Leading UX Research Teams: 4 Tips for Researchers Who Manage Researchers

February 21, 2022

Some senior UX researchers are boldly carving out their own progression paths in UX research. Indeed, it might be time for us to carve out our own future. A big part of that means creating clear pathways for growth within our UX research teams. In this article, I’ll discuss four career and management tips for UX research leaders to help them and their teams to blossom, survive, and thrive.

As a leader in the UX research space, I’ve had the privilege of managing large UX research teams. I’ve had opportunities to train and mentor many newbies and junior researchers, and throughout my career, I’ve discovered ways of working that have helped me to manage my teams effectively. More importantly, as the industry grows and more and more researchers look to UX research as a possible career path, I’ve been managing their expectations.

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We’re at a pivotal moment in UX research as an industry and within User Experience as a whole. Although UX researchers have successfully carved out a place in the design, product, and service-delivery pipeline, many organizations still struggle to understand exactly who we are and the value we bring. So such organizations might not be focusing on our career paths and growth as a discipline just yet.

In the meantime, UX research leaders must take the reins and carve out our own future. A big part of that means creating clear pathways for growth on our teams. If you’re a current or rising senior UX research leader, consider four strategies that I’ve used throughout my leadership journey to become a better manager and guide newer researchers toward a fulfilling career path in UX research leadership.

1. Invest in a culture of growth, not just a specialty.

As a team leader in UX research, I invest about 50% or more of my time recruiting and building our team and community. UX research is definitely an invaluable specialty. If you have any doubt about that, just take a look at the number of open UX research roles right now. Ask any UX research manager., and they’ll tell you a good user researcher is hard to find and hard to keep.

A great user researcher also has a broad skillset. When you are hiring members of your team, you are not just building an army of research-bot specialists for your company. The team itself must have a dynamic, diverse research culture in which people can try new things, grow, and learn.

So why might being in a specialty be a bad thing? It isn’t when you love what you do—and many user researchers love doing what they do. But what happens if being a UX research specialist means you can’t grow beyond UX research roles? What if you really want to progress in your organization or company, but more senior roles simply don’t exist? Or worse, your once-coveted specialist background means some dismiss your skills as not-a-fit when you’re seeking broader roles?

Because many companies don’t really have an answer to the UX research–career path question, and they just need us as specialists right now, this could mean that there is no career path in your company. Consequently, a many great researchers are leaving the field once they get to the more senior ranks.

If there is an exodus of our best, most ambitious senior researchers because our company hasn’t sorted out a career progression, we have done something truly damning to the future of UX research as a profession. We risk our longevity as a field. This type of role stagnation is a grave error whenever it happens. Every role needs progression.

So, if your organization is still focusing mainly on investing in UX research as a specialty, the power to make change lies with you. You need to be creative as a leader and create opportunities for growth for promising UX researchers who are under your care.

New methods? New projects? New skills? Are you giving your team members plenty of opportunities to grow? Correction: Are you creating opportunities for your team to grow?

2. Practice self-management as well as self-care.

In my own quest to understand leadership, I found a diagram of a model called the Drotter’s leadership pipeline, in which leadership begins with mastering the management of yourself and your own time, skills, and outputs. The next tier is leading yourself toward either excelling as a senior expert in your field or moving into managing others in your field.

Eventually, you’ll move on to higher tiers, or levels, at which leaders manage other managers in the same field, and so on and so forth, up the ladder. Drotter’s leadership diagram enables professionals to create their own progression—one that offers intrinsic motivations outside a corporate structure.

Self-management is discovering your intrinsic motivations and using them to carve out your own career goals and plans. Have you explored what you want? Have you made a plan or set goals? Tried different types of projects? Engaged in cross-functional collaboration and skill-building?

You should do these things on your own, before anyone asks you to do them. Then, when you meet with your manager, you’ll be in a position to say what you want to achieve. Your manager’s role is to support your journey and help you get where you want to go.

Self-care is about taking care of yourself along this journey. You must take care of yourself just as you care for others and do all your management work. You won’t be of much help or comfort to anyone on your team if you’re not in a good place yourself. So carve out some time to keep yourself well at work. A few of my personal-favorite wellness activities: lunchtime walks, no-go calendar breaks, head-down Fridays. Don’t skip these. Just make them part of your routine and recharge.

3. Have regular one-on-one discussions about career paths.

I get so many questions from people I manage and mentor about research leadership and where and how far they might go. The topic of career progression is at the top of my mind and something I discuss often.

There are a few themes that tend to arise whenever I have these discussions about UX career progression: role clarity, career maturity, ambitions versus aspirations, blockers to leadership, and inspirations to keep going in the field of UX research. Let’s consider how these themes could serve as good prompts during a career-growth conversation:

