Managing UX Design(ers)


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As presented at Big (D)esign 2012 in Dallas. Focuses on the elements of UX management that make it different from - and much more entertaining than - managing other kinds of activities.

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  • This presentation Copyright © 2012 Jim Carlsen-Landy. Copyrights to embedded, quoted, or cited materials are retained by their authors.If you want to use this presentation, I only ask that you contact me at or via LinkedIn and let me know what you’re doing with it. All feedback is welcome!
  • Became a manager in Spring 1997 – yes, 15 years ago – and never wrote a line of code again. But there are days I would happily go back to coding.Also a certified Scrum Master I, and a member of the Dallas Agile Leadership Network.If you’re tweeting use #BigD12 for this conference.
  • Music and art.
  • Your obligations, Team design skills, and Know your audiences are probably the most important parts.
  • I have too much material, so I will try to let you drive the focus of this session based on your interests.
  • “I can immediately fix everything my predecessor could not.”You are wrong.Ask yourself, “What will be different when I’m a manager? Will that get me out of bed in the morning?”
  • “I have all the answers the team needs.”If you have all the answers, go on Jeopardy.A team that expects their manager to have all the answers is weak:Is disempoweredIs afraid to make their own decisionsBacks down from their decisions as soon as you disagreeWill not be a strong support structure for youAsk yourself, “Am I prepared to no longer be judged solely by how I design? Am I ready to be the voice of others instead of myself?”
  • “I will have everything I need to make impactful decisions.”If you want to make all the decisions, start a one-person company and never grow.Power, control, and omniscience are illusions.Being the manager doesn’t give you all the information you want. You have more information, but your decisions are broader in scope, so proportionally you actually have *less* information. This becomes increasingly true at every level of management.But be careful what you say. The “Manager” title inspires some people to act immediately.Ask yourself, “Am I ready to deal with more ambiguity, not less, and still make decisions that affect the company and my team?”
  • The better reason to get into management is that you are NOT this self-absorbed whiner who just wants to be liked.“I get joy from ‘I helped enable that’ instead of ‘I did that’.”Kim Goodwin,UX Magazine Jan 2011, “On UX Leadership”.“I am empowered by a larger context.”“The team’s victories are my victories.”“I like to give more credit than I take.”
  • “Managing a team is like having 10-15 jobs because every relationship is unique.”Managing people is about managing relationships.LOTS of them.If you don’t really, really enjoy the people part, get out now before someone gets hurt.Nothing kills a creative team as fast as an insensitive manager.You can bring good practices to a team, and be externally successful in delivering projects, and still burn the people. That is not long-term success as a manager.
  • This is not Management 101, but some things just need to be said.You work for the team. “Managers are glue and grease.”Take advantage ofyour company’s management / leadership training for essential skills. Coaching & mentoring, performance management, company-specific activities like compensation, workplace policies, etc.You can be a Leader and not manage, but to be a Manager you must also be a Leader.The Platinum Rule. It’s good to ask yourself what you would want in an ideal manager. But just like designing for yourself is dangerous, so is modeling your management style after your own needs.
  • UX Design Management is different for two primary reasons:Designers are different from other roles in a company.UX design is different from other activities in a company.There are more – and more complex – relationships.See Morgan Hanson, Saturday 1:00 “Herding Cats”, on leading creatives & creative teams.
  • Yes, there’s the right brain / left brain thing. But that’s not all.Fish gotta swim.Designers gotta design.Design is more about who you are than what you do.It manifests differently in different people, but it’s always there.They sketch, doodle, something. Some of them can’t even take notes like a normal human. Sketchnotes by Malcolm Jones.Creativity is important in other fields, but it’s a prerequisite in design.
  • Designers are constantly recalibrating: Zoom out to the big picture. Zoom back in to the details. Repeat.“This is what impresses me most about designers.” (Michelle Arrieta).It can be dizzying. Provide context and restate goals frequently to maintain equilibrium.
  • They’re not faithful. Most designers freelance for fun and/or income.Many companies have “no concurrent employment” clauses for full-time employees. Designers routinely ignore them. As a manager you can choose to make it an issue or you can choose to not notice.If they get variety and challenge at work, freelancing remains a side gig.If they get repetition and drudgery at work, freelancing becomes a career path.The masked artist is Rick Lappin, Eastern Michigan University.
  • Design is different for two primary reasons.Everybody is a designer. I blame HGTV.Design is just opinion.And everybody’s opinion is valid, right?A development / product / project manager would never look at code and say, “Change that”. But they will do that with a design.
  • 2. Your boss is probably not a designer, and your team probably reports into a different discipline like marketing, development, or product management.That’s different from other disciplines in your company.Design may reside in many places in organizations, and is subject to periodic realignment.In my opinion this is the biggest difference between managing design and managing other activities.But no matter where they report, designers are always translating between other groups.
