The design manager’s toolkit


Take the best of being a designer and create a durable playbook for handling challenges as a manager

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Illustration by Craftwork

Motivation Models

In design management, understanding the motivations driving your team members is akin to grasping the user needs in a design project. Just as a meticulous designer employs a blend of design thinking and research methodologies to delve into the user’s psyche, a thoughtful manager can adapt these tools to unveil the intrinsic motivations steering their team. This exploration is not about molding individuals to a fixed framework, but about tuning into the unique frequencies of what propels each person forward. It’s about crafting a tailored approach that resonates with the diverse motivational landscapes within your team, fostering a culture where individuals thrive, and collective goals are achieved.

The method I’ve found most resonant in delineating motivations is framed around three core tenets: Money, Power, and Influence. Similar to how a user-centric approach unveils layers of user needs and desires, this model can be a lens through which to understand and engage with the driving forces behind your team’s endeavors…

Money — This one is simple! Some people are motivated by money, and that’s fine! Some people are afraid to tell you this. There is so much negativity around people talking about it, or telling you, their manager. Much of it comes from the inane ideas that “if you do what you love it doesn’t feel like a job”, bullshit! You can like your job all you want but it’s still a job, and you’re still there because you get paid to do it. If you or your team member’s primary motivator is money, it can be one of the easiest ways to acknowledge success. Spot bonus, increases in salary, and pay for performance programs for bonuses, pay raises, and anything else in your power as a manager.

Power — This can be interpreted in many different ways by people, but for me, it’s a simplistic way of saying ‘a lack of oversight’. Enable someone on your team to own a problem, a product, or a space on the team, wholly and completely, without oversight, meddling, or any kind of need for approvals. This is something that has to be earned through past behavior, but it will mean much more than anything else you can give to people who are motivated by power. The hardest thing might be for you to step away, but it’s what a power-motivated person will need and respond to best.

Influence — Enable someone to be in the right place at the right time, invite them to meetings with your peers and stakeholders, support their successes and ideas in a very public way (folks who are motivated by influence usually REALLY appreciate public acknowledgments of their successes!) Figure out ways that you can amplify them, as well as publicly recognizing them as an expert in their product or skill area.

How do you apply your design thinking process to this? Your team members often don’t know what THEY want and what motivates them, sound familiar? Treat your team like they’re your user, don’t ask them direct questions that they can’t answer, instead ask them about times that they’ve felt they did their best work, ask them what set those accomplishments apart from others, often you’ll find it wasn’t in a vacuum, its what happened after they did their work (how others responded) that gave them the positive feedback they needed.

Having explored the core motivators, it’s crucial to channel these insights into actionable frameworks. This transition highlights the link between individual aspirations and collective growth, setting the stage for a culture of continual learning and mutual enlightenment.

Further Reading

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Illustration by Craftwork

Growth Plans & Learning by Teaching

Every design endeavor embarks on the quest for growth, be it in the form of enhancing user experiences or elevating design solutions. This intrinsic value of growth isn’t limited to the design outcomes but extends to the very individuals crafting those outcomes — the design team. However, instilling a culture of growth isn’t a mere checkbox but a meticulously designed journey, akin to designing a user-centric product.

Early in my managerial path, the essence of growth unfolded not only as a personal endeavor but as a collaborative expedition. The quest begins with identifying the learning aspirations within the team. Whether it’s honing skills specific to their roles like research, motion design, or prototyping, or scaling the ladder of leadership with competencies in storytelling, influence cultivation, negotiation, public speaking, management, or organizational design — the spectrum is vast and tailored to individual aspirations.

However, the genius in fostering a growth culture lies not just in the identification but in the shared dissemination of knowledge. Just as design thrives on feedback and iterative improvement, the journey of learning flourishes with teaching. I often nudge my team members to delve into the realms of teaching, sharing their expertise through structured classes, casual lunch talks, or small group mentoring sessions. While some readily embrace this role, others need a dash of encouragement to recognize their expertise worthy of sharing. The mantra here is simple yet profound — to teach is to learn twice.

But this cycle of learning and teaching isn’t self-sustaining; it requires a meticulously designed framework ensuring time and motivation are duly allocated to these activities. By weaving these elements into role descriptions and setting clear expectations, the endeavor of continual learning and knowledge sharing becomes a tangible, rewarding, and essential part of the team’s ethos.

