6 Things I've Learned as a Product Design Manager at Eleken
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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.
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:
- Don’t be afraid to give people freedom of action and feel of responsibility.
- Don’t micromanage but trust your designers.
- 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.
How to Implement Product Design OKRs for Your Team [With Examples]
Managing design work has never been easy. Managers speak the language of metrics and deadlines, while designers speak the language of… well, design. Therefore, creative tasks are harder to fit in classical systems of project management.
Establishing clear indicators for design team is not as clear as it is for sales team, for instance. However, it doesn’t mean that the OKR system doesn’t work for them.
As a UI/UX design agency, we can say that creative team needs a special approach. Defining clear metrics for design efficiency measurement is of personal interest for us. It’s evident that some management methods that work for developers will not work well for designers. However, few methods have proven to be quite universal and thus can be successfully applied to different team within the company. One of them is OKRs (Objectives and Key Results).
This system works for both big companies and small startups. As it is quite simple, there is little barrier to trying it. To make things easier for you, we made this guide on implementing OKRs in product design, including some design OKR examples.
So, what is OKR?
It seems like a pretty basic formula, but to get why it became so paramount, you have to understand how revolutionary it was in the 70s. It was defying the centuries-long tradition of the hierarchical system of goal setting.
In the OKR framework, it is not the top manager who decides what everybody else does and what the objectives and KPIs are. All team members are involved in the process of setting OKRs. Such an approach enables one to avoid a single-perspective view of the objectives.
The system of OKRs was invented in the 70s by Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel. John Doerr, who used to work with Grove, became a true evangelist of OKRs and spread the wisdom all over the world. Since then, lots of top companies, including Google and Spotify, use the system.
John Doerr is such a fan of OKRs that he applied them even to his family life, trying to get home by 6 PM 20 nights a month to have dinner with the family (key results) in order to have a happy family (objective).
What's more, in 2018, he wrote a whole book about OKRs management methodology called "Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs", which received positive reviews from Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, and Larry Page. You can read our article for a fast grasp and then decide whether you would like to go deeper with the book.
Where to start?
As John Doerr says, the OKRs should start with WHY. Why are you doing what you are doing? What is the main purpose of the company? Until you understand that purpose you can hardly create real objectives.
After that, define objectives. Objectives should be aligned with the purpose, but also be more specific and focused on current events. There are three tips that can help you with that.
Make objectives simple and clear
The objective of OKR should be short and easy to remember. Leave the SMART goals system aside, as OKRs can be a bit abstract and idealistic. Just pick something that speaks to you, without formalities. If it is "provide damn good user experience", it's fine.
Be ambitious with goals
Making feasible goals is good, but managers of Google recommend that you make some of the OKRs a bit more ambitious. They call it moon shooting. Overall, the goals are not expected to be met at 100%. Most successful companies consider 70% a good result — remember that you’ll still land among the stars.
Don’t carve it in stone
Remember that objectives can be changed along the way if you realize that they don’t work well or that the situation has changed and they lost sense. OKRs methodology is made for the fast-changing modern business environment, so flexibility is a must.
Setting key results
Once the objective is set, it is time to move to key results. The results should be aligned with the objective and measurable. You can check our list of design metrics to give you an idea of how design results can be measured. However, before picking some of them to insert in OKRs, think of how you will collect the data.
Before setting key results, think of whether you can establish a system of measurement and track all of them. If you don't have any experience with design metrics, maybe your first OKR can be about establishing such a system?
Here are some tips on how to make a good set of key results:
- Don’t make too many. Three to five is a good number. Having too many will disperse your focus.
- Make them specific and measurable.
- Make key results realistic (even if the objective is shooting the moon)
The question that you should ask when setting key results is:
What are the main things that have to happen in a given time period to make the objective come true?
Golden rules of OKRs
You know that when the idea looks simple, the devil is in the details. You can’t just copy-paste your existing goals and KPIs into the formula and make it work. OKRs are the system and there is a set of rules that make it so efficient.
Limit the number of OKRs
Once you get into OKRs, you may start setting a dozen of them to cover all the aspects of the product design process. However, having too many will play against you. One of the main jobs of OKRs is to make a clear focus on current priorities. Fifteen objectives can not be prioritized equally, so start slow and keep the focus on what is really important.
