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Effective UX Leaders

September 26, 2016

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses the characteristics of effective UX leaders and how they function within an organization. Our experts consider business acumen, emotional intelligence, and the ability to teach while, at the same time, being a life-long learner.

Each month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, or research or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Mark Baldino—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Warren Croce—Principal UX Designer at Gazelle; Principal at Warren Croce Design
  • Leo Frishberg—Principal, Phase II
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Joel Grossman—Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Leapfrog Online
  • Ben Ihnchak—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Gavin Lew—Executive Vice President of User Experience at GfK
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director, User Experience at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist
  • Amanda Stockwell—VP of UX at 352 Inc.

Q: What are some characteristics of effective UX leaders? How do effective leaders operate within an organization?—from a UXmatters reader

Leadership Characteristics

“Many of the characteristics of successful UX leaders are much like those of other successful leaders,” answers Amanda. “They inspire, stand up for, and help their teams to grow. They clear obstacles, collaborate, delegate, and teach well; and they unify groups with various interests around a common set of goals. These traits are true of any effective leader, regardless of whether someone is technically a manager and no matter what the industry.”

“UX leadership does not differ substantially from any other kind of leadership in a company,” says Leo. “As a result of working for large companies, I’ve had the advantage of being trained in a variety of leadership models. One of the most effective is the LPI (Leadership Practices Inventory). The key tenet of this approach is that we can all improve our leadership abilities by improving our behaviors that are associated with leadership. The LPI identifies 30 leadership behaviors and clusters them into five main categories:

  • ‘Model the way.’ Be a role model for the values of the organization.
  • ‘Inspire a shared vision.’ Identify the future and enlist others in supporting it.
  • ‘Challenge the process.’ Be unsatisfied with the status quo, experiment, and take intelligent risks.
  • ‘Enable others to act.’ Excellent leaders foster leadership in their ranks.
  • ‘Encourage the heart.’ Celebrate the contributions of individuals and the community.

“Even a superficial reading of these main categories offers some insight into what the LPI considers to be exemplary leadership.”

“The Leadership Practices Inventory that Leo has mentioned is an assessment tool that Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner created to assess the effectiveness of leaders within an organization,” responds Pabini. “It is based on The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model that they propounded in their book The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, which Leo has outlined. When I first read this seminal book in 1990, I found it truly inspiring. Many editions later, it’s still one of the best books on leadership.

“For our UXmatters column Leadership Matters, Jim Nieters and I wrote “UX Leadership, Part 1: The Nature of Great Leaders,” an in-depth exploration of what it takes to be a great UX leader. Some of the characteristics it describes apply generally to all leaders, while others are specific to UX leadership. In that column, we emphasized the following characteristics of great UX leaders, who

  • strive for constant growth
  • are people others follow willingly
  • are apolitical, but politically astute
  • develop broad and deep knowledge
  • learn to understand and speak the language of business”
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Characteristics Specific to UX Leaders

“There are some characteristics that are especially important for UX leaders: constant learning, business acumen, persuasion, and what I like to call practical collaboration,” answers Amanda.

“The best UX leaders I’ve known have shared two common characteristics,” responds Warren. “They know the business and can demonstrate how User Experience adds value to the business’s goals. Also, they don’t let others take credit for their team’s work and are their biggest champion within the organization.”

“Does UX leadership require anything more than any other kind of leadership?” asks Leo. “At the broadest reading, no. But many of us would agree that leading design teams requires something different from leading engineering, product management, or support teams. So, the specifics of applying these leadership practices in the context of User Experience vary from leadership in other areas of the organization, simply because the values of the UX community differ.

“Consider, for example, the differences between an engineering team’s and a design team’s values around perfection. First, the business would say we don’t focus on perfection at all, and the watchwords of management’s faith are that ‘Good enough is good enough.’ As a UX leader, how do we communicate and reconcile the gap between our team’s need to design the best possible experience outcome and the organization’s need to deliver just enough in a timely fashion? As a UX leader, I allow my team to explore possibilities, ideate, and conceptualize within a bounded timeframe.

“By quickly getting new ideas out on the table, we can demonstrate to the broader organization our ability to break outside boxes and think differently. In some cases, I use my team’s ideas—making sure to give credit to the team members who came up with them—to broaden my peers’ and management’s understanding of the possibilities. In other cases, I give UX team members themselves the opportunity to present out and up. But the key here is to respect the design community’s desire to make things perfect—even as the organization expects us to move quickly. Thus, while UX leadership is similar to leadership in other areas, that balancing act presents challenges in the context of design.”