  • No matter how good you are, people will leave when you take over a team.Sometimes people leaving is personal, but you can’t take it personally.Leaders on a team will feel threatened by a new manager, and the previous manager’s favorites may not immediately – or ever - be your favorites. This will probably make them angry or resentful, or feel like they are “starting over”.Make clear you value their experience, insight, and leadership.If you take over managing a team that you were a member of, it can be even worse. Or it can be better. What kind of relationships did you build with your teammates? Who else thought they deserved the position more than you?
  • As a new manager you may be plagued by insecurity. If you’re not, you’re probably missing something important…“I don’t do the design any more, but I’m still accountable for it.”“What value do I add?”Resist the urge to establish control by standardizing everything. There is no substitute for critical thinking.Discuss: what value does the design manager add? How do you measure that?
  • Stay informed. Share what you learn. Bring other perspectives into the discussion.Remove emotion from design (and other) decisions.Build strong cross-organizational relationships.Collaborate. Mentor. Over-communicate.
  • Distinguish directions from trends.Provide constraints and boundaries. Total freedom is not productive.Deliver, deliver, deliver. Success breeds allies.Deliver early and often.
  • I still blame HGTV.But even on “Design Star” the designers have to be able to explain how they made their choices and what tradeoffs they considered. They are graded at least in part on their ability to elucidate their thinking.Designers have to be able to articulate the rationale behind the design.Step back emotionally. How does each suggestion contribute to the project’s goals?
  • Strong relationships are the best medicine.Show work to stakeholders early and often, before it’s done, to validate direction & understanding.Show exactly what was asked for alongside the designed solution.Build empathy by making stakeholder needs transparent and engaging them in design.Godzilla shaking hands with Jet Jaguar after teaming up to defeat Megalon.
  • Over time a team develops a culture. If the culture is one of collaboration then new people will be drawn into that behavior as they join the team.Inspire collaboration and mentoring. If necessary, mandate it until it becomes habit.Provide room to think in close quarters.Allow for alone time in small doses.Collaboration yields better design, exposes patterns, creates consistency, promotes reuse.
  • Teach and employ structured brainstorming and innovation games. Six Thinking Hats (Edward DeBono) (Luke Hohmann) Design Studio (Todd ZakiWarfel, et al)Expand “Design is a team sport” to include other teams.Don’t let the designers have all the design fun. Bring in Product Owners, developers, technical writers. Make them play by the rules, but engaging them in the process improves buy-in.
  • Make design reviews and critiques multi-purpose: More eyes and brains on the problem Teaching and learning Consistency, patterns, and reuse Team-building and collaboration Shared language and goalsThere is no such thing as egoless design, so every opportunity for criticism becomes an opportunity for drama.Critique is worth a whole separate presentation. Several, in fact, like Adam Connor’s book and web seminar “The Art of Critique”.The “Six Thinking Hats” is also a good way to objectify critique.
  • There is no creativity without failure.Failure is not only an option, it’s a necessity.Create an environment where it is safe to fail.Failure should not be reckless or pointless.Keep it constrained to what is safe for the business.Provide context to allow the team to fail intelligently and constructively.Always retrospect. Failing without learning is just failing.
  • Psychologists consider “external locus of identity” to be a personality disorder. It’s a good thing in UX designers.I hate to be harsh, but…This isn’t art, it’s commerce. If you want to sign your work, take it to a gallery.UX is about designing for someone else’s aesthetic, not yours. (Adam Polansky)Design is not a product. It is one link in the chain of value delivery.In Agile, the purpose of design and development is to convert the Product Owner’s concept into working, delivered product. Until that happens no value has been generated for the company.“The Big Bang Theory”, “The Maternal Capacitance” 2009.
  • Yes, you should participate in design as a contributor and influencer. But…Explicitly use “manager hat on/off” to establish boundaries.Learn to tell when your designers really agree with you, and aren’t just afraid to disagree.When you are participating you are acting as a peer.You no longer own the design, but you own the process and the outcome.
  • Hire for balance. If everyone has the same skills, nobody learns.Homogeneity limits the range of value you can provide to your organization.UIEtips“Assessing Your Team’s UX Skills”, Dec 10, 2007.Hire chameleons and translators.Chameleons can slip into different roles using the same skills – not jack-of-all-trades, the ability to adjust role and behavior to fit different situations.Translation skills are necessary for all UX designers – they are always living between other teams.Let the team hire. They will see things you don’t, and they have to work alongside anyone they choose.One view of the spectrum of UX skills mapped against different levels of competency is at
  • People learn differently. Ask & observe.Some people prefer just to read – buy them books. It’s cheap.Use cool training opportunities as a reward and incentive.Teach them to find training that appeals to them, and fits your budget.Always have them present back to the team. This shares the learning, obviously, but also gives them a chance to practice organizing thoughts into a presentation. And teaching reinforces learning.To save T&I at Sabre we train our designers to look for online, then local, then cheap locations for training before looking at the big-ticket training in expensive venues.
