The rise of the User Experience (UX) profession has seen a corresponding rise in the preponderance and importance of the UX manager role. UX management is now a bona fide career track inside organizations big and small. The UX manager role is unique in corporate leadership roles in that it blends the traditional responsibilities of people management—performance management and budgeting—with the unique needs of the UX discipline—design reviews, product vision, UX career coaching. It requires a deep understanding of the UX field and practice along with a solid understanding of business, management, and leadership fundamentals. It is a dynamic, rewarding, and complex role; one that is in some ways a natural extension of what senior UX individual contributors (ICs) do, but in other ways quite different.
Figure 1. UX management is a unique and rewarding role.
The UX manager role is interesting to senior ICs as it represents an obvious path a UX career can take. But in my experience, many senior ICs do not have a good understanding of the work a UX manager does, and as a consequence, they do not have a means to try out aspects of the role to understand whether UX management is a good fit for them. This article is meant to illuminate the role of a UX manager by beginning to answer the following questions: What do UX managers do in a typical day? How is that work similar to or different from the work of an IC? How might one get experience in the activities this role undertakes?
Informed by interviews with ten UX managers, this article presents a hypothetical day-in-the-life of a first-level, non-executive UX manager. This article is meant for senior ICs who wish to learn more about UX management.
Before describing a day-in-the-life of a UX manager, let me offer a couple of caveats and clarifications.
UX Management Is Not the Only Way to Move Up
Often, senior ICs erroneously believe that the only way to advance in one’s career is to become a UX manager. In most large organizations this is not the case (and may in fact be an exception). Often there is an individual contributor job ladder that runs parallel to the UX manager job ladder: An IC can be a peer to a manager, and in some cases senior ICs may be more senior (e.g., principal designer) than a manager.
UX management is not the natural next step for a senior UX professional—it is in fact a different job.
UX Management Has Many Flavors
While in this article I attempt to provide a relatively generalized view of UX management, an individual UX manager’s work may differ considerably from the description below. This is because the nature of UX management is driven by a number of factors, such as the following:
- Organization size (e.g., 50-person company or 100,000-person multinational corporation)
- Organization type (e.g., technology company versus manufacturing company)
- Team and organization UX maturity and needs
- Business unit or product needs (e.g., one business unit or product team may manage UX differently than another inside an organization)
- Team staffing model (e.g., central or embedded with product teams)
- Manager experience, skill, and individual approach
Finally, also note that UX management activities tend to vary throughout the year, and even on a weekly basis, based on the rhythms of the business a manager is in. Days focused on performance reviews and annual planning, for example, may look fundamentally different than the day described in the following example.
Figure 2. The work of a UX manager can vary tremendously.
How this Day-In-The-Life Was Constructed
With the above caveats out of the way, here is how the day-in-the-life was constructed:
- I conducted ten semi-structured interviews with UX managers at a technology company in the United States. In those sessions, we reviewed and discussed managers’ calendars and their prototypical days.
- I drew upon my experience as a UX manager in four companies in the United States.
- I reviewed the content with five UX managers.
To better characterize a hypothetical UX manager day-in-the-life, I present it through a persona: Mary. Mary is a UX manager at a technology company in Seattle, Washington, United States. She has five years of management experience and ten years of prior experience as a UX designer at various companies. She currently manages a team of eight. Her team includes five designers and three researchers of various experience and job levels.
I offer an observation before I share the minutiae of a hypothetical day-in-the-life. The activities a UX manager like Mary finds herself doing are oftentimes driven by the following two complementary objectives:
- to create an environment where the people on the team are successful and grow professionally
- to deliver a great user experience for customers that enables the organization’s success
The activities that arise in Mary’s day—and described below—are generally aligned with these dual purposes; consider activities she may do as merely a means to those ends.
Here is how Mary’s Tuesday goes:
7:00 Check email and calendar.
Mary starts her day with a quick check of her email and calendar on her phone. Skimming her mailbox and calendar she wonders: Are there any urgent messages that I need to respond to? What meetings do I have and with whom? Do I need to reschedule anything? From there, Mary gets ready for work.
8:30 Get on the bus, and write emails on the bus.
And now ready to head into work, Mary makes her way to the bus. Mary’s day, as we will see later, will be a series of meetings and one-on-ones (1:1 meetings) without a lot of uninterrupted personal time. To make the most out of her commute, Mary spends some time reading and responding to a few emails on her phone in-between catching up on today’s news.
9:00 Get into the office. Check email at her desk.
Now at the office, Mary settles into her desk. She opens email once again to respond to anything she has not responded to already. With a team of eight, Mary is often added into email threads and has to monitor many diverse work streams, so each email she reads may be about an entirely different project with entirely different needs and in an entirely different context. This is an essential quality of Mary’s day, moving from one context to another, from one person’s needs and goals to another’s.
9:15 Add comments to a draft UX study plan.
