Coaching Designers

Apr 19th, 2024 · 10 min read

Coaching is the most foundational aspect of the leadership journey. Over the years, I’ve leveraged my own experience to help designers navigate hundreds of design projects and situations. In this post, I share some of my top learnings as a coach, with tips for design and situational coaching, plus advice for running effective 1-on-1’s.

Design coaching

Coaching designers requires a skillset that separates it from other tech leadership roles. Especially if you’re a design manager, your job is to not only support the growth of the people on your team, but often to provide a critical voice on the work itself. This means sharing constructive feedback at key moments in order to elevate the user experience, and empowering your reports to achieve more successful outcomes.

Leverage your experience

Ideally, if you’re reading this, you should have many years of experience working as a designer yourself. This experience is your foundation as a coach. When providing feedback to a designer about their work, tap into your experience and share learnings, best practices, and other advice that you’ve picked up over the years.

If you do not have working knowledge yet, I strongly suggest seeking it out ASAP. Without firsthand experience in the shoes of your reports, you’ll find that it will be much harder to build a trust as a knowledgable voice.

I dealt with this as a designer several years ago. My boss had just transitioned from being a creative director at an agency to a first-time product design manager at a major tech company. While she had strong opinions on things like typography and color, there were a lot of gaps in her knowledge of product design process, UX research, relationships with product and engineering, etc. Ultimately, this made it hard for me and my peers to receive meaningful coaching, and at times, created tension between her guidance and the reality of our work.

Stay close to the work

Similarly, one of the biggest mistakes I see from design managers is when they become too removed from the practice of design. This detachment can be an easy trap to fall into, especially if you’re managing multiple reports. But the further you are from the design practice, the harder it becomes to coach others to do it.

To avoid this, check-in with yourself periodically and see if you need to flex those design muscles. If there aren’t opportunities for you to design on the job, consider a side project or personal website. Continuously seek out resources about the craft. Stay up-to-date on trends and tooling. It may not be easy, but to maintain the trust and respect of your team, you should be able to talk-the-talk.

No one likes a micro-manager

Providing design coaching requires finesse. Today’s designers (especially those at a senior-level) are told to feel empowered as decision-makers for the user experience, so when your opinion runs counter to theirs, their autonomy can feel threatened. If your reports feel that your feedback is overbearing or hinders their impact, you may lose their trust as a coach and gain a reputation as a micro-manager.

Because of this, your coaching needs to thread the needle between direction and suggestion — elevating your reports’ work while empowering them as owners of the user experience. There is no one easy trick to balance these things, but there are a few approaches I’ve learned over the years.

As a manager, your design feedback should be:

  • User-centric — We’re all here to solve problems for users. When you frame your opinion around a common goal, your feedback will be hard to disagree with.
  • Timely — Think about a time when you received last-minute design feedback before a big deadline — stressful, right? Try to be considerate of your designer’s timeline and make sure your feedback is appropriate for the phase of the project, and allows for time to iterate.
  • Inspirational, yet realistic — Designers may avoid creative exploration in order to ship solutions quickly, but this approach may not guarantee the strongest outcome. To counter this, encourage them to explore beyond project requirements before arriving at solutions (but within context of product goals, timelines, etc.).

Situational coaching

Design coaching is only half the battle. You’ll find that your reports will also need your guidance and support for navigating the remaining aspects of the job, including effective process, cross-functional collaboration, and other situational roadblocks. For example, you may run into scenarios like these:

  1. Your report is unsure about the scope of a project and isn’t sure where to focus their time.
  2. Your report has a conflict with an engineer on their team about design QA, and is unable to resolve it on their own.
  3. Your report’s product manager prefers to create all wireframes before handing them off — hindering the designer’s ability to improve UX.

Building context about the work

You may find that situational challenges are often stemming from cross-functional issues. Keep in mind that your report is only giving you one perspective, so without understanding the broader context of their work and relationships with peers, your coaching may come across as hollow or potentially make the issue worse.

Take the project scope scenario from above as an example. Your report isn’t sure about a project’s timeline and asks you for advice on where to spend their time. You may have some opinions, but if you don’t have context about the project, how do you know that your advice will be effective?

