Onboarding new design team members in a good way is essential for their success and the overall productivity of the team. Planning this right fosters a supportive team culture and sets the new joiners up for success.
☕ Onboarding designers
After writing a killer job ad, and driving a purposeful hiring process, your new team member is finally on board and starts in your team. The first week passes, and things are fine. Fine-ish. Somehow working. It should have more energy though, right?
It’s the onboarding! Not only a thing for the apps we create, but also what’s helping new team members pick up things fast, be energized, be motivated in the long term, and generally just have a great start. While the hypergrowth a lot of tech companies went through in past years is now less of a thing, it’s still important to get the occasional new team members started energized.
Getting onboarding right also goes beyond the new team member’s path. It’s a way to positively build the design culture by enabling new people to contribute to it, rather than ending up with too much storming.
Design leaders need to think about onboarding in two spheres. For new design team members (designers and researchers) and other people working within the product development.
Creating a design onboarding for other people within product development is where the magic happens. Design teams spend a lot of energy building a good product development process with the right practices (for example around user research). It’s important to indoctrinate new people to have a shared understanding of terminology and practices.
I saw a few good ways of doing this, one of the most successful ones was a one-day workshop with every new team member participating focused on product discovery, starting from hypothesis generation and running user interviews up until planning experiments. This brought people up to speed and set a common understanding of how things are done.
For designers and researchers, the plan is pretty straightforward:
- Have a buddy system that enables new team members to navigate the organization, for example, where is the coffee machine, which Slack channels to join, etc.
- Get people familiar with tools and practices, for example, Figma organization, design system elements, how to do a usability test, etc.
- Set up introductions with stakeholders around the team.
- Have them take a look at the broader product, for example by doing a design audit.
- Let them dive deep into user research done, experiments ran, and insights gathered.
- Create goals on what to achieve in the first week, first month, and first 90 days. Based on the first career discussions this could go up until the first 180 and 360 days too.
While the relationship between the design leader and the new team member starts during the hiring process, the first official intro meeting is also important. Besides going through the plan, there are a few things the manager should touch on with the new hire:
- Tell them why they were hired. It’s good to get some feedback after the stress of job searching.
- Talk about what the new team member wants to get out of this role. This will be the basis for further career discussions.
- Connect how their role fits into the big picture, and why their role matters. This helps in focusing on the right levers and is good for firing up people.
- Discuss how you, the leader can and will help them achieve their goals.
- Schedule check-ins for the first few weeks and the first 1-on-1.
The onboarding should be also customized to the specific new role. Juniors and mid-levels will need more guidance, so these days I prefer to pair them up with more senior team members. This enables them to find their footing and focus on the right skills - building their craft first.
More experienced people - senior and beyond - are usually expected to do more, often this includes defining the details of their role. For example, they might need to establish practices, collaborate with multiple stakeholders, or take responsibility for a larger piece of experience. The onboarding plan should acknowledge and support this.
Getting the new designer or researcher familiar with the rest of the team and more embedded into the team’s culture goes beyond simple introductions. Having a library of readme docs is useful, as having some social time together.
One nice thing I did in the past, was an hour-long session every Friday where the team casually talked about what happened with each of us. This helped everyone to get to know the others better, opened up some interesting discussions and helped establish an open culture. Such sessions help new team members to feel comfortable and part of the team faster.
Regardless of the details of an onboarding plan, or how things are done one important aspect is to celebrate their joining.
🥤 To recap
- Onboarding is important for new team members to quickly fit in, feel excited, and contribute positively to the design team.
- Design leaders should think about onboarding in two ways: for new team members, and others involved in product development.
- For designers and researchers, onboarding should be a focused plan, including having a buddy to help them get settled, teaching them about tools and practices, introducing them to team stakeholders, letting them explore the overall product, and setting goals for their first weeks and months.
- Tailoring onboarding to each person’s role is crucial. More junior team members may need more guidance, so pairing them with experienced team members can help them learn and develop their skills. More experienced team members may have additional responsibilities that might need additional space.
- Apart from the formal onboarding process, it’s important to help new designers and researchers integrate into the team’s culture. Also, it’s essential to celebrate their arrival and make them feel welcome.
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🍪 Things to snack on
Christian Idiodi writes about onboarding product people in New Employee Bootcamp as a core part of creating strong product teams. These boot camps take 5 minutes to help new employees with a few core questions: how decisions are made, company goals, building trust, and things to do next. The detailed topics also include talking about the customers, the vision, the financial context, building and prioritization, learning, and measurements, these are covered by team members who understand the topic and can share personal stories too.
Trello has a bunch of good resources on onboarding, plus obviously board templates for planning in Your go-to employee onboarding checklist (and templates) for 2023. Most of these are what HR would set up as part of a broader onboarding, but I always liked to also set up bespoke checklists for designers and researchers.
Our 6 Must Reads for Onboarding Tactics That Help New Hires Succeed (and Stay) is a bit of rabbit hole about onboarding topics, though more focused on startups and early hires. A few great ideas, like collecting introduction emails, or how culture is not just one conversation are also useful for design teams.
Some simple tips from Spotify designers in Remote Onboarding. A few specific things to being remote, like taking more care of yourself by taking walks, oversharing, and being more intentional in communication.
There are a few good tips from GitLab’s Product Designer Onboarding. Besides getting familiar with the design tools and design system elements, having a good understanding of the product is important, plus being able to use the product (dogfooding), in this case creating and working with issues.
As app onboarding helps users to get familiar with the software, so helps employee onboarding new people to get familiar with the organization, as Rachel Krause writes in Successful Onboarding for New Hires in UX Roles. The article breaks down how to create a plan as a design project, starting from auditing the current experience until getting feedback at the end.
A great and quite detailed article by Will Larson on engineering onboarding is Running your engineering onboarding program. It has a bunch of great tips that are also usable for design teams, on setting up the onboarding program, curriculum, what happens if things go wrong, and what should be the general aims for such a program.