Wednesday, April 23, 2008

So You Want to Be a UX Manager—Seriously?

Managing the UX team ...

"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 manager, senior manager, and director and three 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?

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?"    (Continued via UXmatters)    [Usability Resources]

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