Becoming a manager can be one of the most exciting career transitions one can go through — it’s exсiting to become the person who will act as an interface between business and user. At the same time, all freshly promoted UX professionals should understand that the skills they gain in the role of UX designer or user-researcher are not the same skills they’ll use as a manager. Of course, having a solid foundation in UX design and research is necessary, but not sufficient to become a good UX leader. First-time UX managers have to master new skills and attributes to be successful in a new role.
This article provides a set of recommendations that can help you become a successful first-time UX manager. Many tips mentioned in this article are applicable to all managers, not just UX.
1. Find a mentor
A mentor is a person who provides clear insights and recommendations; it’s a person who you can ask for advice and who will be happy to provide guidance and support. Having a mentor is especially important during the initial months of transition because mentors can help you determine the areas you need to improve in order to be successful in your new position.
When you search for a mentor, look for someone who shares your passion and can inspire you to improve. It should be a person who will encourage you to step out of your comfort zone. Such mentors will help you avoid making the same mistakes they did when they were in your place, and, as a result, you will gain insights into your management career path.
2. Hire the right people
When you were an individual UX designer or user researcher, your success depended greatly on your personal expertise and ability to solve problems. As a manager, your success depends on how your team is able to achieve goals. This means that your new role will be less about direct execution and more about getting each team member to produce the best work. You should design the team that delivers great results.
To make that happen, you should take an active, primary role in team building:
- Identify gaps in a team’s skills and experience. Try to fill the gaps with training or new hires.
- Define who is the right candidate for you. Every UX team has its own definition of “the right candidate.” Create a portrait of the ideal employee — identify a set of characteristics (professional competencies, soft skills) that characterize the perfect team player.
- Take an active part in your organization’s UX hiring process. Set clear criteria on how to evaluate talent through CV and portfolio reviews. Share these criteria with HR departments so they’ll be able to identify relevant candidates.
3. Set clear objectives
Delivering spectacular results comes from having a clear focus. Without a clear focus, it’s almost impossible to achieve good results. That’s why it’s so important to define the direction for your team by setting clear objectives and expectations.
In order to set clear objectives you need to:
- Clarify what is required from your team. Figure out what higher management expects from your team. Having a clear understanding of what’s required from your team will help you define what you can and will do to meet those expectations.
- Define what good experience is. Figure out what good UX looks like for a customer, and deliver this information to your team. Set the bar for what the UX team and the business should strive for when creating products.
- Prioritize your team’s activities. No team has unlimited resources. It’s vital to use the resources you have to work on the projects that matter most to your organization. The UX manager should be the person who connects the dots between efforts. By focusing on the highest priority projects and delivering solid examples of your work, you not only save valuable time for your team but also make your team more valuable for the entire organization.
- Create an emotional connection with your team. When it comes to setting goals, you need your team to buy into the direction you establish. Emotional engagement makes people do their best work.
4. Build trust
Once you have great people on board and set clear objectives for them, you need to work hard on building trust. Trust is an extremely important factor in any aspect of business and personal relationships.
When it comes to building trust, it’s worth remembering that you need to build trust both within your team and with other teams. Let’s start with the first one. Of course, employees have to earn the trust of their leaders by delivering excellent results. At the same time, as a recently promoted leader, you don’t automatically have the trust of your employees. You need to earn it. Here is what you need to do to build trust inside your team:
- Make people aware of the value they create. Help team players understand the importance of the work they’re doing.
- Always protect the reputation of the people that report to you. A good UX manager should always be ready to defend great designers who don’t sell their solutions well. Remember that when you advocate for your team, they’ll advocate for you.
- Don’t be too controlling with your employees. While a certain amount of control is necessary, exercising too much control with your team members can easily diminish trust.
- Make sure team members trust each other. Team members should not only trust you as a leader, but they should also trust each other. When team members trust one another, this creates an atmosphere where all team players are ready to help the team succeed.
Now let’s talk about building trust outside of your team. It is important to remember that as UX experts, we don’t work in a vacuum; we are a part of a larger organization with common goals and joint values. To meet those goals, it’s essential to establish a strong bond of trust with stakeholders and peers on other teams (such as engineering and marketing):
- Keep the big picture in mind. Try to understand the needs of your entire organization, and align your UX team vision around them. Connect the business strategies to UX activities.
- Make senior management aware of the value your team contributes. If stakeholders don’t know what you do and what value your team brings to an organization, they don’t have any reason to support you. As a UX leader, be ready to spend a significant amount of time making sure senior leaders understand the value you and your team contribute to your company. Be in touch with stakeholders and demonstrate the results of your team to them in an easy-to-understand way.
- Be flexible. By its nature business is dynamic; it’s always changing. Effective UX managers are ready to respond proactively to any change in organizational strategy.
