10 Essential Principles for UX Leadership

“The tactics of leadership are easy.  The art is the
difficult part.
– Seth Godin, from the book “Tribes”

As User Experience (UX) teams are becoming more and more common within organizations, the UX profession is becoming more and more in need of strong and effective leadership at the helm to realize the full potential of their teams and to ensure that the UX vision and strategy is being embraced at the proper levels within the organization. This leadership could be in the form of a UX Manager, Senior UX Strategist, Executive Director, etc. whoever has the key responsibility for UX and the team(s) that support it.

Often times, great practitioners are pulled out of the ranks and placed into leadership roles solely based on the quality of their deliverables. Not having the right leadership skills and leadership mindset can greatly diminish the team’s standing within an organization. Not to mention, poor leadership skills will have disastrous results from a personnel morale perspective. The UX industry as a whole deserves the same focus on leadership principles and values that other industries and practices place on it. Effective leadership will be a key driver to ensuring UX realizes it’s fullest potential within all industries and has the attention it deserves to make better products, applications, and experiences. Besides, our audiences, end-users, customers, audiences, clients, etc are counting on us too!

Follow the Leader

I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to lead numerous UX and Creative Design teams as well been under the direction of some very influential leaders within the UX profession. I’ve found that it requires the proper skills and mindset that can properly and successfully lead a UX team. One that’s always keeping an open mind to new ways of doing things, while also knowing when to effectively draw from “old school” leadership wisdom. Of utmost importance, UX Leaders must be able to clearly articulate the UX story and be able to connect the dots back to how UX positively impacts the organization’s bottom line and/or business goals.  UX leaders must also be an attentive listener to their team. Leadership is a gift provided by those who follow you.

Follow the Leader

Below are a few observations from my own experiences that I have found to be essential to the role of a UX leader…

  1. Help the overall organization realize the value of UX.  A UX leader must be the team’s biggest advocate. Just because an organization has a UX practice, doesn’t mean they know how to leverage it’s full potential. A strong UX leader will seek every opportunity to “tell the UX story” by sharing successes, case studies and making the right introductions for the team.
  2. Start the UX conversation as early in the process as possible. Nothing is more frustrating and limiting to the value a UX designer brings to the table then arriving at a project “after the train has left the station” Effective UX leaders insert themselves into the appropriate conversations early in the process so that even before any design begins, the opportunity for preliminary UX lead research efforts can happen. This results in the UX team having less of a constant uphill battle throughout the duration of the project, which in-turn increase overall project success. It also, greatly reduces employee turn-over!
  3. Establish success criteria. There needs to be solid articulation of the UX project goals and what will define success. This is best illustrated by defining Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that help baseline the current design state and measure “post-launch” performance. UX teams and their clients will understand what to focus their efforts on and outside teams will see the impact the UX process (or lack of a process) has had on the project goals and the business bottom line. This is powerful stuff, yet very underutilized method for conveying the value of UX.
  4. Provide the UX team with the know-how for navigating the political landscape.  For a “UX’er” within an organization, or even for a consultant, insights on what they should say and not to say to particular folks they’ll be working with is of ultimate value to any team member. UX leaders and their teams know the value of this type of guidance. Political faux paas are just as equally damaging to the team and the leaders reputation as is a poor design presentation or deliverable.
  5. Help the UX team articulate the value they provide in a manner that translates across the organization. UX team members are often immersed deep into their discipline. An effective UX leader knows how to direct the team member on what is the real point or message that needs to be made. Whether it’s a presentation, a UX story, a report, or face-to-face meeting with a difficult client. An effective UX leader knows how to cut to the point with stories that resonate with the intended audience.
  6. Attract and retain talent. The best UX leaders are most passionate about two stories: 1) Why their organization is the best organization to be working for, and 2) What is the overall vision for the team. To attract talent, a UX leader should always be in scouting mode and have his/her stories in their back pocket. Leaders can further extend this scouting responsibility by providing the proper tools for his/her own team to also seek out the right talent. (Allow employees time to participate and/or teach a related course, attend a professional networking events, etc.)  To retain great talent comes down to two things, a clear vision and team trust. To endure through those tough days, team members need to clearly know their purpose and feel they are enabled to succeed within the organization on their own terms without having to validate every decision.
  7. Be the team cheerleader. “People don’t leave a company, they leave their manager.” An effective UX leader must be engaged enough to keep a finger on the pulse of the team so he or she can proactively head off any negativity (at a team and/or an individual level). But more importantly, they must be well versed in the art of reminding each team member of their unique strengths and the value they provide. This goes a LONG way. Being appreciated is a key factor in employee satisfaction and long term dedication. In my experience, UX practitioners know how to handle complements better then any other professionals!
  8. Remind the team when to stick to the process. When working with multidisciplinary teams on projects, there are always opportunities for other team members to challenge the UX process. “Do we really need to perform user research?” “does it really take that long?” “can’t we just skip wireframes and go directly from prototype to full-color comps?”…the list goes on. A strong leader knows when and why the UX team member should NOT back down from their proven process. The leader also provides the proper points to arm them with so the process does not get squashed.
  9. Remind the team when it’s safe to drop the process.  UX professionals tend to be very passionate about their processes and methodologies. The best ones can clearly envision and articulate the perfect approach for a particular project. Sometimes, for reasons beyond the realm of control, that ideal approach may not be the right fit for the a particular project and/or business needs (I know, it’s hard to imagine!). A skillful and experienced leader can help the team make the right decisions on how to “gracefully scale down.” Some flexibility can always be found, but an effective leader will know how to limit the UX team’s exposure to risk and safely position the UX team to convey what the trade-offs will be to the larger team and their stakeholders on what they will be giving up by not following the ideal UX approach.
  10. Remind the team why they entered this field in the first place. A great leader, in any profession, can always bring his/her team back to the reasons why they love what they do. Nothing makes a more powerful connection with people then this. Shared experiences, and passion can resonate in the toughest of times helping a team endure the most challenging situations, while at the same time, enabling teams to reach the highest levels of potential.

BONUS Principle: I recently read Seth Godin’s book Tribes. The one point he made the resonated the most with me was,

“The secret to leadership is simple:  Do what you believe in.”

Nothing will make your leadership abilities surface more naturally then this. Find what it is you believe in, and you will naturally lead others there. Hopefully what you believe in is UX!

There are many more principles out there. I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface. UX Leadership is an evolving process, and so is the process of learning it. I plan to document more principles as I come across them in future articles.

As a UX leader yourself, what makes a good UX leader great? As a UX practitioner, what leadership principles have you found to be most effective? 

5 thoughts on “10 Essential Principles for UX Leadership

  1. First! But seriously, I’ve found that what distinguishes the good from the great UX leader is the ability to articulate a design vision or experience vision that sets the experience direction for the product…while simultaneously following the product team’s strategy roadmap…and also works well with the technical team’s architectural vision. Tough trick to pull off.

    Thanks the article Mark. Good stuff.

  2. Thanks Paul for the reply…That’s a great point and that’s exactly where UX should be providing leadership and strategy within the organization and beyond just the UX team. I’m sure you’re able to pull that off with ease! 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on Sean Van Tyne and commented:
    Having been a UX Leader myself for many years, I found this spot on! Good advice for UX leaders; those who want to be a UX leader; and those that want UX leadership success in their organization.

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