Design Leadership Handbook
04

Operationalizing design

Build the process


by Aarron Walter and Eli Woolery

To do their best work and hit deadlines your team will need structure. They’ll need clarity on the work happening within the team, and regular feedback at each step of a project. By formalizing the feedback process, you’ll help your team operationalize their work without compromising on quality.

Building feedback into your design practice will help in so many ways:

  • You’ll avoid spending too much time on a design that may have significant flaws
  • You’ll gain multiple perspectives on a single problem, helping the designer get closer to an effective solution faster
  • Presenting work for feedback will keep your team synced on project progress, and hold everyone accountable to milestones and deadlines
  • As designers get in the habit of presenting their work and giving feedback to others, they’ll learn to think more clearly about their design decisions, and become comfortable articulating their ideas
  • Regular feedback processes will give junior designers the opportunity to learn from senior designers, helping your entire team level up

The first step to operationalizing feedback in your team is thinking carefully about how designs are shared.

Setting the stage for feedback

By changing your space to create the right environment, you can set the stage for feedback and collaboration in your team. For distributed and remote teams, this is doubly important—establishing dedicated times and places for sharing works in progress keeps everyone connected.

In person

The walls of your design studio are a sacred space. This is where your team’s ideas can be shared, debated, retooled, and celebrated. Make it clear to your team that the studio walls are not a gallery—this is work space!

If you don’t already have one, invest in a large format printer and get the whole team connected. Print design work daily and post to your studio walls for scheduled design reviews and casual conversations.

If your walls aren’t ideal for posting work, you can buy 8-foot by 4-foot sheets of foam core and lean them against your walls. Get some nice Washi tape to post your designs in style (and easily peel off later). Leave markers and sticky notes nearby so your team and anyone in the company can easily jot down a bit of feedback and post it.

 

The design team at Greater Good Studio has gone so far as to create project bays, a modular space to post work for critical discussion. Each new project they begin gets its own bay—a physical manifestation of their progress.

The fidelity of the work you post can influence the feedback you get. Pixel-perfect comps may lead others to believe the work is finished, which will inhibit feedback. Work that’s a little lower fidelity or with notes scribbled on it will make it clear to all that you’re still working through ideas.

Remote

Remote teams can also set the stage for feedback using tools like Slack, Trello, Google Hangouts, and of course, InVision. The entire design team at InVision is distributed and uses their own product to conduct design reviews. LiveShare, a design collaboration feature in InVision, lets the team present their work and get real-time feedback. Early ideas are explored with Boards, later becoming Prototypes that are again shared with the team for feedback.

With so many affordable tools at hand, remote teams can easily build feedback into their design process too.

With the stage set for feedback in your team, you’re ready to establish the format for each type of feedback your team will need.

Operationalizing the feedback process

Designing out in the open is just the first step. Your team will also need to get feedback on their designs, sync with teammates to make sure progress is being made, and learn from mistakes so they can improve. This is a tall order, and calls for different types of feedback processes.

Let’s take a look at a few ways to get your team the right feedback at the right time.

 

Design reviews

When they should happen: All the time! They’ll keep your team moving forward

Who should be there: The designer plus no more than 7 people

How it helps: Designers get the feedback they need to refine their work

Design reviews are critiques that let designers get detailed feedback that’s framed by the project goals. Design reviews can happen at a number of different points in a project. It’s often helpful to do one early on so the designer can get fresh perspectives before investing too much time in an idea that may be misguided. The midway point and toward the end of a project are also natural times to get additional inputs.

Never use a design review as a big reveal of project. If you wait until you have everything polished, you’ll be too invested to accept the feedback you’re given.

Design reviews are a great opportunity to bring in experts from other teams to make the work better. Colleagues from support, engineering, product management, QA, legal, marketing, or even an executive may have a new perspective to help you see the problem differently. But try not to overload the guest list in these reviews—too many people and you’ll have a hard time guiding the conversation.

Design standups

When they should happen: Daily for large or distributed teams, less often for small teams

Who should be there: Everyone on the design team

How it helps: Your team gets the chance to sync up on projects

Design standups are short, daily check-ins that help your team stay abreast of the work that’s being done. As the name suggests, everyone remains standing in these meetings so no one can get comfortable enough to launch into a soliloquy.

In a standup, each team member answers 3 questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. Are there any impediments, or blockers, in your way?

While most teams choose to conduct standups in the morning, you may want to consider doing them after lunch—the morning is when our minds are clearest and ready to focus on creative work. For remote teams, pick a time that accommodates multiple time zones.

