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5 Tips for Effective UX Leadership

by Paul Holcomb
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Extend your influence past the production of deliverables to lead teams and organizations in the goal of creating better experiences for users.

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.

post authorPaul Holcomb

Paul Holcomb,

Paul is a graphic designer turned digital when he began developing infographics for US Air Force intranet sites in 1997. Since then, he has developed interactive products for clients that include Universal Orlando, Avaya, Verizon, and Turner Sports. Currently, he is a UX and Design Strategist for Captive UX based in Atlanta Georgia. Paul enjoys analyzing and writing about how current trends affect future technology. He is married and has three teenage children who help provide key insights on emerging trends.

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