Have you ever considered Design Management as a career path? Even if pixel-pushing sounds more like your cup of tea, we wouldn’t rule out the design management route just yet. You might be surprised to learn that many design managers actually come into their careers after many years of working as a product designer.
Today we’re joined by Asana’s very own Product Design Manager, Sara Kremer. Sara sheds light on what her day-to-day job looks like and shares some of the main challenges of leading a design team. Learn more about what it takes to be an effective Design Manager and explore this challenging yet rewarding career path!
Tell us about yourself and your role at Asana.
I’m currently a Product Design Manager at Asana, a work management product for teams to stay on top of tasks, collaborate on projects, and streamline their workflows. I lead the Clarity pillar, a team of seven Product Designers located in both our New York and San Francisco offices. We are responsible for core features across mobile and desktop, as well as our internal Design System. There are two additional product pillars at Asana and about 30 designers in total across Brand and Product Design.
How did you know design management was right for you? Why management vs. individual contributor?
I’ve been designing products for over a decade, at companies including PlanGrid, Eventbrite, SoundCloud, and Avid.
For my first seven years as a Product Designer, I was an individual contributor. In that time, I got a taste of what it was like to lead projects and manage interns and contractors, but hadn’t made the leap to full-time management until the past few years.
I decided to make that transition when I realized that while I’ll always love solving problems and being close to the work, I was growing more excited by things like coaching, mentoring other designers, product strategy, facilitation, clarifying processes, and building teams. Luckily, these are all things I get to focus most of my time on as a Design Manager.
What is your biggest challenge as a Product Design Manager at Asana?
Right now, we are in high-growth phase at Asana. As a business we’re doing really well, growing the team quite quickly, and building features even faster than before.
This growth is exciting, but also presents some challenges. As a Product Design Manager, I need to be mindful about how we scale the design team’s culture and processes. Asana is a really great place to work and our designers are part of a close-knit team. As we add more designers, we want to keep a family vibe on the team.
Also in terms of process, more designers mean that we are growing our capacity to build even more features, and it is challenging to keep everyone aligned. To address this, we’re now pouring a lot more energy into our design system to help make sure the product stays consistent, we can re-use components, and that we’re always shipping at a high level of quality.
How do you handle conflict when an IC doesn’t agree with “the plan”?
There are frequent chances to collaborate throughout the product design process at Asana, including meetings like Design Critique, Pillar Workshop, and Product Forum. These allow individual contributors and managers to sync regularly, align on what we are building, provide more context, and arrive at high-quality solutions.
While IC designers, PMs, and engineers are empowered to make the majority of decisions, in these syncs, product leaders coach through the work using a framework we call “Do / Try / Consider.”
- “Consider” sounds like “Have you thought of this?” It is used frequently as a way to brainstorm solutions.
- “Try” is used less frequently, when leaders think the proposed solution has tangible downsides. An example might be, “Please try to see if we can solve this design problem with an existing pattern instead of inventing a new one.”
- With “Do”, a leader is asking a team to reverse course on their proposed solution. It is used very sparingly.
Using “Do / Try / Consider” helps us to be clear on the type of feedback we are giving, and ensures that everyone can align on next steps. These asks are tracked along with the normal action items that are generated from a product discussion, and ensure that everyone on the team is aligned with “the plan.”
How have you evolved the Product Design process at Asana?
Although established processes like the double-diamond don’t change dramatically, the details and methods within a team’s product design process are constantly evolving. When we realize that there is not enough of something, or too much of something that is slowing us down, we will 1) recognize the problem then 2) come up with a plan to iterate on it. When things evolve from experiment and ritual to behavior and regular practice, we will then 3) document these processes so that they can be repeated by others on the team.
The most recent iteration on our process that I’ve been helping to implement is how we include more future visioning. We wanted more opportunities for this on the design team. Now, Product Designers are meeting regularly to brainstorm, workshop, and ideate on what our 3-5 year product vision will be. This helps the company to re-frame and focus our day-to-day efforts and build iterative features that are tracking toward our North Star.
What do you look for in IC candidates when hiring?
Throughout the interview process at Asana, the competencies we evaluate candidates on are:
We are looking for Product Designers with excellent craft, who will own the end-to-end process, from discovery and definition through ideation, iteration, and delivery. We seek user-centered, systems thinkers who are both curious to understand what people need and motivated by solving their problems. We want designers that will be a great culture add to our team, are humble, and eager to learn.