Time with teammates is as important as time with users

Designers need to invest just as much time in getting to know their teammates and cross-functional peers as they do getting to know their customers.

To be productive on a team, you need strong relationships with those you work with every day. After all, the point of being on a team is to work together. You work together to fill in one another's knowledge and skill gaps and develop solid products and individuals. It's hard to work together when you are doing so based on assumptions of how others like to do their job, their expectations for the work, and how you communicate.

You don't need to become best friends with your teammates to work effectively with them, but you need to know:

  • What motivates your teammates?
  • How do they measure their success?
  • How does your job make theirs easier (or more challenging)?
  • How do they like to work together?
  • What is their day-to-day "journey"?

Today the design industry regularly praises the importance of working with users in mind and the value of focusing on the user experience of what you design .

Focusing on users and their experience is undoubtedly vital to the success of what you design. Still, less talked about and often equally important as the end-user is the experience teammates have working with you.

Why don't designers invest in their team more often?

Humans are complicated. We each come into situations with life-long perspectives of how things work, what we're responsible for, how we contribute, and what we expect from others. No two people approach the same situation with the same perspective.

So when it comes to working with other people, the most significant barrier to overcome is the false belief that our work and contributions are the same as how others see them.

Everything you learn in school, in previous jobs, or from other relationships in your life informs how you collaborate with your teams at work. Therefore, you assume that you already know how to work well with others and don't need to invest any more time than the occasional one-on-one to do it.

You fail to invest the same research approaches you take with customers to that of your collaborators. Even if you realize the value peers play in your job, you might ignore the work required to understand their perspective of how things should get done.

As a result of your assumptions on how work gets done, you don't want to expose yourself to uncomfortable situations around how you work. You shy away from constructive feedback about how you do or do not communicate. You don't want to feel guilty for not prioritizing more time with your peers than you spend on customers.

Each of these concerns is valid and highlights why it's so important to spend just as much time talking with your teammates as customers: you don't know what you don't know. That's true for both things you design and the processes you use to create them. How can you do your best work if you are operating on limited assumptions? You can't, so you need to spend time on research and explorations.

It's not just the manager's job to build strong working relationships. It's everyones.

Managers often serve teams by helping to unblock obstacles, provide guidance and support, and ensure the quality of the team's output can fulfill customer and business needs.

Often your manager is responsible for bridging gaps between cross-functional groups and working with other managers to ensure you and your team are supported and doing quality work. There are times when managers need to step in and help with interpersonal or team-wide problems too.

Unfortunately, the more time a manager spends resolving conflicts and negotiating things like prioritization or goals, the more you and your team's foundations and maturity erode. Think of manager intervention like a parent resolving a problem on the playground: everyone might walk away content, but the children themselves won't learn how to resolve conflicts.

As a growing designer, you need to find ways to manage cross-functional and stakeholder relationships yourself. Scheduling quarterly check-ins or one-on-ones to discuss prioritization, processes, and any roadblocks is an excellent place to start. Conducting research "studies" with other teammates in and outside of your team is a good exercise as well, where you can get your teammates to share feedback on the work and design decisions directly as if they were a user of the final product themselves.

Designers are often experts at talking with customers, evaluating their feedback, and letting that feedback inform design decisions and product direction. But unless you take that same approach to understand your work to your teammates, too, odds are you aren't doing the best job you could be.

Ensure you prioritize your work in ways that fulfill not only customer demands but also team ones. Find ways to dig into your teammates' modes of operating, their perspective of your work, how they like to work, and how they measure success.