So You Want to Be a UX Manager—Seriously?

Management Matters

Managing UX teams

A column by Jim Nieters
April 22, 2008

This is my first column on the management of UX. In my column, I’ll articulate what I’ve learned from my experience as a senior leader and several years in intensive senior leadership development programs.

Have you ever known a manager you felt shouldn’t manage people? Maybe you’ve worked for one. Most of us have at one point or another. On the other hand, most of us have also had great managers. What sets great managers apart from bad ones? That’s one of the questions I’ll explore in this article.

Almost weekly, I talk with a UX designer or researcher who wants to become a manager of a UX team. For some people, this is a good choice. Both they and their teams thrive. But for many, it’s honestly not the right goal, and the end result is that neither they nor their teams are happy. The book Now, Discover Your Strengths [1] suggests that we tend to be good at the things we love doing, and we love activities at which we excel. I find that we do our best work when we’re in a playground. (I’ll explore this idea more in my next column.) Isn’t life too short to pursue a path we don’t enjoy?

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I believe that being a manager of people is no better or worse than being in an individual contributor role. For the most part, managers don’t produce the actual artifacts that drive results. In a fundamental way, it’s the researchers and designers who produce the great work in our industry. Don’t get me wrong: A great leader can direct a team to produce the best work of their careers and tune their teams to perform at their peak—and this is important. But it’s not more important than having great designers who can produce market-changing ideas. On a sports team, you need a great team and a great manager to win. The challenge I see is that a large number of researchers and designers want the word manager in their title—either because they feel it shows career progression or for the respect they think such a title would afford them. Taking the sports analogy further, a baseball player doesn’t want to be the team manager—he wants to play great ball. So, why isn’t it this way in the world of UX—and high tech in general?

An important question then is how we as an industry can give equal weight to great individual contributors and great managers alike, because a great company needs both. At Yahoo!, we have some truly world-class designers who make a huge impact on everything they touch. While I would be happy to see them mentor other designers, I feel it would be a waste to make them people managers. It would be like taking Michael Jordan in his heyday and turning him into a non-playing coach.

Perhaps more importantly, because we promote people into management roles who are not great leaders, we diminish the level of expertise in leadership across our industry. Many people with whom I speak believe design managers—for instance—should just be better designers and leadership characteristics aren’t important. Let’s take that issue straight on: Should a company make a UX practitioner a manager simply because she is a really great researcher or designer? When asked in this way, the typical reaction is: “Well, of course not!” And yet, I see senior leaders promoting good researchers and designers to people management roles, just because they were good at their individual contributor roles—even when they haven’t proven they have any capacity to lead effectively. The path from a particular domain such as user research or design into management is not a natural progression. The skills you gain in your role as a researcher or designer are not the skills you’ll use as a manager and leader. Of course, a good leader of a research or design organization needs to understand and be good at research or design. They must be able to provide guidance for their researchers and designers. My premise is that being a good UX practitioner is necessary, but not sufficient to someone’s becoming a good UX leader.

We, as a functional domain, need to focus on what it takes to grow our next generation of great leaders. While we must always produce great designs, we also need to value the quality of leadership itself. We need great leaders who can facilitate their teams’ working together at higher levels than anybody thought possible. Who can take an average team and make it very good. On the other hand, an average leader can take a great team and make it average. I’ve seen both happen. So, isn’t our first step defining what makes a great manager great?

Manager Competencies and Values

Just as we know the competencies and strengths that are required of great researchers and designers, we need to understand and define essential manager competencies if we are going to produce great leaders.

Recently, I worked with a management team—other than Yahoo!—to define this set of six management competencies. Successful managers are:

  • accountable—Take responsibility for results and hold themselves, peers, and direct reports accountable for achieving established goals and objectives.
  • customer focused—Clearly communicate what a team can do to achieve stakeholder or customer expectations, without over promising, and understand the cost/benefit ramifications of their recommendations to stakeholders and customers.
  • results driven—Willingly establish and apply performance measurements, set high performance standards for themselves and direct reports as necessary to achieve customer expectations, and implement significant consequences—positive and negative—for achieving or not meeting performance expectations.
  • open and effective communicators—Create an atmosphere in which high-quality information flows smoothly through an organization and to stakeholders, in a timely manner, and encourage the open expression of ideas and opinions. Creating such an atmosphere means you must wait for another person to finish his or her intended message before responding, disseminate more than the minimal amount of information people need, and respond positively when stakeholders or direct reports voice negative issues.
  • effective managers of talent—Hire individual contributors who are as smart as or smarter than they are; surround themselves with the greatest talent; strive to bring out the best in others, regardless of their current performance levels; delegate authority and responsibility to others, allowing them to use their abilities and talents effectively; give feedback, coach, and appraise employees at every opportunity possible—every week, if not every day; not just at review time; and respects and tolerates differing opinions.
  • team builders—Promote and generate cooperation and teamwork while working to achieve collective outcomes, give credit for success and recognition to the team rather than seeking credit for themselves, and encourage individuals to contribute to the organizational strategy. As Jack Welch says, they “get every mind in the game.”

