Managing a Design Team

and why you should hire a design manager.

Why should I hire a design manager?

Design teams without a manager usually suffer from the following:

  • Not having a buffer between incoming requests
  • A mismatch of skills and responsibilities
  • Poor user/client feedback
  • A disconnect between product, sales, and development

Not having a buffer

Having a manager means having someone who can process all incoming requests and figuring out how to create and incorporate tasks into the current and future sprints. A manager should have a good idea of the team’s velocity and know how to prioritize.

It’s not just requests for the design team, but also questions the team has for other departments. By being able to ask developers what file format they need assets in, or gathering specifics for stories, this is extremely helpful and doesn’t require a background in design.

A mismatch of skills

A lot of people have this assumption that the best performer wants to and will eventually be promoted to manager. I’ve seen this happen at every single company I’ve worked for, and it never ends well when it’s involuntary.

Promoting someone out of a role that produces work, to a role that oversees work requires different skill sets. If you have a high performing designer on your team who is overwhelmed by managerial tasks, hiring a manager allows them to focus on tasks that are specific to being a designer.

Poor user/client feedback

Sometimes designers are so caught up with producing features and getting new products out the door, that they aren’t able to gather valuable feedback from user testing. Design managers can help in this capacity by being the gateway of feedback, from both internal and external sources.

By conducting quick A/B testing and understanding what the designers are trying to achieve, they can help provide critical insight during the development process. It’s important to include your designers when setting up user testing so that certain versions can be tested and they understand the format that will be presented to the user.

Managers should be cautious about overstepping their bounds with personal feedback though, since they are in a managerial role and it is up to the designers to come up with an experience that satisfies requirements. An over-zealous manager can often backfire — I find the best teams work when roles are respected and managers allow the designers to be autonomous.

A disconnect

For modern tech companies, designers are usually respected because their role is clearly defined and recognized for bringing value. Unfortunately, many businesses these days don’t take the time to truly understand what designers are responsible for and can be forgotten or underused.

A design manager ensures that the team is involved in meetings and decisions where UX/UI is involved and promotes awareness (I once had a developer ask me if buttons were considered as UI).

They also help to make sure that design and development are in sync, and work to organize answers to any blockers. Increasing visibility into potential issues and locking down user stories early on in the process help reduce risk to not delivering features on time.

What qualifications should I look for?

  • Project/product management skills: It’s critical that they’re able to fully understand a product and explain it. In interviews, try having them explain an extremely complicated concept to the average Joe.
  • An appreciation for design: If they do not have a design background, it’s important that they realize that well thought out designs take time. Once they get a handle on the team’s velocity, they should be able to estimate a sprint more accurately.
  • User empathy: They will be fighting for the user, along with the design team. If their focus is strictly just about hitting deadlines, there will be probably be some tension within the team. A good manager will be able to break down complex features and scope out projects well so that the focus is on quality.
  • Efficiency: People sometimes laugh at me when I talk about typing speed, but I consider it one of the most valuable skills someone in this role should have. Typing makes up a lot of what this person will do — they will be typing up user stories, notes, gathering requirements, and other activities where documentation is key. A slower typer is not able to capture feedback accurately, and I have witnessed this cost a company hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result. I would say a minimum speed requirement for this role is 80wpm. (For reference, I type 130wpm) They should also be able to retain key takeaways from complex conversations and work to improve design processes.
  • Product mastery: A design manager should know how their product works, extremely well. Relying on a team to constantly have to be the “experts” on the product is taxing on them and should be something that theoretically everyone in the company should know, but unfortunately is not the case. A good design manager should be able to explain how a feature works by working closely with their team and constantly interacting with the product itself.

TLDR

Hiring a design manager can enhance your design team’s productivity and quality of work.