Image of team brainstorming Special thanks to designer Jia Gu for the images in this post

18F is a learning organization. We continue learning from each other by regularly communicating, collaborating, and sharing our ideas (in video calls, leaving real-time feedback in docs, everywhere we can) with teammates.

In a design chapter meeting, we asked the team: “What have you learned from others at 18F?” Here’s what our designers had to say.

On fostering teamwork and healthy communication

Actively make space for others to contribute and grow.

I’m grateful for the diversity of working styles I’ve observed at 18F, which has allowed me to grow professionally. What I found most important is really making space for others—in actions, not just words. Make room for others in meetings, presentations, and The Work. Even though I’m naturally on the quiet side, my teammates were full of encouragement and trust to let me actually put into practice skills I learned. I’m so much better for it and now I’m working on paying it forward and making room for others. – Jacklynn Pham, UX designer (now alum)

Check in on the team’s feels.

It’s natural to check in about how the project tasks are going but what about the people —how are they actually doing and feeling? I learned about this thoughtful exercise from my project teammate Jacklynn Pham, which helps to check in on the well-being of the people moving the project forward.

Each person on the team independently answers a set of questions and then shares and discusses their answers with the rest of the team:

  • Energy. What is and what isn’t bringing you energy while working on the project?
  • Focus. What would you like to do more of and how can you make room for that?
  • Growth. What is one thing you’re looking to be better at?

This is an opportunity to deepen working relationships and give people a chance to discuss how to adjust the way they work to support the strengths, energy levels, and growth opportunities of everyone on the team.
– Malaika Carpenter, Content strategist

How do you want people to feel after a meeting?

Ask questions like, “what do you want to get out of this meeting?” or “what do we want to accomplish in our time together?” to elicit the team’s response, and ask yourself, ‘How do we want them to feel at the end of this meeting?’ This builds trust and empowerment. Doing self-reflection first and sharing it later with others helps people talk about their “feels,” which can otherwise be hard to say out loud.
– Malaika Carpenter, Content strategist

Avoid meeting overload and preserve uninterrupted focus time.

Meetings can be a great way to collaborate, get the team aligned, and just check in and chat with coworkers, but do you ever look at your calendar and get scared? Help help help, meeting overload. (Me, too.) It’s important to preserve some uninterrupted time to find a focus flow and make progress on tasks. Feeling productive is not only good for your work, it also contributes to daily joy, motivation, and a sense of progress.

Fellow 18F content designers Malaika Carpenter and Amanda Costello had both mentioned to me at various points, “try doing a meeting audit.” This means: list out all your meetings and ask yourself a few questions about each meeting to make sure they’re still a good use of everyone’s time, and restructure them or even consider dropping them if they’re not.

  • What’s most useful about this meeting?
  • What’s less useful about this meeting?
  • Do we want to keep it at this time? Reschedule to a different time? Make it shorter/longer?
  • Anything else you’re wishing for this meeting?

You can do this solo or as a team. My project team ran this exercise after about nine months of working together (so we had plenty of time to judge whether our regular meetings were best serving us) and it was really helpful. We dropped a weekly meeting that was no longer necessary, made one shorter, made one optional for certain folks, and it magically freed up longer focus blocks for our whole team. We even considered a no-meetings Friday to really maximize focus time. – Erin Zimmer Strenio, Content strategist

One team, one dream.

Our teams are cross-functional by design. Everybody and their perspective matters to the success of the team. Clear communication and regular feedback are vital to make sure we stay in sync as a team. – Ben Peterson, UX designer

Foster relationships, over-communicate, and be ready to pass the baton to the next person.

I learned from fellow UX designer Melissa Braxton how to foster relationships and how to over-communicate. This means regular 1:1s with teammates but also research session debriefs, weekly ships, biweekly retros, and regular project health checks (we do them biweekly for all 18F projects as a quick 5-minute form to flag any issues). We’ve documented many of these practices in the TTS Handbook. I also came to understand that our work isn’t going away. It’s a relay race: take it as far as you can but be ready to pass the baton to the next person. – Mark Trammell, UX designer

Image of woman thinking

On user research and facilitation

Our job is facilitation, not production.

We have a big design team at 18F, and we get to see how different people approach a problem. I’m grateful for getting to see so many ways of working, especially around facilitation. Our job is facilitation not production; facilitation gets you to production. At 18F I’ve learned how we can bring our partners and their users into the design process and share that design responsibility. That’s the real work. – Christine Bath, Product designer

Make people feel comfortable before user interviews.

I learned the importance of making people feel comfortable before user interviews from fellow UX designer Melissa Braxton. We want people to feel comfortable so that they’ll speak candidly about their experiences. We rely on their candor and openness in order to properly assess and address their challenges and needs so we can offer the appropriate solutions. – Qituwra Anderson, UX designer

Start a workshop with an icebreaker.

I picked up some workshop facilitation tips from fellow UX designer Ben Peterson. One tip is to start with an icebreaker. It’s a low pressure way to get everyone in the room working together. Another tip is to have guidelines and rules visible throughout the workshop. Bring a few of your own and ask folks at the beginning of the workshop if they have any to add to the list. Here are a couple of examples: share all of your ideas, speak up if you don’t agree, no one leaves the room unhappy with the outcome/direction. – Qituwra Anderson, UX designer

Be impartial without being impersonal.

