One of the most exciting career transitions one can go through, regardless of the discipline, is from individual contributor to manager. Becoming manager of a user experience team adds to that already-momentous transition its own unique set of issues, considerations, and requirements.
While the learning curve can be steep, the rewards of UX management are many. Watching teammates grow professionally is immensely gratifying, as is seeing a high-functioning team address complex business challenges with ease. Furthermore, it is an exciting time to be a leader in the UX discipline as strategically minded managers have the opportunity to make design and research a vital part of their organization’s strategy.
Becoming a UX manager takes adjustment, as it involves specific and unique skills and areas of responsibility. If you are considering a move to UX management, or just starting out in that role, there are explicit and implicit responsibilities, themes, and advice to consider. Inspired by Michael Watkins’ influential management book The First 90 Days, in this article I’ll describe some aspects of UX management I had to consider and adjust to as I transitioned from UX designer and researcher to UX manager. Some were natural extensions of what I did as an individual contributor, but others were unexpected and wholly foreign. The good news is that with a little proactiveness, it is possible for individual contributors to gain awareness and exposure to many of these responsibilities in their present roles. This article is an effort to help illuminate some of those responsibilities, as well as offer some suggestions for approaching those responsibilities.
Advocate For the Team, But Keep the Bigger Picture In Mind
The need to advocate for UX is integral to the work of all UX practitioners on some level. As a manager, advocacy is more fundamental and can also have higher stakes.
For example, an individual contributor might advocate for a UX enhancement in a product or for a user study. Failure in this case might mean a product enhancement is not made—disappointing to be sure, but the impact is usually limited to the product at hand.
A manager, however, might advocate for budget to fund the growth of the team, or even more crucially, to sustain it. Failure here would mean a team doesn’t grow, or far worse, lead to layoffs.
A manager must be able to effectively describe and demonstrate the value of UX and what the team brings to an organization if the team is to thrive. To that end, new managers need to focus on developing business acumen and the ability to speak about the value of a project, product, or method in terms of business outcomes. Similarly, UX managers need to excel at telling the story of the team’s successes to help others understand the value of the team’s work. This is particularly true if UX is not well understood or appreciated in the organization.
It is also important that UX managers establish effective working relationships with managers in other related disciplines, such as product management and engineering. Managers frequently collaborate on strategy and often negotiate resources and approaches. Resolving issues and strategizing between teams is much easier when leaders know each other and understand the value and contributions of each team.
Advocating for UX has limits, however, particularly as it relates to the larger enterprise and its goals. Projects are often a series of tradeoffs and competing priorities, and UX managers are often asked (or compelled) to offer their perspectives to unblock teams and move projects forward. Sometimes this involves specifically advocating for the UX team and its work. Other times a UX manager may have to concede to another team’s perspective because of a larger business context. Knowing which battles to fight and which to forgo requires a perspective beyond UX. The bottom line is that UX practitioners can be forgiven for being staunch advocates for their work, but UX managers must keep an overall enterprise perspective in mind and carefully balance the contributions of their UX team members with broader business constraints and opportunities.
Hire and Retain Great UX Talent
Perhaps the most important aspect of UX management is hiring and retaining UX talent, for without talented people on a UX team that team will not be successful. UX is specialized enough that UX managers cannot rely exclusively on recruiters or their human resources department to identify and interview strong UX job prospects. Instead, they should take an active, primary role in their organization’s UX hiring process. This is a self-serving concept; it is far easier to manage a highly capable team than an ineffective one.
The work of creating a good hiring process includes:
- Establishing a specialized UX interview process (see Larson, Lindhout 2017).
- Creating (and evaluating) design or research exercises for candidates
- Learning how to evaluate talent through resume and portfolio reviews and interview loops
- Identifying gaps in a team’s skills and experience to fill with new hires
Retaining the members of an effective UX team is a related responsibility and challenge for UX managers. Tools to recognize and support high-performing individuals include a combination of public or private accolades, promotions, and new challenges.
Learn to Work with Human Resources and Understand Legal Issues
As agents of their organizations, UX managers need to be familiar with company policies, the basics of employment law in their state or country, job requirements, and other aspects of people management. They need to be ready when staff members bring them issues and questions, such as clarification on company policies, asking permission for time off, or resolving interpersonal conflicts.