As Mary continues reading her email, she finds that a teammate has asked for her input on a research plan. Mary quickly reviews the plan and sees that the research is well-designed and executable. Mary adds a suggestion in the plan to cite past research, as it will help the researcher better frame the problem space. (Mary sees this kind of feedback as a way to help the researcher grow her skillset, perspective, and impact—and can help deliver a better product experience too.)
9:30 Work on a design vision, and estimate resource needs.
Granted Mary’s primary focus is on her team; however, she must still ensure her team aligns to the needs of the organization at large and the opportunities the business has. One of the ways Mary does this is to craft proposals that describe ways her team can improve the product experience. She works on these proposals with her engineering and product management counterparts. Part of this work includes making a case for additional investments (primarily, people to join her team) and figuring out how her present team can support the work too. The document Mary is working on now is chiefly about her vision for a new product experience, but it includes data that support her case for that vision and an overview of what it will take to design and build. Beyond the business impact of her proposed new project, she is excited about what the work means for her team: The opportunity for her ICs to design in an ambiguous space and for them to grow as leaders. Mary has spent several weeks on the vision, collaborating with peers and selling them on the idea. Today Mary makes progress on gathering data to support the need for the project. She also finalizes her description for what a future user experience could mean for the business and what it might take to build. She will share a draft with her management peers at a budget meeting at the end of the day to get their feedback and to begin to build her case for additional budget to see this work through.
10:30 One-on-one meeting with teammate—provide feedback on a design and recent meeting.
Every week Mary has one-on-one meetings (1:1s) with people on her team. It is one of her ways of staying connected with their individual needs, interests, and work. In those meetings, Mary’s primary interest is in seeing how she can help her teammates, including providing them with impromptu feedback and more formal performance feedback. This 1:1 is with Fred, a designer on Mary’s team. Mary had recognized in a previous design review that Fred was not effectively soliciting and managing feedback; Mary made a note to talk to Fred about it. They talk about methods to better facilitate and present at design reviews. Fred then asks for feedback on a new design project he is starting. They discuss the design for a while—Mary offering her feedback and encouragement. Then she connects him with additional people he can get feedback from and past work he should review.
11:00 One-on-one with another teammate—provide a mid-year check-in.
Rene, a UX researcher, is Mary’s next 1:1. In this 1:1, Mary wanted to talk about Rene’s mid-year progress. Mary and Rene talk about Rene’s work so far this year and about opportunities Rene may have to create more impact with her work. They also discuss Rene’s progress toward her goal to become a principal researcher. In that discussion, Mary advises Rene on things to work on to develop her career. Mary records her meeting notes so she can keep track of Rene’s progress and goals. She feels great about Rene’s growth and potential!
Figure 3. One-on-ones are time for Mary to connect with her teammates’ projects and careers.
11:30 Participate in a design review.
Mary’s team has a weekly design review where UX design and research is shared amongst the team for feedback and visibility. She thought it was important for the team to see and comment on one another’s work, and she also wanted the team to learn to support each other. Mary now feels really proud of how much more effectively her team presents their work, how much better the team’s design feedback has gotten, and how much better the work has become. In today’s review, a couple of designers provide most of the feedback on the work shared. Mary also provides some feedback of her own, primarily by asking questions meant to expand thinking: “Did you consider adding motion to that interaction?” and “What did prior research on that topic find?”
12:03 Eat lunch at her desk.
After the design review, Mary rushes to the company cafe to get a sandwich she can eat at her desk. She eats her sandwich while catching up on the news and her social media accounts.
12:46 Work on an update to the team design review.
As Mary finishes up her lunch, she starts thinking about her conversation with Fred and the weekly design review she hosts. She has realized that the design reviews tend to focus on only a couple of voices besides her own. Her team is mostly silent as people present, and as a result, presenters are not getting a diverse range of feedback. She makes an adjustment to the design review kick-off slide to ensure more active participation from everyone. She makes a mental note to mention this update at the next design review as well.
1:30 Review portfolios of applicants, and give candidate feedback.
A UX manager is responsible for staffing her team. Mary has a UX designer job opening on her team (in fact, she helped draft the job description). Now, dozens of applicants are applying each week. Mary reviews three candidate applications today—this includes reviewing resumes and then spending time reviewing various projects in each applicant’s portfolio. After she evaluates each applicant, she identifies any candidates she thinks could be successful in the job and who therefore should be contacted by phone for the next phase of the hiring process. Unfortunately, on this day, none of the candidates have the right background for what her team needs. She lets the recruiter know her decision on the forwarded applications.
2:30 Meet with engineering and product leads to check-in on a project.
Generally, Mary allows her team to work on projects independently, but she often checks-in on projects to see how they are going, particularly on large or critical projects. Mary has two people—a UX designer and a UX researcher—supporting a multi-quarter redesign project with ten team members. She set up a meeting with her engineering and product management counterparts to check-in and discuss the project. Mary shares her impression that the project is off-track, and her counterparts agree. Mary and her counterparts determine that the team was confused in terms of how to move forward. Mary proposes several ways to solve the problem, and they agree that the best approach would be to set up a recurring meeting where they could offer the team help with project direction. They collectively decide that the product manager will set up the meeting with the team, and he will invite Mary and the engineering manager too. Mary also makes a note to talk to the designer and researcher on the project about the meeting in their upcoming 1:1s to see if they need help with anything specific.
