UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 611 January 26, 2011

On UX Leadership

Designers and other UX types are self-reflective sorts. We spend lots of time—perhaps too much time—talking about what design is, how we do it, and what tools we use. However, it seems to me that a critical topic is missing from most of these conversations: UX leadership. If we are to ensure the longevity of individual careers and our profession as a whole, I believe this needs to become a focus in our industry. I'll explain why.

Even if we can't always agree on what the heck they are, UX professionals have come a long way in the last decade. More companies are paying attention than ever before. Any team of skilled, experienced designers probably has the tools to solve most design problems. However, we still have a couple of big challenges.

Ask almost any designer what gets in the way of success, and you'll hear them beating their heads against one or both of the same brick walls: getting the time and resources to do their jobs, then getting the organization to follow through. We're doing our part by solving the design problems, but we can't seem to gain enough traction.

The other big issue is, in some ways, a nice one to have: demand for designers is outpacing supply. If we're to keep up the momentum, we not only need to educate the next generation of UX professionals, we need to make more designers any way we can.

Design skills are inadequate to address either of these challenges. If you look at organizations that are making progress in either area, I guarantee you'll find they have one thing in common: effective leadership. Each challenge, unfortunately, requires a different leadership flavor, which makes UX leadership all the more demanding.

Growing our profession requires what I think of as practice leadership—things like mentoring junior team members, providing design vision, and generally improving how design is done. This is inward-facing leadership focused on the people who do design. This requires UX expertise as well skill in coaching, communication, and so forth.

Success with UX also requires a big dose of change leadership focused outside of the UX team: evangelizing design and shifting the whole organization's focus toward users and customers. This is one of the unique aspects of UX leadership; the head of the accounting department doesn't generally need to attempt the sort of massive cultural shift that's needed to create a design-led organization. The good news is that this kind of leadership doesn't require a lot of UX expertise; given a bit of education, I've seen leaders from engineering, marketing, and other disciplines adopt our cause and make tremendous progress.

I've had quite a few conversations with designers who assume that leadership and management have to be the same thing. Many were frustrated because they felt they'd mastered the core design skills and wanted new challenges, but didn't want to take on what they saw as the unpleasantness of management—things like dealing with money issues or being in meetings all day. However, you may have noticed that in describing the two flavors of UX leadership, I haven't mentioned budgets and performance reviews, nor have I used the word "manager."

Leaders are people who influence others to accomplish shared goals. Whether explicitly or by tacit example, they establish and foster values, help people envision a future direction, and support them in getting there. The word "influence" is key. I think we can all agree that it's best when managers possess the qualities of leaders, but leadership is not a title one can be assigned. It is, instead, a sort of unofficial mantle granted by the tacit consensus of other people. Managers are assigned; leaders emerge.

If we are to overcome our biggest challenges—growing our profession and injecting design into the DNA of our organizations—we must find ways to foster UX leadership. As always, I suspect our community will generate more great ideas than any individual can, but I'd like to propose a few thoughts for community leaders, educators, managers, and individual designers to consider.

Community leaders: Find ways to encourage conversations about leadership. When planning events, consider leadership as a discipline alongside interaction design, visual design, content strategy, information architecture, and others. Mentoring programs are essential given the number of practitioners who are a UX team-of-one; consider mentoring not just for design skills, but for leadership skills, too.

Educators: Much like design, leadership is a discipline that involves mastering a range of skills. Aptitude, practice, feedback, and some sort of theoretical framework all make mastery easier. Don't just teach research and design skills; at least introduce core concepts about communication, negotiation, and other aspects of leadership.

Managers: Consider offering a career path that recognizes leadership without management. Reward people for initiating team activities and mentoring junior staff members. Recognize aspects of leadership that you're not good at and partner with others who complement your skills. Be a mentor inside your organization and find time for outside mentoring if you can. Read Dan Pink's Drive if you haven't already.

