Designing Inward

A little over a year into my job at Etsy, we had made a lot of changes to the design team and how we operated. We’d hired a bunch of amazing product designers. We had weekly, round-robin design critiques with the entire team and had instituted separate, smaller design critiques for the designers in each product group. We were also religiously using Basecamp to document the entire process transparently and openly with not only the entire design team, but also our teammates in product and engineering.

To be honest, we design managers on the team were feeling pretty damn good about ourselves and our progress! The design team had never felt closer and collaboration and cross-group feedback was at an all-time high. We’d really made something great together.

And yet, something didn’t feel quite right.

From time to time, we’d hit a snag in our design process and find ourselves unaligned - either between ourselves as managers, or amongst the team working on the project. People on our teams would get frustrated with the design process, the designer and even us as design managers. We found ourselves regularly needing to smooth things over or go to bat for design with our teams (who we already knew valued design and the designers they worked with). Eventually, we got curious about what the common threads were and how we could make things better. And so, we did what we always did at the start of a new project:

We launched a user research study.

We got together with Alex, our Director of User Research and explained to him what we were seeing. Alex helped us come up with and shape a series of questions we could ask our product managers, engineers and even our own designers. Questions that ranged from pretty simple (“Define the role of a Product Design Manager”) to more nuanced topics like (“What parts of the current design process would you change?”). Alex, graciously, volunteered to personally run the research. He was still fairly new to the company and was essentially a neutral party. We helped come up with a solid list of folks to interview, who all had a range of experiences with our team - from having a hard time working with us to seemingly loving everything we did. Over the next few weeks, Alex sat down with each person on the list and asked them the same bevy of questions. He then compiled the feedback and delivered his findings to us.

Needless to say, we were all pretty surprised by the results.

First of all, we found out that everyone, including the designers, had a hard time talking about our roles as Product Design Managers. Everyone universally was confused about how to read our feedback in Basecamp. As design managers, the three of us felt pretty equal and collaborative. So, we all felt pretty comfortable giving feedback to any designer, even if we didn’t manage them. Others, though, would become confused about who to listen to, particularly when design managers disagreed. What we read as innocent feedback and discussion was randomizing and causing stress for entire teams!

There was also confusion about what we were even supposed to be doing (probably because we’d never really defined it to the people we work with). Some folks thought that we were should only be people-managing (and were peeved by our involvement with the teams themselves), while others looked at us as valuable sources for guidance.

Additionally, it came up over and over that our design critiques were sources of frustration for non-designers. We saw the design team getting together and collaborating. Our product development teams saw their design teammate go off to a meeting and come back with a list of To Dos and feedback that the team then felt forced to respond to after the fact.

There was a lot more than this, obviously, but it was really surprising to us how many of the things we were doing impacted our coworkers negatively (even if our intentions were good!). The feedback was pretty tough and challenging for us to hear, but in the end it helped us make a number of adjustments to how we worked and how we framed our work. First of all, we clarified to all our teams and designers that feedback from an outside design manager or from design critique was to be taken as simply an outsider opinion (and that the final decision belonged to the product development team and their managers). If there was something in another group one of us thought was serious, we’d skip Basecamp and work directly with the responsible manager/team.

We also clarified our roles - yes, we managed the designers, but we were also collaboratively responsible for product and design strategy (each of us were assigned to a specific product area, so we had the bandwidth to help teams). We were there to help and people should expect us to not be silent partners in building great products.

At the end of the day, we obviously couldn’t please everyone (the people who thought we shouldn’t be involved directly with our designers and teams still thought so). But turning our own design methods on ourselves revealed a lot that we didn’t know before and led us to improve our practices and processes to try and create the best possible environment for design and our teams. It made us more conscious of what future changes would mean for our partners in other disciplines. And the fact that we reached out to our coworkers for feedback let them know that we cared about what they thought, and about their experience with our department. It was so appreciated, in fact, that a few months later, engineering ran their own internal user research study to find out what others in the company thought about them.

We talk a lot in our industry about using design methodologies to get more in touch with our users, to find out what they think and how they feel about our products. But it’s equally important to turn that lens inward every once in awhile and to get in touch with each other, to find out what we think and how we’re feeling about working together, to improve our collective user experience.

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