Design

Structuring design teams to maximize cross-team collaboration

by

on

View all posts

Editor’s note: This week’s design leadership prompt asked, “How do you structure your design team?” Our first response is from Nick Schaden—stay tuned for more thoughts on this topic from other design leaders, or submit your own to our Medium publication.

I like design teams built around collaboration and transparency with outsiders, especially engineers. Yet that openness has to be balanced against productivity. Even with formalized designer-engineer connections, I still structure meetings to give designers as much uninterrupted time as possible.

meeting-coffee

An open structure largely derives from designer/engineer ratios. Across technology, from hot startups to well established brands, designers are almost always heavily outnumbered. And given it’s a fairly young industry, design is often underrepresented in company leadership.

Granted, with “design thinking” surging in popularity, that’s changing. But across many companies, it’s still an uphill battle. If you box in your design team, you’ll stack the deck against you. 

Furthermore, collaboration between engineers and designers often can make a larger impact than the individual talent of either side. I’ve seen otherwise novice designers and engineers who communicate well with their counterparts deliver great results.

“If you box in your design team, you’ll stack the deck against you.”

To maximize that cross-team collaboration, I like to have designers formally integrated in traditionally engineering-only meetings. Meetings that center on checkins and status, like a daily standup, work best. When done right, cross-team meetings break down communication barriers on either side. Collaboration becomes easier, and both sides have a better sense of progress.

Of course, this doesn’t mean most meetings are cross-team. Given a skewed designer/engineer ratio, I like to have each designer involved in at least one engineering meeting per week. Even if projects overlap due to timing or circumstance is minimal, physical presence and communication helps. There’s a social factor that can’t be expressed through Slack or email. Showing up in person gives psychological benefits and a sense of camaraderie among the larger team.

To take this relationship further, I’ve also occasionally pushed for partner teams comprised of one designer and one engineer. I’ll start things off with a formalized 1:1 meet and greet. From then on, your engineering partner becomes your “go to” for almost any tech-related question that pops up. Even if your partner doesn’t have to answer immediately, they’ll seek out and find someone who does. Obviously, this relationship goes the other way as well.

Tightly collaborative teams probably don’t need such a formality. But on deeper projects, or for new designers on the team, approaching a large engineering team or pinging a big Slack channel can be intimidating. Having a more direct contact makes communication easier.

However, extra meetings and communication has to be balanced against designer productivity. Most designers, like developers, need a certain amount of uninterrupted ramp-up time to get in “the zone.” Design in this state is firing on all cylinders. It’s where we break through otherwise unsolvable challenges and often produce our best work.

“Most designers need a certain amount of uninterrupted ramp-up time to get in ‘the zone.'”
This designer could not be further into the zone.

This designer could not be further into the zone.

That makes juggling a designer’s schedule tricky. An hour or less between meetings can translate into effectively zero productivity as a designer tries to enter flow. So I try to pack meetings with few gaps, in an effort to leave longer stretches of time for design the rest of the day.

I also encourage designers to block off 2 or 3 uninterrupted multi-hour blocks per week as “design time.” No meetings, no big interruptions. Naturally, depending on set priorities, this isn’t sustainable every week. But the more long stretches you give designers to attack a challenge, the more successful they’ll be.

“Designers: block off 2-3 uninterrupted multi-hour blocks per week as ‘design time.'”

Interestingly, open meetings and outside collaboration clash directly with an uninterrupted design schedule. That’s a tricky balance, and every design team has to handle that differently. But stay flexible, and realize that the balance is fluid depending on the ebbs and flows of the release schedule and team composition.

This post represents my personal views.

Join the conversation

How do you structure your design team? Submit your response to our Medium publication.

Author

Nick Schaden
Nick is a UI engineer and designer at Square, where he contributes to web initiatives across the company. He was formerly web platform lead at Pocket, a popular save for later service. Prior to Square and Pocket, Nick worked in technology and design at Animoto, Gucci, and Goldman Sachs. He loves coffee, electronic music, and 80s action movies.

Join over 3 million designers

Who get our content first.

No sales pitches, no games, and one-click unsubscribe.

Over 3 million designers
get our newsletter
every week

Find out why

Get awesome design content in your inbox every week

Just like over 3 million of your fellow designers do.

Plus get 3 free downloads, just for signing up.

Give it a try—it only takes a click to unsubscribe.

Thanks for signing up!

You should have a thank you gift in your inbox now—and you'll hear from us again soon!

Prototype better experiences with InVision

Just like over 3 million of your fellow designers do.

I agree to InVision's Terms of Service.

Want a free t-shirt?

Join the 3 million+ designers who get our newsletter weekly for your chance to win!

We hate spam as much as you do, and you can unsubscribe anytime.

Double your chances to win!

Tweet and automatically get a second entry

Tweet Now

No Thanks

Stay in touch!

We share news, freebies, and more on Twitter.