Power or Collaboration—What’s Most Valuable to a UX Leader?

Management Matters

Managing UX teams

A column by Jim Nieters
January 5, 2011

In October 2010, I was fortunate to participate in a panel discussion at the Mobile HCI conference in Lisbon Portugal titled “Guru’s Views,” [1] with moderator Bruno von Niman, who is a long-time UX visionary in the mobile space. In my opening statement, I pointed out that designers increasingly have the opportunity to facilitate strategy dialogues among stakeholders within our companies and, ultimately, to align product teams around a powerful design-led vision. In response, Josh Ulm of Vodafone pointed out that trying to gain support for design efforts through collaboration was no longer worth his time. If his design team did not have the sponsorship and support of senior leaders, including the CEO, it just took too much effort to make progress, so he would rather find a company where he could more easily make a difference.

In this column, we’ll explore these very questions: Do UX leaders need to acquire and wield power to ensure their organizations can produce game-changing design? If they don’t already have executive support, can they can collaborate their way to success?

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The Argument for Power

As much as I talk about—and believe in—the power of collaboration, I agree with Josh. The fact is that collaboration, in itself, has never made me or my UX teams more relevant to an organization. As a UX leader, once I’ve gotten the support my team needs from senior leaders, I can demonstrate our ability to collaborate—for example, by leading collaborative ideation sessions that align a team around a powerful design-led vision. But, if our partners in Product Management and Engineering do not recognize that they need to collaborate with the UX team, our best arguments cannot sway them. It might take their experiencing a crisis—like eroding profit margins resulting from poor product design—to provide the platform a UX leader needs to demonstrate a UX team’s capabilities. But the bottom line is: someone at the top must first recognize the need for game-changing design—and articulate that others must recognize this as well.

After this conference, I reread Jeffrey Pfeffer’s article “Power Play, in the June 2010 edition of Harvard Business Review.” In this article, Pfeffer tells a story of a woman who is a great collaborator, but has had a difficult time accomplishing her goals. He points this out: “We could soft-pedal what is needed in such situations by talking about leadership skills and emotional intelligence—but why not tell it like it is? What [this person] needed was power.” [2]

Power First—You Can’t Collaborate Your Way to Relevance

Acknowledging UX professionals’ need for power doesn’t negate the fact that we also need to be great collaborators. But for UX leaders, it does highlight one of our most important functions: To win the support of our organizations’ senior leaders, thereby ensuring the strategic relevance of our UX teams. Of course, to justify the support of senior leaders, we need to continually produce game-changing designs that differentiate our products in the marketplace. For our peers in Engineering and Product Management to accept our ideas in the first place though, they often need to know that User Experience has the support of senior leaders.

If you, as a UX leader, lack an equal voice with your partner disciplines in your organization, what should you do? That’s the challenge. Should you try to make your UX team more strategically relevant? Or should you find a job in another company whose senior leadership already recognizes the value of UX design as a necessary component in strategic decision making?

For many years, I’ve worked hard to prove that User Experience should have an equal voice with Product Management and Engineering. But I now question whether working for a company in which product teams do not fundamentally understand that great design can be a game-changer is worthwhile. With so many products in the marketplace selling better and attracting more users than their competition because of their superior design, I’d rather work for a company where the executives already understand the value of User Experience and empower UX teams by giving them a voice equal to that of the other disciplines.

Let me restate a crucial issue: We need to continually prove our value by exceeding the expectations of our executive staff. The question is whether the executives who drive strategy on product teams tangibly demonstrate their support for design teams. For example, do they invite User Experience to participate in initial roadmap planning sessions? Or do they instead present their strategy to the UX team once it exists? If the latter, I would question whether a UX leader can be effective working in such a company.

In the end, executives either look for reasons to defend UX teams or they exclude them on an emotional basis. Having power means executives support User Experience at crucial moments. They exhibit overt and subtle behaviors that ensure the other disciplines either accept User Experience decisions or do not support them.

