Opower design team circa 2014

Design managers: 5 principles for staffing designers

Who works on what, and why?

Note: This this an article I wrote a year ago while working at Opower, but didn’t get a chance to publish.

One of the responsibilities of a design manager is to decide what projects your designers work on. To be as collaborative and transparent as possible, I chose to share my staffing principles with my team, and now publicly as well.

I am currently the UX Design Manager at Opower, where we use behavioral science and user-centered design to nudge people to use less energy. I manage a team of 6 UX designers and 2 contractors. The experience level ranges from interns in school, to designers with 10+ years of experience.

At Opower, UX designers work through the entire design process. This means going from the initial product definition, to delivering specs to engineers, to launching the product. Every quarter I get a list of design project requests after quarterly roadmap planning. To request a designer, product managers write a project brief with business goals, success metrics, and technical constraints. That’s how I get a sense of the size and scope of the project, and how to staff it.

5 principles for staffing designers

1. Define one clear lead

  • Each project has one lead designer responsible for the end-to-end design process.
  • The lead is responsible for driving the process, and pulling in specialists (researchers, content strategists, etc) when needed.

2. Pair designers together

  • Most designers prefer to work with other designers. I also believe that collaboration leads to better designs. No one should work alone.
  • When pairing designers I try to find commonalties between their projects. For example, I paired the designer creating billing experience for CSRs with the designer creating the web billing experience.
  • When we restaff, I break pairs up so people get a chance to work and learn from different designers.
  • Pairing designers also helps the team when people go on vacation or leave the company–there’s always another designer up to speed on each project.

3. Help people follow-through and get results

  • I try to keep the same designer on project from initial product vision to launching the MVP. Designers learn the most by seeing projects through; its important for people to see how their assumptions played out. Understanding where and how their designs breaks helps them learn what to differently next time.
  • Staying on a project for a longer period of time also allows designers to build an expertise. This can help people refine their craft or user insight in a particular area, and become an expert on the team.
  • It’s also important to keep designers on projects long enough to establish a partnership with their product manager and engineers. Continuity and execution build trust. Designers are also more likely to influence product strategy when they’ve built a relationship with the team.

4. Give designers a variety of work to help them grow.

  • At Opower, we have a combination of client work and core product work, so I try to rotate people through both. We also design for a variety of mediums (web, mobile, print, and email). I try to make sure people don’t stay on one medium for too long.
  • I also tie these choices to each designer’s personal development goals. For example, if one designer wants to learn more about behavioral science, I’ll put them on an email project. If someone else wants to improve their presentation skills, I’ll put them on a client project.

5. Understand your logistical and timing constraints

  • At the start of the quarter, I put all the start dates, milestones, and vacation schedules on a team calendar. Part of staffing is making sure the train runs on time, while minimizing down time.
  • If possible, I try to allow one project to “end” before another one ramps up. Oftentimes this means going back to the product manager to push a start date up or back a few weeks.

I hope I illuminated this sometimes cryptic and ambiguous process to designers and design managers. When I was an individual contributor designer, staffing felt like a black hole. Out of it, came important decisions, like what I would be working on, and who I would be working with for the next 6 months. As a design manager, I try my best to put myself in the shoes of my designers, while also balancing the overall business and team needs. It can be a tricky process, but it doesn’t need to be mysterious.