How to lead a UX team

8 min read David Renwick

As the focus on user-centered design continues to grow in organizations around the world, we’ll also need effective leaders to guide UX teams. But what makes a great UX leader?

Leadership may come as naturally as breathing to some people, but most of us need some guidance along the way. We created this article to pull together a few tips for effectively running UX teams, but be sure to leave a comment if you think we’ve missed anything. After all, part of what makes a great leader is being able to take feedback and to learn from others!

The difference between a manager and a leader

There’s a pretty clear distinction between managers and leaders. As a leader, your job isn’t necessarily to manage and tell people what to do, but instead to lead. You should enable your team to succeed by providing them with the tools and resources they need.

Know your team’s strengths and weaknesses

Intel’s Andy Grove, who infamously ruled the Silicon Valley semiconductor company with an iron fist, may be a polarizing figure in the leadership sphere, but he did institute (or at least help popularize) some techniques that are still widely practised today. One of these was to sit in an office cube with his fellow employees, instead of in a siloed office by himself. There’s a good lesson here. Instead of sealing yourself away from your team, immerse yourself in their environment and their work. You’ll develop a much better understanding of the types of problems they deal with on a daily basis and as a result be in a better position to help them.

You can also take this a step further and conduct an audit of your team’s strengths and weaknesses. Also known as a skills audit, this process is more commonly performed in organizations at scale, but it’s a good way to show you where your capabilities lie – even in small teams. With an intimate understanding of your UX team you’ll be in a good position to assess which projects your team can and can’t take on at any given time.

Taking this process even further, you can undertake a skills audit of yourself. If you want to develop yourself as a leader, you have to understand your own strengths and weaknesses.

This quote by Donald Rumsfeld, although it applies to crisis management, provides a great way to self-audit: “There are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns: the things we don’t know we don’t know”. You can see a visual example of this in the Johari Window:

An image showing the Johari Window, a technique that helps people better understand their relationship with themselves and others
Source: Wikipedia

Here’s how you can take this approach and use it for yourself:

  • Identify your known unknowns: Skills you don’t currently possess that you’re able to recognize you need yourself.
  • Identify your unknown unknowns: Skills you don’t know you don’t currently have, but which your team can identify by asking them.

When it comes to projects, be inclusive

NASA astronaut Frank Borman, echoing a sentiment since shared by many people who’ve been to space, said: “When you’re finally up on the moon, looking back at the earth, all these differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this is really one world and why the hell can’t we learn to live together like decent people?”.

On an admittedly much smaller scale, the same learning can and should be applied to UX teams. When it comes time to take on a new project and define the vision, scope and strategy, bring in as many people as possible. The idea here isn’t to just tick an inclusivity box, but to deliver the best possible outcome.

Get input from stakeholders, designers, user researchers and developers. You certainly don’t have to take every suggestion, but a leader’s job is to assess every possible idea, question the what, why and how, and ultimately make a final decision. ‘Leader’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean ‘devil’s advocate’, either, but that’s another role you’ll also want to consider when taking suggestions from a large number of people.

Make time for your team

Anyone who’s ever stepped into a leadership role will understand the significant workload increase that comes along with it – not to mention the meetings that seemingly start to crop up like weeds. With such time pressures it can be easy to overlook things like regular one-on-ones, or at the very least making time for members to approach you with any issues.

Even with the associated pressures that come along with being a leader, stand-ups or other weekly meetings and one-on-ones should not be ignored.

Sit down with each member of your team individually to stay up to date on what they’re working on and to get a feel for their morale and motivation. What’s more, by simply setting some time aside to speak with someone individually, they’re more likely to speak about problems instead of bottling them away. Rotating through your team every fortnight will mean you have a clear understanding of where everyone is at.

Hosting larger stand-ups or weekly meetings, on the other hand, is useful in the way that large team meetings have always been useful. You can use the forum as a time for general status updates and to get new team members acclimated. If there’s one piece of advice we can add on here, it’s to have a clear agenda. Set the key things to cover in the meeting prior to everyone stepping into the room, otherwise you’re likely to see the meeting quickly get off track.

Keep a level head

You know the feeling. It’s Wednesday afternoon and one of the product teams has just dropped a significant amount of work on your team’s plate – a plate that’s already loaded up. While it can be tempting to join in with the bickering and complaining, it’s your job as the leader of your UX team to keep a level head and remain calm.

It’s basic psychology. The way you act and respond to different situations will have an impact of everyone around you – most importantly, your team. By keeping calm in every situation, your team will look to you for guidance in times of stress. There’s another benefit to keeping a level head: your own leaders are more likely to recognize you as a leader as well as someone who can handle difficult situations.

Two leadership development consultants ran a study of over 300,000 business leaders, and sorted the leadership skills they found most important for success into a numbered list. Unsurprisingly, an ability to motivate and inspire others was listed as the most important trait.

Be the voice for your team

While no user researcher or designer will doubt the value of UX research, it’s still an emerging industry. As a result, it can often be misunderstood. If you’re in charge of leading a UX team, it’s up to you to ensure that your team always has a seat at the table – you have to know when to speak up for yourself and your team.

If you a problem, you need to voice your concern. Of course, you need to be able to back up your arguments, but that’s the point of your role as a leader. Those new to leadership can find this aspect of the the job one of the hardest parts to master – it’s no surprise one of the key qualities in a great leader is an ability to speak up if they feel it’s the right thing to do.

Finally, you’ve got to assume the role of a buffer. This is another general leadership quality, and it’s similarly important. Take the flak from executives, upper management or the board of directors and defend your UX team, even if they’re not aware of it. If you need to take some information or feedback from these people and give it to your team, pay close attention to how you relay it to them. As an example, you want to be sure that a message about reducing customer churn is made relevant and actionable.

Master your own skill set

Stepping into a UX leadership position isn’t an excuse to stop developing yourself professionally. After all, it was those skills that got you there in the first place. Continue to focus on upskilling yourself, staying up to date on movements and trends in the industry and immersing yourself in the work your team carries out.

A leader with the skills to actually function as a member of their team is that much more capable – especially when another pair of hands can help to get a project over the line.

Wrap up

The field of user research continues to grow and mature, meaning the need for effective leaders is also increasing. This means there are near-limitless opportunities for those willing to step into UX leadership roles, provided they’re willing to put in the work and become capable leaders.

As we stated earlier, many of the skills that make a great leader also translate to UX leadership, and there’s really no shortage of resources available to provide guidance and support. In terms of UX specifically, here are a few of our favorite articles – from our blog and elsewhere:

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David Renwick

David is Optimal Workshop's web writer. You can usually find him alongside Bowie, the office dog. Connect with him on LinkedIn.