When bad processes break good designers

How Agile can reinforce team-destroying habits

“Just grind it out,” I heard during standup. “It’s not like it matters.”

I swallowed and shifted in my seat. The room was lit dimly by ceiling lights pointed directly into a popcorn ceiling painted charcoal. “They’re trying to make us feel trapped,” we’d half joke.

The work was never-ending, demanding, and so fast-paced that it reduced our thinking to lizard-brained, limbic responses only. What’s point A? What’s point B? And the most obvious line? Good. That’s good enough.

“Design doesn’t work like this… how do we fix this?” I’d ask.

Silence, shrugs, and headshakes were the only response. It was one of my first jobs, and I was already getting an eyeful of a flat- out toxic spiral. We were in a tailspin, and it was going to take drastic, unorthodox actions to break out of it.

Agile is the norm. And while Design Thinking and Lean UX fit well in Agile’s sprint structure, other aspects of Agile, when misapplied, can bring out the worst in your design team. Because of the rapid, cyclical nature of Agile, these developing trends efficiently sand down the best parts of your designers until it’s a streamlined toboggan quickly iterating towards misery.

In an industry that repeats “Solve hard problems,” like a monastic chant, why do we often treat internal dysfunction as a grim cost of “moving fast?”? Furthermore, why is it that a design team’s process, of all things, is so hard to get right?

First things first: how do you know if Agile is breaking your design process?

Toxic Culture Checklist:

  • Are you verifying results? Most teams don’t conduct user research on a consistent basis, if at all, according to the Nielsen Norman group. Design without research is the definition of a reactive, flawed process.
  • How many sprints ahead is UX operating to development? If the answer is anything less than one you have problems.
  • What have you released over the last six months that your team is proud of?
  • Where are your priorities? How are you allocated resources? If your dev to designer ratio is anything over 10:1, your priorities might be miscalibrated.
  • How do you internally check or review work before it “goes out”?
  • Are your team members and you rewarded for doing great work and coached on how to improve when the work isn’t up to par?
  • What ideal is your team striving towards? Are you doing strategic and tactical work? Are you working proactively or reactively? Do you talk regularly about empathizing with customers but forget to take care of yourselves and each other in the process?

Throughout my career, from teams I was embedded to consulting, I took note. There are different types of good Agile design practices. An infinite variety of people, processes, industries and products means infinite permutations of healthy, effective organizations. Grinding, bitter dysfunction has a common set of features though, and I’ve seen it pop up everywhere.

The good news? A lot of these issues can be fixed. Most fixes are relatively cheap, especially when compared to the costs of falling NPS and broken customer experience.

Iterating Towards Burnout: How a Toxic Design Culture Spirals

Pay attention to the feedback loops. A good design culture doesn’t happen spontaneously; a toxic one doesn’t either.

1. Reactive Design Cycles.
Successful design cycles rely on the three-legged stool of Time, Resources, and Planning. Shorten any one of these legs and you destabilize your proactive design team into a shaky, reactive one. A Reactive Design Cycle is a product or feature designed with little strategy and no time. It is the best and fastest way to grind down expectations and team morale.

2. Cynicism Sets In.
Want to know what a company’s priorities are? Look at which departments their headcount spend is allocated towards. When research and discovery are the first things to go out the window, design teams learn expectations from previous engagements. And when enough reactive cycles are lined up in a row, your design team learns the priorities of the company.

3. A Lack of Pride in the Craft.
Running on adrenaline and deferred hope is exhausting. As your process self-selects speed over function, craft (e.g. the ingredient you need to differentiate business or product in the market), is tossed out the window. It’s not that designers don’t want to do good work; there are no resources or time to learn from it.

Is there a lack of craft in my team’s output? Look at the last six months’ release cycle — if “deeply problematic” defines the majority of features released, your process is probably broken.

4. Learned Helplessness.
Learned helplessness at a job is the result of recurring disappointment coupled with a static, unresponsive process. It’s hard to blame people because/as only the most stubborn among us don’t take the punishment of futile efforts to heart. These bad habits calcify and become part of the flawed process. Without any support to make things better, employees settle into a mode of perpetual defeat.

5. Low Survivability & High Burnout Rate.
An embattled design team adopts the demeanor of a suicide squad — if this current feature cycle isn’t their last, the next one probably will be. Late, cheerless nights grinding out ill-prepared user flows is falling on the proverbial grenade. As you churn through talent, people leave. As people leave, reactive design cycles, cynicism, your team’s anti-velocity increases.

Steps to Break the Cycle

All hope isn’t lost, my friends. Through careful planning, regular feedback, and practiced vigilance, you can create and sustain a desirable culture that will retain your top performers and attract great talent to your team. Listed below are strategies to diagnose, treat, and improve your Agile UX process.

Hit Pause
The first step to get out of a hole is to stop digging, and the only way to fix your process is to stop reacting to dysfunction and understand its source. Do whatever is necessary to give your organization space to learn. “What kind of pause are we talking about? A five-day workshop on internal processes? A 20 minute stop to go get ice cream?” It depends. There’s a formula that works out roughly to “Time spent in the spiral + size of the team = the length of pause you need.”

Create Space
A lot of times your team knows what is wrong. You might even have ideas on how to fix them. Ideas are meaningless without the slack to prototype and test them. Create that space for your organization to begin diagnosing where the breakdown of communication is and what can be done to solve it.

Each player on the design team has a role in creating space for the organization. Managers, run interference for your designers. Designers, identify key asks from across the organization and be open to change.

Solicit Feedback
Treat your culture as a design problem. Solicit feedback from all of the stakeholders to help determine where communication is getting snarled up. A day-long workshop with stakeholders at each touch point is a great place to begin mapping out the process and where communication is breaking down.

Define Expectations
Take the feedback you’ve received and begin building a vision for what the right process & culture looks like. This vision will incorporate the needs of the organization, the customers, and — ultimately — the executives of your company. There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all-process; that’s why you build this collaboratively and iteratively.

Get an Outside Perspective
Sometimes you need an outside perspective to give honest feedback and bring in different experiences. At EchoUser (disclaimer: this is a shameless plug because I really believe in what we do), one of our specializations is employee and organizational experience design. It’s less about opening up Photoshop and more about thinking through the steps and templates for clear interorganizational communication.

Your culture is the most important design problem to solve.

You can create the life and work that you want to see in this world. Treat your culture as a design problem. Research. Hypothesize. Prototype. Assess. Iterate. There are very few work situations where you are truly helpless. Get creative and pull coworkers to brainstorm potential solutions. There is no perfect found space. Only by our own actions do we create it around us.

If you have questions or critiques please reach out! I’d love to hear about what I missed and what you’ve done to improve your company’s process and culture.

Further Reading

For Designers
Design everything by Cap Watkins
On Working Hard and Being Brilliant

For Managers
What exactly is a design culture? — InVision Blog
3 Simple Ways To Create A Culture Of Design At Any Tech Company
Doing UX in an Agile World

“Creation is an act of sheer will.”

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Zach Herring

Zach Herring

…likes thinking about making things.

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