Don’t tie them to rewards
Unlike KPIs, OKRs should never define the size of compensation. If team members know that their salaries and bonuses depend on OKRs, they will end up setting less ambitious but more “secure” objectives and results. The system is there to help the employees, not to create additional pressure.
Set the right time period
Different companies set OKRs from one week to a year. There is no general rule, however, quarterly periods are probably the most common. Also, there can be different cycles of OKR in one company. Just make sure there are no ten different deadlines.
Separate tactic and strategic objectives
Strategic OKRs are set at the company level and typically have longer cycles. Tactic OKRs are set at the team level and can have shorter cycles. A good idea is to set these two in a way that they would coincide regularly: for example, 3-monthly and 2-monthly OKRs would meet every six months, while 4-month and 5-month would only meet once every two years.
Product design OKRs examples
Objective: Integrate UX research into standard work process
— Run a brainstorming session to define the most relevant UX research methods and metrics
— Have weekly team meetings on UX research to adjust the strategy
— Recruit ten users for testing
— Develop UX research strategy and plan for the following six months
Objective: Make users addicted to the product
— user engagement score increased by 30%
— average session time increased by 20%
— churn rate decreased by 15%
Objective: Create a distinct visual style of the product
— Develop 3 versions of visual style
— Run A/B testing to choose the best one
— Create stylebook
— Create a UI library
Tools for tracking OKRs
In the beginning, it is best to use something that you are familiar with. Just creating a new G-Suite sheet, a page in Notion, or adding a new poster to the pinboard can be a good start on the OKRs way.
If you feel that these options lack functionality or you prefer using different management software, there are some that are tailored to the OKRs framework.
One of them is Tability, a product that allows you to track OKRs regularly, get reminders, visualize the progress, add tasks, and communicate with your colleagues about objectives and results. Here is how OKRs look in Tability.
The alternative OKR tools are Koan, Weekdone, and Perdoo. Weekdone claims that it can replace weekly stand-ups as the app would document all the team progress.
Some planning software like Asana have a built-in feature that facilitates tracking OKRs and aligning them with smaller tasks. Check if your favorite work management tool offers a solution that streamlines OKRs tracking, and if they do, look no further.
If you are starting with OKRs and are looking for a free tool with guidelines, check this starter kit from "Measure What Matters" by John Doerr.
Hopefully this article convinced you that OKRs are suitable for both design team and the company as a whole. Even when key results are hard to define, there are ways to establish effective goals. As a design agency, we know that UX design KPIs and usability metrics are real. Therefore, OKRs would work for design team as well as they do for sales, customer success, and others.
If you plan to introduce new methods like OKRs to increase your team’s efficiency, you might also find interesting our article How to Manage a Design Team: 5 Tips Based on True Stories.
How Design Operations (DesignOps) Work at Eleken
Hi! We are Eleken, a SaaS design agency. And though we consider ourselves to be a well-established team with common goals where everyone knows what they are doing and, in which direction we are moving, we also face challenges in our daily work.
For example, nowadays designers are involved in more strategic conversations. However, we’re being asked to balance that involvement along with our daily tasks (researching and designing). We have more meetings to attend, more policies and regulations to navigate, and more interruptions overall. Sometimes, we’re just too busy to design!
DesignOps is a way to remove some of that operational load from designers’ lives so that we can spend time researching and designing, achieving better results.
For that reason, in this article, we want to show you how we optimize work processes to make our team operate smoothly. And naturally, we can’t go without a small intro of DesignOps definition.
What is Design Operations?
Design Operations is a collective term to describe our efforts for optimizing our teams, tools, and workflows.
As for DesignOps roles, there’s no need for special titles - everyone can do it (researchers, managers, or/and designers).
However, if you want to know some specific job positions responsible for design operations these can be:
- Design/UX producers, who drive day-to-day design work and processes forward
- Design/UX program managers, who optimize a businesses' global approach to UX and design
- Research Ops specialists, who elevate the quality and consistency of research across teams
There's a need to mention that there’s no specific operational design framework that all companies should apply. There are many elements related to enabling consistent quality design and each business should choose their own DesignOps practices based on problems they encounter.
Now, we want to share with you the way we at Eleken have shaped our DesignOps practice.
How Eleken ensures effective design when scaling
As we grew, new challenges appeared, and to cope with them we developed a stable team structure, design standards, design process, toolset, hiring, and onboarding procedures, collaboration methods (both with each other and with our clients), and many more aspects that we can call our DesignOps.