These competencies embody a few key points. There is an overwhelming amount of research [2] and expert opinion [3] showing that, in addition to the six competencies I’ve listed above, great managers and leaders are:

  • respectful—Treat individuals on their teams as professionals and address them with appropriate respect. They are not out to make themselves look good, but to help their employees execute their responsibilities well, and—yes—to build employee confidence.
  • natural mentors—Are great coaches and find deep joy in helping their employees grow their careers and execute at a very high level.
  • emotionally intelligent—Are direct, yet compassionate and tactful. [4]
  • able to see the big picture—Look out not only for their teams, but for the larger organization and company.
  • decisive—Make hard choices quickly and recognize they may need to make frequent course-corrections.
  • life-long learners—Seek feedback regularly from peers, direct reports, and their managers and have a passion for improving themselves.

There are eight to ten discrete characteristics for each of these management competencies. It is also critical to define the necessary competencies and essential values that are specific to management within your own organization, because every environment is different. In addition to defining management competencies, I also recommend you define a competency model for individual contributors.

If you are a senior leader and believe that defining such competencies is useful, you might find it useful to start with these competencies. However, if you want help defining a competency model for your own organization, contact me, and I’ll put you in touch with experts who can help you. I’d love to get your feedback on the competencies and values I’ve defined here. What other professional competencies do you think managers of UX organizations need to have?

I find that the truly great managers and leaders care very much about their employees. Some of my peers have pointed out to me that this sounds rather bleeding-heart. In response, I’ve told them it’s as selfish as giving away stock options. Companies give their employees stock options, because they believe it makes employees more dedicated to the success of the company. Likewise, when I care about my employees, I work hard to help them succeed and grow. The result? My employees are more loyal and more effective. Devin Jones is one leader who embodies these characteristics, and articulates this message better than I can. Check out his blog:

Organizational Challenges

The problem is that, in most organizations today, if an employee wants to advance in his or her career, management is the only choice. In such organizations, leaders make more money, garner more respect, and often make the strategic decisions that impact career opportunities—or the lack thereof—for individual contributors. So, if a highly successful engineer wants to make more money, she has to become a Manager, then a Director, even if she does not want to. In such companies, rising to the level of a Director as an individual contributor is prohibitively difficult. If this is the case in your company, either try to change that mindset or find another company! I’d love to hear from you: Does your company permit individual contributors to grow in parallel with people managers up to and beyond the Director level—say as a UX Architect or Principal Designer? I’d love to talk about what we can do as an industry to change and provide appropriate growth, compensation, and recognition for highly skilled individual contributors.

If you are a senior leader, my suggestion is this: Do not promote an individual contributor to a manager role unless he or she has the required competencies—particularly the ability to manage talent in a way that brings out their best performance and build an atmosphere of teamwork. This is easier said than done in practice though. Many senior leaders are tempted to—and do—promote great individual contributors to manager roles even though they have no strengths in leadership. They do so even though this erodes organizational effectiveness and undermines corporate culture. Truth be told, I learned this lesson the hard way. Please do me a favor: Don’t repeat this mistake—don’t promote the wrong person under any circumstances!

To illustrate one example, I know one senior leader who is highly competent, yet deliberately promoted “assholes”—as defined in the book The No Asshole Rule [5] —into management roles. Why? His top two individual contributors both threatened to leave the company if they were not promoted to manager. The result? He promoted both of them, after which all of the other top performers on the team quit. These managers did more harm than good, negatively impacting the entire organization.

We should not pursue a path because it is the only path that apparently permits us to grow. The book Now, Discover Your Strengths [1] can help you understand what competencies you possess. I had one employee awhile back—we’ll call him Roy—who is a great designer and wanted to become a manager both to gain respect and for career growth. Because I had already worked with Roy for several months, I’d noticed three key factors that together told me he should continue growing as a designer, not as a manager:

  • In my experience, Roy has the ability to solve any design problem you might throw at him, and he is very good at facilitating product teams’ accepting his designs.
  • He does a fine job of reviewing the designs of the people he mentors.
  • He does not possess any interest in or competencies for performing the tasks that help employees grow along multiple dimensions. He really did not care about managing employees at all. He just wanted to be a manager for the respect.

Roy would be a horrible manager. He simply wanted the role for the perceived credibility it would afford him. It’s important to note that he’s now happy as a principal designer. He does not want to be a manager and is happy with his choice. Even though learning this was a difficult—and, at times, painful—process, it was worth it to me: Roy is happier, my other employees are happier, and the whole organization is more productive and runs more smoothly. Everyone plays the positions at which they’re best.

