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Your guide to resourcing discussions as a design manager

Jehad Affoneh
Jehad Affoneh
7 min read
Your guide to resourcing discussions as a design manager

Budgeting and resourcing discussions are difficult conversations for most design managers. It’s hard for multiple reasons. First, nobody really prepares you for it. With engineering management, as an example, there is a need to have this resourcing conversation with the engineering team because their ability to deliver is critical to the ability of the organization to deliver. This is not always true for design, especially in enterprise. Second, it is hard because whatever budget you are asking for, someone else is making a case for why their budget ask is more timely or critical. This is true especially as you initially bring design into the organization.

Over the past few years, the VMware Design team grew significantly in part because of the work we’ve done to ensure the case for design resourcing is made and made early in the process. We made mistakes and the team tried different paths until we found the most reasonable and effective way to have this conversation. This is the guide we’ve developed to have that conversation.

Learn about resourcing and budgeting in your company

Most big companies do resource planning in cycles. Sometimes it is annual, bi-annual, or quarterly. Learn how your company does budgeting and resourcing. Your finance peer or partner is a key to this. If you don’t know who they are, find them. Invite them to a virtual coffee and ask them to get a better understanding of how resourcing and budgeting works and what are the upcoming timelines for the next cycle.

The timing of your ask is critical to your ability to actually prepare in advance and ask within a time that the leadership is actually able to give you the resourcing you need to execute.

Focus on the work

Now that you know how the funding cycle works, it is time to build the right relationships and get prepared.

If there is anything to take out of this post it is that your focus shouldn’t be on resourcing, it should be on the outcome you’re trying to help the company achieve. What are we trying to achieve together as a cross-functional team and what is it going to take to achieve it?

This is not only important because it is the right thing to do, it is important because it shifts the tone of your role into business leadership instead of just design leadership. You want to be seen in the organization as a competent business and design leader not one or the other.

Depending on how your organization is structured, it is generally best to start working with the product leadership team on the roadmap they have for the next quarter or year.

As we tried and failed through multiple cycles of this, we came up with a clear format for how we do this.

A screenshot showing a table highlighting the way resourcing asks are outlined. An explanation is available below.

We use this format to highlight the total resourcing need based on the work outlined in the roadmap. This is not only highlighting the gap or the budget ask, it is highlighting the total number of designers needed to execute on the roadmap as outlined by the product team.

Let’s go through it:

  1. Concept: at VMware, there are different concepts we’re focused on within each product area. These concepts are larger areas of focus and represent an end to end experience or a larger customer need. Concepts are generally highlighted in Jira so this would link to the Jira concept to make sure we’re on the same page about scope.
  2. Initiative: within concepts, we have initiatives that focus on a specific area, this also links to Jira initiatives/epics depending on the team.
  3. UX needed: this represents the number of designers needed to complete this initiative. The rule we set here is that designers are not focused on more than one or two projects at a time, depending on the size of the project. We only use increments of 0.25 which is a full designer’s time for a full quarter.
  4. Location: location could impact budgeting. We generally highlight a location when it is important for a designer to work closely with the engineering and product management team if those teams are located in a specific area or a timezone.
  5. Required level: for some projects, the designer’s level or experience matters. Level doesn’t have to correspond to a career ladder. It generally corresponds to the level of work required. For example, are you asking for a lead or a new college graduate?
  6. Comments: this is where some of the reasons and assumptions can be clearly outlined. As you discuss the scope of these initiatives, it’s important that you’re verifying assumptions.
  7. Cross-functional feedback: this is designed to collect feedback on the work, not the resourcing ask. It is important that the focus of the comments is on clarifying scope, sharing thoughts and opinions on how design can be engaged, and to share any concerns around location, level of engagement, etc.
  8. Totals: this is simple math (rounding up eventually).
  9. Totals after discussion with the cross-functional team: you notice that the numbers are lower here. The reason is that after discussions with the cross functional teams, two of the initiatives you see up there were delayed or cancelled. Basically, the roadmap changed in the middle of resource planning which automatically changes the numbers.

