UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 841 June 26, 2012

5 Tips for Effective UX Leadership

Somewhere in the world, a desperate user cries out for a UX hero. In the city, a lost tourist is looking for his hotel using a poorly designed app. In a nearby apartment, another man abandons his cart before making his first online purchase. Down the hall, his daughter struggles to complete a research paper using disorganized and unusable websites. An epidemic of unproductive web experiences is sweeping the city leaving a trail of disappointment and desperation in its wake. The world needs a hero. It’s time for each of us to rise up and say, “I am that hero!”

Demand for capable UX professionals has reached an all-time high. However, for our industry to continue to flourish, we must add strategic value to project teams above and beyond simply creating and handing off deliverables. Are you seen as the go-to person for strategic thinking and problem solving? Are you involved in projects as if you own them? Do you have aspirations of becoming a team leader, growing your clientele, and being the red-caped hero of your office? If so, learn to own the success and failure of every project you touch and lead the way for others.

Creating user flows, use cases, wireframes, and other documentation may be part of your job description, but as the ultimate user advocate you’re likely expected to deliver a lot more. As a thought leader, you have a chance to showcase the keen entrepreneurial thinking and leadership skills behind your solutions, so don’t be afraid to stand up and prove your value extends well beyond just producing deliverables. Users need you to lead the way and fight for them; if you don’t save them from mediocrity, disorder, and chaos, who will?

I know that it's not always easy for UX pros to feel like they have an influence beyond the work output they create. This is especially true of teams that work autonomously, convening only to review finished deliverables and then dispersing into isolation once again. In that setting, people tend to tie the value of UXers to the deliverable itself rather than the strategic and leadership strengths they can add to the organization. “Wireframe Guy” isn’t a very flattering title for a UX professional who wants to establish a heroic reputation.

To avoid having your contributions diminished, consider adopting the recommendations below in your professional development and taking on the role of a leader, regardless of what your job title may currently be.

1. Help Manage Resources

Resource management encompasses more than juggling tasks and deadlines. It involves aligning your team’s expertise towards a common objective. In the traditional sense, resource management usually implies managing production and productivity; however, as a UX professional it is important to understand the value of your human resources for their intellectual contributions, not just the tasks they perform. As the UX professional on the team, it's imperative that you understand your team’s value beyond the work they perform and capitalize on their strengths.

Great leaders empower their teams to influence the process collaboratively where each person’s expertise can have the greatest impact. It is in the user’s best interest for you to help foster interaction and collaboration among team members because the result is a better final product. A UX leader can help manage resources by making sure all team members feel that they have authorship in the product beyond the work they output. Sometimes this can be as simple as making sure your team members know that you appreciate the specific expertise and value they bring to the process. Good leaders help their team members understand their unique roles in the success of the project and that their contributions are appreciated.

2. Speak Up

Too often, the problem solving and critical thought that goes into any given product is accomplished in isolation and never shared. This can be especially true in a deliverable-focused environment. To ultimately be a user advocate, it is important not only to create the required deliverables, but also to communicate the strategic thinking and expertise behind what you have produced. Find ways to expose the thought and expertise behind your deliverables, such as:

UX Committee

  • Annotate the elements you’ve put extra thought into and provide some strategic insights beyond noting simple interactions.
  • Attach supporting case studies, research, or examples (even if they were not requested) that support your recommendations.
  • Add some explanation verbally or by email that sheds light on the strategic process behind the deliverables when you hand them off.

Creating great wireframes and mockups alone will not affirm your value to an organization. Being able to support and defend your decisions by revealing the strategic thought behind them helps prevent poorly justified changes later in the design and approval processes. You are paid to solve problems; sharing the insight and expertise that went into creating your solutions helps others to understand the thought investment that went into creating the associated deliverables.