3:05 Sign expense reports, and check on policy regarding an expense.
Every so often between scheduled meetings, Mary finds time to look through her email again. In her emails she finds an expense report awaiting her review and approval. A person on Mary’s team has submitted an expense report for air travel, a hotel, and food expenses for a trip last week. Mary reviews the expense report to make sure everything is reported accurately and that all expenses are within company policy. She notices one item in the expense report—a charge for a night out at a bowling alley. She is not sure how entertainment expenses are handled by her company, so she does a search through her company’s expense reporting policy website to find the answer before finishing her review of the report.
4:00 Plan next year’s budget with other managers.
Responding to a request from her leadership team to draft a department-wide budget for next year, Mary’s next meeting is with her peer UX managers. They have all been asked to share their plans for next year and their staffing and budget needs. Mary created a presentation outlining her plans which she shares with her colleagues, and she discusses her staffing and budget needs too. Mary talks about the work she would like to get done with her team and describes the work additional team members can help with including the project she worked on earlier today. UX researchers on her team have also identified some research they would like to commission, so Mary shares the estimated costs of that research too. Other managers share their plans for next year as well, and together they discuss the right investments for the organization. Mary leaves the meeting with a sense of how her team might grow, but she also has to let her research team know that some of the research they wanted to commission next year may not get funding due to enterprise priorities. Mary plans to share that news with her team at her next team meeting so she can explain the situation and the rationale.
5:45 Head home, and write emails on the bus.
The sun is setting on her Tuesday; Mary’s work day is almost done. She wraps up her last few emails at her desk, and then she heads out for the bus. On the bus, she writes a few emails and checks her calendar to see what her next day holds.
How to Gain Experience in the UX Manager Role as an IC
With the description of a hypothetical day-in-the-life done, a natural next question would be—how does one get experience before applying to or assuming the role officially? I asked managers what advice they had for senior ICs who wish to learn more about management and get more exposure to the role. The following is what they offered.
Show Leadership on Your Projects and with Your Team
First and foremost, show effective leadership in all that you do. Begin to think beyond UX deliverables and begin to influence an overall project, the work of others, and the processes of the team. Begin to think about helping junior peers grow as practitioners too. (This is, perhaps not coincidentally, also expected behavior for senior ICs in most organizations!) In fact, all of the managers I spoke with cited—being recognized as an effective leader—is an important step to becoming a manager, and leading through influence is a great skill to acclimate you to the world of UX management.
Figure 4. Effective leadership is an essential quality for UX managers.
Read the Job Description
Read the job description for UX managers at the organization or business unit in which you work. This will clarify expectations for managers within your organization, and it will also presumably fill in the gaps left in my description above.
Talk to Your Manager
Talk to your manager about your interest in UX management. In those conversations, I suggest asking your manager to be candid about the things you need to work on in order to be seen as a leader in your area and on your projects. Also, ask if there are projects or team processes that you can undertake ownership of. You might also signal your interest in managing an intern or contractor (see below) or taking on a mentee.
Take on a Formal Mentoring Role
A relatively low consequence way to gain experience coaching others is to take on a formal mentoring role. There are many ways to find mentees: Some organizations have formal mentor-mentee matching events while some are less formal (e.g., asking if anyone is seeking a mentor in a group chat). There are also many UX-focused groups as well as university students in cities across the world who are often seeking mentorship.
Manage an Intern
Managing an intern is typically as close to people management an IC can get without being a formal manager. Note however that interns may not be representative of the types of people who a UX manager usually manages, nor are their backgrounds and needs similar, but they can (depending on your organization’s policies) afford an IC the opportunity to coach, mentor, provide feedback, and so on.
One Last Reminder: UX Management Is Not for Everyone
I reiterate this point because it is important: UX management is not for everyone. The role of UX manager is one focused on enabling and leading others, not applied design or research on one’s own projects. Being motivated by the work of the team and their growth as individuals is paramount to the role, as well as ensuring a team is effectively supporting the business and its customers. But have no fear if it is not for you. You can have an entirely satisfying career in UX without being a UX manager, or you may try out the role and determine it is not for you and resume your work as an IC.
The UX manager’s role is to enable their team and the people on it to be successful. This purpose drives many diverse activities, from the tactical to the strategic and from the empowering to the directed. Senior ICs who wish to try UX management can start by looking beyond their deliverables and begin to help their peers, team, and products grow.
Thanks to Javier Bargas-Avila, Head of UX Research for Cloud Platform, for his great advice on an earlier draft of this article. Thanks as well to the various UX managers who shared their workdays with me to inform this article, as well as those who provided feedback on the final hypothetical day.