Years ago, I emerged from a UX boot camp course. Fresh-faced and bursting with naive confidence, ready to take on the world. Wanting to boost my decidedly terrible-looking portfolio, I decided to take on a couple of freelance jobs and personal projects while I searched for a permanent position.
Luckily, my fellow coursemate was doing the same, and hey-presto, we became an all-you-can-eat UX/UI design duo. For a while, this worked fantastically. We worked really well together.
With the leftover dregs of Bootcamp adrenaline (and a newfound immunity to sleep deprivation), we pushed through projects with surprisingly decent results. It was hard work, long hours, and plenty of time to get to know each other.
Around our second project, we started dating.
Suffice to say, working together became challenging. Luckily, soon after we both got permanent positions in actual companies. We would, however, continue to take on passion projects and freelance work between other jobs, and yes, being in a relationship and working together has brought its challenges.
Here’s the thing though: dealing with those challenges with my partner taught me a great deal about teamwork, communication and professionalism. Those experiences have helped shape how I approach collaboration and evolved my definition of the term ‘team-player’.
Understanding how we collaborate with those closest to us teaches us a lot about how we treat everyone else — including our colleagues.
Those experiences give you valuable insight into how you present yourself when you work in a collaborative, creative industry like Product Design.
Here’s what it taught me.
1. The thin line between ‘honest’ and ‘hurtful’
Don’t be a d*ck, essentially.
Luckily, most of the time, being needlessly crappy to people in a professional atmosphere will probably get you a well-earned trip to HR. If not, it will, at the very least, make you something of a professional pariah among your colleagues. Who wants to work with someone that never has anything constructive or even remotely pleasant to say?
But, at the same time, product design is an iterative process and constructive criticism and feedback make up a critical element of that.
You have to find the line between striving for good design and striving to be a good team player. It’s a crucial soft skill that I’m still trying to perfect.
It’s a lot harder when working with your significant other because you have an intrinsic emotional reaction to them.
If my project lead hates my design, that’s fine, all part of the job.
If my chosen snuggle-bug hates my design? How dare he! We expect our partners to support us no matter what, but that’s not a reasonable expectation when constructive feedback is crucial to the process.
This may not work for everyone, but here’s what I learned. When you’re doing a design critique, QA session, or simply bouncing ideas between you, my advice is:
- Keep your feedback constructive and solution-based. Instead of ‘I don’t like that idea’ say ‘I like this element of the idea, but have you considered…’
- You could always be wrong. If you’re giving feedback based on an opinion, rather than data or facts, state that clearly.
- Ask why something has been designed a certain way, instead of jumping straight in with criticism. There may be a good reason behind it or even just something the other party hasn’t considered.
- It’s a two-way street. Don’t take criticism personally, even if it is badly phrased. Most of the time it does not mean you’re a terrible designer (or partner!), there may just have been an element that requires further thought.
2. Constructive arguments
What we sometimes call ‘passionate debates’.
Working with only one other person is already a challenge. When you disagree, you can’t exactly go a few desks over and ask your colleague for their opinion. You have to hash it out.
A psychologist will tell you that one of the keys to a functional relationship isn’t avoiding arguments altogether but learning how to argue in a constructive way.
In my opinion, the same goes for your colleagues, but in a slightly different sense. You will disagree with people at some point or another.
As a previously certifiable avoider of confrontation, I used to hate having to disagree about anything. It made me squeamish.
But in relationships as well as professional teams, I’ve found that having a balanced discussion over differing opinions is a key way to finding a solution to the problem.
I’m not saying you should provoke a screaming match or be needlessly argumentative, and I do not condone actual verbal aggression.
But don’t be afraid of disagreeing. As long as you don’t make it personal, lay out your arguments logically, and attempt to put your ego aside, arguments will become debates and discussions that will lead to great work.
Try not to think of it as ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, and remember you both have the same goal, to make something great.
Check if you’re a control freak, cause I might have been.
Between me and my partner, we’ve had to get really honest with ourselves about our individual strengths and weaknesses.
I won’t go into details, because we all know that I am the best and I don’t want to publicly shame him. (Kidding, he’s ridiculously talented). But the key to working with one other person is to be brutally honest about your weaknesses, and theirs, to be able to split up tasks and trust each other.
Between the two of us, there were tasks we had to split up between us work-wise. The blocker was that we checked in with each other way too much, leading to hour-long discussions that needlessly halted the work. We didn’t trust each other's work or approach.
The only way around this was to stop checking in so much. Once you have agreed on an approach as a team, you can’t micro-manage each other to make sure that both of you is doing exactly what the other had in their mind's eye.
Our approach to solving it was this:
- Agree on the overall approach. This can be as detailed as you see fit.
- Split up tasks according to your strengths and weaknesses
- Limit check-ins with each other. You will need them, but only look at each other’s work when it's in a fit state and then discuss changes.
It all comes down to trust. Trust it’ll get done, trust the talent and dedication of your colleagues.
4. The miracle of laughter
Something will always go wrong. Hahaha.
When long work hours, deadlines and instances of general annoyance with each other (dude I’ve spent the last 59 hours staring at your face), started to show, my boyfriend and I made up an imaginary co-worker called Jenny from Marketing who we would use to blame our issues on and diffuse the tension.
“Personally, I LOVE the idea, but Jenny from Marketing sent me an email and, between you and me, she’s said some pretty horrific things about it. Something along the lines of — “we may as well hand over an MS Paint file to the client because that would look better than this idea”. Her words. Not mine.”
You get the gist.
Comedic relief is important to me and I feel it's a key element of bonding with your colleagues. When things go wrong, take responsibility when it is due, and try to make the best of it.
It’s a lot easier to work with someone who can put a positive spin on something than someone who does nothing but complain about a mishap.
5. Taking the office home
It’s 01:04 AM. Time for a quick pizza, a 2-minute cuddle, then back to work.
If you’ve ever worked freelance, I’m sure you know the old cliche. Your friends say “Wow, freelance! How great, you get to make your own hours!”, and you laugh and laugh and laugh and then curl up in the fetal position and weep because you haven’t slept in three days and you wonder what you’re doing having a drink with your friend when you really should be working to make that deadline.
The long hours and intense deadlines of freelance work were definitely a challenge for a burgeoning relationship. We were really bad at setting a set time where we would put the laptops away and just be us.
Something I’ve heard from a lot of couples who work together is that they’ve had to get really good at ‘not bringing the office home’, and compart-mentalise work time and home time.
Even now that we have ‘normal’ 9–5 jobs, I think it's always worth reminding yourself to leave work at the office (or your desk, if you’re working from home).
When you get home, be present. For your partner as well as for your own mental health.
Despite its challenges, I loved working with my partner. Our shared passion for design was something that brought us together in the first place, and we have immense respect for each other both personally and professionally.
And even though after some of our freelance work, we’ve let out dramatic sighs and said ‘Never again!’, it never quite seems to be the last time…