3. Take Ownership

Genuine concern for a project’s success or failure is a reflection of an entrepreneurial frame of mind. Maybe this is a stretch when you’ve been asked to iterate, yet again, on an email campaign that you know 80% of recipients will delete. Maybe you’re part of an agile team and you’re so pressured to rapidly produce deliverables that all you can focus on is getting wireframes completed for the next stand-up. Caring isn’t always easy in the midst of the daily grind, but imagine how your thinking would change if the email campaign were for your company. What if you had put your life savings into a business and you were the project owner instead of a Scrum team member? If you can train yourself to think like an owner, you will develop a broader awareness of the nuances that affect the product’s success.

Fine-tuning your senses by participating as if the outcome will affect you personally will help you develop an invaluable business intuition. Even if you never plan to start your own company, consider adding entrepreneurialism blogs, audiobooks, and magazines to your reading list. Keeping up with blogs like Work Happy and BusinessPundit can help develop awareness of business issues off the beaten path. As well, there are dozens of great books filled with sage advice for entrepreneurs. Two of my personal favorites are The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki and The E Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. Developing an entrepreneurial mindset through reading will help you approach every project with a better appreciation for the business objectives driving the requirements.

As user advocates, UX professionals often find themselves at odds with the stakeholders driving the business objectives. Understanding how to think like a businessperson helps keep a UX advocate anchored to the original business objective that gave rise to and underlies the project. You should be able to justify and explain how every research, design, and UX-related decision is going to help achieve the defined business objective. The UX leader is the bridge between the business objectives and the user, which is a huge responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Establishing credibility as a business-minded problem solver, and demonstrating an understanding of the business challenge will help establish trust and keep you grounded in the core issues.

4. Teach and Learn

The opportunities to expand one’s knowledge and teach others are endless. Good leaders don’t pretend to know everything; they know how, where, or from whom to find answers. Conveying to your team that you want to learn more about their specialized knowledge helps you develop your own skills, communicates that you value what they bring to the table, and validates their roles on the team. Genuine enthusiasm for new technologies, platforms, techniques, and creativity is contagious.

The most respected leaders emerge from the trenches rather than universities. People often learn more from those around them than anywhere else, so stay close to your team while they’re on the front lines. Create an environment where innovation, trends, and new ideas are valued, discussed, and shared. The modern marketing and communication landscape is infinitely complex, and the best way to help your team learn is to encourage them to share what they discover with others around them.

5. Stay Involved

When UX pros hand off deliverables without staying connected to the progress of the project, they inadvertently communicate a disregard for the final outcome of the very product they are supposed to be creating. Staying involved at all stages of the project will help develop a greater awareness of the issues and decisions affecting the project beyond your immediate influence, and help establish the UX role as a key stakeholder for validating decisions. More simply stated, UXers have no right to complain about the final product if they didn’t stay involved all the way through to the product’s release and beyond.

UX Assembly Line

As the ultimate user advocate, you should make it understood that you have a valid stake in the success of the product throughout all stages of development and that you are the voice of the user. To ensure the best outcomes, UX must have a place at the table through all stages of a project and should take responsibility for fostering team participation.

Do you want to be a leader?

The truth is that companies need workhorses just as much as leaders, and there’s no shame in being a workhorse. However, if you consider yourself part of the UX discipline, you shouldn’t just be a workhorse. If you follow a philosophy that the user’s experience is an essential component to the success of a product, then there must be some strategic thought invested—some entrepreneurial energy that goes into each and every deliverable you produce. Your value is not in the documentation and deliverables you create, but in the intellectual investment, insights, and expertise you provide. Adding the ability to lead and unify teams towards a common objective amplifies your value to your employer, but more importantly makes you a better advocate for the end user.

Your leadership superpowers will flourish as you stay engaged with the people influencing your product, become a confident voice for the user, and own the success and failure of your projects. The users of the world need UX practitioners to save them from noise, clutter, and wasted time. Producing work is not the same as providing leadership and strategic value. In the real world, people aren’t born heroes; they’re forged in moments of need. Rise up and defend your users. You are the expert, so lead and others will follow.

Earn your red cape today.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Paul is a UX and Design Strategist for Captive UX based in Atlanta Georgia. He has developed digital solutions for Universal Orlando, Avaya, Verizon, and Turner Sports.

