How to design a remote design team
As a designer, I’ve spent several years thinking about how people experience digital products. I’ve created logical flows that reduce friction, used hierarchy to organize and focus content, and made aesthetic choices to evoke particular emotions. While the context and challenges with each project are always different, the main challenge is usually creating something that improves a human to computer interaction. When I transitioned to a new leadership role last year, I realized that running the design team here at ArcTouch meant shifting my focus to improving human-to-human interaction.
As an introvert, this hasn’t been a particularly natural shift for me. Working on my craft as a designer means I’ve spent much of my career in a hands-on, heads-down, problem-solving mode. Over time, I’ve become more comfortable with things like presenting work to clients, running meetings, and talking to users about our products. Still, the skills that make a solid independent contributor don’t automatically make a great team leader.
In my transition, I’ve had the added challenge of managing a team that’s mostly remote. Many of my team members are based in ArcTouch’s Florianopolis, Brazil office, and we also have designers that work for periods of time onsite at clients as part of our staff augmentation services.
But as designers in the very dynamic mobile/IoT/tech space, we’re used to figuring out things as we go. So, I shifted my mindset and approached my management transition more like a designer would approach a design problem. How could I improve people’s “user experience” on the team? How could I reduce “friction?” How could I help the team stay organized and focused? How could I cultivate a positive and collaborative design culture on the team? In short, how could I use our own best practices to help design the design team?
I spent a lot of time searching for resources and ideas during the past year. So, I thought it would be helpful to share what I’ve learned so that other design leaders might get some help navigating their path ahead. My journey is very much a work in progress, and, not unlike how we run our projects, the process is much more agile and iterative than linear. But here’s a loosely defined step-by-step process for how I designed the ArcTouch design team.
Step 1: Look inward
With any good user-centered design process, we start by actually talking to people. Fortunately, I was able to spend the first few weeks of the year in Brazil with my team. As much as I love Zoom and Slack, sometimes being in person makes a huge difference.
One of the first things we did together was to organize a group retrospective to write things down on sticky notes. We had categorized these notes into two main buckets: what had been working and what needed improvement. Each person put their notes up on a wall and we discussed them together. We grouped them, then voted on our top issues to address, and then re-sorted. Then, we defined specific action items we could take to address those top items.
Some of the general themes that surfaced included things like bottlenecks in the design approval process, collaboration with our cross-functional teams, career development, resourcing, and design team culture and cohesiveness. With this starting point, we had some ideas for what we should tackle next. After our first retro, we’ve continued doing a monthly retro meeting to check in and track our progress on those issues. Since our team is distributed, we use Fun Retro for our online retro board (and for our clients’ projects).
Of course, people aren’t always comfortable talking about personal concerns and goals in a group setting. So, I also had individual one-on-one (1:1) meetings with everyone on the team to better understand each designer’s unique situation and goals. We’ve also continued to do these via Zoom weekly. For each 1:1, I keep a running Google doc to track notes and tasks over time.
I wanted to better understand the strengths and preferences of our individual team members, so we created a survey to gather some data. Everyone self-evaluated their abilities in different areas and the type of work that excites them. This helped us plan training and also identified gaps for hiring. We also created surveys to collect feedback about our designers from other team members and cross-functional colleagues, using a 360-degree feedback methodology. Collecting this kind of feedback about our designers from product managers, developers, and account managers helps us understand how we can be better collaborators on our project teams. While there are more robust services that can do this, we chose Google Surveys because it’s easy to use.
Step 2: Look outward
While my role was new to me, I knew other people like me had been successfully running design teams for a long time. So I searched outward for learnings from other design leaders and teams who had been there in the past. Here are a few of my favorite resources:
Blogs and online resources
Characteristics of the Creative Leader — A lot of us have a stereotypical perception of a leader that’s like an authoritative army general, but that’s not a style that resonates with me. This table is a good way to think about blending leadership styles in a way that aligns with my values of inclusiveness and collaboration as a designer.