Senior managers: Craft UX management jobs that don't divorce the practitioners from the practice. Most designers-as-leaders still need to be able to create to stay motivated. Remind new leaders to be patient with themselves; leadership is a whole new discipline to master.

Individuals, regardless of leadership role: Earn respect by becoming an expert at what you do. Don't wait to be given permission or authority to lead. If you're not gaining traction as a leader, don't blame the organization—look to your own leadership skills. Look for successful leaders in other parts of the organization and see if you can help turn them into UX leaders. Seek a mentor, or at least some honest feedback from your colleagues. Take a leadership course at your local business school. Read up on interpersonal leadership skills and learn about how organizational change works; John Kotter's Leading Change is a good starting point.

How will we know if we're successful? That's the tricky thing about leadership—you don't get to point to a work product and say, "I did that." If you're lucky, you look around every once in a while and see that your team, your organization, or your profession has made progress, and you find some satisfaction in thinking, "I helped enable that."


Kim Goodwin will be running a half-day workshop on UX leadership as part of UX London in April.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Kim Goodwin is the author of the bestselling book, Designing for the Digital Age. Kim is currently consulting for clients in varied industries including aviation, consumer electronics, and retail. She spent most of the last decade as Vice-President, Design and General Manager at Cooper, leading an integrated practice of interaction, visual, and industrial designers and the development of the acclaimed Cooper U design curriculum.

Kim will be running a half-day workshop on UX leadership as part of UX London in April.

Add new comment

Comments

16
14

I do agree that there needs to be more of a focus on leadership in the UX industry. In the years of working in the Internet industry I have seen a lot of successes and failures in UX leadership. I think the framework (inward facing and outward facing) that is used here is a good way to think about UX leadership.

Our industry as whole is still pretty new and still evolving. Look at the different titles we have called ourselves over the years. The evolution of our role and our level contributions has affected UX leadership. I think in the beginning it was pretty open and as leaders we were allowed to contribute where we could. There were not a lot of expectations around the role and what we had to bring to the table. This was good and bad. The good side was that we were allowed to leverage our individual strengths and do what we could to make things better within an organization. But we had to fit within the rigidly of the traditional model of leadership and management. If you were lucky enough to get mentored this was less of a bumpy transition. If not, you were thrown to the wolves of corporate policy. Also we did lack “E” level influence in those days but we were able to affect the products on a team level.

Now there is such a higher level of expectations for us and what the role is or could be. Briefly mentioned in the article is that there are different types of leadership roles. In management speak this is situational leadership. For UX, these situational leadership roles are often dependent on the company’s lifecycle. Start ups need one type of leader while medium sized companies need another. Since we all individuals with strengths and weakness there are some situations or companies that are a better match for us. Recognizing this and finding the best fit will help you grow and enjoy what you do.

There is a point about manager vs leader in this article and it is valid and I do agree that they are not equal to one another. However, there are not many opportunities out there were one gets to focus on design leadership without having to deal with management. I think it would be foolish of us to think that we could just skip out on that part of the role. Its not realistic. Most of us work in various size companies that operate under a company umbrella and these are required baggage that comes with the role. I do know of one organization that tried to break the role up into two roles (people management and design direction) but this is a luxury. Also who the heck wants to do just people management!? I think it can create a situation of animosity and unbalance. We are stuck with this work so I think we have to figure out how to minimize this in our day-to-day work.

Often times this management work becomes a trade off for hands on work. This in my opinion is where we get off track. It does not make sense to spend years of education and on the job experience mastering design skills to have them thrown away once you become a leader. It is not only is self-deprecating but also keeps you away from your passion. This is really tough to do and often projects are not meaty enough to really keep you challenged as a designer. Additionally if you are a good leader you should be providing challenging opportunities to your team to help them grow. It is not always an easy choice to make. Most organizations have enough work its just finding the right project to contribute to.

