Ask a UXpert: How Do You Build and Manage a UX Team?
Many global organizations are now creating in-house user experience teams that collaborate closely with product designers and developers. So, whether you’re at a design agency, a tech startup, or a Fortune 500 company, at some point you may start leading a team as you move up in your career.
But leadership isn’t easy and building a successful team that scales over time is a big challenge.
What do you do once you’re not a user experience team of one anymore? How do you build and manage a great team, whatever the size of your organization?
We invited five design leaders working at a variety of companies, from medium-sized agencies to huge multinational enterprises, to explain how to build a UX design team, what to look out for when hiring team members, and how to successfully grow the team.
Here’s what they recommended.
First, know why you’re building a UX team. Second, get buy-in
Think carefully: Why do you want to build a UX team? What is your ultimate goal? Will a UX team actually help you get there?
Do those questions sound familiar? It’s what we ask our clients and stakeholders all the time:
- What do your customers (i.e. internal stakeholders) care about?
- What are their “jobs to be done”?
- Does UX have tools/methods/practices that could help with those specific challenges?
- How would UX help stakeholders impact (for good or bad) their goal?
Building a new UX team requires buy-in from people at all levels of the company:
- The CEO who has to increase profits and revenue each quarter to keep the board of directors happy.
- The budget holders who need to make the business perform better/faster/more cost effectively.
- The line managers whose performance assessment and bonuses are determined by their team’s performance.
- The individuals actually doing the work, who are comfortable with the processes that are already in place.
In order to get that buy-in, you must connect and clarify how a UX team will help your stakeholders reach their goals. Be explicit and specific.
Most importantly, practice what you preach. Find out what they are trying to do and help them get there.
Hire for what can’t be taught
I had the rare opportunity to hire a cohort of four early career designers to join the UX leadership program (UXLP) at GE, a rotational development program that functions like an in-house UX consultancy.
Because candidates had less history of execution, I focused on mindset, identifying core capabilities that would help UXLPs succeed throughout the two-year, four-rotation program.
In addition to baseline design expertise, I looked for curiosity, collaboration, growth mindset, initiative, comfort with ambiguity, and systemic awareness.
It’s my belief that how people work is just as important as the quality of their deliverable. For team hiring, prioritizing certain personal attributes was a better strategy than hiring a group of brilliant individual contributors that no one would want to work with. I knew I was successful when our first interview group chose to take a team photo to commemorate the experience, even though they knew not all of them could be hired.
Build a diverse and inclusive environment with your team
I’ve always admired this quote from Edward Deci (professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and director of their human motivation program):
“Human beings have an inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn.”
Just about anybody can build and manage a team. I believe that it takes an intentional, purpose-driven approach to not only create a team, but to build up the people on your team in a diverse and inclusive environment.
As a manager, it’s necessary to provide an environment where the individuals on your team, according to Edward, can learn, grow, and exercise their capabilities to the fullest. You’re hiring talented people who are inherently proactive and want to improve. The growth of the people on your team is dependent on you
- Trusting them to do good work.
- Giving them the autonomy to accomplish their work and reach their own potential.
- Creating a mentoring structure that sets them up to be successful.
- Understanding that people are messy, sometimes irrational, and that each of them needs your support and leadership in often different ways.
Ultimately, your role as a leader is to build a diverse and inclusive environment with your team that allows each one of them to discuss challenges candidly, engage in conflict and disagreements without repercussions, fail with the support necessary for them to recover, and to serve and lift each other up. If you find good people, support them, and give them the structure they need to improve, they’ll abundantly give back to your team, your company, and your product.
Be intentional about the people you bring in, and model humanity
Building a team goes beyond gathering people who fit a series of skills in a job description. It’s about the intentional combination of individuals with a complementary set of experiences and competencies, and a collective focus on the delivery of meaningful outcomes for both users and organizations. When I go about building a team, I consider its systemic nature — like a complex adaptive system, a team is a dynamic network of interactions that changes and self-organizes to adapt, and whose properties (and outcomes) are determined by the product of the interactions of its components.
Because any individual has the potential to alter the equilibrium of the group, the team and I focus on understanding the direction any new hire will move us toward, and how they will fit within the existing team. This means that the decision to bring someone on board is shared at least with those colleagues that will work with and support the new team member, even though the accountability will ultimately reside with one person.
When it comes to leading — a concept that I much prefer to managing — I am, again, intentional about discouraging command and control relationships in order to foster deep collaboration and teamwork. We practice radical transparency and, outside of truly confidential matters, information and the work we do are open to anybody within the team and the organization. I have — and this may be one of the few areas where it’s either my way or the highway — absolutely zero tolerance for prima-donna attitudes and lack of respect. Not one person on the team, myself included, is more important than another, everybody is expected to contribute in proportion to their ability and to support others (and be supported, naturally) as part of their role. The ultimate goal is to create high-trust environments where people can realize their potential, continue learning in context, and be the best professionals (and human beings) they can be.
I realize this isn’t easy for everybody, especially for people who come from drastically different experiences, but, so far, everybody who’s seen the system and experienced the power of connecting the dots has eventually embraced this way of working wholeheartedly.
– Alberta Soranzo, end-to-end service design and systems thinking director, Lloyds Banking Group.
Build your team with heart and balance
You need to build your team with heart and balance. I use the philosophy of “measure twice, cut once.” You have to understand the situation you are in before you can start building or managing a team effectively. You may be starting from scratch at a startup, you may be needing to reinvent an existing team, or you may have inherited a world-class design team. Before diving into activities you have to be thoughtful and properly understand the situation you are in. Adapting your approach is crucial. Once you have measured twice, make the cut and get to work using the right tools from your toolkit that match the problem you have in front of you.
I firmly share a belief with the company I work for, Atlassian, that teams – and not individuals – are at the center of achieving great things. So, with that in mind, do not sacrifice an amazing team to accommodate a rockstar who brings the rest of the team down. The products you build are a direct correlation to the teams you hire. Make sure you focus on building a balanced team with strong values and culture. And then relentlessly focus on forming bonds in and among your team.
Set clear boundaries
Great managers empower their team to make decisions for them. As a manager, you may actually make fewer day-to-day decisions than you did as an individual contributor. I don’t know a single individual or team that likes being micromanaged. So set clear boundaries and accountability for your teams and then let them go.
Outcome over activity
As a manager, your job is to break down process to the bare minimum that suits the development stage of your team. Don’t simply ask for activity from them. Instead, help them fall in love with a great problem and then shape the right outcome you all want for your customer.