InVision presents

Design Leadership Handbook


by Aarron Walter and Eli Woolery

What does it mean to be an exceptional design leader? Transitioning to design leadership can be challenging for individual contributors. The skills that got you there often don’t translate into your new role. Insights from design leaders who have been in those shoes can help you gain confidence and tactical skills.

In this book, you’ll learn how to grow as a leader and build a first-class design team.


Go to Chapter
Becoming a design leader
You'll never be 100% prepared

What does it mean to be an exceptional design leader? Transitioning to design leadership can be challenging for individual contributors. The skills that got you there often don’t translate into your new role. Insights from design leaders who have been in those shoes can help you gain confidence and tactical skills.

In this book, you’ll learn how to grow as a leader and build a first-class design team.

Go to Chapter
Go to Chapter
Building the team
Chemistry is key

Hiring humble, smart, complementary designers can be a daunting challenge as a new design leader. Defining your values, learning how to interview for hidden qualities, and giving yourself enough time to make smart hires can help you build a first-class design team.

Go to Chapter
Go to Chapter
Managing a design team
Serve and protect

Managing is a design manager’s primary job, but the best leaders aren’t bosses as much as servant leaders and coaches. Your best work will be in discovering your team’s talents and interests, and removing impediments to nurture personal and team growth.

Go to Chapter
Go to Chapter
Operationalizing design
Build the process

Creating clear, straightforward design structures frees your team to be their most creative while still hitting their deadlines. Building a structure for useful feedback and transparency fosters a healthy design team culture.

Go to Chapter
Go to Chapter
Forging alliances
Design is a team sport

There’s no room for design leaders to be lone wolves. Just as design work benefits from collaboration, you’ll enhance the conversation around design by gathering allies and building relationships with engineering, product, support, and more.

Go to Chapter
Go to Chapter
Shaping design vision
The story of why

The power of story can unite your design team in pursuit of a shared goal. Go beyond the how and why of your product—step out of your “maker” shoes and search for the story of why. A strong shared vision shows your team the future you’re building together.

Go to Chapter
03

Managing a design team

Serve and protect

In the High Resolution podcast, Bobby Ghoshal and Jared Erondu discuss the two paths of design leaders with Kate Aronowitz of Wealthfront. View the full episode on Youtube.

The primary job of a manager is to manage the careers of others. Though management may not be your passion, it will be an important part of your work. As a design leader you’ll help people do great work and develop fulfilling careers, which can have a profound influence on your organization.

Great managers are not bosses, they’re servant leaders who wield their power to help others. Your service will be an example to your entire team, and will encourage behaviors that will make your team strong. Your actions are a far more effective coaching tool than words alone!

Rich Armstrong, the former COO of Trello, succinctly describes the responsibilities of a manager who serves his or her team and helps each person grow:

  1. Discover where their professional goals intersect with those of the organization.
  2. Remove impediments to their achievement of those goals.
  3. Hold them accountable to move forward on those goals.
  4. Show them how far they’ve come from time to time.

The way to deliver on each of these responsibilities is to schedule 1-on-1 meetings with each team member.

1-on-1 meetings

1-on-1 meetings are a great way for managers and their direct reports to connect individually on pressing issues, develop a strong relationship, and ensure that employees feel like they’re working toward their goals. These are not status update meetings; they’re an opportunity to give regular feedback and foster growth.

Feedback flows both ways. Smart managers ask team members for insight into how they could serve the team better. These honest conversations can help everyone improve.

1-on-1s are also an important time to get to know each team member personally and build rapport. The complexities of life often follow us into work and can affect our performance. Making time for personal conversations can give you insight into a team member’s emotional state.

Ask these sorts of questions in your 1-on-1s:

  • Short term goals: How do you feel the project is going so far? Are there any projects you want to work on in the near future?
  • Long term goals: What do you want to be doing in 5 years? What are your big dreams in life?
  • About the company: What is the company not doing today that we should do to better compete in the market? What’s 1 thing we’d be crazy not to do in the next quarter to improve our product?
  • Self improvement: Do you feel challenged at work? Are you learning new things? What area of the company would you like to learn more about?
  • Manager improvement: What could I do as a manager to make your work easier? Would you like more or less direction from me on your work? How can I help you with your goals?