Incorporating these practices isn’t merely about ticking off the growth checkbox but designing a culture where growth is as intuitive and essential as breathing. And as we navigate through this journey, we’re not just designing better solutions, but we’re designing better designers, better leaders, and a thriving, knowledge-rich ecosystem.

As we foster continual growth and knowledge sharing, it’s inevitable that our team dynamics evolve beyond the confines of a physical workspace. Embracing this fluid work environment opens avenues for diverse perspectives, albeit with its own set of challenges to navigate.

Further Reading

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Illustration by Craftwork

Managing Remote & Distributed Teams

Drawing from a vast repertoire of experiences across time zones and cultures, managing remote and distributed teams has become less of a hurdle and more of an art form. The digital landscape affords us the luxury to collaborate with brilliant minds irrespective of geographical constraints. Yet, it brings forth a unique set of challenges that demand a designer’s knack for empathy, clarity, and organized chaos.

Manage People, Not Teams

At the crux, management is a human-centric endeavor, more about nurturing individual growth than orchestrating groups. The fundamentals of mentorship, coaching, and career planning remain constant, albeit with a digital flavor. The quintessence of managing remotely lies in cultivating robust relationships with each team member, a task that demands a blend of structured interactions and the serendipity of informal digital run-ins.

Pizza Size, Even if it’s by the Slice
Whether in a bustling office or on a serene Zoom call, the essence of a team’s size should remain manageable, akin to a pizza that everyone gets a slice of. In distributed teams, this principle morphs into ensuring everyone gets their slice of attention, mentorship, and camaraderie, even if it’s served over a screen.

Together, Apart
The paradox of remote teams is the communal solitude. Crafting a sense of togetherness while apart requires a diligent design of digital interactions that foster a culture of inclusivity, spontaneous conversations, and a shared sense of purpose.

Hiring for Zones, Not Offices
In the quest for global talent, geographical boundaries blur. The modern design manager seeks competence and cultural fit over proximity. Hiring for time zone spans rather than physical offices expands the canvas of potential collaborations while ensuring a semblance of synchronous communication.

Calendar Rigidity and Flexibility
Managing across time zones is a dance between rigid scheduling and spontaneous flexibility. It’s about designing a calendar that respects individual productivity rhythms while carving out spaces for collective brainstorming.

Increase the Bandwidth
In a remote setting, communication bandwidth is both literal and metaphorical. Ensuring a seamless flow of information necessitates robust digital infrastructure and a culture of open dialogue. It’s about amplifying the signals amidst the noise, a task that demands a keen eye for design, an ear for the unsaid, and a heart tuned to the subtle beats of team dynamics.

In navigating the tapestry of remote and distributed teams, the design manager morphs into a digital choreographer, orchestrating a harmonious ballet of pixels and human aspirations. Through the lens of design thinking, the mundane managerial tasks blossom into a journey of empathetic interactions, continuous learning, and orchestrated serendipity.

Further Reading

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Illustration by Craftwork

Process Improvements

Turning a designer’s eye to management processes feels like second nature. Just as you’d smooth out a user’s journey through a design, the aim here is to cut through the daily grind and make things flow better for your team.

Kick things off by diving into where the time goes. Are meetings and approval loops eating up creative hours? Does your team have easy access to users for feedback? Pinpoint these snags and you’ve got a solid start.

Think back to the nitty-gritty of managing your calendar. It’s all about making sure every hour counts. Now, apply that lens to the tools your team uses. Are they helping or hindering? A little tweaking here can go a long way.

Approval processes can be a killer to a product level flow state. Streamlining this without dropping the quality ball is your design challenge. Simplify the steps, speed up feedback loops, and you’re on to something.

Always keep your ears open to your team’s input. Their insights are your design feedback. And let them in on what you’re up to — the challenges, the wins, and even the works in progress. You never know, they might just have the solutions up their sleeve.

In the end, it’s about molding a workspace where processes feel intuitive and everything clicks into place, letting creativity take the front seat.

Further Reading

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Illustration by Craftwork

Performance and Promo Writing

Consider perf and promo writing as a ‘design pattern’ in your managerial toolkit. Much like design patterns solve recurring design challenges, a well-crafted performance narrative addresses the recurring managerial challenge of articulating achievements.

