6 Ways to Optimise Multi-Functional Design Teams

4 Minutes Read

There are still plenty of organisations, big and small that consolidate their design teams with several designers working on projects together.

I get the idea behind this; the collaboration allows teams to combine individual members' strengths or source specialists for exclusive work such as prototyping or visual design.

However, we're (Spark!) big champions of collaboration and diverse thinking at Spark. Our designers are integral to our multi-functional project teams made up of engineers and product managers. We feel this setup creates far more profound understanding, transparency, better communication, and eventual upskilling of all team members. While we believe this is a great structure, there are still a few gotchas to look out for. Here are a few we've seen and work to overcome.

Problem: Lack of Feedback 

In multi-functional teams, designers work mainly with product managers and engineers, which is excellent. However, I'm not sure if this is pointing out the obvious, but your designer's feedback is often in-depth and offers unique, creative solutions to solving problems and delivering exceptional designs. 

A Solution:

We're continually developing our feedback and communication loops to improve the products we design and create for our customers. Try arranging regular sessions with your designers to learn and hear from them, and nurture a constructive forum to improve your product build and ensure it is the best it can be.

It's worth encouraging your designers to utilise forums and sites like dribbble.com, which are excellent for critiquing visual designs and solving design issues – a reserved space where designers gather. 

Problem: Working in Silos

Particularly for remote and cross-functional teams, designers aren't always aware of how their particular work intersects with others. This lack of shared insight leads to design conflicts which impact timelines, productivity, and in the end, an unhappy customer and a disgruntled team.

A Solution:

Clarity is essential. Combine responsibilities in one easily accessible place for all teams by using a tool such as Basecamp to improve transparency and ensure joint access.

Another useful tool is sharing goals and deadlines. Set up meeting reminders to update milestones and do reviews at the beginning of each week. As you'll see in most of our narratives and articles, we talk a lot about transparency, communication and collaboration. These are fundamental to breaking down workplace silos. We're so dedicated to this that we are building our tech solution to ensure team members aren't siloed; they have a sense of belonging and understand how their work impacts the end goals. You don't need to go that far. Still, regular and open communication is the first step to avoiding this common workplace challenge.

Problem: Inconsistent Designs

With larger teams, continuous conversations and shared behaviour become difficult as designers don't necessarily talk to each other daily. This lack of communication and insight into each other's work often leads to a disparity across your product's different aspects.

A Solution:

As part of starting a new project, we create a compilation of guidelines for front-end engineering, writing content, and design principles and patterns. We find this process helps our team members focus on the distinctive merit of the product and its interface components. We also encourage our team, when possible, to design interfaces as recyclable models that we can use on future projects.

Problem: Conflicting Standards

As a team expands, designers often don't interact sufficiently, and their values become misaligned. For instance, one designer may focus on consistency despite the user experience. At the same time, another might value optimising for a particular context, leaving the consistency seriously lacking.

A Solution:

Put in place design principles that everyone shares and buys in to. Buying into the project is another fundamental of the work we do at Spark. We ensure the team members we assign to a particular project adhere to that 'buy-in' principle. The team should agree on the qualities all designs must meet and a collective team value. For example, discuss whether you all agree to specific compromises and what principles are absolute and shared by the team. And always use these principles when you evaluate designs.

Problem: Challenges in Learning from Each Other

When new designers join Spark, they know little about our team designs, processes, and how we differentiate. It's the same for most. So who do they learn from? In our experience, observation and imitation is usually the best way.

A Solution:

Properly onboarding new hires are critical. It's something we've dedicated a great deal of time to understanding and mapping out, which has paid off in spades. Make sure you arrange visits for new joiners with various teams and designers. Task them with smaller, important projects and encourage collaboration with other designers on the team. Importantly, you should also implement this with long-term designers for fresh insight into others' workflow and principles. You may also benefit from documenting these encounters for future learning.

Problem: Social Aspect

Designers working in diverse teams may adversely affect the social aspect of a group of designers in a company. Even discussing the latest 'wow' on Little Big Details or the latest features in new design software helps people get to know each other and work better together. Remember, diverse thinking is good for business!

A Solution:

Arranging outings or events for the designers such as lunches, social evenings - in person or virtual - and webinars are always well received. One thing we've started recently, as our team grows, is a month-end business round-up of wins, plans, ideas, and a fun show and tell where our engineers and designers take the floor. This is diverse thinking at its best. Another idea is to set a specific time of day where designers can work together or just chat about their work to cement a sense of social camaraderie. No better time than in lockdown to encourage these virtual yet effective activities!

Whether you have centralised or cross-functional teams like us, everyone needs to be prepared to compromise, and the advantages of diverse teams will always outweigh the disadvantages.

Every organisation is dynamic – people come and go, and teams change. Still, with a continuous iteration of workflows and agreement on core values and principles, I promise you will see significant success! But to guarantee success, how about booking time in with our team.