  • Career growth can be tricky for the UX designer who does not want your job.There is no default career path in UX (yet).Career planning is always personal, and tends to be more so with designers.You cannot define someone’s career path.Your role is to teach, encourage, show possibilities, identify self-blocking behaviors, and clear the way for career development.
  • Discuss.
  • Always part on good terms. This is a tight community.Learn to be proud of the role you played in helping someone grow beyond their expectations.Has anyone here been with one company more than 5 years? Or stayed in the same role within a company for more than 3 or 4 years?
  • Kaaren Hanson has a lot to do with this section.You are the advocate for the advocates.Your job is as much about promoting the value of your people as it is about promoting the value of UX.The team’s livelihood is your responsibility.
  • “Getting UX” is personal. When leaders change, you start over with the new ones.Your VP probably is not a designer. Teach them.Keep team bios and photos to use in leadership briefings.Create opportunities for your designers to get in front of execs in meaningful ways.Prep the executives to understand, accept, and value what they hear from designers.Position design as a way to reduce your execs’ pain, perhaps even create pleasure.
  • Advertise the team’s successes upward.Advertising successes, especially when positioned as benefits to the business and/or customers, encourages your leadership to be more supportive of your efforts.
  • Kaaren Hanson has a lot to do with this section.Never assume you are done getting the message across. You’re not.Find new ways to present your team and UX.Always be on the lookout for new audiences.
  • I’ve been surprised how many times I’ve had to remind designers about this, even though they should already know it – more so than most people.Managing designers is also a matter of knowing your audiences and your responsibilities to them.There are other audiences, including Sales, Training, Consulting, HR, Recruiting, and Finance.
  • Think long-term. Speak strategically and avoid tactical ratholes.Execs make good allies for strategic change initiatives or visionary projects.Teach your team to present to execs in executive language, not design language.When you find an exec that “gets it”, buddy up.
  • Go to Caleb’s presentation on “Scaling Scrum with UX”, 1:00 Friday in Chinaberry Room, where he talks about the Product Owner team. He almost has me convinced to change my position.Roadblock or ally? Discuss.Apply Agile techniques to focus on delivering value. Make the Product Owner part of your team, or vice versa.UX is the last few inches of value delivery. If you fail at the glass you are inhibiting value.Portfolio or Brand Marketing is often different from Product Marketing, and will see beyond product features to focus more on corporate / brand identity rather than product features.
  • If you’re lucky, your users are your buyers.Have observation-based facts about users when talking to buyers.Reinforce with your team the importance of including buyers in their thinking.
  • Practice constructive, unemotional compromise. Defending every detail with equal vigor undermines credibility.Embrace Agile development.Design documentation is never one-size-fits-all. Different teams, developers, and projects will require different styles and quantities of design documentation. It’s about humans, not specs.Look for design-minded or sympathetic developers. Some of my best developer allies were the ones who looked at an “impossible” design as a personal challenge, not a time-waster to be avoided.Quality Assurance can be empathetic allies. Both of you are often last in and first out when project plans, timelines, or budgets change.
  • Timeless beauty comes naturally. Building and following a timeline is torture.You are responsible for delivering high-quality projects on-time and in-budget.Get a project manager of your own.Allies in Project Management can be powerful – they can make UX part of the product development process, even for teams that may be reluctant to see it that way.
  • Corporate staff, especially HR and Recruiting, may not understand the difference between UX design and graphic design, web site design, development, or other roles they are more familiar with.Educate HR on the skills, needs, and career growth options for UX designers.Work with them to fit UX design into existing staff categories without getting homogenized.Educate your recruiters on UX job descriptions, resumes, portfolios, and screening questions. Or point them to the right talent agencies.Some of the best UX talent agencies around are exhibiting here today. Stop by and say hello.
  • No matter how talented, an asshole will tear up your team.Unresolved conflicts create distance and erode trust between team members, and undermine your leadership.Learn, learn, learn.
  • Managing UX Design(ers)

    1. Managing UX Design(ers)Jim Carlsen-LandyDirector of User ExperienceSabre Airline Solutions
    2. Who am I?And why might you care what I think? @JimCL42 #BigD12
    3. Who am I?And why might you care what I think? Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid. - Frank Zappa
    4. Is Is Things unique to UX Management 101 management (mostly) Specific design Useful (hopefully) practices guidance for new or How to set UX apart soon-to-be UX managers from other practices Things to consider for experienced managers Some general advice that can‟t be left out
    5. Roadmap Why do we become managers? UX is different New manager realities Your obligations to your team Team design skills Building your team Advocacy Know your audiences
    6. Who are you? Wondering about management Seriously considering management New to management Other kind of manager taking over a UX team UX manager with some experience Very experienced UX manager Executive curious about why your UX manager is so weird
    7. What possesses otherwise nice,talented people to become managers? I can immediately fix everything my predecessor could not.
