When you join a product team, you are joining a work in progress. What’s happened with the team before you got there, and how or when do you anticipate leaving? Design is a relay race where the work you do now can affect your product after you have moved on. How are you planning on handing off that baton to the next designer?
Plan your handoff
Even if you’re in it for the long haul, thinking ahead to the next designer puts you in a frame of mind that will make you more efficient.
When you are thinking deeply about the needs and motivations of a particular group of users, you will probably come up with many more ideas than you are likely to be able to explore. Remembering that your time is limited can be a way to prioritize and focus on the most impactful ones. It can also be a good motivation to wrap up projects as soon as you can – there’s nothing like a deadline to move projects along.
If you’re in a design organization that rotates assignments, this can also motivate you to share your insights as you go. The more you share about your particular product’s users and challenges, the easier it will be for other designers to collaborate with you. By sharing why you care about your project, you may get other designers excited about it too. Think like a hiring manager – help be a matchmaker to find potential designers that would be good for your project. That way, when it is a good time to move on, that search for potential designers is that much easier. Likewise, if your team grows and you find that you need another designer, you’ll already have designers in mind that you can approach to join you.
Make that transition smooth
You’ve spent time learning about the product, the users, and the team. Think of how that information might have helped you if you had it from the beginning. How can you translate that legwork into something that will help the next designer get off to a fast start?
When I transitioned off of major products (Illustrator, Photoshop) I met with the new designers regularly for the first month or two. Every week we’d meet so I could answer any questions they had about particular feature work. We’d also talk through one topic in depth: the user segments, the IA, the team structure, etc. I asked for the same when I came onto new projects, and that helped tremendously. Those software projects had long development cycles (between 1.5-2 years), and much of that information wasn’t readily discoverable otherwise. For web projects I’ve found a similar process to be useful, although the handoffs are shorter.
The transition matters for the product team, too. Use the goodwill you’ve built up to vouch for the next designer. Since your product team knows you and what you can do, that vote of confidence can help ease that transition for them. I haven’t always been able to stay with a project until the next designer is found, but when I can, I’ve found that the best thing to do is to help the product team understand the strengths of the incoming designer. I appreciate the new perspective they can bring, and share that with the product team to help them start on the right foot.
I haven’t always had the benefit of previous designers’ knowledge, but I’ve realized how useful it can be when they’re around. Pass along your understanding to the person who can use it most – the designer that succeeds you – to help them go the extra mile.