This is not the most glamorous aspect of UX management, but it’s a requirement. People look to their manager as an authority figure and organization representative. Organizations expect managers to provide a first point of contact for individual contributor issues, concerns, and needs, as well. The moment an individual contributor becomes a manager is the moment employees see her as a representative of the organization at large.
Of all the areas of responsibility discussed in this article, this area is likely the most foreign to individual contributors. Fortunately, most organizations have HR staff who can partner with new managers to help them through HR and legal matters. Building close connections with the HR department should be one of the first steps for new managers as they get acclimated to their new role.
Set and Monitor the Budget
Team budgets determine the funds a team is allotted for its sustainability, and creating a team budget is usually the manager’s responsibility.
Budgets include things like training, travel, and other costs to keep the team in operation. UX teams often have unique budget requirements, such as costs for specialized design and research software and hardware, study recruitment services and participant gratuities, and professional conferences. Importantly, team headcount is also usually part of the budgeting process (in a financial sense, employees are a cost after all). As such, UX managers need to anticipate the size of the team required to do the work being asked of them and include that in their budget plans alongside funds needed to support the existing team.
Depending on the size or sophistication of the organization, budgeting may be an elaborate process or as simple as an email requesting funds. New UX managers need to understand how their team budget is set, what their team’s budget needs are, and the timeline for providing input into the budget (because budgets are usually set for the following year). It can help to start from a prior year’s budget rather than starting from scratch. Remember, however, that you still must have a compelling rationale for every budget item.
And once a budget is approved, it is generally the manager’s responsibility to monitor expenditures to ensure the budget is maintained.
Setting (and Removing) Processes
UX managers necessarily get involved in crafting (or removing) team processes. This includes things like determining how the UX team works with product and engineering teams, how and whether designers and researchers should contribute to backlogs, user stories or requirements documents, whether and how to conduct team design critiques, determining when design is “final,” and so forth.
While processes can be extremely helpful in creating a predictable environment and raising the quality bar, process-heavy organizations can stifle creativity, agility and, frankly, fun (see the Watkins chapter Shaping Your Group’s Structure). Processes are not valuable for their own sake. Some are burdensome and unnecessary. Knowing when and how to apply or remove processes is a part of the art of management.
As the figurehead of the UX team, the manager’s role includes implicit responsibility for establishing, maintaining, or removing processes for that team. That doesn’t mean the manager should create processes alone; the best UX processes are established in collaboration with the team and other stakeholders to solve specific issues and optimize for a team’s strengths and an organization’s needs.
The idea of setting a goal for a project, product, or person is not foreign to most new UX managers. But goal-setting takes on additional urgency and becomes much more complicated as a manager.
A UX manager may have been focused on her own goals as an individual contributor, but as a manager she must set and communicate goals for her entire team. The stakes of establishing the right goals for a team are high because individual team members will work to meet them and may be compensated based on their success in those efforts. Moreover, setting the right goals means the manager is supporting the organizational mission by focusing her team on what matters most.
Individual contributors are also typically familiar with establishing a vision for their product, but UX managers are also often called upon to create a vision to be shared across products, and/or a vision for how her team should operate and be viewed by other organizations.
Establishing a vision and goals for a team is more difficult than creating individual goals. They can be more complex, and it can be hard to identify goals that create impact. Dedicating adequate time to the process can help. And again, letting team members contribute to the creation of these concepts ensures nothing is missed while creating a sense of shared ownership with the people who must fulfill them.
Provide Assessment, Coaching, and Feedback
After setting clear expectations, managers are called on to assess how well individual teammates are doing and providing them feedback.
Ensuring that every teammate knows how they are doing professionally and what they can improve takes time, a good attention to detail, and the ability to rapidly move from one context to the next. Keeping great notes on each team member, her goals, and her work can make the job easier.
UX managers also have a special role to play here as they are typically expected to have some oversight over employee work products. In fact, in some organizations the UX manager is positioned as a final gatekeeper who must review and approve work before it is considered complete. Providing feedback on potentially dozens of designs and/or research plans across a team of many people is an art, but practice—and good note-taking—helps.
Career Coaching and Finding Growth Opportunities
UX individual contributors naturally look to their managers for guidance in building their careers, too. They may need help understanding what it takes to move to the next rung in the professional ladder; for example, from a UX designer to a senior UX designer. Or they may have more fundamental questions about career options, such as moving from a specialist to a generalist role.
