This month is my 2nd year anniversary becoming a product design manager. I’m still new to it. I didn’t go to school for management. I simply became a manager when I was campaigning to get more design help on the project I was working on. I asked my boss at the time who would manage that person once we found them, and he replied something terse yet packed with thoughtful context as he always did — “Why not you?”
Wasn’t there some process for on-boarding new managers? Didn’t I need some experience first? Sure I’d taken in a summer intern, but was I ready to grow a team? As most of us new to anything quickly learn, turns out you are never fully ready—sometimes you just need to jump off the deep end and give it a shot.
But where do you start? There’s lots of books out there, but we don’t always have the luxury of time to get through them.
Fortunately there’s this thing called the internet, where smart people come together and share great content, like what it means to be a design manager, some lessons learned along the way, and some pitfalls to watch out for. Reading anecdotes and advice like this from others has been so helpful for me, so I’d like to pay it forward.
Between nearly 5 years at Google, and my time having helped grow the design team at ClassPass, I’ve picked up a few tools and resources along the way from managers with more experience than I do who’ve helped me learn by doing rather than just reading. I’ve modified them over time with my teams, and here they are:
It’s easy to forget, but when you first join a company you feel flooded with new information without an easy way to help manage or organize all of it. Many companies overlook the process of assisting new designers; the risk with small companies is that people are often too busy to help, and with large companies there’s either no clear ownership or the on-boarding becomes too generalized.
I believe it’s the managers responsibility to drive a good experience for their new employees. A well structured document with all of the need-to-know information, paired with making yourself as available as possible for the first few weeks goes a long way.
After a few iterations, I’ve learned this document can serve as a helpful place for your new designer to write down additional context and research as they learn more. Have them list questions they may have throughout the week. In the event you can’t answer questions immediately, you then can go over them during your weekly one-on-one (more on that below).
Don’t forget to schedule lunches or drinks with new employees in their first week to start to get more comfortable with the team. At ClassPass, we take a fitness class together to help break the ice. Building and growing a healthy culture starts with first impressions, so do your best to prepare and block off a healthy portion of your week to make sure things go smoothly.
People feel more comfortable sharing when you’re not facing each other directly in a cold office room. When it’s nice out, we conduct most of our one-on-ones walking outside around our block by Chelsea in New York City, finding pleasant areas with any hint of nature (the garden district usually does the trick). Walking meetings have been proven to promote creativity, lead to a more honest discussion, and break up the day nicely given how often we stay inside.
The first few one-on-one’s focus on getting to know each other’s working styles and preferences; keep them initially to an hour or at least a few 30 minute sessions while there’s still so much to cover. They should later be reduced thoughtfully into more practical weekly 30 minute working sessions to help problem solve whatever might be going on each week.
It’s incredibly important to keep these going on a regular cadence. In addition to one-on-one’s, be sure to have a few longer reviews either quarterly or twice a year to check in on progress and come up with action plans. To keep these more wholistic reviews focused and productive, you’ll want to write down clear goals in a career development plan:
One of the greatest privileges of being a manager is the ability to work with my team to keep them accountable for:
- Helping meet the goals of the company
- Reaching personal growth goals
The best jobs keep these two things closely aligned. Hiring a design team is just one piece of the job. I need to keep them happy while continually improving the value our function provides to the company.
The Career Development Plan not only helps me understand each designer’s unique needs so I can help them improve their value, it also helps them better understand themselves.
If a designer wants to grow their motion skills, I’ll schedule a motion workshop for the team or encourage them to practice after effects for their next project. If another designer loves process, I’ll ask them to help run design sprints or critiques.
I’ve learned I don’t need to be great at everything each designer wants to improve on either. We’re starting to pair designers with each other using an apprenticeship model so that if one designer loves copy writing but is still learning typography and grid systems, she can pair with another for an hour a week who studied graphic design but wants to learn great rhetoric.
We’re also starting to bring in outside help from specialists in New York City to teach workshops. Have something you want to teach us? Or does your design team want to learn high fidelity prototyping with framer? Reach out to me on twitter and maybe we can find a way for our teams to learn and grow from each other.
Finally, it’s not enough just to fill out this worksheet or print out these tools; coming up with an action plan and checking in regularly is crucial to making sure growth continues to happen. I’m looking forward to continuing to grow as a design manager, and would love your feedback, ideas, or tools that you’ve enjoyed on your design teams.