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WTF does a head of design do all day?

Have you ever wondered how someone fills their time when they work in a design team but don’t design anything? Probably something to do with meetings and spreadsheets right? Well let’s take a look at a typical day for a head of product design.
Image by Pim Chu

9am :
Warming up with email, slack, calendar 📅

My day starts in probably the same way everyone’s does; by picking through the remnants of the previous day and figuring out what’s going on. I check email, slack and my calendar to see what’s happening today and where my focus should be.

9.30am :
Check performance with design team sync and 1:1s 🤝

As a design leader I am now measured by the performance of my team. The product I design is the product design team. A team sync and one-to-ones with my direct reports is how I can get a weekly performance check of my team — in the same way a product designer starts off with reviewing the conversion rate, sign up rate, renewal rate or whatever their key metric may be.

The weekly design team sync is a fast-paced run through with each member of the whole design team. So we get top priorities, dependencies and blockers from brand design, UXR, content design and the constituent product design groups. This 30 minute session not only builds a cross-team view for everyone, but importantly it helps maintain a sense of community and subsequently team health.

Following the whole team sync it’s on to one-to-one sessions with my direct reports. Much like the design team sync this is a method to measure team health, but on an individual basis. I’m looking for performance and wellbeing indicators, as well as actions for me to improve team member’s process. Any bigger/longer term items can be picked up in our monthly career sessions.

12.30–1.30pm :
Recharge over lunch 🔋

Wherever possible I take the opportunity to leave my desk and ideally the office. If time allows I use this time to drop messages to friends and family, cramming as many emojis as possible 🤓 👍

1.30–2.30pm :
Listening to users with leadership updates 🕵️

If the product design team are now the product which I’m responsible for designing, then the tech, product, marketing and sales teams are my users. In the same way a product designer will dedicate time to listening to their users, a design leader must continually monitor for feedback and opportunities from within the organisation. Much like a product standup the leadership updates are fast, functional and designed to make sure our cross-discipline teams are all working well together.

Making sure I’m in-step with the product directors, engineering leads, marketing directors and sales managers allows me to ensure my strategy and my team are supporting the needs of the business and it also gives me a channel to advocate for the needs of the team e.g. more headcount, budget increase, cleaner data from support teams.

2.30–3.30pm :
Developing the team with recruitment 🌱

ABR- Always Be Recruiting. Even when you’re not in a growth phase you need to ensure you have a pipeline of talent, not to mention a healthy book of specialists that you can go to for specific skills that may not exist inside your team e.g. illustrators, animators, photographers.

A strong working relationship with the recruitment team is vital to ensure your recruitment process is as efficient and effective as possible. So this time is often split between reviewing applicants, interviewing, researching specialists or writing job specs.

3.30- 5pm :
Leading the team with strategy workshops 🗺️

A key indicator of team health is a well understood strategy. As the head of design role forms part of the wider leadership team, this means I have a part to play in the strategy and how it’s communicated across my team. Finding ways to connect the overall company strategy and ‘top-line’ product strategy to the design team is vital. Without a strong sense of purpose and a clear view of how their work contributes to success your team’s health will quickly decline.

A portion of my time is dedicated to designing and facilitating strategy workshops, writing strategy documents or finding ways to communicate those strategies across my team. As strategies rarely stand still, this work becomes an ongoing pursuit, as does tracking against the plan.

5–6pm :
Supporting the team with process development ⚙️

I wrap up my day by looping back to my product (my design team) and making sure the end-to-end process is streamlined and powerful. For a design leader the term ‘process’ is a double-sided challenge, as it’s my responsibility to optimise the process by which the team operates e.g. getting data from support teams, running peer reviews, using the best tools as well the process of designing solutions e.g. design thinking techniques, research tactics, UI decisions.

The final part of my day is removing blockers and introducing new techniques. This might be as simple as sharing articles and making suggestions directly to designers, or as complex as working with IT security to implement a new tool for the team.

6pm :
Prepping for tomorrow with list making ✅

I’m a note writer. The best way for me to organise my thoughts is to write them down (hence this article). So I wrap up each day with a list of items to tackle tomorrow. That way I can make a smoother start tomorrow.

WTF does this all mean?

All of the tasks I’ve detailed here fit into just three categories. These categories keep the team health and team performance moving forward:

  1. People — taking care of your team, inter-team relationships, recruiting etc

  2. Process — how your team is working, design methodologies, designops etc

  3. Purpose — co-creating strategies, forming design principles, telling the team’s story

 

The purpose of a practising designer and a design manager is surprisingly similar — a head of design designs the team. The designers design the products.