solutions together. 

But to be able to give the right task to the right person you should learn each of your designer's backgrounds, skills, styles of work, strengths, and weaknesses. 

From my practice, I often direct junior designers to seniors when I know they have great expertise in some specific problem area. For example, one of our product designers, Dasha, is great at visual design. She has a better sense of beauty than I do. Thus, when I understand that a newcomer has some troubles with the visual design, I direct them to Dasha.

Each individual can contribute to the team’s success. You as a manager should help your designers collaborate, exchange ideas, listen to different points of view, and based on all the information they receive, form their unique experience.

4. Be a facilitator

My process of working with designers can be called the Socratic method. I don’t tell them what to do and never give direct orders. I rather lead an argumentative dialogue to stimulate their critical thinking and make them come up with the right decision on their own.

To build a powerful design team always explain the “why” behind each of your arguments. Don’t say “Your design solution is wrong”, say “The decision you chose won’t work because…”. 

The managers' job is to provide employees with the needed tools, resources, and support that help them achieve high results. 

Image credit: The Positive Psychology People

5. Don’t underestimate yourself

Probably the most difficult point in my product design lead responsibilities at the beginning of my career was the uncertainty in my own skills and knowledge. I wasn’t sure if the advice I gave earlier this day was good enough. There were many doubts in my head: “What if I think my remarks are OKAY, but they are not?” “What if I teach my designers the wrong things?”, “If I personally don’t fully understand what I’m doing here, how can I teach others what to do?”

The relief came over time when I gained enough experience to realize that the knowledge I give my teammates is correct and relevant. And I saw it in their progress and individual growth.

Therefore, whenever you doubt your professionalism, remember:

  • It’s OK to make mistakes if you are willing to correct them
  • It’s OK not to have answers to all questions if you have a clear design vision, a well-established set of values, and you are ready to work hard to improve your product design leadership traits.
  • It’s OK to face problems if your knowledge helps others grow professionally 

6. Look for people who are excited about what they do

“You can put in practice the most efficient system, process, or structure in the world, but this will be as successful or not as the mindset of the people involved in the process” from “Inspired” by Marty Cagan.

All your product design manager roles and responsibilities end up working with people. Thus, an essential thing that contributes to your team’s success is people's personality. I am not talking about professional skills or experience (as they can be gained with time), here I mean some personal traits you should look for in your team members.

From my experience, a product designer is successful if they are:

  • Eager to learn new things. To stay tuned in a fast-moving world, where the design trends change drastically, it’s a must to keep learning and self-improving non-stop.
  • Excited about their work. If a designer works at your company only to earn a living and you don’t see a sparkle in their eyes, it’s very likely they won’t retain for long in your team, or wouldn’t be able to deliver good designs. Loving what you do gives you the best motivation to become professional.
  • Have great communication skills. Your employees can lack some skills that top product designers have, but if they can clearly explain their design ideas, communicate their thoughts, and give just-in-time feedback it won’t be a problem for you as a manager to help them improve and achieve higher results.  

To sum up

If someone would ask me what three pieces of advice I can tell those who just start their careers as product design managers my honest answer would be:

  1. Don’t be afraid to give people freedom of action and feel of responsibility.
  2. Don’t micromanage but trust your designers. 
  3. Surround yourself with smart people eager to learn new things.

Looking for dedicated UI/UX designers to help you grow your product? Extend your team with Eleken.

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