There are so many important topics to cover. Jason Evanish has published 101 questions for 1-on-1s, an invaluable source that will help you spark meaningful conversations with your team members.

Say thank you and celebrate

With all of your responsibilities as a design leader, you’re going to be busy—very busy. As you focus on pushing projects forward and running your team, don’t forget that people need to be recognized for their contributions. Make a habit of saying “thank you” to each team member for their work. Everyone needs to hear it individually and as a team.

After wrapping up a big project, take time to celebrate with your team. They need to feel a sense of accomplishment and recharge their batteries. If you move on to the next project without recognizing the team’s accomplishment, you risk them feeling empty and uninspired to climb the next mountain with you.

Etiquette tip: Criticism during a celebration will just demoralize your team. Save your feedback about the project until after the celebration!

Introducing new management layers

As your team grows, you’ll need to introduce additional layers of management to keep the team and their projects on track. You’ll know it’s time when you no longer have enough hours for all of your 1-on-1 meetings.

When you reach that point, you’ll be anxious to get extra help to relieve some stress, but fight the urge to take quick action. Putting the wrong person in a position of authority will only make your work harder.

When you’ve identified a prospective manager, assign them just 1 employee to manage and observe how they handle the shift in work. If they neglect their new management responsibilities in favor of design work, you know you’ve got the wrong person for the job.

If the team member performs well, add additional direct reports and remove design tasks from their to-do list. Continue to monitor and coach them regularly to help them get their bearings.

Twitter has a unique approach to how they transition individual contributors into management. In other organizations, career growth is often closely connected to a company’s org chart—to make more money you have to become a manager, which incentivizes the wrong people into positions of power. In contrast, Twitter sees the transition into management as a lateral move, and there is no pay raise associated with it. Raises are performance-based, which incentivizes the right behavior—designers who want to further pursue their craft will develop their career without sacrificing their passions.

Right person, right project

There are 2 very different types of designers: hunters and farmers. Each is essential to a design team, but—as Aarron Walter discovered while leading the UX team at MailChimp—when matched with the wrong project, chaos ensues.

Put your designers in a position to succeed by playing to their strengths, and look for traits in each of your designers to identify farmers and hunters:

Farmers

  • Love constraints, and feel lost without them
  • Enjoy slogging through existing products to find a more refined design solution
  • Thrive on product iteration and refinement

Hunters

  • Excited by freedom to wander—too many constraints deplete their energy
  • Comfortable with uncertainty and unfamiliar territory
  • Thrive on new products and redesigns

Resolving conflicts

Conflict is uncomfortable, but it’s inescapable as a design leader. When conflict arises in your team, confront it early to maintain the health of your team.

Each 1-on-1 meeting is an opportunity to listen for the stirrings of conflicts. Don’t wait until  deadlines are missed or the team seems ineffective. If a designer reports conflict between other team members, talk with everyone individually before taking action. Matters can be blown out of proportion when information is second hand, and you can make things worse if you act before you’re fully informed.

When you’ve identified a conflict, get all parties in the same room to have an honest conversation. Let everyone have the opportunity to be heard, and don’t conclude the meeting until you’ve collectively identified a pathway to resolution.

Key takeaways

  • Conduct regular 1-on-1 meetings to establish rapport and foster career growth with each team member
  • Take time to thank your team members and colleagues regularly. People need recognition to feel their work is valued.
  • When your team has reached a big milestone, celebrate. It’ll make your team closer and communicate your respect for their contributions.
  • Before moving someone into a management position, let them test the waters by managing 1 person. If they perform well, add additional direct reports.
  • Avoid pay increases when transitioning someone into management. It incentivizes the wrong people to seek positions of power.
  • Put your designers in a position to succeed by playing to their strengths. Pairing the right designer to the right project is key to keeping your team productive.
  • When conflict arises, do your research before you act. Trust, but verify the claims made by your team members.
  • To resolve conflict, get all parties in the same room to have an honest conversation. Let everyone have the opportunity to be heard.
04

Operationalizing design

Build the process

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

About the Authors

Aarron Walter
VP of Design Education

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.

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

Eli Woolery
Director of Design Education

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.

Design Leadership Handbook
Design Leadership Handbook