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.”