The problem is that most people who want to become managers do not want to hear that they should consider a different path. It’s often an emotional issue. This was the case with Roy as well. It took literally months to help Roy see, first, that he could become the equivalent of a Director, but as a designer, not as a manager. Good leaders help their employees find the right path and feel good seeing them grow—even if the employee outgrows the leader’s organization. Poor leaders don’t spend the time to help their employees grow and find their direction. Instead, they control or subtly belittle. (In a later column, I’ll talk specifically about how to coach employees to perform at their best.)

If employees want to change direction and are highly motivated to move out of their current roles and into management, we should absolutely help them. But, we need a set of criteria for evaluating whether they will be good leaders and help them as they experiment to see whether they can develop leadership skills. But such skills are not a given, any more than becoming a great researcher or designer is a given.

Looking at Precedents

The book Now, Discover Your Strengths [1] suggests that the legal system has gotten it right: When an attorney enters a firm, he is given cases that reflect his training and skill. As he progresses, he may become a partner. But as a partner, he is not required to manage people, unless he possesses people management skills. Each partner is given a task that fits with his or her inherent skills. Some will become managing partners, because that’s what they’re good at. However, the majority of partners will continue to work in their areas of expertise. They will mentor junior attorneys to increase their firm’s expertise in their areas of specialization, but they will not manage them. Management is a specialized skill. Just like any sport, some people are good at it and others are not. All of the great management and leadership books point out that we should pursue our passions. That is, if we have a passion for an area, we are probably good at it—or at least have the ability to improve rapidly in it. Take any sport or other recreational activity in which you just love engaging. If you truly love it, it’s play, and you practice it as often as you can. When you do, you improve. You become competent, and if you work at it long enough, you become highly skilled.

Is this how you feel about management? It’s no different. If you are drawn to management, because you want to help employees grow, because you want to devise strategy and enjoy what to others would be maddening administrivia, then jump in! If you feel like you can give the people who report to you credit for success rather than seeking accolades for yourself, become a manager. The book Good to Great [6] suggests this is one quality that defines the best leaders.

Why Do We Have Bad Managers?

If we have the ability to define the necessary competencies of successful managers, and there is so much valuable literature about how to be a great manager and leader, why do we continue to have managers in place who are not good coaches or have had no management training? I’d like to hear from you about that. In actuality, bad managers sometimes get lucky, and their teams do well despite them. I’ve seen many such teams. However, in every case, such success is only temporary. Bad managers eventually get found out. I’ve got some great stories. Perhaps I’ll tell some of them in upcoming columns.

Just as some bad managers succeed, the opposite is also true: Sometimes, good managers and leaders get into difficult situations and are not successful. I really appreciated it when Jared Spool pointed out on stage at CHI 2007 that he’d been let go a couple of times. (For more about Jared’s remarks, see Pabini’s review of CHI 2007 on UXmatters.) It happens to the best of us—Jared fitting that category. Such situations present opportunities for a leader to learn and grow. Negative experiences often provide valuable lessons—perhaps even more so than positive ones.

Pursue Your Passion

Are you a manager? Do you want to be? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, ask yourself whether you embrace the competencies and attributes of great leaders. It’s okay if you don’t—really. But if you don’t, find a company that is willing to give you credit for the skills you do have and promote you as an individual contributor.

Be careful with your self-analysis: A majority of people have a hard time accurately evaluating their own skills. I recommend you try 360-degree feedback with a coach who can help you put feedback in perspective. Then, make your decision about whether you want to be a manager. Don’t become a manager because it seems to be the only open avenue to advancement. In the end, your decision is about consistently producing top results and about your career.

But just as I’d ask about any career choice, my question for anyone who wants to become a manager is “Why?” If the answer is “because being a manager and all it entails energizes me,” do it. Pursue your passion. You’ll make a positive contribution to your company, and you can help your employees be more productive and happier. What is it that you love and are good at? Whatever it is, do that! 


[1] Buckingham, Marcus, and Donald O. Clifton. Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Simon & Schuster Trade, 2001.

[2] Buckingham, Marcus, and Curt Coffman. First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. New York: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group, 1999.

[3] Welch, Jack, and Suzy Welch. Winning. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

[4] Goleman, Daniel, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

[5] Sutton, Robert I. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007.

[6] Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Chief User Experience Strategist at Experience Outcomes

Los Altos, California, USA

Jim NietersA design leader for 17 years, Jim loves every minute of helping companies create competitive advantage by designing experiences that differentiate. He has worked with a range of companies—from startups to Fortune-500 companies—most recently as Senior VP of Customer Engagement at Monaker Group. He previously led User Experience at HP, Yahoo, and Cisco and has advised numerous startups. Jim chooses to work with brilliant clients, helping them unlock their unbounded potential by envisioning and designing end-to-end experiences that disrupt markets and engaging users emotionally. He often works with UX leaders to help them work through organizational challenges and ensure User Experience has the visibility it deserves and can design experiences that make the team proud. Jim also conducts design-value assessments for his clients, identifying gaps in their ability to differentiate on the experience, then helping them close those gaps and become extraordinary.  Read More

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