Design

Practical time management for designers

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Since you’re pressed for time, I’ll get straight to the point. If you’re a UX designer, you have to be good at managing your time. If you’re not, you may find yourself overwhelmed with fire drills and never able to do the kind of work you’re passionate about.

Here are common problems I’ve heard from UX designers and solutions they’ve found (that didn’t involve hiding at Starbucks).

“A successful designer thinks strategically about their time and effort.”

Too many random interruptions

  • Turn off Slack and email. It is not your master. Put time on your calendar to check these and only do so 3 times a day—morning, lunch, afternoon.
  • Set office hours like a college professor. This establishes a good time for people to come by for walk-up questions, small design tasks, design reviews, etc. It makes your time more predictable. Let your team know. Hang a sign on your desk.
Time management for designers

Too many small asks. Lots of people want your help so they hit you up directly for small design favors, like designing an icon (or designing their whole entire app)

  • Deflect. Let them know you’d love to help, but you have several large projects at the moment. Suggest they talk to your manager about coverage. You manager should also know how many small asks you’re getting.
  • Be the editor, not the writer. Make guidelines, toolkits, templates, and examples for others to use. Suggest they take a pass at the creative task, then come to you for feedback. This also up levels your game. Rather than producing assets as the production designer, you are establishing tools and processes that make the organization more capable and efficient. Look at you go!
“Put time on your calendar to check Slack and email—and only do so 3 times a day.”

Too many rounds of design iteration with stakeholders

  • Everyone has dealt with teams that want an excessive number of rounds of feedback and revisions. When it reaches the point of diminishing returns, it’s a time waster. Try limiting it to 3 revisions and let the team know after the second revision that you’ll do one more to be nice. Explain that you have to get onto other projects or user stories.

Too many meetings

  • Look at your calendar and prioritize the meetings you have to attend. If it’s an informational meeting for you and you aren’t a direct contributor, maybe you don’t need to go. Remember, you’re shipping software—that’s where the focus is. You are not shipping meetings.
  • Schedule yourself design time if you don’t already. Don’t fit design in around your meetings. Fit meetings around your design time.
  • Rather than lose another hour due to meetnapping (definition: the tendency to kidnap a colleague by forcing him or her to attend a useless meeting), decline the meeting, and ask the co-worker to come by during your office hours.

Have more time to read? Great!

In my experience working with UX teams in big companies, personal time management is one of the things I see talented designers struggle with the most. I admit, I’m a work in progress here myself. Some designers want to cover everything, take every walk-up request, and try to overdeliver on it all. It can lead to frustration and burnout.

There are the time-wasting traps that designers find themselves in discussed above, and then there are the time-wasting traps that designers create for themselves. Such as:

  • Too many explorations for a minor design
  • Exploring and refining a concept for too long
  • Too many rounds of usability testing and A/B testing addiction
  • Time-consuming visual design specs

Often these problems stem from misaligned priorities or not knowing how much effort to put into a project.

Parkinson’s law of triviality is the observation that people and groups tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time on small and simple problems compared to larger difficult problems. As a designer, ask yourself if you’re spending most of your time on the important problems. For a project of any size, are you spending most of your time on the make-or-break part of the problem, or are you spinning your wheels in minor details?

To disrupt this tendency, I encourage designers to think about tiering their efforts as a more severe way to prioritize. Many established UX design groups have some notion of tiered support for programs; (1) full support with dedicated UX staff, (2) minor support with review and advise, and (3) self-serve for programs via a UX style guide and assets, but no direct UX support.

Behold the Tieramid:

Tieramid

This is a visual metaphor for dividing time and effort based on the importance of the UX work. The Tieramid is not evenly divided—and your effort should not be either.

In short, a Tier 1 effort gets everything it needs, while Tier 2 and 3 are strictly time bound to force focus and progress. The goal is to get the small things done quickly and have ample time for the big things.

Tier 1 effort
Tier 1 efforts have the most impact on the business or customer experience. These efforts get as much time as they need and other projects sacrifice for these if needed. Break all the rules to make these succeed. An example may be a new product concept, a major product redesign, or new large feature area in an existing product. A team can’t afford many of these at time, like 1 to 3. This is an obvious put-first-things-first idea.

Tier 2 effort
Tier 2 efforts are also important features for the user experience and business. These are the key user stories. Examples may include redesign faceted search, create new user profile view, or create a dashboard view.

