The Worst Failures You Can Make as a Design Leader

How to Avoid Bad Design Leader Mistakes

This article was originally published on UX Designers Club.

When you work as a designer for long enough, you might want to become a design leader. This position seems very interesting and has many challenges.

CNN Money predicts that demand for UX designers will grow. Starting from 2015 it’ll increase by be 18%, which means design leaders will be needed.

“Senior design leaders can complement the hypothesis- and framework-based approaches to strategy on which top executives have long (and perhaps overly) relied.”

— Melissa Dalrymple, Sam Pickover, and Benedict Sheppard in McKinsey & Company

You decided it’s a perfect time to do a new step in your career and look for a new leadership position. Finally, you got your dream job and start to work as a design leader.

Suddenly you realize that being a leader includes new things for you, like management, planning, report, and others. While it’s something you already know from working as a designer yourself, the same knowledge applies differently in a leadership role.

If you don’t know how to manage your team, you need to be aware of the possible failures.

Being Too Close With Your Team

Chuck Finder-Wustl recently reported on a new study. The study reviewed relationships of 73 pairs of managers and employees in the tech industry in northern China.

Results showed that it can create problems in workers’ productivity.

I remember a situation when I became a design leader for the first time. It seemed like my dream opportunity finally came to me.

My team was well-organized, we had common interests. There were two designers I worked with, and we always talked about design contests, courses to level up our careers.

While I had great personal relationships with my design team, my management abilities weren’t strong enough.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make a mindset shift from being just a designer to a manager, who needs to control other designers’ work.

“Despite the fact that setting the course is your role, you find yourself holding back. You may justify this by telling yourself that you’re empowering your team, but the hesitation is a red flag.”

— Peter Stewart in Forbes

It was very hard to point mistakes and tell people what they need to improve. I felt like I underestimate other designers’ work and tell them bad things.

Probably, it was a result of my design career, when I faced negative feedback.

While it’s a good thing to hear criticism, you might feel sad because your work isn’t perfect as you thought before.

You feel that you spend so much time, and you deserve better feedback from your manager or stakeholders.

This is why when I started my leadership position, I wanted to respect other designers’ work. I wanted to respect it way better than I experienced myself before.

It led me to be a better person, but at the same time, it was bad for management.

I quickly realized that being a manager means providing any type of feedback — good or bad depending on the results I see.

If a designer created a bad concept idea, and I see the reasons why it’s bad, I need to tell about it.

In reality, when you provide negative feedback, it’s a good thing. You point a mistake for a designer, and he sees it. So in the future, he can avoid doing this mistake again.

Pro-Tip

If you worry that you can underestimate someone’s work by providing bad feedback, think about it from a long-term perspective.

If you don’t point out mistakes now, your design team will repeat them again and again. After all, your major task as a design leader is to help your team grow. If you don’t point out the mistakes, who will do it instead?

Not Knowing How To Manage Your Team

Being a designer isn’t the same as being a leader. If you think that you’re ready to manage a team at the beginning of your career, because you’re very experienced in skills, it might be not enough for you.

Sadly, but no one can teach you how to be a great manager. Yes, you can find courses and videos about tools, time management, and budget control.

But no one will tell you how to develop a gut feeling to manage your team.

In Gallup’s 2015 State of the American Manager report, one of two workers said they quit their jobs “get away” from their boss.

“Poor management skills carry long-lasting effects and may infect an entire organization.”

— Andre Lavoie in Entrepreneur

I went throw the same situation with my design lead position. Having seven years of design experience seemed to be enough for a leadership role. I thought I’ll quickly make a switch from a UX/UI designer to a team leader.

With my first leadership position, I was very excited. I watched a lot of YouTube videos, took courses, and read many articles to learn about management.

It seemed like learning the best tools, practices are enough for starting a new journey in the leadership world.

The reality was rude. I quickly realized that knowing everything doesn’t mean I’m able to use this knowledge correctly.

Yes, I know that assigning tasks and thinking about time and budget are crucial.

But there is another important aspect. How to understand what designer will be a perfect choice for research, wireframe, or UI tasks?

My major question and the problem was to identify a perfect match between skills and psychology.

For example, I assigned a UI task to a guy who was passionate about it. Another designer already worked with UI tasks before but felt like research is what he wants to work with.

As a result, a designer with a UI task who worked only a few times before with design systems asked too many tech questions. It led to time loss.

On the other hand, a designer with research could make it faster but prefer another area.

When it comes to assigning tasks and controlling work, it’s super important that you rely on your design experience. With its help, you can identify a perfect match between a task and your team.

If you rely on your team’s preference, it might not be a perfect solution, and you need to be aware of it.

Pro-Tip

Managing a team means that you develop not only a tech skill as a design leader but also your gut feeling. It helps you to understand your team more than just skills and their wishes.

When you feel that someone can do a work way better, than another person, you might assign tasks more productively. It’s where your design skills and management need to combine into one strategy to manage a team.

A Bad Design Leader Doesn’t Share Failures

According to the Inc. article, the statistics say that 90% of new businesses fail in the first five years. It means people who work in business make mistakes. You and your team are part of it.

Your team is everything for you when it comes to results. You assign tasks, check the progress and control your team’s work.

Have you thought that you can motivate your team to work better, more inspired by sharing your failures?

“Problem-sharing can easily lead to problem-solving. With the right attitude, your organization can quickly go from failure to inspiration.”

— Alexandria Nelson in Interact

Many people think of leaders as superheroes. It seems like they’re perfect, successful, and don’t make mistakes.

When I read about leaders, I read about their achievements only. No one wants to share their failures. And this is a bad thing. We all are human beings, and we’re going throw self-improvement all the time.

When it comes to your design career, you make many mistakes on the way to creating a great product. Not perfect, but great.

Everything changes fast, and you adapt your skills, design process, tools to meet new industry standards and people’s needs.

You make many mistakes because you learn new things with each adaptation.

As a design leader, you might inspire your team by sharing not only how cool you’re, but also your failures. By doing so, you’re honest about your career and how did you get to whom you’re today.

You motivate your team by sharing how you overcome mistakes, what struggles did you face.

It’s a great team-building way, and you can create a strong connection with your team.

In my team, I often tell about how I tried to participate in contests, learn new tools and techniques. When I win a contest, like taking second place on the Telegram Redesign Challenge, I motivate my team with my achievement.

But together with this, I also share my failures, like not getting any wins in design contests.

Instead of promoting how cool I am, I show what I learn when I don’t win a contest.

And this is something you can do in your team as a design leader to get more credibility and trust among other designers.

Pro-Tip

Sharing your failures is a powerful way to show your personality to your team. By showing not your wins only, but your mistakes, you help other designers to grow.

Also, you save time and make your team stronger in tech skills, because they can avoid your mistakes in their careers. It’s a huge time saver.

Final Thoughts

If you plan to become a design leader or just started a new leadership role, it’s time for you to make a mindset shift.

Instead of thinking about tech skills only, you need to learn management, psychology, and a gut feeling to manage your team.

Being a design leader means not only a new level in your career but new areas of your expertise. You need to quickly adapt and avoid failures that can lead you to become a bad team leader.

I shared three problems you might experience in your design lead position. My tips will help you to avoid or decide these problems, so you can start your leadership role confidently.

It’s time for you to level up your career and not be afraid to take responsibility for your design team.


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Olha Bahaieva Avatar

Olha Bahaieva / UI/UX Designer, Medium Author, Public Speaker @ Toptal

Olha Bahaieva is a senior UI/UX designer, Medium author and public speaker at Toptal.

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