Creative commons image by Juhan Sonin.

Getting The Most From Your In-house UX Team

A primer for professionals who engage in-house designers.

This is Part Two, for the people who “hire” in-house design teams. In Part One, I gave a primer for in-house design teams.

I’m writing this for the people who hire in-house design and creative teams. You’re likely a product manager, a program manager, a marketing director, or a brand manager and you’re working with an in-house creative team.

Regardless how your org is setup, when you engage an in-house user experience design team you will have a client/agency or a client/designer relationship.

What is “the creative”

The term creative in this context is a leftover from advertising agencies and it encompasses all of the typical agency output: TV ads, outdoor display ads, radio spots, et cetera. Creative, is a noun: it’s the output of the creative team. Today it has expanded to mean anything a creative team creates: an app, broadcast graphics, or a branded event. A creative practitioner might be a copywriter, an art director, a visual designer or an interaction designer. I’ll use them interchangably in this article. The point is, creative in this context is a noun, not an attribute of something. Knowing that is good background for anyone trying to understand how to tap creative teams.

Creative / noun / All the types of work that a team creates for you. Examples are broad: web, mobile apps, email newsletters, photography, writing, illustration, icons, etc.

First, define the sandbox

The creative brief is a set of constraints that bring clarity. A good brief answers the 5 Ws: who, what, when, where, why. Who it’s for, what that audience needs, when they’re receptive, where will the audience be best reached and why are we doing it. The best briefs also know who it’s not for. Then the creative team can answer the how. The brief is vital because total ambiguity is too open-ended for any kind of real guidance.

Putting lipstick on a pig happens when you hire designers but don’t empower them to solve core problems.

Design minus strategy equals decoration

You’ve hired architects, not decorators. If you invite your design/creative team after the big thinking is done, you might be asking them to decorate a pre-defined solution. I’m not saying your solution is going to be bad, but hiring a team of experts to execute a pre-defined solution risks asking them to be decorators, instead of allowing them to address the 5 Ws.

Creatives are okay with ambiguity, because they are synthesizers. They can work with incomplete information and find the patterns. But be sure to provide enough strategy to give them a framework to box in the natural ambiguity we all face in product and service design.

Opening up strategy to the creatives/designers who are ready for it will unlock their passion for organizing, for synthesizing, and for creating meaning and simplicity out of mixed parts. You can tell a creative is ready for strategy when he or she asks the why; when they’re hungry for background info, audience needs, and audience misconceptions. Engaging a designer’s strategic mind is why they get up in the morning. They live to make the world more clear.

Teams Not Individuals

The idea of a rockstar solo creative is mostly a myth. Much more often it’s designers in a team that produce most effectively. Give a designer space to consult with a peer or a team, and their creative director or design manager. They will get valuable feedback before it gets in front of you and your stakeholders.

Solo designers are less confident about their output. They will still try to get feedback from peers and leaders, but they will have to do it outside of their workflow.

Let’s say we have a team of three designers: Jacqueline the junior designer, Marcus the mid-level designer and Loraine the lead designer. First off, by hiring designers you’re showing you value design. But, don’t be tempted to deploy your designers as soloists. At first it may seem like a good way to maximize their time, but there’s a better way.

Figure 1. Designers working solo are less efficient than designers working in teams.

Designers working as a team create synergy. Your designers will benefit from the built-in feedback loop where they’re learning from the collective experience of their peers.

Figure 2. Teams are better than soloists.

Give Them Space To Generate Bad Ideas

I’m defending bad ideas because they are a sign that teams are generating lots them, and some will be great. When you keep your designers too close, by embedding them with you, and by checking in with them daily, you aren’t giving them room to have terrible ideas. The close scrutiny means they’ll give you safe ideas.

Design/creative teams who are kept closeby are on stage all the time. Always performing. So it’s not safe for them to generate new, wild, insanely creative, brilliant ideas.

Designers who must play it safe will give you default ideas: yesterday’s answers to different problems and you won’t be tapping them to solve your real problems at hand.

If you know the value of creative teams, then I know you didn’t hire them to give you safe or expected solutions.

If you don’t look good, your team doesn’t look good

Vidal Sassoon’s 1980s slogan, “Remember, if you don’t look good, we don’t look good,” sounded just as cheesy then as it does 35 years later.

Vidal Sassoon’s slogan, “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.” sounded just as cheesy then as it does 35 years later. But, the point isn’t lost. Your creative team lives to make you succeed. If they let you down, they lose. It’s in their complete self interest for you to succeed.

Here’s an experiment and a challenge: give your team more trust. Enable them to take risks and show you something unexpected. If they’re paying attention they will feel the new trust you’re extending and work extra hard not to screw it up. They’ll bring you better ideas and higher quality thinking.

NEXT: Consider having your design teams read Part One: The Most Valuable Creative Teams Understand Their Role as Consultants


The Speed of Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull


The icons used as spot illustrations are from various contributors at The Noun Project: Hunotika, Joe Harrison, Blake Thompson, and Joel Burke.

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