Teach and Learn

Teach and Learn

Photo credit: Unsplash @heylagostechie

Why is it so important?

Many studies focus on why employees leave a job. However, for a business to thrive and retain good people, we also should look into why employees stay on a job. So I dug out an old article published by Harvard Business Review, which outlines the issue’s complexity. TL;DR; it boils down to Satisfaction and Environment. I want to focus on a very small fraction of the positive influence on job satisfaction and work environment — Teaching and Learning.

When I wrote today, there is some optimistic news: according to the Gallup report, U.S. engagement throughout 2020 increased. The speculation is that two key factors result in this increase in engagement.

“1. Corporate leaders and managers increased communication with their employees during the onset of COVID-19 and showed more caring and flexibility than in years past.

2. Gallup’s research has shown that remote worker engagement can exceed that of in-office workers when managers communicate with them frequently and effectively. Employees in the U.S. reported a higher frequency of meaningful feedback during the second half of 2020. Many workers went fully or mostly remote in 2020, and those managers were perhaps more communicative and supportive than they would’ve been under normal circumstances.”

For many of our team members, having the flexibility to work from home has provided the needed work-life balance. But, at the very same time, it also presented a challenge for all of us: How to promote learning?

When we work in the same office, learning can happen naturally. I lost count of how frequently I turn around to ask my next desk co-worker or how many times a co-worker walks up to me to share an idea. There are many other learning opportunities such as lunch and learn. While working all remote, these opportunities don’t happen unless we make a conscious effort to make it happen. 

Let’s start by looking into why it is crucial.

According to a research blog published by Maryville University, “Importance of Training and Development for Employees.” there are several significant benefits of employee training and development:

  • Enhance employee performance
  • Boost employee productivity
  • Help with reducing employee turnover
  • Assist with improving company culture

Then the question is, “How might we create effective training and development for employees?”

There are many suggestions of how a company can provide different pieces of training for employees. I want to outline our multi-dimension approaches to demonstrate some practical methods for our product design discipline. 

Design Pairing and pair designing

Design pairing describes the situation of two designers working together on the same product/program/project.

One designer acts as the design Anchor who has more domain knowledge and responsibility on the specific project, while the other designer provides a supporting role. Or sometimes, both designers will take on different responsibilities, divide and conquer.

Pair designing is similar to the agile technique of pair programming. For example, two designers work together at one workstation while we were in the office, or two designers work on the same file while pairing remote over a video chat.

One designer acts as the “driver” pushing pixels on the screen, while the other designer is “synthesizing”, critiquing, and providing real-time feedback. Designers switch to and from “synth and gen” — creating a quick iterative process (Similar to “driving” and “navigating” in the traditional pair programming sense).

Pair designing is one of the many activities that design paring requires.

Pairing doesn’t happen naturally on the design team. However, having a design operation function provides the structure of pairing and guidelines to guide the team members to start pairing on their project with a defined scope. For business, pairing increases bus count and utilizes common knowledge; pairing also offers individuals opportunities to learn from their designer peers. 

Design critique and share out among designers

Image credit: Discussing Design (Connor & Irizarry, 2015)

Designers have a love and hate relationship with critique. However, when it is done right, design critique promotes the best way to learn. With a distributed design team with designers working from different time zones, we schedule our critique sessions by the time zone. As critique is a conversation, teaching and learning as part of the conversation happen unconsciously. A healthy critique practice, narrowing the skill gaps gradually among all team members.

While critique is less formal (although any team can also structure formal design critiques, most critique sessions are weekly informal practice), share-out is more structured and formal. On our team, part of the weekly design critique is reserved for share-outs. We also carve out time for designers to do share-out during our bi-weekly product design team all-hands meeting. Frequently, an embedded designer is only familiar with the domain vertical they are assigned. Thus, share-outs provide an opportunity for team members to learn more about projects other designers are working on. 

Formalizing the practice of design critique and share-outs on the design team is designOps’ effort to form the design team modeled after the “Centralized partnership”1 (Merholz and Skinner, 2016) model. 

Design share-out, education and workshop for product teams across multiple disciplines

Design share-out, education, workshops with the broader product team require efforts. However, these are opportunities for our team members to learn by teaching. All these activities can happen at different scales and cadence. The job of design operations is to remind our members that teaching is learning and teaching is part of our job. On our team, we provided multiple opportunities and cadence for our designers to do just that. Here are some examples:

The monthly teaching corner is where our designers can share their knowledge on the product or design skills with people in the company. 

Facilitating workshops on the product team is where our designers can educate other disciplines about design practices and processes.

Design growth week is a week-long opportunity for designers from both the product team and the marketing team to share concepts, practices, co-crate, practice together, and have fun.

We use this opportunity to teach PMs some designers’ hands-on skills; simultaneously, we invited engineers to teach our designers new skills.

Participate in company programs and industry programs

Professional development is crucial for individuals. Currently, this is a step our group is missing. 

Learning discipline-specific skills is essential. But learning is not limited to just discipline-specific skills. There are many other resources for us to continue developing. On the company level, we have many courses proved by the HR (CF EDU). Courses such as “Unconscious Bias” benefit all employees. But there is only so much we can do within a company. Providing a comprehensive professional development program in the company is essential. Many companies have created a robust professional development program with sufficient funds for employees. The process and budget allow their employee to utilize industry knowledge and give back to the industry. 

Not a linear process

  • Design Pairing and pair designing
  • Design critique and share out among designers
  • Design share-out, education and workshop for product teams across multiple disciplines
  • Participate in company programs and industry programs.

We’ve examined the four different approaches to ensure employee teaching and learning. However, this is not a linear process rather a multi-dimension approach; each enriches the experience of the other. In return builds a long-lasting effect of satisfaction. 

Building a well-balanced, healthy design team

We’ve talked so much about opportunities for our designers to teach and learn. We could not overlook a fundamental structure— building a strong design team with designers with different experiences and skills. Naturally, this falls on the design leadership and designOps leadership. When creating a team, thinking about balancing different seniorities, backgrounds, experiences, and skills is the foundation of a healthy design team. For the longest time, our design team has been hiring designers who have 3+ years of experience. Why? Because we are understaffed, projects need to be done fast. As a result, we were not able to carve out time for our designers to teach and learn. The team continues to grow, and we are now able to hire junior designers. Why is this so important for our team members? Let’s hear from our own designers:

“Why don’t we hire newcomers motivated and craving to learn & be a part of the team? This is not only an opportunity for us to teach and mentor but also to grow and learn ourselves.

And it’ll reduce time and pressure recruiting a ‘turn-key employee.”

I was a teacher for years. I always tell people I learn the most when I teach. Because I have to dig deeper to make sure I understand the subject and articulate the topic logically. What can be a better way to learn other than being a mentor? I want to wrap up the discussion with this team structure challenge. It is not a teaching program but who we are as designers on this design team— a sense of accomplishment. (Esteem needs)


  1. Merholz, Peter, & Skinner, Kristin. (2016). Org Design for Design Orgs [Book]https://www.oreilly.com/library/view/org-design-for/9781491938393/

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