Let’s give junior product designers a chance
5 minutes read
In 1992 the Premier League, the top division of the English football league system and now most watched sports league in the world was formed. The new league brought in new fans, new sponsors and most importantly new money in the form of a lucrative television rights deal with Sky TV (called BSkyB at the time). Before most clubs had to build their squad by developing their own players, or by buying unproven players at a bargain price. Now they were free to splash the new Premier League cash. If they needed a new player they no longer had to create their own, they could simply go out and buy a readymade one.
30 years of ever-increasing Premier league pay-outs (top clubs can now expect to receive over £150 million in total from the league each season) has had a profound effect on the top English clubs. Teams such as Chelsea (shown below), Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City are amongst the best club teams in Europe, arguably the world. Premier League clubs have done fantastically well from the billions pumped into the game, but this has arguably been to the detriment of English players as a whole. Many Premier League teams now only feature a handful of English players, sometimes none at all. Opportunities for promising young players to develop and to get first team experience are now much more limited. After all, why would a manager risk playing an inexperienced young player, when they have a player with years of topflight football experience they can call on? Young players are left in an impossible situation. They can’t get first team experience, and without first team experience they can’t get into the first team. Strange as it may seem, the same thing is happening in product design.
The junior product designer conundrum
Keeping things small and agile is now the aim of the game when it comes to IT and product development in many organisations. Small incremental releases, small tasks, and small cross-functional teams. Teams that usually have a handful of engineers, a product manager (or owner) a designer and if they’re lucky a researcher and data analyst as well.
Whereas previously product designers might have worked predominately with other product designers, now they must fend for themselves within a cross-functional team. It’s therefore no surprise that just as a Premier League manager will typically opt for the experienced pro over the inexperienced young player, most organisations will opt to put an experienced product designer in a cross-functional team over a junior. Just like young footballers, junior product designers can struggle to get picked to play in cross-functional teams, and even if they do get picked it can be a real baptism of fire because of their lack of experience.
Just as the lack of opportunities for young footballers in the Premier League has been detrimental to the wider English game, the lack of opportunities for junior product designers is detrimental to the wider product design industry. Juniors and apprentices are the lifeblood of any industry. The world sure as hell needs more skilled product designers, but that’s not going to happen unless junior product designers are given a chance. So, how can we do that? Here is what I’d love to see happen.
An end to crude designer-to-developer ratios
Many organisations use a crude designer-to-developer ratio to help them get an idea of how many product designers they will need. For example, 1 designer to every 4 engineers, or 1 designer per development team of 5 engineers. Now, on the face of it this seems pretty sensible. It’s a bit like a football manager’s team sheet – slot in the players to create the team.
The problem is that crude designer-to-developer ratio systems for resourcing are not only a gross oversimplification (as the ratio will vary depending on the type of work being undertaken by a cross functional team) they disincentivise the use of junior product designers. Much like a Premier League manager, if a design hiring manager is told that they can bring in two designers, they will invariably choose to bring in two experienced designers who can hit the ground running, rather than juniors who will need lots of support and development.
Resourcing designers by budget, rather than headcount is a better approach because it encourages a balance of experience. For example, rather than bringing in two designers, it might become possible to bring in two junior designers and a more experienced designer because juniors cost an organisation a lot less.
Juniors paired with an experienced designer
I’ve written before about the downsides of having product designers working on their own within cross-functional teams (see Mastering Agile UX: Cross-team collaboration). These downsides are even greater for junior product designers working on their own because they are not receiving the day-to-day support required to do their best work and to really grow as a designer.
Just as a raw young defender in a football team might be paired with a grizzled veteran to help coach them through a game, a junior product designer should ideally be paired with a more experienced designer within a cross-functional team. This ensures that the junior gets that all important day-to-day support and provides the experienced designer with another pair of hands to execute design and research work. This is a model that Oda, Norway’s leading online grocery store utilise to great success (see Principles for building the Oda UX design team). An additional bonus is that having two designers in a cross-functional team provides much more resilience. Whereas with only one designer a team can be left exposed if that designer is away (such as on vacation), or moves on, with two designers better continuity and cover can be provided.
Juniors being given time to develop
If you’re a sports fan, I’m sure that you’re familiar with this scenario. A team’s star player has been poached by another club, leaving the manager with a position to fill. Knowing that it will take a while to bring in a player of a similar quality the manager throws one of the promising youth players into the first team, a player who at this stage of their career is ill-equipped to operate at this level. The player struggles, the team loses confidence in them, and the manager has to accept that their gamble didn’t pay off.
Just as promising young sports men and women must be given time to develop, so too must junior product designers. Whilst it can be tempting to find out if they will sink or swim by throwing them in to a cross-functional team on their own, you should only do this when they’re ready. Throwing a junior product designer in too early will be detrimental to the team, and detrimental to the designer.
A great way to help junior product designers to develop is by giving them experience within several cross-functional teams, ensuring that within each one they can learn from an experienced designer. For example, a junior product designer might spend 3-6 months in a number of teams before being assigned to a dedicated team.
All we are saying is give juniors a chance
Giving junior designers a chance will always require some leap of faith. Opting for an experienced designer over a junior might make sense in the short term, but in the long term it risks creating a lack of design diversity within an organisation and the wider product design industry.
Let’s not push junior designers out of the product design game. After all, the only way to learn how to be a great product designer is to have a go at designing products. That’s simply not possible unless the opportunities are there. Just as young players are the lifeblood of football, junior product designers are the life blood of the product design industry. I’d echo Wayne Rooney, record England international goal scorer and now a football manager when he said:
“Footballs about the young players, bringing your team players through to the first team and hopefully getting the best out of them so they can go on to play for their country.”Wayne Rooney, Football manager