For example, a Senior Vice President asked me and a peer in Product Management to present the status of a crucial project. When we were ready to begin our presentation, the executive asked, “How is the three-in-a-box model going?” To translate, he was asking, “Has User Experience had an equal voice with Product Management and Engineering?” When the Director of Product Management began by quickly saying, “I think it’s going pretty well,” the SVP raised his hand, as if to say “wait a minute,” then asked me, “Jim, how’s the three-in-a-box model working on this product?” This PM and I worked together for the next two years, and he never failed to include User Experience in strategic issues. In fact, he often asked me what he could do to ensure we worked better together. This SVP did not have to do much, but he subtly conveyed his belief in the value of User Experience. Thus, I had the power to tell my peers how things needed to change. More important, when User Experience had an equal voice, we built the best products in the history of our organization. If you don’t have any power in a company, working in that company is just not worth the effort. There are many other companies today that do recognize the value of game-changing design.

The Need for Balance of Power

Thus far, I’ve made it clear that User Experience must have an equal voice with Product Management and Engineering. When one of these disciplines has a stronger voice than the others, the design of a company’s products tends to suffer. Pabini Gabriel-Petit explores this topic in depth in her UXmatters article “Sharing Ownership of UX.”

Of course, the reality is that a great design that either fails to solve a market need or lacks a sound technological basis has little chance of success. But it is equally true that a sound product concept—even one with a strong technological foundation—would likely fall behind leading competitors if the product’s user experience were not learnable, usable, and delightful—just look at MySpace as an example.

We know that with a higher-level title—for example, VP or Senior VP of User Experience or Chief Experience Officer—comes more power and the ability to drive greater change and make sure our research-based designs make it to market. Our goals are altruistic: We know that by producing designs that differentiate our companies’ products, we enable our companies to be more successful. My experience proves this.

The challenge we confront is that our colleagues in other disciplines have similar beliefs regarding their own disciplines: If only they could get more power to influence and drive the product vision, the company would be more successful. So situations arise where each discipline wants to have the most power—to drive their visions and ensure success. What can we do, then, to overcome this seeming impasse?

As UX leaders, we need to recognize when we have either too much or too little power. Let’s be honest: Too much power might mean your products are highly discoverable, learnable, and delightful, but run the risk of having poor system performance or using technologies that are not scalable. It can also mean your products cost too much to build or don’t include some of the most critical capabilities.

Using Our Power Wisely

Once our UX teams have sufficient power, we need to use that power wisely. One way of achieving this is to leverage integrative thinking. As Roger Martin defines it in The Opposable Mind, [3] integrative thinking recognizes that each discipline perceives different constraints and opportunities, and we need to leverage each of these perspectives to succeed.

In his book Inspired: How to Build Products Customers Love, [4] Marty Cagan talks about the need for small, dedicated teams of designers, engineers, and product managers to jointly decide on the direction for any product line. I like to hold collaborative design workshops, where User Experience calls other disciplines to the table to jointly define a unified direction. For more information about leading such workshops, read my UXmatters column “Innovation Workshops: Facilitating Product Innovation.”

Achieving Success Against the Odds

The question is: Can you collaborate your way to relevance? Certainly, I’ve tried to do that, and I’ve spent years pushing up against downward pressure resisting a user-centered focus. In the end, my UX teams have been able to make a difference, but, at times, making that difference has taken years. Of course, succeeding when the odds are against you is a rush!

I have found that, whenever the deck was stacked against my UX teams, I had to innovate in my business model and organizational structure to achieve success. Challenges can breed creativity that drives success when traditional models do not. For example, I once created an internal UX consultancy that produced greater results than anybody expected—both for the business and for the UX team. However, over many years, the effort of pushing a rock uphill to achieve success can also take an emotional toll, making UX leaders question whether it was worth their time and energy. Starting at the top of the hill, then working hard to maintain your position, is certainly easier than trying to push the rock up the hill in the first place!

