How to be a Successful UX Design Manager

March 7, 2014
Matt Wallens

UX leadership traits

Anyone who has managed a UX Design Team knows how hard it can be. As a team, we’re often trying to justify ourselves in a world of tight deadlines, ever-diminishing budgets and layoffs. With these distractions, how do you keep your team motivated and productive? I’d like to give you some tips on how to work with your team so they feel valued and remain effective.

Your relationship to your team

Are you their direct manager or an executive whose organization includes a UX department? Did you rise up through the ranks as a UX practitioner or is your background in a different field? These factors will affect how you interact with the team and, more importantly, how they view you. Maybe you’re a front-line manager, recently promoted from being a Team Lead or Sr. Designer. Chances are you were promoted because you demonstrated maturity and responsibility, excellent communication skills and a high level of design skills. With all this going for you, you likely also hold the respect of the team, as well as others in your department.

Now that you’re the manager, what now?

You need to learn to let go and start managing. It’s easier said than done. Not everyone on your team is going to do things the same way that you did. They may not work as fast as you or annotate wireframes the same way that you did. They might not even know as much about the company’s products as you do. But it’s time to let go and let them work. Your new responsibility is to help them, not to do their job. Share your knowledge with them and help them see the landmines ahead that you’ve already stumbled upon. Offer to help, but do not take over their designs, even if you think you can do them faster or better. You need to stay on the bench and direct from the sidelines .

What are you supposed to be doing as a manager?

Lucky for you, you’re the one that knows the most about what needs to be improved. It’s time to break out that list of gripes and start tackling those issues because now you’re the one who can help fix all the things that have

Assess their strengths and weaknesses

Now that you’re leading and not an individual contributor, who’s left to do the most challenging projects? Who needs a little more coaching? Another challenge you’ll face is learning how to remove obstacles for the team. Designers, in my experience, do not thrive when dealing with distractions like office politics, project scope ambiguity or constantly changing processes. As the manager, it’s your job to be the shield and keep the team focused on being creative. You need to insert yourself between the team and the distractions. Absolutely filter down the critical information, but don’t let your designers get sucked into the vortex.

It’s a little different when you’re coming in from the outside to manage a team. The most important thing you’ll have to do is build your team’s trust. When you’re new, it’s helpful to sit back and observe how things work rather than try to introduce changes immediately. Well-established teams probably have a good idea of what works well for them. If it works, why mess with it? Let the team feel at ease and let them know you’re their partner and support system. I predict they will respect you more and appreciate the vote of confidence.

How do you establish trust and keep the team productive?

My advice from Day 1 is to get to know your team. Connect with them on a personal level. Let them know you trust them. Unless you were brought in with a specific mandate to do so, let them know you’re not there to “shake things up” – rather, you’re there to help. Don’t worry, after a couple weeks, you’ll start to see opportunities to improve things. When you do, talk to your team about it. Go to lunch and listen to them complain. Tell them you see things that appear to be broken and talk to them about it. Learn the team history: Did they already try to fix the problem? Why wasn’t it successful? This isn’t the time to go in with guns blazing. Assess, and then act.

You’re not the best designer on the team

That title belongs to someone, or multiple people if you’re lucky, in your team. In fact, there probably are designers on the team with more experience and talent than you have. Recognize that you’re not there to look over their shoulder and teach them how to push pixels or write a test plan. If you see an opportunity to teach someone a new skill, ask them if they know about it first. Don’t assume they don’t; maybe there’s a reason they chose not to use it. Remember that the team is going to be a little intimidated by a new manager at first, so reduce the anxiety by respecting their skills and training. Again, don’t assume you’re any better of a designer than they are.

Executives should tread carefully

No matter where you came from, no matter how you see yourself, your opinion will carry significant weight with the designers and the team will have difficulty viewing you as a design collaborator. While it’s admirable that executives may want to be “part of the team,” it’s unrealistic. The executive’s opinion will always carry more weight because of their status; so you’ll need to be careful when giving feedback, or, maybe you’ll find you shouldn’t be giving detailed design feedback at all. We know everyone likes to give input on a design. It’s visual and as the old saying goes, “opinions are like a-holes, everybody’s got one.”

But as an Executive, are you there to be a designer/design manager or to be strategic and looking out to the future of your group, that is, to help sell the UX function to other executives and departments and take advantage of your seat at the boardroom table? After all, you already have a team of designers – that’s why you hired them. If you do feel compelled to give design feedback, ask yourself if the feedback is objective or subjective. When executives pull rank on subjective design decisions, morale and creativity drop, and designers can shut down.

These are just a few starter tips for a new UX Design Manager and are taken from my own experiences as well as those of my colleagues in the industry. There are always exceptions, but by following these guidelines, you will keep your team happy and yourself focused on helping them do the best work they can do. Stay tuned for more topics on managing UX Design Teams.