For you to better understand how Eleken handles the difficulties that may occur on the way to delivering successful design solutions, we singled our four elements of operational design that we are going to discuss below:
- How we work together
- How we get the work done
- How we cooperate with our clients
- How our work creates impact
Let’s get it started!
How we work together
Here you will learn how we:
- structure and build our team
- enable effective internal communication
- share and expand knowledge
- hire and onboard new members
Team structure and roles
Eleken is not a typical design team with roles common for most SaaS companies. We differ both in structure and hierarchy. Basically, there are two main roles in our team: design lead and product designers.
The design lead’s main duties are to supervise and mentor designers, fully accompany newcomers throughout their onboarding, and serve as the contact person for clients that want to provide any kind of feedback/apply some changes related to their cooperation with Eleken.
Product designers at Eleken are independent individuals (as we don’t have product managers) and are all dedicated to their specific projects where they are responsible for user experience, visual design, UX research, and everything needed to create high-quality design solutions.
Team management and coordination
As I’ve already mentioned, designers at Eleken are independent and when you hire them they become a part of your team, like an in-house employee with whom you communicate directly. We believe that when you let your designers make decisions and take responsibility on their own, they grow professionally quicker and are more likely to come up with unique design decisions.
Therefore, for the most part, Eleken’s designers don't need thorough management from our side. There are two main cases when our design lead supervises and coordinates designers:
- New member onboarding. When a new person comes to Eleken they receive full attention from our design lead (we will talk more about onboarding later).
- On-demand. When designers feel they need some help, they can address Eleken’s design lead anytime and receive full support, advice, and mentorship.
Team communication and experience exchange
For a team (especially for the one that scales quickly) it’s essential to have a possibility to share thoughts and opinions, and most importantly get feedback or criticism from peers.
At Eleken, we hold regular weekly meetings where we discuss projects, share both positive and negative experiences, look at each other’s works, brainstorm ideas together, and get each other’s feedback. This practice allows everyone to stay tuned, create a common source of knowledge, and exchange experiences.
Hiring and onboarding
Both hiring and onboarding at Eleken are lengthy processes. It usually takes four-five months from the moment the designer applies for a job and until they start working on real projects. We are super attentive and precise when it comes to choosing a new team member and put a lot of effort into finding and educating great SaaS design specialists.
Hiring at Eleken consists of three levels:
- Portfolio evaluation. We create a job post and people send their CVs and portfolios.
- Test task. If we consider certain candidates to be suitable for our position we send them a test task. When analyzing the test task, we mainly pay attention to the applicants’ ability to create logical design decisions while adhering to major design principles.
- Interview. Finally, we invite the candidate to the interview which we can divide into three blocks: personal background and motivation to work in this industry, logical questions on basic understanding of the essence of the design, and finally, communication skills in English. The third block is especially important for us, as we want to make sure our designers will be able to clearly explain to our clients each step/idea/decision they made.
After we make our choice based on the interview results, the onboarding stage begins.
Each newcomer goes through a three-month boot camp where they have to design a product (an imaginary one) from scratch. They undergo all stages of the design process including brainstorming, competitive analysis, user research, wireframing and visual design for each screen until we get the final result.
During the whole onboarding, our design lead monitors the process: he constantly communicates with the designer, discusses each step, provides feedback, points out their strengths and weaknesses, shows the right direction for further development, and makes sure they understand what makes a good SaaS product.
Only after the design lead approves the candidate, they can work on real projects.
It takes much time and resources to get a new employee for our company, but this way we are confident our clients get access to the top design talents and receive only high-quality service.
How we get the work done
Here you will learn how we:
- define our guiding design principles
- improve design quality with consistent sets of design tools and processes
- set priorities on tasks
- cope with leadership overload
Our design principles
To provide high-quality design everyone at Eleken adhere to the following UI/UX design principles:
- Always design with the user in mind. We teach our employees to put themselves into users’ shoes each time they create something new.
- Build the correct hierarchy. By laying out elements logically and strategically our designers can influence users’ perception and guide them to the desired action.
- Use visual objects like style and patterns when possible. It will keep the consistency and will relieve a headache of your developers.
- Each design element should have its purpose. We don’t put a funny image on the screen, just because it looks nice. Eleken’s designers always try to simplify the interface (remove unnecessary things) and make each piece of design perform its function.
