Design Leadership Handbook04
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.
You know you have a healthy design culture when people are giving each other feedback.
former head of design, Medium
“You know you have a healthy design culture when people are giving each other feedback.” @DustinDustiniw
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.
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.
Our work is plastered and posted all over the walls of the studio — not finished things, but notes, photos, and artifacts of what we’re working on. Over time, we see projects unfolding as they’re posted, and we can give each other feedback along the way.
By sticking your work up on a wall, you invite an ongoing dialogue about making your project better. It makes your work tangible, shareable and visual, which gives it a much better chance of receiving feedback and critique.
Greater Good Studio
“By sticking your work up on a wall, you invite an ongoing dialogue about making your project better.” @georgeaye
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.
Building a safe place for your team to be creative and do their best work might be the most useful thing a leader can do for culture in design focused organizations.
author of Design Leadership
“Building a safe place for your team to be creative…might be the most useful thing a leader can do…” @RMBanfield
Don’t forget the screen
Be sure to work through design ideas on the screen too. Interaction design, animation, and responsive design aren’t easily communicated on the printed page. Print brings more people into the conversation (which is important!) but ultimately you’ll need to solve for screen display.
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.
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 reviews at GV
The Google Ventures team has written a nice guide to conducting design reviews.
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:
- What did you do yesterday?
- What will you do today?
- 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.
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.
Retrospectives are a valuable tool to use because they help teams identify strengths and weaknesses. They help provide the designers at Treehouse an opportunity to give feedback on our processes in order to grow and improve.
“Retrospectives are a valuable tool to use because they help teams identify strengths and weaknesses.” @thinmatt @treehouse
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.
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.
- 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