UX managers should be aware that one of their functions is to understand the career ambitions of members of their team, where each teammate is in her career, and what steps it will take for each teammate to advance in her career. It is also the manager’s job to provide opportunities for teammates to gain experiences that enable them to grow (and ideally, aid the organization in which they work at the same time).
Providing opportunities can take many different forms, including assigning practitioners new types of projects or more complex projects, suggesting training to round out skills, recommending mentorships, or providing special projects to give senior practitioners experience mentoring and leading junior practitioners.
Feel Accomplishment in the Accomplishments of the Team
As an individual UX practitioner, the sense of professional accomplishment is often defined by design or research artifacts and outcomes. But at the end of the day, UX managers cannot point to a design or research report and say, “I created that!” Instead, they must define their personal accomplishment through the success of the team and organization at large.
This is not unique to UX management. New managers of all sorts need to adjust to the reality of living through the accomplishments of their team. But in the artifact-driven world of UX, this adjustment can be especially pronounced. Learning to find accomplishment in the outcomes and growth of a team can be fulfilling for a good manager, but it takes adjustment.
(To keep their sense of connection, some managers maintain small UX projects so they can remain active in the field. This tends to be unsustainable, however, as team sizes and leadership responsibilities increase.)
Create and Maintain a Supportive Environment
One of the subtle implications of moving from an individual contributor role to a management role is that managers have a heightened obligation to ensure there’s a supportive environment for all the members of the team. Managers are not only responsible for their own behavior, they are responsible for creating and maintaining an environment that works for everyone on the team. This is manifested in many ways. For example, a manager needs to ensure that she does not inadvertently create tension with her team; it’s wise for managers to avoid letting one’s personal political or social views alienate members of the team. Not everyone on a team is likely to have the same views and it can be uncomfortable for individual contributors to work for managers who are vocal about political and social views with which they strongly disagree. Similarly, managers must be quick to resolve tensions in these sorts of areas by redirecting the team toward topics more relevant to the workplace when non-work-related digressions become substantial distractions. While these aspects of management are seldom in the manager job description, they are implied.
Build a Strong Team Culture
UX team members are bound by professional and organizational structure, but teams that also have a pronounced design culture, close intra-team connections, and strong empathy for one another tend to feature strong collaboration and better-quality work. There are various ways UX managers can foster more team building and collaboration, including creating channels for communication, resolving emergent issues, building a sense of UX culture, organizing team building events, and creating workshops centered around exploring or resolving topics. Identifying the need for these activities and events and organizing them are usually the responsibility of the UX manager.
Generally speaking, the morale of the UX team is, in large part, a the responsibility of the manager. As there are many factors that can positively and negatively affect morale, a UX manager must be mindful, empathetic, and communicative in order to ensure she understands how her team feels and be proactive enough to address issues that arise.
The transition from an individual contributor role to management is dramatic and therefore is not for everyone. Remember that UX offers individual contributor roles (such as senior principal designer) that can last an entire, satisfying career. If the responsibilities and challenges discussed in this article do not seem interesting, a career in UX management may not be an ideal fit.
But, for those who take the step into management, the new role can be exciting and rewarding. Management carries with it unique requirements, skills, and perspectives, and UX adds complications and new requirements. It takes time to adjust to and learn, but a thoughtful approach can make it faster for a new manager to be comfortable—and more effective.
Finally, you don’t have to do it alone. Find a mentor, both during the initial months of transition as well as to serve as a sounding board for emergent issues and opportunities throughout your career. Routinely collect feedback from peers and from team members, asking employees for constructive feedback to help you continue to grow and improve.
Great advice for new managers:
“What Great Managers Do” by Marcus Buckingham. Harvard Business Review, 1 Mar. 2005.
“How to Effectively Manage a UX Design Team” by Joseph Dickerson. UX Magazine, 13 Mar. 2013.
“How to Become A UX Leader” by Robert Hoekman, Jr. Smashing Magazine, 23 Apr. 2015.
The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael Watkins. Harvard Business School Press, 2003.
“Advice to Candidates on Successful UX Interview Loops” by Jerrod Larson and Daan Lindhout. UX Matters. 9 Jan. 2017.
Thanks to Danielle Teska, UX Manager at Amazon, for her substantial and helpful suggestions on an earlier draft of this article. Thanks, as well to Daan Lindhout, head of UX at Qualtrics, for his suggestions.