    8. What possesses otherwise nice,talented people to become managers? I have all the answers the team needs.
    9. What possesses otherwise nice,talented people to become managers? I will have all the data I need to make impactful decisions.
    10. What possesses otherwise nice,talented people to become managers? I get joy from „I helped enable that‟ instead of „I did that‟.
    11. “You‟re not managing projects orproducts, you‟re managing people.” If you don‟t really, really enjoy the people part, get out now before someone gets hurt.
    12. UX is different:Management is management Treat others as they want to be treated, not as you want to be treated.
    13. UX is different:UX design management is different 1. UX designers are different. 2. UX design is different.
    14. UX is different:UX designers are different (just like everybody else) Fish gotta swim. Designers gotta design.
    15. UX is different:UX designers are different (just like everybody else) Zoom out. Zoom in. Repeat.
    16. UX is different:UX designers are different (just like everybody else) They‟re probably cheating on you.
    17. UX is different:UX design is different Design is just a matter of opinion, and everybody is a designer. I blame HGTV. If your neighbor’s head exploded, please help them clean it up so we don’t lose our security deposit.
    18. UX is different:UX design is different Design usually does not report into designers.
    19. New manager on the block:The team reacts Sometimes people leaving is personal, but you can‟t take it personally.
    20. New manager on the block:You lose sleep I don‟t design any more but I‟m still accountable.
    21. Your obligations to your team:Lead by example Collaborate. Mentor. Over-communicate.
    22. Your obligations to your team:Build a sandbox Provide constraints and boundaries. Total freedom is not productive.
    23. Your obligations to your team:Tools to defend against random opinion Designers have to be able to articulate the rationale behind the design.
    24. Your obligations to your team:Tools to defend against random opinion Strong relationships are the best medicine.
    25. Your obligations to your team:Tools to defend against random opinion What else works?
    26. Team design skills:No soloists Inspire collaboration and mentoring. If necessary, mandate them until they become habits.
    27. Team design skills:Ideation Teach and employ structured brainstorming and innovation games.
    28. Team design skills:Critique Make design reviews and critiques multi- purpose.
    29. Team design skills:Failure Always retrospect. Failing without learning is just failing.
    30. Team design skills:External locus of identity Design is not a product. It‟s one step in the chain of value delivery.
    31. Team design skills:Manager-as-designer Manager hat on. Manager hat off.
    32. Building your team:Hiring Homogeneity constrains the value you can provide to your organization.
    33. Building your team:Training People learn differently. Ask and observe.
    34. Building your team:Career paths Encourage, show possibilities, identify self- limiting behaviors.
    35. Building your team:Career paths Product Marketing is a good path for many, and gives you allies in that world. Development works for some (I have an opinion or two about that). What have you seen work?
    36. Building your team:The tearful farewell And one day, they leave.
    37. The advocate‟s job is never done:Survival You are the advocate for the advocates.
    38. The advocate‟s job is never done:Awareness “Getting UX” is personal. When leaders change, you start over with the new ones.
    39. The advocate‟s job is never done:Communication Advertise the team‟s successes.
    40. The advocate‟s job is never done:Eternity Never believe you are done getting the message across. You‟re not.
    41. Know your audiences Executives Product Management / Marketing Users & Buyers Developers Project Managers Human Resources
    42. Know your audiences:Executives Avoid tactical ratholes.
    43. Know your audiences:Product Management Make the Product Owner part of your team. Or vice versa.
    44. Know your audiences:Users and Buyers Have observation-based facts about users when talking to buyers.
    45. Know your audiences:Developers Defending every detail with equal vigor undermines credibility.
    46. Know your audiences:Project Managers Timeless beauty comes naturally. Timelines are torture.
    47. Know your audiences:Human Resources Educate HR on the skills, needs, and career growth options for UX designers
    48. Parting Thoughts Do not tolerate assholes. Do not allow conflicts to fester. Retrospect, introspect, and always consider that you might be wrong.
    49. Credit Where Credit is DueInterviewees: Michelle Arrieta, Anita Cator, Adam PolanskyAdam Connor, “The Art of Critique”, UIE Seminar April 2012Kim Goodwin, “On UX Leadership”, UX Magazine, Jan 2011Kaaren Hanson, “The Power of Internal Brand”, Mx (ManagingExperience) Conference 2010Employees, peers, and bosses, past and present, good and bad.
    50. Go Forth and Be Great @JimCL42