Keeping Business Concerns in Mind

Amanda continues, “Business acumen and persuasion are important because, despite the rise of User Experience in the business world, most companies still don’t understand or fully appreciate UX processes and the time, resources, and expertise that are necessary to do it right.

“As UX leaders, we need to be able to talk to our business peers in a language that they understand and help them see the true value in what we and our teams provide. We need to be proactive about speaking up for our processes and teams, but do so in a way that allows everyone to buy in. We need to take ownership for our team’s piece in the overall success of a product or company and help everyone else to see it, too. Often, those of us in UX leadership have had to make our first priority being heard and taken seriously, so we can sometimes forget that, ultimately, our best successes come from tying all the elements together to achieve both user and business goals. The combination of skills that are necessary to find that balance is what I call practical collaboration, and it is absolutely necessary.”

“Given that there is no one right way to do User Experience, a good UX leader has to be open to new ideas—whether from their UX team or from other teams within the organization,” replies Ben. “Closely tied to this soft skill is flexibility. Very few UX projects go exactly as planned or expected, so being able to get answers to your questions and figure out a Plan B is critical. Maybe the most important characteristic is the ability to understand the business side of the organization—whether you’re working within it or providing consulting services. How your work is going to affect the bottom line—or even just tweak it a tiny little bit—could be a huge deal—either good or bad. Being aware of this is critical—as is knowing that this is going to be the most important factor to many other folks at the table with you.”

“Considering the nascent state of User Experience within many organizations, an effective UX leader must possess the tactical ability to ensure the completion of design projects,” responds Mark. “In addition to getting things done, a UX leader must also speak to the more strategic role of User Experience within the organization to inspire and align with the future.”

Demonstrating Emotional Intelligence

“The most important—and, possibly, most underrated—characteristic of the best leaders is patience,” asserts Jordan. “The best leaders are pragmatic and understand that leadership is a long game. Leaders guide their teams and organizations by keeping their thumbs on the pulse of the industry, which requires more patience than you might think. I’ve all but stopped attending UX conferences because they’re often full of regurgitated talks that have little immediate value. The best UX leadership requires patience to discover—and help define—industry best practices and more patience to translate those best practices into actionable knowledge leaders can impart to their teams. My grandmother always says, ‘What do you call a leader with no patience? A mistake.’ Not only do leaders need patience, they must continually earn respect to remain leaders. If a leader is a leader in name only, he’s not a leader at all. Leaders need the respect of their team to lead. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be leading anyone.”

Baruch answers, “I look for the following characteristics in UX leaders:

  • a complete lack of arrogance
  • patience
  • a calm demeanor that exudes confidence and strength, but also flexibility
  • the willingness to admit that you are wrong and ask for help

“When you have all these characteristics, operating within an organization in an effective manner becomes relatively easy.”

“Soft skills are hugely important to the success of UX leadership—and, indeed, all UX professionals,” notes Pabini. “We have published a number of excellent articles on this topic:

Being a Teacher and a Life-long Learner

“Effective UX leaders—like any other effective leader—are above all else teachers,” replies Joel. “They seek out the problems others are confronting to help provide answers and paths to resolution. They listen and learn. They’re transparent in their communication, quick to acknowledge their own shortcomings, and open to the perspectives of others.”

“Effective UX leaders need to be life-long learners because the field of User Experience and technology in general are constantly evolving,” adds Amanda. “We need to be able to keep pace with the challenges our teams have adapting and be able to empathize with our teams, users, and peers. Growth is also especially important for UX professionals, so I see this characteristic as a way for UX leaders to lead by example.”

“UX leaders need to wear many hats and be extremely nimble,” advises Gavin. “We need to understand that IT and software development are creative professions and learn how to leverage their skills by amplifying the user experience via context and use. Often developers are amazed when they see users engage. Add this insight about users and developers can do incredible things. At the core, UX leaders must be great communicators. If we cannot articulate what we observe, we cannot communicate our design insights. If we fail there, the products we work on will not evolve in a positive manner.”

How Effective UX Leaders Operate within an Organization

“We have not yet fully addressed the question ‘How do effective leaders operate within an organization?’ remarks Pabini. Jim Nieters and I have written several columns on this topic, focusing specifically on what UX leaders must do to succeed within an organization:

“In ‘The Future of UX Leadership: Radical Transformation,’ Jim and I wrote, “Our challenge, as UX leaders, is to deliver competitive differentiation—or even disruptive innovation.”

“I also recommend that you check out Baruch Sachs’s great column Selling UX, in which he frequently deals with UX leadership issues.” 

Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixAs Principal of Lone Star Interaction Design in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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