Don’t let standups turn into impromptu design critiques. If someone needs immediate design feedback, ask that they hold the request until after the meeting—a standup should be short and focused on project progress.

Retrospectives

When they should happen: After a project is launched or a sprint is completed

Who should be there: Everyone who worked on the project

How it helps: Your team will internalize lessons from each project

Every project is a learning opportunity, but if you don’t pause to take stock, valuable lessons will slip away. When you’ve launched a project or completed a sprint, it’s a great time to reflect on what went well, what was confusing, and what didn’t go so well.

Matt Spiel, Director of Design at Treehouse, conducts retrospective meetings regularly. He sends a pre-retrospective survey to the team before the meeting to capture each person’s perspective individually. This helps to eliminate the bandwagon effect, which happens when the views of the group conform to those of a few vocal people.

Matt asks his team to rate their performance both as a group and as individuals on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest. Ratings tend to cluster in a similar spot, but occasionally there are outliers. Team members who’ve given starkly different ratings are asked to share their views in the meeting to promote transparency and honesty.

Discussion in Treehouse’s retrospective meetings is centered around 3 questions common to most Agile retrospectives:

  • What worked well for us?
  • What didn’t work well for us?
  • What can we do to improve our process?

These questions are sometimes referred to as Start, Stop, Keep—what should we start doing, stop doing, and keep doing?

Honest conversation about each of these questions becomes easier with the cultivation of trust and plenty of practice running retrospective meetings.

Postmortems

When they should happen: After a project has gone poorly

Who should be there: Everyone who worked on the project and an impartial facilitator

How it helps: Your team will learn from their mistakes and find a way forward

Not all projects go well. Some go horribly wrong, requiring all teams involved in the project to come together to consider and learn from the mistakes they made.

Though projects rarely go awry at Etsy, they’ve established a strong process to guide them through those that do. Their process follows many of the recommendations set forth in the Agile methodology.

Here’s how to run a postmortem:

  • Before the meeting: Send an email asking the team to identify key points in the project timeline. This will be used to construct a master timeline of events, which will be discussed in the meeting. By focusing on events, you’ll avoid negative finger pointing, which can derail the process.
  • Moderator: Choose a moderator who wasn’t on the project and can be impartial. This person should be guiding the conversation from the whiteboard, taking notes for all to see.
  • Ground rules: The moderator should first point out that this is not a blame session, but an opportunity to learn. It’s a conversation about the shortcomings of the team’s process, not the people involved.
  • Facts: People recall events differently. The moderator can help the team agree upon what actually happened so lessons can be extracted. Establishing a timeline of events can help pinpoint where things went wrong.
  • Lessons and actions: As key lessons are identified, they should be written on the whiteboard for all to see. The actions required to mitigate the problems stemming from the failed project also need to be identified, assigned an owner, and provided a clear deadline.
  • After the meeting: The lessons learned from the postmortem should be emailed to the entire team, along with the action items that are to be completed.

Postmortems can seem rough, but they’re far superior to repeating the same mistakes. They’re a powerful opportunity for your team to learn and improve your processes.

Once your team’s operations are sound, you need to start thinking beyond your borders. How will you interact with other teams in the company? This challenge is less about operations, and more about just getting to know people.

 

Key takeaways

  • Build a culture of feedback help your team grow
  • Get your team in the habit of posting their work for all to see. Feedback comes more naturally when you create the right environment.
  • If your team is remote, set the stage for feedback using tools like Slack, Trello, Google Hangouts, and InVision
  • Conduct regular design reviews to give designers detailed feedback framed by the project goals
  • Conduct design standups regularly to help your team stay abreast of the work that’s being done
  • At the end of each project, hold a retrospective meeting to collect the lessons learned and continuously improve your team processes
  • When projects go poorly, run a postmortem meeting to learn from your mistakes without finger pointing
Design Leadership Handbook
05

Forging alliances

Design is a team sport


by Aarron Walter and Eli Woolery

Great design leaders recognize that their team’s work is but one piece of the broader ecosystem of their organization. Engineering, Product management, Research, Support and many other teams play important roles in creating a great user experience. You’ll need to build social capital across your organization by developing rapport with your colleagues.

Get in the habit of stepping away from your computer to get to know people. Grab lunch with a developer who may build out your team’s next design. No need for an agenda—just get to know each other. Spend time with researchers who have their finger on the pulse of your customers, sales people who hear frequent requests, product managers who understand schedules and scope, and customer service agents who know where users struggle the most. All have valuable context to offer you and your team. Each one influences the success of your team’s work.

