10 ways your environment can help designers perform

Over the years I’ve worked as a UX, service and industrial designer in a huge range of spaces, from barns in Cambridge and boatyards in Oslo, to lofts in Manhattan and even mud huts in rural India.

I’ve been reminded lately of just how much a workspace can affect the way a design team operates – its ability to innovate, collaborate with others and produce good designs quickly.

For some companies, particularly those new to user experience work, environment is a factor that’s often overlooked and could be really holding back their design team. UX and Agile practices require a great deal of wall-space, paper and informal gatherings that may be new and unusual sights in some office buildings. However, getting these right can empower the design team to give their best performance, and help promote a culture of transparency and collaboration that so many big companies aspire to.

In my experience, these are the top ten workspace considerations to help ensure your team are at their best.

  1. No hot desks

    Forget hot desks. There’s a trend for them in some companies, particularly city centre firms paying a lot for office space, who encourage employees to work from home on a rota, but they’re distracting your team. Remote working can be ok, and with Skype and screen sharing work can still be done, but at best slowly and inefficiently. You’ll be amazed how much more you can get done face to face.

    Co-locating the design team allows them to bounce ideas off one another, to spontaneously get together without the ceremony of meeting invites, and – hooray – helps to build a proper sense of team. It also allows them to compare their work and begin co’ordinating UX design across more than their individual projects. Something that is important as the company reaches design maturity.

    Giving people their own space – and storage for books and equipment – helps them feel valued and stay focused, rather than distracting them each morning with a fight for the best desks.

    4 designers sat together working

  2. Those who work together are sat together

    Your core team needs to be sat together if at all possible, and that means design, development and testing disciplines sat within spitting distance. To get to a great product quickly, designers and developers will need to be liaising informally everyday and working from the same maps and mockups. Designers are going to need unhindered access to both this core project team for sprint work, and other designers for reviews and co’ordination, as mentioned in the previous point.

    Additionally, your team will be meeting up less regularly with other departments such as marketing, data insight, research and business analysis. If these people are nearby and in the same building, that makes it easier to bring them into the process when needed and increase the software team’s velocity.

    Designer presents wall of sketches and post it notes

  3. Wall space. Lots of wall space

    I shudder at the concept of a paperless office. The assumption that all the work we do can be done efficiently on small, glowing screens is a naive one. You can achieve a huge amount with your digital tools, but designers often solve problems using a top-down approach: Get the big picture, spot opportunities to improve, and then dive into the details. They also work well by visualising problems and models, which is why as well as your digital tools, you’re going to need wall space. Lots of wide, uninterrupted areas of wall space.

    Plan to get that big picture by creating large, post-it note visualisations like user story maps and site maps on the walls next to where the team work. Also plan to print and stick sketches and mockups on to the walls to help designers keep abreast of each other’s projects. Some office paint finishes won’t allow post-it notes to stick, so check that they’re up to the job! Having these large, visual references handy reminds all concerned what we’re building and why, and keeps us on track.

    Finally, The larger the wall area, the larger the clear floor space needed in front of it. User story maps and mockups encourage people to stop by and spark spontaneous discussions. Leave space for teams to do this comfortably as it’s vital to making progress on your projects.

    Designer working in a light, colourful office space.

  4. Light, music and inspiration

    I’ve worked in some dark and stuffy offices, and been surprised at how much more free my thinking is, and innovative my ideas are when I decamp to a nearby cafe where I feel more comfortable. It seems obvious but it’s clearly missed in the design of many office spaces – the feeling of the space around me will affect how I work and what I think about. When I need to leave to do my best work, something has gone very wrong with the way my company views design.

    An environment I enjoy working and feel relaxed in enables me to focus on my work and encourages me to stick around all day with my colleagues. If you have any say over it, try to get a space where employees have a reasonable amount of space, light and windows. Even if you don’t, get some inspiration on the walls, buy some plants and crank up the music. When I feel valued as an employee, and my environment feels positive and inspiring, I’m going to be at my best – focused and creative.

    Product designer wearing headphones, sketching.

  5. Quiet focus rooms

    If the office is busy, particularly if you have a large team, you’ll undoubtedly need break-out areas or small rooms nearby where designers can seek refuge from whatever is going on, sketch and work on a particularly tricky problem. They may need a space without background noise to call and present work to a client, or perhaps they just need to get their head down, put on their headphones and get that Axure prototype finished by lunchtime. Either way, there will be parts of the development process that require people to duck away from the crowd and achieve quiet focus. Plan for this.

  6. Breakout areas for small teams

    A natural part of any Agile development process is small discussions will spontaneously occur between product owners, designers and developers. Perhaps something came up in your daily stand-up that needs to be worked out away from the team, or perhaps the product owner has a new idea and wants to quickly work out if it should be pursued with the help of the other disciplines. As above, there will be times when a few people need to find a nearby space and work on a tricky problem together.

    Ensure without exception that these spaces have whiteboards and flip charts to let people sketch. Keep these spaces free from clutter and available for your team. They will need to grab them in the moment, and shouldn’t have to formally book the room or fight for ownership with departments.

    Software team having a daily stand-up meeting

  7. Space for daily stand-ups

    If you’re working in software, your team will more than likely be having daily scrums or stand-up meetings of some kind. Mark out a defined space where these gatherings can happen every day, without disturbing other teams. They will likely need to access Kanban boards or user story maps for reference, so it will help to have these materials nearby. As mentioned in point 1, it’s always better to have team members in the same location, but in big companies  we may still have team members who’re remote, so you may want to consider a big screen and webcam setup to allow these people to Skype into the stand-up. One of the breakout spaces could be allocated for this, but if so it must be kept reserved for stand-ups every day.

  8. Large workshop room

    At key stages of a project, the design team may need to arrange a large workshop. This might be a gathering of stakeholders at the project start for example, as the quickest way to collect requirements. Or it might be a concept session between designers and product owner, sketching out ideas to identify the best for development. These events will happen regularly, so ensure that there is a larger room around that can comfortably fit up to a dozen people – again with the prerequisite wall space. Sometimes, it might make sense for a project team to take over one of these rooms for a longer period of time and use it as a ‘war room’ – for example, as a base for running a Design Sprint over five days – so they’ll need to be able to book and keep them as required.

    Usability testing lab with one-way glass

  9. Dedicated rooms for user testing

    When based in their office, it can be difficult sometimes for your design team to maintain empathy with their customer base. This of course is why we integrate user research and testing into the design process. Your company may use research and testing agencies which is a great way to adopt professional help, but in some industries its also possible to bring users in for in-house testing, focus groups and workshops. If you can start doing this, your core team will be able to get more regular contact with users and more regular feedback as the project progresses.

    Agencies often have dedicated rooms for this, using one-way glass and recording equipment to allow project teams to observe whilst researchers run user testing sessions in the room next door. Even if this is too big an investment, a quiet, well-lit and comfortable room can be used for these kind of sessions by providing an environment where customers can be engaged and give valuable, candid feedback. You may want to consider this in your long term plans.

  10. Freedom to rearrange and adjust

    As projects progress, team members might come and go and the work we do might change. Or perhaps we’re just experimenting with new techniques and adopting what works best in our company. Designers and developers should be free to rearrange their environment as needed, perhaps toying with new setups or moving desks to bring in extra help for a while. Large companies occasionally enforce strict rules about desk placement and configuration, but unless the company is experienced in design, these rules tend to be created without Agile or Lean UX practices in mind. Where possible, try to keep some flexibility and maintain some control over the space, so like everything else in the Agile wold, the team can modify things as they learn.