One you’ve done this across multiple concepts within the same product area, it’s now time to do the math.

A screenshot of a table showing the total numbers of designers needed and the gaps highlighted in need of additional budget.

This gives a complete picture of where we are as an organization. It is important that you are looking at this as a complete picture while also highlighting the gap.

Don't focus on the ratios

One of the initial instincts of design managers, including me, is to share industry ratios of design to engineering. Whether it’s the 1:8 in consumer or the assumed 1:12 in enterprise, there are some clear industry ratios of what a well-funded design team looks like.

There are two key problems with focusing too much on the ratios:

  1. As a member of the leadership team stated in one of my early conversations: “ratios can be fixed in two ways”. Just because a certain team is funded a certain way, doesn’t mean another team needs to be funded that way as well. Not knowing the full details of the existing funding, you are automatically linking your funding to the funding of existing teams with their existing potential inefficiencies without articulating a case around the outcome.
  2. Ratios focus on “fairness”. It make the case that it is unfair that the design team is underfunded. They show there is an issue, but do not show what the issue is. Ratios show that design is underfunded in comparison to engineering but it’s unclear why that is an issue for the company and our ability to execute. It hasn’t been an issue so far, right? For example, the ratio of HR to engineering is similar, is that an issue too? Why not?

The lesson learned for me here was that ratios and industry averages highlight an issue to the executive leadership team but don’t focus on them in real budgeting and resourcing conversations except with the goal of showing a relevant data point.

Few additional tips

Ask for what you need, not what you think you can get or wish you had

It is normal as you go through this process to ask for what you believe will be reasonable based on your understanding of the organization and available budget. Ask for what you really need to deliver quality work if you get the budget you asked for. Also, don’t ask for what you wish you had. Budgets are limited. This is not a wish list, it is a clear ask to achieve outcomes.

Don’t go deep into the different UX roles

Depending on the structure of your team, you might have researchers, designers, or different verticals in design. If you do, don’t ask for resourcing separately per role, ask for the total number of “designers” you need then break up the budget you get in whatever way that helps you achieve your goals. Asking for different types of resources differently is confusing and achieves very little. Once you have your budget, it is now your responsibility to decide how to best spend it to achieve the outlined outcomes.

Put together a set of principles for the discussion

Before having a discussion with the cross-functional team, put together a clear set of principles that will help guide the conversation. Mine were somewhat simple:

  1. We compromise on scope and timelines, not quality.
  2. We discuss the work, not the number of designers needed.
  3. We need to work together to deliver this, this is important to all of us. This is not just a design ask, we all own experience.

The one push back you are likely to get looks something like this:

You’ll share this with the cross-functional team or the GM and they’ll say: “you don’t need that many designers for this concept/initiative/product, you can do this with X people less, I’ve seen it done before”. My answer is usually: “I am asking for what I have determined to be the number of designers we need. This is based on my experience leading design in this organization and elsewhere and based on the set of processes and engineering work we need. Underfunding design in the cross-functional team risks our ability to deliver quality work and increases the risk of delivering work that might need engineering re-work. I’ve worked through the scope of the work closely with the PM and engineering leadership so unless the scope has changed, this is the level of funding we need. I do fully understand if we don’t have the necessary budget and I am more than happy to discuss what level of work can be either de-scoped or delayed. Let’s figure this out together”. Although this is not a slam dunk by any means, it shifts the discussion in the right direction.

Let’s wrap it up

Overall, budgeting conversations are hard. You are not alone in feeling that way. That said, how you approach these conversations matter.

Resourcing is only a single part of the conversation as you move your organization's focus towards a one-experience led organization. The work you do in the background to build relationships, work with the cross-functional team, and advocate for design is the year-long work you also need to build the credibility needed as you have these discussions.

You got this. Good luck!

If you found this useful, you can follow me on Twitter where I continue to share tips that are useful to design leaders and managers.