Structuring design teams to maximize cross-team collaboration

4 min read
Nick Schaden
  •  Apr 5, 2016
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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.

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.Twitter Logo

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.Twitter Logo 

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.”

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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 barriersTwitter Logo 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.Twitter Logo

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.'”

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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.'”

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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.

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