Coaching Experience Designers

Research That Works

Innovative approaches to research that informs design

A column by Michael Hawley
March 20, 2012

If you are a UX leader or the lead designer on a team, it’s likely that part of your job is helping other designers improve their skills. Fortunately, there is a wide variety of resources on the concepts and methods of experience design, information architecture, user research, and related disciplines that you can leverage in educating other designers on the fundamentals of user-centered design. However, fundamentals are just the start. In addition to understanding academic principles, good designers have mastered the soft skills relating to design. They know how to channel their creative energy, they understand how to work with others, they are effective at presenting their work, and so on. As a UX Manager or Director, coaching designers on these softer skills can be a challenge.

Coaching designers can take many forms—formal check-ins or progress reports, structured design reviews or critique sessions, or simply informal conversations and collaborations. No matter what your style, consider the following guidelines when interacting with others as a coach.

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Develop Collaborative Relationships and Be Humble

Coaching is not about establishing your seniority. The best coaching relationships are about collaboratively working toward goals, building skills, and learning. Developing a collaborative working relationship helps establish a sense of trust in the person you’re coaching and, in turn, makes them more engaged in the learning process. Additionally, coaches who don’t admit their own flaws or are protective of their rank may miss opportunities to explore new perspectives through collaboration with the people they’re coaching.

Note that the coaching relationship is somewhat different from a mentoring relationship, where there is recognition of seniority. In a mentoring relationship, a more senior person helps to guide someone who has less experience through career decisions and to align their interests with those of the business for which they work.

Don’t Give the Answers, Instead Ask Questions

The role of a coach is to help teach people how to think creatively, not what to think. Given fast-paced work environments, goal-driven business stakeholders, and tight timelines, it is very tempting for good designers in a coaching role to simply provide the answers to particular problems. But doing this doesn’t help those who are receiving coaching to internalize a particular concept or develop their creative or problem-solving skills.

Instead of offering the answers, a good coach asks challenging and probing questions that encourage the people they’re coaching to think creatively. For example, when a designer presents a potential design solution, a coach might ask: “Is there a better way?” “What are your design options? Are they good ones?” “Which do you think is the best solution and why?” or “What do you think Product Management’s reaction will be?” By asking such questions, the coach exposes a designer’s potential blind spots in approaching a design problem, but challenges the designer receiving the coaching to come up with his or her own solutions. Asking questions like this also minimizes the chances that the coach might make assumptions that would lead to misguided recommendations.

Think Big Picture and Prioritization

Junior designers especially often have difficulty with getting stuck on particular details of a design challenge. They may end up spending an inordinate amount of time and effort on elements that are not core to the solution for the problem at hand. The result is that they then have less creative energy to expend in thinking about solutions that would have the most impact on a project’s outcome. Successful coaches should make prioritization of effort a big part of the coaching conversation. If the coach is also the designers’ manager, one of the most effective things he or she can do is to help minimize outside distractions so designers can focus their creative efforts.

Understand Values and Motivations

When designers are motivated, they are more engaged in their job, in learning, and in building their skills. Much of the latest research on motivation has found that it is difficult to motivate creative-minded people through external rewards and recognition. Instead, creative professionals are motivated primarily by intrinsic factors. In other words, it is better to draw out a person’s inherent motivation through their interests and passions rather than try to motivate them through pep talks and rewards.

In developing relationships with designers, a coach should understand the interests and motivators that would inspire them to learn and improve their skills. A coach can guide designers to learn skills and approaches that would best align with their own interests and values. Further, a coach can help remind designers about the overall purpose of a project—whether that is in the interest of the business or to benefit users.

Balance Support with Constructive Criticism

Most designers appreciate encouragement and support. There is nothing more demotivating than to work really hard to produce a creative solution to a problem, only to present it for review, then have others quickly dismiss it. Too often, business cultures give reviewers the sense that, if they are critical of something, people will think they are smart because they can identify the flaws in a solution. But pointing out the positive aspects of a design solution and offering encouragement and support can help designers maintain their sense of motivation, even if there are some problems to resolve.

On the other hand, simply sugar-coating our responses is not helpful to the overall success of a project, nor does it help designers to grow and develop their skills. A successful coach presents feedback in an observational manner, avoiding judgment of designers themselves or their skills. For example, if a designer did not do a great job of presenting his design rationale, instead of being critical of the person, a good coach might point out where they observed that the presentation got off track or highlight why they think someone in a certain role might not have agreed with the design presentation. Further, when giving feedback, a successful coach also focuses on corrective actions and steps designers can take to improve. This kind of coaching definitely takes more effort than making a simple judgment or critiquing certain behaviors or ideas, but it provides the most valuable feedback for learning and building skills.


Giving UX designers a book to read or sending them to a class is an easy way of ensuring they learn the fundamental principles of the UX design discipline. But coaching UX designers on the softer skills that are associated with the practice of design is a more challenging proposition. No matter what your personal style or company culture, consider the traits that make up an effective creative coach and leverage them in your coaching sessions for a more skilled and empowered UX design team. 

Chief Design Officer at Mad*Pow Media Solutions LLC

Adjunct Professor at Bentley University

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Michael HawleyAs Chief Design Officer at Mad*Pow, Mike brings deep expertise in user experience research, usability, and design to Mad*Pow clients, providing tremendous customer value. Prior to joining Mad*Pow, Mike served as Usability Project Manager for Staples, Inc., in Framingham, Massachusetts. He led their design projects for customer-facing materials, including e-commerce and Web sites, marketing communications, and print materials. Previously, Mike worked at the Bentley College Design and Usability Center as a Usability Research Consultant. He was responsible for planning, executing, and analyzing the user experience for corporate clients. At Avitage, he served as the lead designer and developer for an online Webcast application. Mike received an M.S. in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley College McCallum Graduate School of Business in Waltham, Massachusetts, and has more than 13 years of usability experience.  Read More

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