- Evangelize UX. Use any possible opportunity to educate people about user experience and convince them that UX is valuable.
Building trust doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time for people to trust each other. As a UX leader, you should be ready to spend time building trust.
5. Block your ego
Ego is a manager’s worst enemy. Many freshly promoted professionals believe that becoming a manager is proof they have the best ideas and now they need to make other people think that way. With such a mindset, managers fall into a vicious cycle of criticizing people. In the worst case this leads to a “I talk, you listen” approach. Following this approach is a sure path to losing control of a team. If you don’t care about what your team thinks, why would they care about what you think?
But even if you don’t follow this brutal approach, it’s still important to take your ego out of the equation. It’s possible to do this by following a few simple recommendations:
- Be open-minded. When it comes to design decisions, don’t fixate on your own opinion. When we care too much about our own opinions, it prevents us from listening to others. Learn to treat every opinion with respect.
- Stop being the smartest person in the room. Acting like the smartest person in the room is a common habit many UX designers have. It’s great if you have a strong vision but this doesn’t mean that you should demonstrate how smart you are all the time. Confident leaders don’t need to constantly prove how much they know.
- Delegate authority and responsibility to your team members. This will allow your team members to use their abilities and talents effectively and build their confidence.
- Be very careful when criticizing the work of your peers. If the critique is negative, it’s better to avoid delivering it publicly. But even if it’s constructive criticism, you should try to pose questions and direct the discussion instead of simply correcting your peers.
- Don’t tell employees what to do. It’s very easy to dismiss those who try to tell us what to do and ally with those who try to partner with us. Learn to ask instead of tell.
6. Get your entire team in the game
Design is a team sport. The best products are a result of great teams working together toward a shared goal. As a manager, your job is to bring out the best in your team. Make sure that each team player invests in the team’s success.
Here are a few recommendations to help you achieve that:
- Become a good facilitator. Take the role of facilitator in design sessions by asking questions and contributing design suggestions. Know when to ask a question to clarify something — or when to interject your guidance — to drive the direction of a team’s discussion.
- Leverage the wisdom of the group. You shouldn’t be the one who dictates the team’s appropriate direction. Make sure every brain is engaged in talks about challenges and opportunities during a brainstorming session, and solicit their input to determine the best path for the project. When each team member has an opportunity to contribute to the creation of design concepts, it creates a sense of shared ownership.
7. Develop coaching skills
All great leaders share a similar property — they inspire and guide their teams to excel. This only happens when employees leverage their skills and knowledge. As a UX manager, you should be ready to spend a significant amount of time helping your employees grow. As employees grow in their skills and confidence, they perform better and make a more significant impact.
It’s essential to focus on developing coaching skills. The sooner you start building coaching skills, the better it’ll be for your career. Remember, the higher you go in the management chain, the more coaching you’ll do.
Here are a few tips that will help you leverage your coaching skills:
- Get to know your teammates. To become a great UX designer or researcher, you need to spend time learning about your users and empathizing with them. To become an excellent UX manager, you need to do the same with each member of your team. Try to understand their motivation (what drives them) as well as their career ambitions (what they want to achieve).
- Push employees to grow by setting goals. Setup a specific coaching plan for each team member and work towards it. It’s also recommended to establish a procedure of performance reviews where you can evaluate team members’ progress. Performance reviews will help you understand whether or not your employees are achieving their targets.
8. Create a stimulating environment
UX leaders need to create a working environment that stimulates the creation of great design. Strive to create an atmosphere that encourages the open expression of ideas and opinions. This should be a supportive environment where each team member should feel comfortable contributing freely.
Here are a few simple rules to help you:
- Don’t tell people what to do. When you force team members to work the way you think they should work, this closes the door for new ideas and innovation. Allow your team members to make their own decisions rather than telling them exactly what to do.
- Allow employees to take risks. Team members should be able to experiment and try different approaches.
- Foster collaboration by engaging all team members in ideation sessions. Brainstorming sessions are an excellent activity for all team members.
9. Give credit to your team
Freshly promoted managers should learn one simple but fundamental rule — give recognition to the team rather than seeking credit for yourself. Start with simple things. Instead of saying, “I did,” say, “We did.” Even if you were the one who came up with a brilliant idea, give credit to your team — especially when you’re in the trust-building phase. When you give others credit, you receive respect; this takes nothing away from you (eventually, all your team’s successes or failures will be automatically associated with you), but it sets you up as a leader in the eyes of your team. It increases their loyalty and willingness to support you.
Moving to UX management isn’t a simple thing. The role of UX manager requires different skills, and a transition to this role will require a lot of effort from you. But believe me, it’s worth your efforts. Seeing your team succeed and grow is one of the best things ever.