This Is Why Your External Design Team Doesn't Deliver
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Missed deadlines are a plague of the product design teams, and, let’s be honest, most other teams and individuals. The problem is older than product management and older than the word “deadline” itself.
Our design team has been working with clients remotely for a long time. We have our own methods of curing the deadlines disease, so today, let’s talk about what product managers can do to make sure that their external design team delivers on time. And of course, we’ll also share some of the secrets of successful design teams (like ours).
What’s wrong with deadlines?
I’ve always had a despise towards the term “deadline”. Not just because deadlines bring this constant pressure in my life. It is about the unnecessary drama they add to the work process. Really, no one dies if this article doesn’t get published until the end of the month. And the work of designers is not that life-or-death impactful either.
When doing this little research on deadlines, I discovered that the word originated in prisons. In the 19th century, it actually was related to death: there was a physical line that prisoners were prohibited to cross — otherwise they would be shot. And we are still using this word in 21st-century daily life.
I would love to suggest a good alternative that everyone could use instead. But let’s be realistic: deadlines are not going anywhere. The only thing I can suggest is to use other words as well and be aware of the somehow toxic meaning of “deadline”.
Beyond the word, Eleken designers don’t like the meaning of deadline either. Not because they find it hard to fit in the given terms. This is because the nature of the design process is not always compatible with strict time limits.
We never know how many iterations we will need for the best result. When the deadline is pressuring, the chances are that the testing will be skipped and the final version would be the one that was the closest to the deadline, not the best one.
It doesn’t mean that designers don’t know how long their work would take. With smaller tasks, like “make screens for sign-up flow”, estimating time is essential. But when we are being realistic and accept the fact that the first version of our design won’t be the best one, we have to give ourselves more time and explain to clients that deadlines can hurt the quality of the design.
That is why we work with the retainer pricing model: we don’t get into the risk of saying the exact deadline and then compromising quality because of a lack of time for iterations. We work with clients who understand that good design is a lasting process, so our pricing model is like a subscription: you can always unsubscribe if you feel that it doesn’t bring you value. And we are happy to say that people keep their subscriptions as long as it takes to get to the best version of the design.
What’s wrong with the traditional solutions?
Have you ever waited for a few hours to see a doctor with some weird sickness and ended up getting some ibuprofen? Ibuprofen takes away the symptoms, but it doesn’t cure the cause of the disease.
In our case, the symptom is missed deadlines. What are typical ibuprofen and paracetamol of product managers? Hiring new team members, changing design team organizational structure, giving larger time periods, reducing the scope, and so on.
What is the real cause? Don’t want to be that TV doctor here who gives diagnoses on distance, but let me tell you about one common cause: approach to collaboration with external teams. How can it be optimized to cure the deadline fails?
Changing approach to leadership
Sometimes you come to a doctor for strong prescription pills that would cure you, but instead, they tell you that you have to do exercises daily for 30 minutes and eat healthy. It is a good and holistic treatment, but it can also be disappointing.
Changing the approach to leadership is a similar kind of treatment. It requires continuous efforts, but in exchange, it brings more results in long term. Whatever your design team structure is, there is a product owner who has to take a certain level of leadership.
We suggest you focus on such healthy habits as good communication practices. This includes sharing information with the team, taking everyone into account when making decisions, appreciating design team initiatives, getting and giving good feedback. All of this will contribute to establishing a culture of dialogue that will make your team more functional.
We believe that proper communication is the key, really. On our company’s internal guides, there is a part dedicated solely to that. And we love when our clients give the same amount of attention to this – we even wrote an article on how not to talk to designers.
If you are serious about changing your life approach to leadership, here are some of the small habits that you can add to your routine and see how they will bring your team little by little to impeccable deadline management. But remember: learning how to manage a design team is not a one-workshop thing.
Explain the importance of timing
Product team a kindergarten and everybody knows that being late is bad. But being an adult also means that you likely have missed some deadlines in your life and know that nobody actually dies. So people can do it one more time.
To address this issue, the team lead has to give enough information so that team understands what depends on their work.
Designers may not hurry to finish screens when they know that developers will be able to start working on implementation only in one month. On the contrary, when you explain that the testing round is planned for next month, the need to be on time is clear.
When the external design team is not aware of your internal processes, they may not realize how their work is a part of the ongoing project. You have to make it clear: their due date is not only theirs: people tend to show more responsibility when there are more parties affected.
Share product strategy and goals
Often, our clients come to us for redesign and set tight time limits. We know that proper redesign needs way more time. Also, we know that redesign is a means, not a purpose, so we focus on the real objective. Is it better usability? Or easier onboarding? Based on that, we can look for solutions that would bring us closer to the objective without having to redesign the whole product.
Here is an example. When we got to work on Ricochet360, a phone cloud system and CRM, clients wanted us to make a redesign in two months. And after that, developers would need at least two months to implement the design.
So, before starting a new design from scratch, we asked ourselves: “What is the main objective?” Ricochet360’s problem was a long and complex onboarding process. That’s why, first of all, we suggested making little changes to the design that would make a difference instantly. We added a few details to the “add new lead” screen that made navigating over 30 fields easier: asterisks next to essential fields, hints, and error highlights.
After applying similar fast fixes to some screens, we could focus on the main work and get the best result. Now, the pressure of deadline was softer as we’ve already delivered value at the very beginning of the collaboration. That's where our experience in CRM software design came handy.
Keep an open dialogue
That’s one more way of making deadline seem less “deadly”. There are moments sometimes when people are faced with the choice to rather admit that they need more time to finish the task or do it at any price, compromising quality and work conditions.
In products with a high level of trust between management and team members, people feel less pressure and are not afraid to say that they can’t meet the deadline, or, ideally, participate in the planning and make time limits more realistic from the very beginning.
To put it simply, it’s harder to fail the deadline when you are the one who set it.
Understand the needs of your team
First of all, it’s helpful to think of the external team as a part of your team. When you are working with an agency that has to deliver the whole project all at once, it’s different from having an external team that you can get in touch with regularly.
At the beginning of the collaboration, external designers have to ask many things. Naturally, you don’t want to share all your documents with an external design team, but the more you can give, the less they would ask for later. Make sure you include this in your standard external team onboarding process.
Our designers love PMs who ask them if they need something and try to find all the necessary information. Lacking essential information can slower work and quickly turn into a failed deadline.
Solving the deadline issue is a marathon, not a short-distance run. You have to prepare and be ready to change communication habits, the design team process, or whatever it takes. If you are serious about stepping on this long distance, take a look at our step-by-step guide on designing with remote teams.