And don’t just network laterally—spend time with different stakeholders and executives to understand their roles and expectations. Ask questions about the broader strategy of the company. You’ll need to understand the big picture to design products that fit into the company vision.

As you become connected to colleagues on other teams, not only will your team’s designs be more informed, you’ll also put design on everyone’s radar, which is critically important. Your conversations will educate the rest of the company about design as a function, profession, and mindset. Your outreach to colleagues over time can change your company’s culture, making it  more compatible with the needs of designers.

Making inroads

In the High Resolution podcast, Bobby Ghoshal and Jared Erondu discuss how to make sure design has a voice with Rochelle King of Spotify. View the full episode on Youtube.

Design is often protected—intentionally or not—from those who are perceived to be outside the process. That’s a shame, as often there are experts that are excluded simply because they don’t move in the same social circles at work.

It’s important to bring stakeholders into the design process early and often to get feedback and fresh perspectives. Sharing your work digitally makes it easy to gather feedback from specific people, but there’s value in setting the stage for unsolicited feedback too. As mentioned in the previous section, surprising things happen when you print screens and post them in a space where passersby can catch a glimpse. Leave Post-it notes and pens nearby and see what happens—you’ll get surprising feedback from unexpected sources with this approach.

Unlike digital, print is persistent and casual. It invites spontaneous participation even when you’re not around, which is perhaps its greatest strength. Take note of who leaves useful feedback so you can include them when you share your team’s next prototype.

When design is accessible to all, the process feels inclusive.

Regularly scheduled design reviews can be a great way to not only keep your design team synced, but to forge connections with other teams. At the health tech company Counsyl, Laura Martini (now at Google) made a habit of inviting engineers and execs to design reviews to get new perspective for her team, but also to put design on people’s minds.

In addition to design reviews, you can make colleagues aware of the work happening inside the design team by delivering presentations as a coffee hour or a lunch and learn. You can present your work on an important project, or deliver a crash course in Design Thinking. Create a design Slack channel to share books and articles with those who want to learn more about your discipline, and share updates on your work.

The more visible your team is in your company, the easier it will be to connect and collaborate with other teams.

Educating your company about design

In the High Resolution podcast, Bobby Ghoshal and Jared Erondu hear from Amanda Mallard of Omada Health about how everyone can be empowered with design. View the full episode on Youtube.

Even if your team is already visible within the company, it can be challenging to find ways to focus the company culture on design without hiring more design resources. One method is to find alternate means of educating non-design colleagues about how designers solve problems.

At Netflix, Andy Law approaches this in several different ways. Once a quarter, Netflix holds a “UX Progressive,” where engineers and others can visit a designer’s desk to get a demo of current work in progress. Andy has also used screenings of InVision’s DESIGN DISRUPTORS film as a way to educate colleagues about design: “There are a lot of people interested in how designers approach and solve a problem, and DESIGN DISRUPTORS does a really good job of synthesizing what that is.”

Another approach is to host one-on-one sessions with colleagues who are interested in learning more about design, or who seek design help with a project. When Irene Au was at Google, the design team held weekly “office hours” where colleagues could come with questions and get feedback on their projects.

No matter the approach, educating colleagues about design and empowering them to use elements of the design process offer opportunities to increase the visibility and influence of design within your company.

Related: Design plays a key role in 38% of the world’s largest organizations

Key takeaways

  • Set design review days on your team’s calendar and invite specific people to participate
  • Your org chart is not a list of names; it’s a group of potential allies. Get to know them.
  • Post your work in an accessible space. Present your work at company coffee hours. Talk about your work and answer questions in a company Slack channel.
  • Solicit feedback every step of the way. This isn’t design by committee, but good ideas—and constructive criticism—can come from anywhere.
  • Find opportunities to educate your company about design (UX progressives, film screenings, office hours).

About the Authors

Aarron Walter
VP Design Education, InVision

As the VP of Design Education at InVision, Aarron Walter draws upon 15 years of experience running product teams and teaching design to help companies enact design best practices. Aarron founded the UX practice at MailChimp and helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million. His design guidance has helped the White House, the US Department of State, and dozens of major corporations, startups and venture capitalist firms.

He is the author of the best selling book Designing for Emotion from A Book Apart. You’ll find @aarron on Twitter sharing thoughts on design. Learn more at http://aarronwalter.com.

Eli Woolery
Director of Design Education, InVision

Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

  • Currently listening to: audio book version of Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
  • Currently giving me inspiration: MasterClass series from folks like Neil Gaiman and Aaron Sorkin
  • Cultural thing I’m loving: Nerding out on the last season of Game of Thrones