- UI/UX design is all about managing the user's attention. Good design doesn't need onboarding, when done correctly the user will intuitively do what they need to do.
- Remember about accessibility. We make designs for all people, and not only for those with excellent eyesight. That’s why when working on a project we ensure that the interface is well-structured, colors are contrasted, and fonts are readable.
To keep the design workflow running smoothly we created a designer handbook that describes characteristics of the product design process at main types of projects:
- Design from scratch (there is only an idea and we design a product from the very beginning)
- Redesign (there is a product, but it needs to be restructured not to be outdated or complex)
- Design support/product extension (there is a product but the client wants to create/add new functionality)
This document is accessible to all our designers and contains useful information needed to effectively perform design duties.
For example, here is a scheme of how the design from scratch looks at Eleken:
To facilitate the design quality and let design scale efficiently we defined a set of standardized tools. We use:
- Figma for main design purposes. It covers 95% of our needs (prototypes, wireframes, logos, presentations, icons, and so on).
- Google spreadsheets for UX research.
- Miro for brainstorming, schemes, and user flows.
- Slack and Gmail for communication.
Both for design agencies and for freelance designers it is often difficult to decide what project to work on and when to work on it. To prioritize, they have to consider the design team capacity, uncover problems in the design workflow, and so on.
Eleken doesn’t face the problem with prioritizing. While design agencies/freelancers have many products, we focus on one. You hire a remote team member who is completely dedicated to your project.
Although each designer at Eleken is dedicated to their own project, we work as a whole team, helping and supporting each other.
In case our design lead feels overloaded (though it happens very rarely) there are senior designers who can help and provide feedback for those less experienced.
And that’s one more thing that differs Eleken from freelancers: we're a team, every designer collaborates with the team to get feedback and improve.
How we cooperate with our clients
Here you will learn how we:
- provide effective communication with clients
- ensure the length and quality of our design
Collaboration with clients
By hiring designers at Eleken, our clients get a remote team member who they're in complete control of.
Our UI/UX specialists can be:
- a standalone designer in our client’s company
- a part of a design team (if an additional pair of hands is needed and the client doesn’t have time for hiring and onboarding)
We work on the time-based retainer pricing model, which means you buy a subscription (weekly or monthly) and get a full-time designer working on your project. This model allows you to stay flexible: you can unsubscribe in case you don’t need our services anymore, or add more designers if you need more employees for the project.
If you want to learn more about the way we collaborate with clients, read about our pricing.
We provide outsource design work, that’s why it was essential to us to think out ways to deal with any remote communication challenges.
Means of communication: we work with any means of communication that is convenient for our clients. In most cases, we use Slack for messages and Zoom for meetings.
Type of communication: our clients talk directly with the designer, without any middlemen. This way there are no misunderstandings or “Broken Telephone”.
Frequency of calls/meetings: it’s up to our clients how often they want to contact the designer. They can set up weekly meetings to receive general updates about the project’s progress, or have daily standups.
How we ensure the length and quality of our design
There is no fixed amount of time that product design takes. We can estimate the period of time needed based on our experience, but we strictly follow the pay-per-month rule. Working closely with our designers, clients know perfectly well how the project’s progress goes.
As for the quality, we’ve already mentioned that each of our designers goes through complex hiring and onboarding processes so that we make sure they have skill sets to create high-quality product design from start to finish. Also, the client can easily reach out to the designer and can control how the project goes at each stage.
How our work creates impact
Here you will learn how we:
- educate others about the value of design
- define our values and goals
Transmitting the value of design
At Eleken, we take care not only about our employees but we also want more people to understand the power of design. For that reason, we are open for communication and try to actively interact with our clients as much as we can.
We don’t keep our design processes secret and let people learn how we work. So, when you hire a designer, you, in fact, get the knowledge of the whole Eleken agency.
Eleken is a team of design enthusiasts. We believe people face enough difficulties in their daily lives and applications/software they use on a regular basis should not be one of those troubles. Technologies are called to simplify people’s lives, and with the help of profound UI/UX design services, Eleken can help everyone feel the value and enjoy the beauty of technological progress.
We help SaaS products become closer to their users and open their full potential to make people’s lives better.
Still have some questions about Eleken’s DesignOps?
We are always open to communication! Schedule a call with Eleken.