Top

UX Leadership Roles: Multiple Paths

September 26, 2016

Over the last 15 years, I’ve had a recurring conversation with senior UX professionals: “I want to progress in UX, but I’m not sure I really want to manage teams.” It seems to many that the one way up is the management track—and in many organizations, this is the only upward path for UX professionals.

In my long and varied career working on staff within companies and for clients in agencies and consultancies, I have seen many roles in User Experience that need a senior, mature person—some with people-management responsibilities; others that continue to focus on product design. These roles include the following:

  • Creative Director
  • UX Principal
  • Team Leader
  • UX Manager
  • UX Project Lead

Each of these UX professionals plays a specific role within an organization. For senior UX professionals, their quandary is to work out which role is required when and what role suits them best.

Sponsor Advertisement
Continue Reading…

Before I get into describing each of these roles in detail, let me tell you a story. Many moons back, I worked for a digital agency as Head of UX, reporting to the Head of Strategy. The UX team was small—just three people—and we had just landed a large project for a telecommunications company. I had left the BBC to join the company and was expecting to be Head of UX—a UX Leadership role with more direction setting and less doing. However, the role was, in actuality, more of a UX Principal role, in which I was doing the work, running the workshops, and acting as the connector between the agency departments and our clients; and less that of a manager, creating the methods and business offerings for the department and managing the team.

I was unhappy and stretched thin. There was no time to hire more people to do the work because I was busy leading UX projects and no time to manage the more junior members of the team, who needed mentoring and got caught up in the details. It was the wrong situation for me, and I had no idea how to get out of it without just leaving the company.

This isn’t the situation in which I want senior UX professionals to find themselves. Instead, they should know about the different types of roles that may have the title UX Manager, so they can make a clear decision about what job they should accept based on what their strengths are, where they want to take their career, and how they want to get there.

Creative Director

The first role I want to describe is the Creative Director. This role is not to be confused with a Visual Design or Branding role. It is a UX role for the person who leads the creative portion of a project. This person comes up with ideas, thinks of possibilities, sets the direction for the design solution, works creatively with the client or the project team, and lets others do the details.

The Creative Director will probably not be a strong project manager, worrying about resource management or allocation because details are not his strong suit. But a Creative Director is vital to each project and comes up with and holds the creative vision.

  • Ideal role for the Creative Director:
    • Acts as the creative lead on one or two major projects.
    • Provides input to and reviews the other projects in the team’s remit.
  • The wrong roles for someone who wants to play the role of a Creative Director:
    • UX Principal—responsible for doing the detailed work
    • UX Project Lead—coordinating people and their contributions to a project
  • Role to support the Creative Director: UX Manager—managing staffing resources and workstreams
Sponsor Advertisement
Continue Reading…

UX Principal

UX Principal is a role that very rarely exists within organizations, but when it is does, it is very valuable in keeping senior UX professionals doing what they enjoy and in creating great work.

The UX Principal loves doing the detailed work and coming up with new UX design ideas. This person works well with clients and stakeholders because he is passionate about user experience and identifying the right solution, possesses maturity, and has client-management experience.

The UX Principal leaves the team management to someone else. Though he can take responsibility for some workstream leadership, taking responsibility for this sort of work isn’t his natural state. The ideal number of people this person would manages on a project is two.

The UX Principal may also be called a UX Strategist and have responsibility for identifying the UX strategy for an organization, product, Web site, or application. The difference between a UX Principal and a UX Manager is the role they play within an organization. A UX Principal likes to be a thinker and doer, not a politician or manager. In contrast, a UX Manager takes responsibility for team management.

  • Ideal role for the UX Principal: Leads UX work on one project
  • The wrong roles for someone who wants to play the role of a UX Principal:
    • UX Manager—only managing the team and their work
    • UX Project Lead—coordinating people and their contributions to a project
  • Roles to support the UX Principal:
    • Project Manager—coordinating the work of others on the team
    • UX Manager—taking away the people-management burden and acting as a trusted support within the organization

Team Leader

The Team Leader role is slightly different from the UX Principal role because it involves more coordination and mentoring of team members. The Team Leader likes to lead the work and has project-management skills, so can do resource management across project workstreams. He also likes to work with clients.