I am seeing a few new trends in UX leadership that is being driven out of the economic down turn. One of them is that most organizations are trying to be lean as result leaders at non-director levels seem to be disappearing or are hard to find. This consolidation results in loss of jobs and the remaining leaders taking on much more than they handle effectively. This is basically a scaling issue that leaves designers without much leadership and support. The leaders themselves are stretches so thin its hard to imagine them feeling great about what they are doing.

19
22

Thank you for your inspiring words and creative vision. I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

18
21

When a large company wants to have some UX leadership with good UX people, it cannot leave all the leadership fragmented across many leaders. As the most talented UX designers are also very ambitious. Ambitious is good, but bureaucracy is killing. This means UX leadership should be directed by a leader, an executive position. And this should be not some famous thought leader, or someone who just happens to be in the spotlight for whatever reason. It should be someone who is also a pragmatic leader and understands the business value of UX design.

This is the opposite of the "quick win" people. Nothing is wrong with quick wins, but only muddling along is too little ambitious to have a culture where designers feel ok and get the best out of them.

SAP had a kind of internal consultancy model for their UX people. This is also muddling along.

In the long run you want to have it in the R&D and production. Production should have business processes (also killing, but the only way to scale up) and on the R&D you want to have a talent pool and incubator. And I think for a large company it would be smart to have a UX department, which is split in half between R&D and production. And teams should rotate. And I would choose to have them on the same part of the building, with walls that the fruits of their creative process. And instead of going to conferences fly interesting people over to give a talk in a setting which makes it easier to interact and discuss. Must be doable for a large enterprises with a big R&D budget (IBM are you listening?).

15
19

Leaders are responsible for managing the corporate athmospere. So indeed it is not neccesry to be a UX designer and a leader at the same time. However the problem is that developers might foster in a different culture than designers do. So it should more than just optimal, it should suit like a glove. And this is were the hard part of leadership begins.

For a talented leader it doesn't matter much, but how mych talented leaders you think there are? Retoric question. I think you it should be a culture which leaves people room for experimenting, making mistakes and more than average should focus on users. This is particularly harder if it's not a consumer software which is built, but if it's a corporate software suite.

Most of the software industry is very developer minded, not so much design empowerment can be found. Here is what typically happens at those boring software companies, the story is a quotation of Steve Jobs, but it also very suitable to this, call it the Parable of the Concept Car:

“Here’s what you find at a lot of companies,” he says, kicking back in a conference room at Apple’s gleaming white Silicon Valley headquarters, which looks something like a cross between an Ivy League university and an iPod. “You know how you see a show car, and it’s really cool, and then four years later you see the production car, and it sucks? And you go, What happened? They had it! They had it in the palm of their hands! They grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory!

“What happened was, the designers came up with this really great idea. Then they take it to the engineers, and the engineers go, ‘Nah, we can’t do that. That’s impossible.’ And so it gets a lot worse. Then they take it to the manufacturing people, and they go, ‘We can’t build that!’ And it gets a lot worse.”

It's damn easy if you have a smaller scale UX company like me. But you need more good leaders when scaling up and those indeed should best not be an UX person who is just chosen because he is first in line because he is most senior.

Even more difficult is the in between scale, between small and large. I have seen companies like IBM, Lycos etc have large departments of UX people. And they lack any inspiration to come up with something useful and also killing is the checklist mentality of think "every thing is ok because we have UX guides" or "we have usability testing engineers, so we are good" If there is no link between concptualisation and iterative user feedback during the whole lifecycle, it's just more of the same. And this is why there is so little leadership everywhere, because they put a manager on the seat of a leader. No chance for UX what so ever. None.

