Enabling Product Designers to Build Strong Design Teams

November 1, 2022

This post was co-written by Moni Gmitro and Jeff Rodanski.

Building a stellar team of product designers can be challenging, depending on existing talents, the current state of design practice, and the organization's goals. An organization could hire new product designers or elect to reallocate existing employees. Whichever method the organization chooses, it is important to utilize an enablement plan to curate and support desired skills on the team and to reach the organization's north star. 

Enablement is the combination of teaching, coaching, and mentoring. It is structured to support a person at every level in becoming who they want to be, as well as creating the awareness and empowerment that leads to change. Enabling designers to become skilled product designers allows them to use processes and methodologies to support the growth of the product ecosystem. A product designer, at the core, is a problem solver.

VMware Tanzu Labs works side-by-side with a client’s teams to strengthen their abilities and empower them to deliver products that show immediate and long-lasting impact. By doing this, the clients have the right tools and mindset ready to be utilized when they encounter similar challenges in the future.

When a company chooses to enable existing talents, there are various factors that the company needs to consider, such as diversity in employee backgrounds and growth opportunities. To keep it simple, the company can face situations where employees are either brand new to or already experienced in design practice. It is important to keep in mind that the differences in the situation may present different approaches to the enablement strategy.

Enabling product designers new to design practice

Most product designers who are new to or just starting to learn about design practice are equipped with a learning mindset.

“I am here to learn as much as possible.”

In this case, the “I Do, We Do, You Do” and 1:1 Pairing teaching strategies are adopted on Day 1. Firstly, a Tanzu Labs designer shows the client designer how something is done, typically by walking through the design process and activities to solve real problems. Then, the Tanzu Labs designer pairs with the client designer via hands-on activities; and has the designer solve a problem while providing little to no guidance. Adopting these “I Do, We Do, You Do” and pairing approaches have proved to not only enable the designers with tools but also the thought processes on how design decisions are made. The latter is a crucial part of the enablement experience as it instills designers with a product-thinking mindset and the ability to rationalize decisions that will support the growth of the product through user research.

In some cases, the product designer alone cannot be successful without collaborating with team members. However, designers who are new to design practice may not have experience working with other disciplines, such as product managers and software engineers. This fact provides an opportunity to not only focus on enabling the designer with tools and design expertise but also teach an understanding on how to collaborate with other disciplines. At Tanzu Labs, the balanced team approach is used to facilitate pairing across disciplines and to help designers gain a better understanding of the team’s expertise and thought processes. As a result, the designer is able to determine how to best collaborate with the team members and leverage their expertise to drive the product’s growth.


Enabling experienced product designers

The enabling experience starts with the Tanzu Labs designer spending sufficient time learning about the client designer’s background and interest in both their career and personal growth. The client designer may be asked to solve a small design problem, known as a whiteboarding exercise, before focusing on the assigned project. This exercise lasts no more than one hour and reveals where to begin enabling, as well as which enablement methods are applicable and deemed effective. The areas of enablement in this scenario are simplified into two categories: continue and consider.

“Continue” is the skill set in which the client designer is doing well and should keep fostering and focus on building strengths on top of strengths. These are areas the enablement experience can initiate the “We Do” step and solve a real problem together. Starting with “We Do” puts the focus on the designer’s strengths, creating a sense of equal partnership, and the opportunity for continuous feedback from each other in real time. Confidence boosts need to happen here because, as an experienced designer, it is sometimes challenging to overcome the anxiety of being enabled by another designer. 

“I have already been doing this, why am I being enabled?”

“Consider” is where one discovers the areas of growth the client designer needs to work on. Expectations are set and understood prior to pairing so as to create healthy working relationships, including the opportunity to share feedback based on what was learned through the whiteboarding exercise. And so, the pairing relationship begins with the “I Do” approach. It is important to ensure tools and techniques are shared during pairing, but more importantly, the thought processes and rationale behind design decisions are also illustrated and understood.

Measuring success

To say that it is challenging to measure enablement is realistic; however, that does not mean it is impossible. First of all, as a consultant, understanding the north star of the design team and the individual’s goals are important to being able to determine enablement plans. While pairing, it is common to regularly refer to an enablement tracker to help ensure key design skills are being taught. The enablement tracker is set up to support and track the journey of key design skills while enablement is happening. It consists of the prioritized list of key design skills that align with the organization’s north star. Thus, it is important to notice that the enablement tracker differs based on the goals of the design team and organization.

Example of enablement tracker

The real test happens when the Tanzu Labs designer walks away from an enablement engagement. 

“Can the client designer continue to carry out the context without help?”

Additionally, looking at the health of the product metrics can tell a lot about how successful the enablement experience is. If the product is healthy and continues to show opportunity for growth, it is fair to say that the practices that the product team adopted have contributed to the success of the product’s growth.

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