I’ve learned how to model facilitation during user interviews; how to stay engaged with the conversation and how to be impartial without appearing impersonal or disinterested. I give verbal cues, ask follow-up questions, and reflect back what I heard from participants. The goal is to make participants feel heard and to communicate that we truly value their time and the experiences they share with us. – Igor Korenfeld, Product designer

On human-centered design

Foster a safe space and be curious.

Fostering a safe space lets us check our ego and ask questions that help us learn and grow. To be truly human centered in your work requires being curious and open. Read more about our partnership principles and collaboration approaches to help your project succeed. – Ben Peterson, UX designer

Asking for help is a sign of strength.

Power does not come from being the only one who knows. Be enthusiastic about sharing and showing—this is such a big part of the 18F culture. When there’s something you don’t know and want to learn, or when you ask for help understanding something, our colleagues are generally happy to teach you, share their knowledge, and show you how it’s done. – Melissa Braxton, UX designer

There’s power, humility, and equity within not knowing something.

Many of my colleagues at 18F have demonstrated to me (and our partners) that there’s power, humility, and equity within not knowing something. User-centered design fundamentally depends upon a designer constantly acknowledging and re-acknowledging what they don’t know, and using their expertise to ask better questions, not to assume answers. A strong team values ‘knowing the answer’ less and ‘learning the answer’ more. – Mike Gintz, Designer

On leadership and consulting

Great leaders empower others.

At 18F, leadership roles are framed not as positions to ascend to once you have attained a certain level of expertise, but rather as opportunities to serve your colleagues, support the organization, and grow as an individual. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues in the Design Chapter as they exemplify the principles of servant leadership: using their positions to empower others, foster inclusion and cohesion, and support their teams in achieving their goals. – Julia Lindpaintner, UX designer

Think like a consultant.

As a UX designer, it’s easy to go into projects looking for new things to design. During my time at 18F, I’ve learned how to approach the work from a consulting mindset which has helped me to recognize hidden opportunities. For example, on some partner-facing projects it may be most effective to do a deep dive into their organization and power structure, or investigate who owns which technologies and why. Rather than designing a new system, sometimes the best solutions for our partners have to do with connecting two separated teams and making introductions or simply helping them document an internal process. To me, thinking like a consultant means focusing on what’s going to be the most impactful to our partners. – Laura Poncé, UX designer

Here’s a sticky-noting trick you should know!

While working on an affinity mapping exercise in person with one of my project partners, I learned that there’s a trick to getting sticky notes to stay on the wall. The best way to use them is to peel a new note from side-to-side off of the stack instead of from bottom-to-top. It’ll lay flat on the wall and won’t fall off as easily! – Laura Poncé, UX designer

On working in government

Get excited instead of intimidated!

When I started working on a project with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the White House, they introduced me to The Reg Map (informal rulemaking) that outlines the rulemaking process. I’d learned how a bill becomes a law in high school civics class, but I was in the dark about rulemaking (how a law becomes policy). The nine step multi-level diagram made my head spin at first, but it was a great tool to help me learn key concepts quickly and, most importantly, ask better questions of the subject-matter experts I was working with at OMB.

Government is complex because its work is complex, but even complex processes can be clear. Sometimes this means stating that a process is complex—nobody may have ever acknowledged that in plain language before! We have the opportunity to bring this clarity to so many areas of the government, and I think that’s more exciting than intimidating. – Amanda Costello, Content strategist

Working in the open is valuable for current and future teams.

I learned from 18F designer/researcher alum Colin MacArthur and our Chief of Staff Alan Brouilette the value of working in the open. This shared synthesis of usability testing on Github with is so broadly helpful. I reference it when speaking at conferences, and to a ton of potential new colleagues when having virtual caffeines (informal video chats) with people interested in working here. Early on, when I would ask a question via direct message, I got redirected to ask it in an open channel so others could also benefit. And I often go back and reference those answers to others. – Anne Petersen, Designer

Regional offices are a powerful vector to interact with an agency.

I learned from fellow designer Mark Trammell that the Forest Service has 9 regions numbered 1 through 10 (7 is missing: here’s why.) It’s a huge way to do research closer to home, in ‘ride-alongs’ or contextual inquiry: what do customer service folks have posted up on their monitors that they reference often? Regional Town Halls at GSA are also a huge way to have a bigger impact, demonstrate what we do, spread the word. – Anne Petersen, Designer

Ideas rarely succeed based purely on their own inherent value—this concept of ripeness I learned from former 18F strategist Ed Mullen. Even the best, most revolutionary, creative idea needs an appropriate environment in which to take root and flourish. Is the time right for this idea? Is the climate right? Are people ready? If not, what should we do instead, rather than bashing our idea into a wall over and over again? Should we divert some/more/all of our energy towards designing the environment rather than the idea? – Mike Gintz, Designer

Join us!

It was really fun for us to broaden our view and intentionally reflect on how enriching our work is, and we’re always looking for new people to share and grow with us. Learn more on the TTS website about our open positions, and find out how we work in our UX Design Guide, 18F Methods, and Content Guide (or look through our other guides).