15
19

I completely agree that UX leadership is needed in our industry. I believe that a major part of my role as a usability professional is to evangelize usability, to teach others within each company I work with about what makes products usable, learnable and how design factors into the marketability of their offerings.
I completely agree with the article & the previous comments that a UX leader does not have to be someone who even comes from a design background. One of the best UX leaders I have had the pleasure of working with did exactly what all the best leaders do: surrounded himself with very talented people, listened to them and empowered them to make paradigm shifts in the company.
I think EVERY UX practitioner can provide some measure of effective change in their sphere of influence. Do not give up just because they did not take your first recommendations or they just don't "get it". There are other ways to stimulate change:
*Provide industry examples for every recommendation
*Run workshops within your company and for the surrounding community
*Post blog articles (and comment on others)
*Take every design or product meeting as an opportunity to promote usability
I would say it is not so much about raising up paragons of UX to be our leaders as much as banding together as a group to provide more human-centered products in our future.

19
13

I send a letter to a company of which I heard they had some troubles with the user experience. So I send them an email and explained what problems UX-professionals solve. Guess what they never heard of it. And they were so interested and gave me a job, a carte blanche. They introduced me to all the departments inside the organization upon my request.

"Here is your room. Well there is no one to tell you what you should do, you're the first of your kind here. Make a job description, a strategy and a planning and let us know when you're done. You can contact anyone in the organization if you need some info."

So I investigated all big problems for all products they made, problems coming from users fed into some kind of bug-tracking system. I met all product teams of all departments to give me demo's and tell me where they felt things where less than desirable. Most of them told me everything was just fine the way it was (some where curious and gave my some info I could work with). The problem was that the developers didn't think the problems of the user were actual problems. Especially the software designers easily felt I invaded their territory where they felt true kings in.

This is where leadership starts. None is telling you anything, how to get them interested and use your work. If the ice is melted, you can come up with some ideas. And when they discover that their work becomes more easy, they maybe will start calling you. After all they still are used to the idea they "paint" the screens... Maybe then things have to get more organized in order to get rid of the low hanging fruit in all products, and you can have time to develop a vision and better strategies. Lobbying in kinds of places to be there before a new product gets developed.

Leadership starts with bootstrapping cooperation with fellow workers, evangelism is a very big part of it. When you're the first in a company of the UX kind, believe me it's damn hard. It will consume most of your time the question: "how can I get them come to me". Because this company was also my first UX job ever, I didn't knew yet about a lot of UX people (from organizations with UX already embedded) complaining a lot that they feel distracted with this question: "how I can get them to me". The more dominant that question becomes, the more you should be a leader, albeit an unofficial one.

A lot of organization still don't understand how to lead UX. So you have to figure it out for yourself. I can really really understand what kind of bureaucracy and unwillingness you can expect when you enter some castles inside the organization. My ambitions where to get to point A (defined when starting with my job) in 5 years. Soon I realized it might be 10 years, I was way too ambitious. And then I asked myself, why not start my own UX design minded company from scratch?

And guess what... the question will then haunt you, but it's different when you can call the shots.

The problem: UX design needs creativity not a checklist mentality. How to lead the bridge between developers and creative people is hard and for most traditional software companies unknown area. How it must be managed and how it must be lead, there are only a handful of companies who can scale it. I think it's nice if you as a leader can provide the answers so UX designers get less frustrated and focus more on their job, clarity about the ambitions of the company and the designers. But when everything is running so smooth (people can work focused as a team on a vision) if you're a bit like me you will sometimes probably miss the nostalgic feeling that not everything goes so easy. But maybe I am becoming an old fart.

16
16

This is a very important topic, and more relevant now than ever.

I applaud your insight that you needn't divorce the making of things from leadership, and that to be a great leader, one needn't just be a manager. In fact, some of the best leaders are very hands-on, nowhere more so than in the field of design.

I would only add one thing: if you aren't interested in becoming a UX leader within your organization, work to identify someone from the senior leadership team who will be receptive to your insights, and partner with them to ensure they are representing UX whenever possible. Share reading materials with them; send them blog posts; take them to user testing centers; ask them to review work in progress.

I've seen people with little or no formal experience in UX become some of the best, most influential UX evangelists within the organization. In some ways, the fact that they don't represent the discipline directly gives them extra credibility.