I’ve found that the best way to ensure effective situational coaching is by maintaining relationships with your report’s cross-functional peers — typically the PM and engineering lead. If you’re hands-on in UX strategy and planning, you’re likely already working with these folks. But try to consider how you can leverage these relationships to support your ability to coach.

Start by setting up regular 1-on-1’s with each report’s PM if you don’t have one already. During this meeting, your primary goal is to gain high-level product context, including: project objectives, user goals, timelines, etc. Ask them for access to relevant documents and artifacts. You probably don’t need to be too in the weeds (specific requirements, engineering tickets, etc.) — you just need enough information to provide reasonable coaching if your report needs it.

It’s also important to maintain contact with your reports’ engineering counterparts. If PMs are your go-to people for product context, engineering leads are best for delivery and execution. When syncing with them, ask about their expectations for design hand-off, feasibility, design QA, etc. Make sure you’re aligned on broader decisions like usage of design systems or external libraries.

Building context about working relationships

Aside from the work, you should also use these conversations to build context of your reports’ working relationships. A lot of the time, situational challenges are the result of conflict or misaligned expectations between roles. Again, the best way to resolve and even prevent this type of issue is by proactively seeking it out.

The simplest thing you can do is ask the PM/engineering lead for feedback about your report, and vice versa. Your goal in gathering this bi-directional context is to get a pulse on their working relationships and identify misaligned expectations before they become issues. Teammates don’t always feel comfortable talking to each other about these things, so use your position to mediate and help improve their relationships.

Effective 1-on-1s for coaching

For me, the 1-on-1 meeting is the primary touchpoint for coaching designers. I try to schedule at least 30 minutes a week with each of my reports, and every other week for skip-level reports.

Topics in a 1-on-1 can vary quite a bit, so I suggest keeping the format intentionally loose. Earlier in my journey as a manager, I experimented with a 1-on-1 template with a set agenda and talking points, but found it to be too rigid. Nowadays, I encourage my reports to drive the discussion and make the most of our time together.

Start with what’s top of mind

Without a set agenda, it’s easy to get side-tracked and forget to cover valuable topics. To guarantee that every meeting is optimized toward the most important topics, I kick-off each 1-on-1 with the same question:

What’s top of mind for you this week?

While open-ended, this question prompts the other person to start with their highest-priority topic(s) before moving onto less important stuff. If you find that your reports frequently need your attention outside of your 1-on-1s, it might be a sign that your meetings could be better optimized — I suggest trying the “top-of-mind” question and see if it helps.

💡 Pro-tip: This is a great way to kick-off your other 1-on-1’s as well — so feel free to try it with your peers or managers.

Ask how you can help

With designers, you may find that they prefer using the 1-on-1 to share progress on designs. It’s also common for them to bring up a situational issue related to a project or collaborator. Regardless of the problem they bring to you, consider this: just because a report raises an issue in a 1-on-1, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are looking for you to coach them.

As a supportive coach, your first instinct may be to jump on the problem, either by doling out advice or stepping in to solve it yourself. And you might even be successful. But I urge you, before providing solutions, try responding with the following question:

How can I help?

After several years in people management, one major takeaway is that sometimes people just need to vent. Or a puzzling design problem may actually be well under control.

If you jump immediately into problem-solving mode, you’re making an assumption that the person is coming to you because they aren’t capable of solving the problem on their own. They might wave off your advice or even down-play their original messaging, but the damage to their confidence (and trust in you as a coach) may already be done.

By responding with “How can I help?”, you’re empowering your report to decide if and how you should support them. Simultaneously, you’re reinforcing that you’re there to help them solve a problem, as opposed to solving problems for them. This seemingly insignificant question can be a powerful tool for getting to the heart of issues and building stronger relationships with your reports.

Wrapping up

Coaching designers can be a deeply rewarding experience, but it’s also an important responsibility. If you take anything away from this post: you owe it to your reports to be thoughtful in your approach to coaching. Be supportive and considerate, and your reports will thank you for it.

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