  • role clarity—How much user research does someone who reports to you want to do? There are many people who do some type of research. Is a team member more interested in UX design or service design or perhaps deep immersion in mixed methods? Clarifying how much research someone wants to do and what role he or she desires in the world of user experience often helps in determining how far or where they want to go in UX research—if that’s what they want.
  • career maturity—At what stage are your team members now in their career? This is an important question because some of the people who pivot into UX research have already had long professional careers, but their UX research skills are new. Or are they mature UX researchers? One’s career maturity and UX research maturity might be very different. Figuring out where people are now is the first step to thinking about where they want to go and the pace at which they want to get there.
  • ambitions versus aspirations—How carved in stone is this career plan or desire? Ambition is a strong, internally driven desire. How calculated does this person want to be? Aspiration is hopeful and allows a more fluid journey. Someone might have a hazy sense of the future, but be open to other paths. Why is this important? Decide how calculated you want to be. Look at this as serendipity versus positioning and planning: some won’t mind so much where they end up; others would be crushed if they weren’t meeting milestones.
  • blockers to leadership—Most of the researchers I’ve managed have wanted to advance and grow. What prevents your team members from achieving their next steps? This question is really for someone who is keen to advance or has tried to advance—perhaps by applying for senior roles—but didn’t make it. Have you taken the time to make a plan? Have you identified and addressed the skills they lack or need to improve? You can address the need for practical skills through training and classes, but the softer skills require deeper work. If you identify a skill that needs improvement, be ready with a plan to improve it.
  • inspirations to keep going—Also known as “I’m about to leave UX research, are you going to stop me?” This conversation is perhaps the most difficult one I’ve had. When a UX researcher you manage becomes bored or feels her UX research role involves doing the same usability testing, day after day, it’s time to shake things up. This type of thinking can reflect a career danger zone and be a motivation killer. Because we are specialists, our role can become routine. If we find ourselves in a rut, this is where a pep-talk is necessary, but it should also include a plan of action. Get creative: What can you do within your remit to spark a new way of thinking or offer a new project for this person? We know UX research can be dynamic, so there is always room to move horizontally, if not vertically.

One-on-ones on the topic of a UX researcher’s career path can be tricky. Not everyone is seeking career-path grooming, so offering career advice can easily come across as being pushy. So, along with the themes I’ve described, I also suggest a couple of approaches, as follows:

  1. Hands-on—Some people who you manage are more eager to have these types of conversations. They might crave a lot of structure and milestones, or tiers. They want to know when they have accomplished something or when they should have done so. Human Resources usually has tools to support such conversations, but you can also find many free, career-planning templates online. This is where your planning skills matter.
  2. Hands-off—Remember, not everyone loves one-on-ones with their manager; in fact, some people dread them. Others may have a more relaxed approach to their career, or might not have a clear idea of where they want to go. Some people on your team simply might not be bothered about progression or climbing a ladder. That doesn’t mean they don’t crave growth. You should still ask questions about where they want to go and their priorities, then seize the opportunity to inspire them to get there. This is where your listening skills matter.

Have career-path chats with the people you manage. If they don't start this conversation themselves, you can begin with that role-clarity probe. Most importantly, you should also be having such conversations with the people who manage you. Always keep the topic of UX research career growth active within your organization.

4. Support the future of UX research, be bold, influence, and speak up.

Although many in UX research want and crave leadership, many of us are not sure what true leadership means. What is this golden stuff of UX research leadership that might take us beyond leading a pure UX research team? What are those elusive skills that garner an invitation to sit at the senior management-strategy table? What are the signs of a good leader in your business?

When we think longer term in UX research, that means playing the long game. I am not entirely convinced that UX researchers have figured out the value we bring to the executive table. While it is clear that we bring data and insights to the table, we must start thinking about how we can use such insights to influence the organization.

Long-term thinking means enhancing a broader set of leadership skills that can help us to be better strategy influencers rather than just insight providers for the organization. How are your finance skills? Can you write a business case or strategy plan? It might be time to look at how our UX research skills map alongside the broader set of strategic and communication skills that people at the leadership table actually value.

Indeed, what are UX research leadership skills anyway? Establishing a clear, shared view would ultimately help us to set up UX research as a profession, with clear, progressive career steps. I look forward to a time when we might unite as a UX research community and start to establish some of these steps for career progression. Only those of us within the discipline truly understand how we can make progress. We also have a unique view of those skills that are necessary to influence others. If we have a sense of UX research-career maturity, we should really start articulating that to the teams under our care. Those coming up need to see a future for themselves in this profession, and that future guarantees the longevity of our discipline.

No matter the company, successful UX research leadership is a combination of thinking for the long term, having a clear point of view, and speaking up. UX research is so new to many organizations. Have you taken a point of view on what it should mean for your organization? Regardless of what your organization’s UX research maturity might currently be, have you set a course ahead?

If you want to start a journey, you must first choose your destination. So decide where you want to go. Having a point of view is not the same as following the strategy that senior management has outlined. While achieving those strategic goals is part of your work, your course for how to get there is entirely your own to define. Be bold. Have you been thinking in this way? Why not? If this type of thinking is new to you, put on Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and take some time to think about how you would do things your way—and more importantly, what that would mean for your organization.

Once you’ve thought this through, you have a solid foundation for speaking up. No matter what you say, make sure it is grounded in a clear direction and point of view. I’d love to hear from my peers in the industry. If you’re a UX research leader, what’s your best management advice? Do you agree or disagree with the advice I’ve offered in this article? I hope we might connect on LinkedIn or elsewhere and share our points of view. 

For more of my perspectives on managing UX research teams, I invite you to watch my talk, “Research Can Lead,” from the UX Live 2020 conference.

Head of UX and Managing Director at Ad Hoc Global

London, UK

Andrea LewisAndrea is a seasoned UX leader with over 20 years of experience managing participatory-design and user-research projects for government and international organizations. She is the founder of Ad Hoc Global, a specialist firm that provides user-experience and human-factors research to global brands. Her passion is understanding and prioritizing user needs for complex services and intricate products. Andrea holds a masters in Cyberpsychology from Nottingham Trent, where she studied cybercrime, Internet addiction, and video-game play. She also studied Social Psychology and psychiatric syndromes such as disordered thinking at Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges. Her passion for working in both academic and commercial environments enables her to bridge knowledge gaps in understanding human interactions and behaviors in digital spaces.  Read More

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