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4 Techniques of Successful UX Executives

by Gayna Williams, Tracey Lovejoy
9 min read
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UX executives who bring real change and innovation to their organizations rely on many of the same techniques when working with their teams and stakeholders.

Designer Marcela is feeling like a failure. She’s been iterating on a design for the last three months. She and her team did up-front research. They mocked up multiple directions, tested them in an agile environment, and have come to a point of being confident of their design direction.

She just presented the direction to her engineering partners and they dismissed it all. She countered and showed how other directions diminished the user experience. She fought the good fight, yet at the end of the meeting the decision was made to stay with the previous direction, meaning nothing she has been working on will ship. She is dejected. She is angry.

Is this scenario at all familiar?

As UX professionals we’re hired for our training and expertise in creating elegant and simple-to-use experiences. So it can be infuriating when everyone else believes they have an equal right to weigh in on our designs. However, the instinct to defend and fight for your decisions can be the exact opposite of what allows good design to flourish.

At the You in UX online career & leadership summit we invited UX executives from around the globe to share their personal stories of how they got to where they were. And we were stunned to hear the same techniques used by every single UX leader, allowing them to be a successful partner at the executive leadership table, effectively moving beyond the scenario described above. The best part: these skills are already part of our training as user experience professionals.

1. Study Those Around You as You Would Study Your Users

One approach we heard from successful UX executives was studying those around them. Considering we believe ourselves to be 100% user-focused it is amazing that we don’t always remember to apply it to the “users” we work with, our partners and stakeholders.

“One of the things we learn is we must know our user. We go out and study our user. But who is your user? Your user is your boss. Your boss’ boss. Why don’t you study them? What is important to them?”—Don Norman

Several executives have learned to always be observant of others around them when they start a new position or work with a new team. When Genevieve Bell, Vice President and Director of User Experience Research, started at Intel she treated it like a field site. She wanted to know what made the company tick and to discover the “coins of the realm” because knowing this allows allowed her to work out which of the rules could be broken and determine how to intervene more effectively.

“How could I apply my UX lens to the company I in which I was working in order I could make better sense of it, in order to help it move faster?”—Bell

Paolo Malabuyo, Director of Design at Netflix explained that studying those around him is always the first step before implementing process.

“I don’t believe anyone should look at a process as the way to start. It dictates how without necessarily first asking why. Start with ‘who?’ and ‘why?’ Who are you and the people you work with? And why do you all exist? What do you stand for? Then answer how you will best achieve that.”—Malabuyo

Understanding those around you provides critical information to use when building business strategy. For Sara Ortloff Khoury, Vice President of User Experience Design & Research at Walmart Labs, studying her audience is the starting point of every strategic project, with an eye to learning how to communicate results to get people on board.

“I started to think about how I would communicate this broader vision I was thinking about at the very beginning of this effort. I was really trying to understand who the audiences for the vision work were, what they cared about, and how I could reach them.”—Ortloff Khoury

As experience design professionals we are trained to ground ourselves in our users’ needs, wants, and desires to ensure we are building products that will speak to them. UX executives have learned that this skill translates directly to their professional success: ground yourself in your partners’ needs, wants, and desires to ensure the processes you build, the strategies you create, and presentations you give will speak to them and enable mutual success.

2. Study Isn’t Enough—You Must Have Empathy

Intimately tied to studying those around them was the need for UX leaders to have empathy for their partners, to really feel and understand their day-to-day and their pressures and worries. The ultimate goal is to transform understanding and empathy into a strategy for mutual success. Time and again UX executives talked about how fighting the good fight to defend the user was a losing strategy. Our gut instinct is to fight but it doesn’t get us the result we want.

“I have died on the ‘I am the champion of the user hill’ to the point where we never got the benefit to the user at all … Having empathy for your development and business partners is more important than empathy with the user.”—Mike Tschudy, Head of Design for Intuit Mint and Quicken

“Smashing designs and usability tests over their heads doesn’t work. To get [people] to empathize with you, you need to empathize with them first. If you haven’t built empathy and try to shove something down their throat they will just ignore you. Design by 2×4 is destructive!”—Patañjali Chary, Vice President of User Experience at Ultimate Software

“Empathy is very well understood in user experience today. We focus on understanding [everything] about the user … We do this, but why don’t we do this with our product teams as well? Why, why, why?! This is why a lot of designs end up sitting on the shelf.”—Chary

Working closely with partners, as opposed to actively trying to convert them, actually brings them closer to a design mindset because they come to experience the power of design.

“You never know what extraordinary things will come out when you really lean in to that person’s view of the world and you set them up for success … Care a lot about your colleagues. When you do, great things happen.”—Tschudy

Across the board, UX executives described listening tours where they sat down with partners to understand them and helping where it was in their ability to do so. When Chary sat down with partners he listened to concerns, empathized with the pressures they were under, asked how he could help, and then had his team build trust through early small wins. Today, Chary firmly believes the success of the UX team at Ultimate comes from having had a UX professional really try to walk in the shoes of their partners.