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Comments

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Hi Taly,

Thanks for taking the time to comment. You raise a great point. The truth is that everyone on the development team has a responsibility to the user. It's important for those of us in a UX role to realize that everyone needs to feel as if they have authorship in the final product because they will also take pride in delivering the best product to that user. Conflict usually arises when there is not a stated or understood hierarchy and everyone feels like they need to "fight" for what they think is the best way to execute the solution.

In a "perfect" world, we might think that it would best if the boss marched us in and said "OK everyone, from now on [fill in your name] has the final say in all decisions affecting the end-user." That scenario rarely plays out and in fact, would actually be a detriment in many organizations. The reason is that the UX role is just one component of what is becoming an increasingly complex world. It would be virtually impossible for a UX person to be an expert in user behavior and also be an expert in the nuances of emerging technology and the other disciplines that are needed to create a modern solution.

UX leadership is so important is because as the ultimate advocate for the user, we need the best that all those other disciplines have to offer in order to deliver the most productive final product. The main thrust of the article is to rise to the leadership role from "the trenches" - meaning that the UX role becomes a unifying force -- recognizing that everyone wants to have authorship in the final product, and learning how to make everyone feel like they are a valued part of the team. Establishing respect over time using these tips doesn't seem as easy as someone ordaining the UX role with authority, but in the long run, it's best to establish respect and eventually.

Of course it's also possible that the company you work for is a hopeless dysfunctional mess... and if that's the case, then try to back your decisions up with research, case study and data to help your team understand your basis for recommendations. :-)

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I loved the article but I have the same problem of Souleymane. One thing that is often hard to achieve is "make it understood (...) that you are the voice of the user", and why is that? because all of us working with web are also users, so everyone in the team feel they are the "voice of the user" and sometimes I feel that they understand my decisions as an opinion rather than a thoughtful and based on knowledge decisions. But I guess time and patience will eventually make things better. Thanks for the great article.

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Thank you for taking the time to comment Tyler and Mike - great perspective and much appreciated comments.

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I think your article has some really exceptional points. I find that often the UX department does become detached from the business problems. The disparity causes an unproductive struggle to emerge that isn't healthy to either side of what should be a defining discussion for every project. In my experience, UXers feel undervalued in this relationship because they are often considered a support unit to the business. I think this is where the "wireframe guy" mentality develops. But the "support" position shouldn't stop UXers from staying focused on the business problems and using all available resources to design exceptional and intelligent solutions.

In point 2 and 5 you discuss ways for the UXer to stay involved in the process and communicate their decisions through effective annotation and communication. This is so true! If the solutions that were coming out of every UX department were directly related back to the core problems of the business and the key insights of the analytics, then I think all parties would rejoice. I don't think it is a qualitative v. quantitative paradigm. You said "You are paid to solve problems". It is true that the value that every UXer brings to the table is his/her ability to find creative and intuitive answers to everyday business problems.

Great Article... congrats!

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Excellent article! It's so easy to just "fall in line" in a work environment where work is divided up into certain sections for certain people. This article really is an encouragement to break free of that "take one and pass it" methodology that so many companies seem to foster.

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Thanks Souleymane,

I understand the challenges you're referencing in dealing with some of the negative elements. Unfortunately you're sometimes "stuck" with dealing with influences beyond your control. The best you can hope for is to be the beacon of sensibility and wisdom whenever you have the chance and call attention in a professional, solution oriented manner to those things you mentioned. It really takes time to establish enough credibility to override those negative influences you're referring to. Over time, if you are consistent, educated, capable and value the contributions of others in your organization you should earn a more authoritative voice after you have enough successes under your belt.

Thanks again for the kind words.

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A very good article indeed. Thanks Paul.

It will be even more interesting if you could share some ideas around dealing with the negative. i.e. failure in strategy, team members not buying into your leadership or convincing the team to adopt a direction or to give it a go and see what you get.
I like your tip about teach and learn. This always works out well if threaded carefully. It should also go further and provide a platform for sharing what is taught and learned to create the feeling of continuous improvement.

Thanks again for the great thoughts.

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Thanks Deepak, I enjoyed writing it and working with the editorial team at UXMag

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Nice article, Paul.