I believe that, in the end, our job as UX leaders is to drive success for both our UX teams and our companies. If you are part of an organization in which executives do not yet understand the value of game-changing design, the question you have to ask yourself is this: If my team delivers truly innovative ideas through designs that would drive business growth, will anybody in my company recognize their value and champion our cause? If the answer is no, is the unrequited effort this continually requires of you really worth it? We also need to feel good about our work, and if we are in a dysfunctional working environment, it’s not unlike being in a dysfunctional relationship. Is trying to fix the broken relationship worth it? It’s hard, at times, to move on, but in the end, when we find partners—in companies and in life—who appreciate us, doesn’t that energize us more? I think so.

So, I agree with Josh Ulm: Having executive support for User Experience is foundational for me. I am certainly willing to justify senior leaders’ support for me and my teams by delivering stellar products. But the lack of any executive support for User Experience would give me serious pause about working for a company. In the end, I want to know that I have made a difference and to receive recognition for the value my team has provided. Is just doing the work and getting a paycheck worth it if we don’t have the power to make a real difference?

Collaborating with Our Peers in Other Disciplines

As I mentioned earlier, collaboration alone has never made me or my UX teams more relevant to an organization. As UX leaders, we also need sufficient power to have an equal say with Engineering and Product Management. Having said this, once UX leaders have the requisite power, they must also demonstrate emotional intelligence by collaborating effectively. They must build coalitions and relationships.

If you wield only power and do not demonstrate your willingness and ability to collaborate, your would-be partners might use this to take you down. Think about it: we all despise power mongers who are not willing to share success; who belittle people for their own benefit. Sometimes such leaders gain initial success, because of their self-confidence or perhaps some degree of charisma. However, because people do not trust them, they quickly lose confidence in them, and eventually, their employees and colleagues find ways to hurt them professionally.

I personally know UX leaders who don’t have a collaborative bone in their body, but still get things done, because they make sure going into their role that they have the power to drive change. They simply won’t—and probably could not—work in an environment in which they would need to collaborate successfully to drive change. They can be highly successful because they have set the right parameters to ensure their success and that of their UX team.

UX leaders often talk openly about their belief that User Experience should have more clout, more power. Although, in many cases, a UX team’s having more power would benefit an entire organization, sometimes—especially for leaders like those I’ve just described—gaining power is their sole objective. I think such leaders—and in fact, too many people in UX design—suffer from a sort of Napoleon complex: They promote themselves to appear more powerful, and criticize others to marginalize them. In doing this, such leaders tend to generate enmity from others and lose support over the long term.

In his book Love is the Killer App, [5] Tim Sanders speaks of the value of cultivating positive relationships; as does Keith Ferrazzi in his book Who’s Got Your Back? [6] As UX leaders, it’s important for us to be good partners.

In Conclusion

Leaders, whether of User Experience or another discipline, do need to wield power—both within their own team and across disciplines. But we must wield power responsibly and with compassion. It is true that we need to clearly communicate our vision, relentlessly drive our goals forward, and be decisive, but we must also listen to and demonstrate respect for the people on our teams, support and defend them, and give them credit for successes.

In my experience, too many leaders are overly controlling when managing their teams. Being overly controlling—to the extent that team members fear sharing their concerns and recommendations—is one of the biggest mistakes leaders make. The upshot is that teams with such leaders tend not to execute as well as they could.

Being a great leader means understanding how to gain and retain power and also how to wield it wisely by collaborating effectively and building strong relationships. Doing so demonstrates that our positions of power are well deserved. 


[1] Von Niman, Bruno, Josh Ulm (Leader of User Experience at Vodafone), Scott Jenson, (Lead User Interface Designer for Mobile at Google), and Jim Nieters (Director of User Experience at Yahoo!) Guru’s Views, a panel discussion at Mobile HCI 2010, in Lisbon, Portugal.

[2] Pfeffer, Jeffrey. “Power Play.” Harvard Business Review, June 2010.

[3] Martin, Roger. The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007.

[4] Cagan, Marty. Inspired: How to Build Products Customers Love. Sunnyvale, CA: SVPG Press, 2008.

[5] Sanders, Tim. Love Is The Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002.

[6] Ferrazzi, Keith, Who’s Got Your Back: The Breakthrough Program to Build Deep, Trusting Relationships That Create Success—and Won’t Let You Fail. New York: Imprint Books, Random House, 2009.

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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