Similarly, Catherine Courage, Senior Vice President of Customer Experience at Citrix shared the story of meeting with key partners in her first few weeks and being careful not to push her buzz words and ideas. Instead she made the effort to truly hear their perspectives as, ultimately, she has no authority over their output.

“I wanted to take a page from our user experience book and walk a mile in their shoes and understand their concerns and their perspectives and what was on their mind.”—Courage

Bringing the empathy you use in your design work to your work partnerships can transform the effectiveness of your UX team. Being right isn’t worth much if it means you fail every time. Your customer won’t know you held moral high ground on their account. They will just know a product doesn’t meet their needs. It’s your job to work with your partners so that some progress is made, even if it isn’t the ideal. Plus, being interested in someone else and genuinely wanting to support their goals generally leads to a place where they want to learn about you, are more open to what you have to offer, and want to support your goals.

3. Take the Long View and Build Relationships

UX executives resoundingly agreed that it isn’t just about studying those around you with empathy and then jumping into action. Rather it’s about using that understanding to form trust and long-lasting relationships that allow you and your partners to move forward together. As UX professionals we know that the long-term relationship customers have with our products, services, and brand is critical to success. Customers don’t have a relationship to a single feature—it’s the experience in its entirety. And it is exactly the same with our partners.

“It’s a long road so take the long view. Building trust takes time and effort. Relationships matter the most.”—Chary

It’s also important to remember that when you are constantly combative, even for the right reasons, it damages the chances of a long term relationship. People won’t remember who was right or wrong, but they will always remember how you made them feel.

People won’t remember who was right or wrong, but they will always remember how you made them feel

“All encounters are part of a larger conversation. It’s not ever the last time you’ll talk about it. So how do you imagine [your interactions] accumulate?”—Bell

4. Remember, People May Not Understand UX

The last major theme was the importance of being aware of the fact that partners may not be familiar or comfortable with UX. It’s important to take the time to teach them.

“People don’t know what UX is. They think you are the pixel jockey. And they won’t give ownership to a pixel jockey … Get to know them so they can get to know you—and UX through you.”—Chary

Once you’ve come to understand your partners’ worldviews you have a better sense of what will resonate with them. You can take that knowledge and appropriately craft a way to introduce them to UX and engage them in the design process. Bell explained that in her early days at Intel she realized that the people she worked with didn’t speak the UX “shorthand” language she was used to. She had to think of a way to educate people about why the work was relevant. She provided slides explaining what she did and how to assess the quality of the work being done.

At Citrix, Courage had a similar experience and started their education of UX by highlighting companies known for delivering great experiences and having her counterparts describe their favorite products and asking them to talk candidly about the products their company built. As opposed to showing diagrams about UX processes, these conversations laid a foundation about the role UX can play in subtle and powerful ways.

Taking the time to patiently and creatively explain UX, even if it is the hundredth time you have done it, can considerably increase your success and the success of UX more generally.

So the next time you feel your frustration rise or your indignant button get pushed, take a deep breath and reach into your UX training for support. Can you ask a question to understand the other person’s perspective rather than stubbornly digging in and holding your point of view? Can you really listen and begin to see the situation from their point of view? Can you remember that this conversation is one of many, and that you need to focus on ending things positively so both of you will want to engage again? And can you take a moment to share something about UX that will help them more fully understand and embrace the design mindset? If you can do any or all of these things, you are following in the footsteps of the most successful UX executives around the world!

You in UX is a global online career summit—a celebration of user experience and the supremely talented people who are literally changing the way we interact with technology, with the world, and with each other. It’s also a forum for empowering UX professionals to forge career paths that suit their talent and ambition.

Image of golden eggs courtesy Shutterstock.

post authorGayna Williams

Gayna Williams, Gayna recruited, trained, and managed many-many UX professionals in her role as UX Director at Microsoft, where she shipped multiple versions of Windows, MSN, web sites and mobile apps. She loved the challenge of leading teams in a dynamic engineering environment where the role of UX was constantly evolving. In 2011 she established Swash Consulting so she could invest her time in a broader range of people-centered design research projects and to support professional UX career development. In 2014 Gayna co-founded an online career summit for UX professionals. Her second business is If She Can I Can which is focused on the advancement of women through career coaching and leadership development as she thinks it’s time there were more women in leadership roles around the world.

post authorTracey Lovejoy

Tracey Lovejoy, Tracey Lovejoy, the founder of Lovejoy Consulting, is a Career and Leadership Coach with 12 years of experience in the technology industry where she worked in engineering and customer experience and 3 years experience as a corporate trainer. As a Senior Manager at Microsoft she was known for her ability to recognize and leverage her individual employees’ strengths and build high performing and high morale teams with sustainable results.

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