I see the Team Leader role as still being very focused on detailed work, but gaining the experience to move into a pure UX Manager role or possibly deciding to move to a UX Principal role that has fewer managerial responsibilities.

Many Head of UX roles in digital agencies are actually Team Leader roles. Their work needs to be very billable and they lead the work with clients. However, the managerial role of leading the UX strategy for an organization and managing people is less important to them.

  • Ideal role for the Team Leader: Leads UX work on multiple projects, leveraging his good time-management and mentoring skills.
  • The wrong roles for someone who wants to play the role of a Team Leader:
    • UX Manager—only managing the team and their work
    • Creative Director—acting as the creative lead on a project, but without responsibility for the details
  • Roles to support the Team Leader:
    • UX Manager—providing senior management support to grow the Team Leader’s management and technical skills
    • Project Manager—providing project management support for the Team Leader’s multiple projects

UX Manager

In this purely managerial role, the UX Manager is not expected to contribute to detailed project work, but may lead UX design reviews and review deliverables from designers and researchers. Devising UX strategy for the organization or major clients may be part of this role, as is working with peers in other disciplines to lead the organization’s vision.

The UX Manager is responsible for developing the people on his team—in particular, junior and mid-level members of the team; working with the business to understand what it needs from the UX team; and identifying opportunities or creating new products. He enjoys project planning and resource management for a program of UX work.

Management roles range from middle management that is responsible for managing a team to a Director or VP of UX role that is part of the senior leadership team leading the strategic direction of the company or clients.

  • Ideal role for the UX Manager:
    • Manages a program of work and the people on each project.
    • Develops a UX team to meet the business’s requirements.
  • The wrong roles for someone who wants to play the role of a UX Manager:
    • UX Principal—leading UX design and/or research on one project, with no people-management responsibilities
    • Creative Director—acting as the creative lead on a project, but without responsibility for detailed design
  • Roles to support the UX Manager:
    • UX Principal—providing detailed design and/or research and UX leadership on individual projects
    • Creative Director—establishing a symbiotic relationship to cover the details and the vision

UX Project Lead

The last of these roles is the UX Project Lead, who manages the direction of User Experience on a single project. This person likes working with stakeholders and clients to take a project to completion. While the UX Project Lead leads the UX team, he does not do any detailed design or research work. In contrast to the Creative Director, though he may not develop the creative vision, he makes sure it gets implemented.

In some organizations, this role overlaps with or may fall under Product Management. However, it still focuses on User Experience.

  • Ideal role for the UX Project Lead:
    • Leads the development of a product or has responsibility for project management for the development of a UX design solution.
    • Is responsible for holding the product vision.
  • The wrong roles for someone who wants to play the role of a UX Project Lead:
    • UX Principal—leading UX design and/or research on one project, but with no people-management responsibilities
    • Creative Director—acting as the creative lead on a project, but without responsibility for detailed design or cross-project coordination
  • Roles to support the UX Project Lead:
    • UX Principal—providing detailed design and/or research and UX leadership on individual projects
    • Creative Director—establishing a symbiotic relationship to cover the details and the vision

Conclusion

The definitions of these five roles can provide a framework for senior UX professionals who want to move forward in their careers. By looking at their strengths, what they enjoy about their job, and their career goals, they can decide which of these paths they actually want to take to become a UX leader. 

UX Leadership Consultant

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Margaret HanleyMags has been designing Web sites since 1995, when no one knew anything about the Internet. She has worked in Australia, the USA, and the UK, developing and managing UX teams. She has a great wealth of experience working inside organizations such as the BBC and Time Out, as well as for clients such as Debenhams, Santander, and the Bristol City Council. Mags has a Master of Arts in Librarianship from Monash University in Australia.  Read More

Other Articles on UX Leadership

New on UXmatters