Designer Fund — While our design team is small, it’s great to be able to draw from the experience of design teams of all sizes in other companies. Designer Fund cultivates design leaders through various programs at different startups. Its blog is a treasure trove of knowledge and advice from design leaders.
Level Up — What is a “good” design team? What sort of process should we have in place? A lot of it depends on the size and maturity of the team. Small two-person design teams at a startup will be different than huge global teams at established companies. We’ve used this self-assessment tool developed by Heather Phillips to evaluate how we’re doing as a team and where we want to improve.
The Design Team — Let’s be honest, I’m a visual person who likes pictures. These comics by Pablo Stanley do a great job of empathizing with the experience of being on a design team and the insecurity we all feel as we grow into our roles.
i4Design — I had the pleasure of working with Paolo Malabuyo briefly during my time at Microsoft. While he wasn’t my direct manager, I appreciated his management style and enjoy his writing about leadership and design.
Cap Watkins — I came across Cap Watkins when looking for resources about design team leveling. While at Buzzfeed, he worked on defining Product Design Roles. Since we were a growing team defining these levels for the first time, it was really helpful to have something to start with.
Books and magazines
Org Design for Design Orgs — This book is as close to a design team “how-to” manual as I could find. Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner, from Adaptive Path, have years of experience running design teams. It’s full of practical advice on all the things that go on behind the scenes. The accompanying blog is also great.
The Culture Map — It’s not specific to design, but this book is a must-have to understand what it means when people say “it’s a cultural thing.” Since many of our team members are in Brazil and we have clients all over the world, this helped me see how different cultures view things like trust, leadership, scheduling, decision making, and more.
Tribal Leadership — Also not specific to design, this book is a great lens for examining the dynamics of groups and how to manage people at different stages. In particular, the focus on how people use language differently in an organization was an interesting perspective.
Within — It seems that most of the public “design leaders” I’ve admired happen to be men. But I know there are lots of great women leading design teams out there. So it was great to read stories and experiences of other women leading the way in this magazine.
Design Dept. — The Design Dept workshop filled a great niche focusing specifically on the issues design teams face. The two-day workshop is a great opportunity to get ideas from design leads at other companies. It also gave me new tools and frameworks for running the team. Included in the training is a Slack group for alumni. Having access to this brain trust has been one of the most useful resources for me — helping me find insights and providing advice for challenges as they come up over time.
Step 3: Experiment
While all the books and research is great, I learn best by just doing it. A big part of that learning process for us was a series of small experiments and team-building exercises. Since several of my team members were relatively new to the company and had not worked together before, it was important to build a foundation of trust. Especially since the team is remote from me. The goal of these exercises was to intentionally cultivate trust among the team. A few of these experiments have included:
- Establishing design values: Defining a set of design team values together and then collaborating on posters to illustrate the values. (We’ll have a more detailed post about these values soon, so make sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn to be notified).
- Leveling: Since our team has been growing quickly, we found ourselves suddenly in need of a system to clarify roles, responsibilities and experience level. So, we worked on these together to define expectations and criteria for each role.
- Knowledge sharing: We’ve tried to be more intentional about learning by creating a small library of design books along with hosting coding workshops led by individual team members.
- Presentation practice: In order to practice presentation skills and also just get to know everyone better, we also starting giving short presentations we call “Hobbies, Hacks, and Side Hustles.” In this forum, ArcTouch designers can share things they’re passionate about — whether professional or beyond the realm of work.
- Feedback loops: We’ve also experimented with several different formats for sharing in-progress work and getting feedback across teams. We were using screen-sharing and daily stand-ups for a while and then started using Wake. We have also tried small group critiques (“crits”) every other week, using Slack, which allows people to participate easily without interrupting their other client commitments. And more recently, we’ve begun experimenting with having a period of time every day we call “open crit.”
Step 4: Iterate
Like any design process, the work required to manage a design team is never done. We’re constantly iterating on our experiments and workflow. I check in with the team and individual designers regularly to understand what their experiences are like. And as a team, we’re not afraid to try a new approach or suggestion. It’s a truly iterative user-centered design process — only we’re designing our team and how we work — and that’s what makes it so much fun.