Time bound Tier 2 efforts to 1 week.

Some designers freak out when they hear that. Some UX designers don’t believe they can complete big work in a week because of all the other work and meetings they have. This forces you to look at your schedule and remove things that don’t contribute to getting it done, like low value meetings.

In addition to Parkinson’s law of triviality is the simply named Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s law observes that work will take the amount of time you give it. If you give it a week, you can manage the scope and subtasks to get it done in a week.

Tier 2 projects are also great candidates for a 1-week design sprint.

[ Read more about design sprints. ]

Granted, in some projects, most of the time is spent wrangling requirements rather than the actual design. It may take 2 weeks to get the details but 2 hours design it. It’s okay to let your team and stakeholders know that you’re blocked until you have enough requirements. Using a design sprint is also a good way to get the necessary people together to work through the details in a short amount of time rather than the excruciating 1-hour weekly status meeting.

Tier 3 effort
These are design chores. Time box these to 1 day. These need to be good, not great. Basic form design, table views, icons, etc. are examples here. It’s okay to shoot from the hip here. ‘Nuff said.

The point of the Tieramid is to make you think about what is important and how you should spend your time. The trap to avoid is treating what should be a Tier 2 effort as a Tier 1 effort and spending months on something. Know what you need to overdeliver on and what you should handle with a conversation or a hand sketch.

Returning to the list of time-wasting traps that designers create for themselves, here are a few tips to help climb out:

Too many explorations for a minor design

If you tend to show your product team several different design directions, ask yourself if that’s necessary. You’re the designer after all. For a design with minor impact, one is fine.

Exploring and refining a concept for too long

After working in a domain for a while, whether it’s ecommerce, mobile chat, etc., a designer should have the users’ point of view and a list of good UX ideas built up on Pinterest, Uplabs, or in their head. Creating a new UX concept can be a matter of grabbing from these and putting them on paper. That can be done in a few days. The concept can even be conveyed in storyboards as a user journey rather than UI mockups. The concept needs only to illustrate the most important ideas. It doesn’t need to include the final copy that’s been rigorously A/B tested.

Too many usability testing iterations or A/B testing

Speaking of testing, the need to test everything is a security blanket some teams can’t let go. Only test things that reduce uncertainty and will change the project’s direction. Too many studies have been run to gather information that was interesting but had no impact.

“Tested one design solution 3 times to refine it? You’re taking too long.”

Know what you can test in a day with guerilla testing or remote unmoderated testing (for a Tier 2 effort), and what needs a study that takes a few weeks to put together (Tier 1 effort). To speed things up, consider making your own panel of customers for fast bi-weekly feedback. Customer proxies such as sales engineers or product trainers can also substitute for the real thing if you customers are hard to find.

Finally, if you’ve tested one design solution 3 times to refine it, you’re taking too long. In my experience, it’s always signaled a problem. Maybe the team is churning in indecision, overthinking the problem, or needs a different approach.

Time consuming visual design specs

Believe it or not, some people still create red line design specs by hand. Where design specs are necessary, tools like InVision’s Inspect that automatically generate specs are the way to go. Also, there is no need to update comps as a record of design for minor UI changes or text tweaks once the team is working in code. Your company doesn’t ship specs so the time on this should be minimal.

In place of design documentation handoffs, emphasize pairing with developers and ongoing design reviews in your UX team so the conversation is always on. Modern software development practices like Pivotal Lab’sapproach to XP and IBM’s Design Thinking both stress tight collaboration in place of documentation.

Summary

Good time management is one of the soft skills you need to advance your UX career.

Beyond a professional skill, it’s a life skill. Honed to a fine edge, time management is used by pros to cut through the toil. If you’re dedicating 100% of your time to grinding out design for production, you won’t have bandwidth for opportunities that arise. Whether it’s a quick concept design or quick study, you have to keep some capacity to recognize the opportunity, work on it, and share it around.

There will always be more work to do than can be done. You won’t get it all done or as well as you would like. A successful designer thinks strategically about their time and effort. What you give your attention to will flourish. Choose wisely.

What is your favorite UX life hack? Tell us on Twitter: @InVisionApp.

Read more posts about UX
Author

Ryan West
Ryan West is a product development leader with a background in psychology, engineering, and design. He has served UX leadership roles for Dell, HomeDepot.com, and is currently Senior UX Director of Smart Buildings at Honeywell. Ryan received his PhD in cognitive psychology from the University of Florida.

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