In design, we value user-centric storytelling. Similarly, perf and promo writing is about narrating your team’s journey and impact. Often, designers abide by “the work should speak for itself” mantra, but in reality, it doesn’t. As a manager, your role is to help craft the story behind your team’s efforts and achievements.

The essence of design — communication, storytelling, and impact — is what you’re deploying in perf and promo writing. It’s about creating a narrative blueprint, tailored to individual accomplishments while maintaining a consistent narrative aligned with your team and organizational ethos.

Dive deeper into this narrative craft in a dedicated article, extending the design thinking methodology from product realms to people realms, encapsulating the thought process, the collaboration, the hurdles, and the impact generated. This isn’t just a managerial task; it’s a design challenge, a ‘design pattern’ awaiting adaptation to the unique narrative of each team member’s journey and achievements.

If you’re interested in improving your writing skills when it comes to Performance and Promo writing for you and your team refer to my Medium article dedicated to the topic.

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Illustration by Craftwork

Connections, Permissions, and Mediation

One of the skills that designers seem to excel at is finding patterns and connections where others do not. While it may sometimes be a case of apophenia, in most cases it isn’t. How do you turn your designer’s superpower of finding patterns in user data, into research findings and point it toward the problems at hand? Who’s solving the same problems, who’s using similar methodologies, who’s working on projects that might benefit from the same research. How might merge and split projects and teams to amplify or give greater focus? As a design, and later a design manager, you must be constantly on the lookout for opportunities

Designers have this innate knack for discovering patterns and connections; it’s like second nature to us. Often, we find ourselves amidst a network of ideas, seeing correlations where others might see chaos. It’s not just about a sporadic “Aha!” moment, but a cultivated skill honed over countless projects and user interactions.

Now, as a design manager, this skill doesn’t lose its sheen; it merely pivots. It’s about channeling this pattern recognition ability from user data and interfaces to people and projects within your purview. Who’s wrestling with similar challenges? Who’s employing methodologies that resonate with your team’s ethos? Which projects could become exponentially more potent with a shared research insight?

The canvas has changed, but the task remains the same — to weave connections that create value. Here’s where the role morphs from an individual contributor to a mediator, a facilitator. You’re no longer just connecting dots on a user journey map; you’re connecting people, projects, and perspectives within and beyond your team. And yes, it’s not a solo endeavor.

Leverage your team’s diverse skills and insights. Encourage them to cross-pollinate ideas with other teams, to share findings that could be the missing puzzle piece for someone else. The real magic happens when these connections lead to collaborative endeavors — when your design team isn’t just a silo but a nexus of shared insights and collective problem-solving.

Further, as a manager, you’re in a position to grant permissions, to approve the merge or split of projects and teams based on the patterns you and your team have unearthed. It’s about orchestrating resources — human and otherwise — in a way that amplifies focus, fosters collaboration, and ultimately, drives the needle forward on projects.

This realm of connections, permissions, and mediation is where a design manager can truly shine, aligning the microscopic insights with macroscopic organizational goals. And every connection you facilitate, every mediation you undertake, is a step towards a more collaborative, insightful, and effective design culture.

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Illustration by Craftwork

Northstars and Stepping Stones

Creating a compelling vision for a product comes naturally to skilled design teams, especially when the reins are off. However, a beautiful vision without a grasp of what’s feasible can end up being nothing more than a pipe dream. As design leaders, our role isn’t just about championing a vision; it’s about fostering a culture where ideas can bubble up from anywhere, and ensuring these ideas are both inspiring and grounded in reality.

The notion of Northstars and stepping stones encapsulates this balance. The Northstar is the big, audacious goal we’re aiming for, while the stepping stones are the realistic, achievable milestones along the way.

Our role is akin to being wise facilitators. It’s about setting a direction yet creating a space where ideas can flourish from all quarters. It’s about helping the team craft visions that are not just aspirational, but also achievable, making sure we’re not just building castles in the sky, but something real and tangible.

The essence of design leadership lies in this balance — being a catalyst for inspiring visions while also nurturing an environment where practical, achievable ideas can thrive. With a clear Northstar, a series of well-thought-out stepping stones, and a team empowered to contribute and realize these visions, we move closer to turning today’s ideas into tomorrow’s products, rather than just chasing vaporware.

Further Reading

The design manager’s toolkit was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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