As a leader in the user experience research (UXR) space, I’ve been fortunate enough to manage large UXR teams. I’ve had the opportunity to train and mentor many “newbies” and junior researchers, and throughout my career, I’ve discovered a few tips that have helped me manage these teams.
If you’re a current or rising senior UXR leader, here are some strategies I’ve used throughout my leadership journey to be a better manager and to guide new researchers toward a fulfilling career path in UX leadership.
1. Embrace self-management.
As a team leader, I spend about 50% of my time recruiting — maybe even more — so finding and keeping great researchers on the team is most important. If the best and most ambitious senior researchers are getting frustrated or moving on because organisations haven’t sorted out career progression for UX teams, then this could be truly damning for our professions.
In my own search to understand leadership in organisations, I found a diagram called Drotter’s “leadership pipeline model” 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 where one manages other managers in their field, and so on and so forth, up the ladder.
Think about this: Where do you want to be? Do you want to climb at all?
Drotter’s leadership diagram enables professionals to create their own progression — or at least to start thinking in this way if they are seeking advancement. Consider your own personal leadership model, one outside of a corporate structure and also one that offers intrinsic motivations. You are your own career growth planner and you must take the driver’s seat.
2. Start talking about career progression.
With your personal leadership model in hand, it is time to start talking about career progression. I get many questions from people I manage about research leadership and where and how far they might go. I’m often in large organisations, so the topic of career progression is always top of mind and something I discuss regularly with team members. I’m UXR-focused, so key themes recur during these career progression conversations and my prompts usually include:
- How clear are they on the role they really want to have in UX?
- Where do they feel they are now in terms of career maturity?
- What are their personal ambitions versus just general aspirations?
- Are there any blockers to leadership we should consider?
- Do they need inspiration to keep going in the UXR field?
I am very fortunate to be able to manage and lead other researchers. Part of leading a team should include a lot of one-to-one discussion time about where members of the team can go with this chosen profession. The UXR community has been buzzing about careers and where we all “can go” for some time now. I’ve certainly seen this by the flurry of activity on the topic, or UXRs announcing a career switch (example: one post I saw was a UXR stepping away to take on a farm in remote Scotland and I must admit, I was a tad envious). Some are confused and others exhausted, but I think many more are hopeful; and it in turn gives me hope for the future of the UXR industry and the young professionals in it.
3. Think long-term and find your voice.
Although we in UXR want and crave leadership, many of us are not sure what true leadership means. I think we are so busy with our heads down being specialists in our craft that we forget to nurture the relevance of our craft.
Remember, UXR is fairly new. So many in the business world are just learning what it means. We still have work to do, so let’s keep in mind the long-term goal of getting user research embedded in more organisations. We need more leaders to help us to establish and promote UXR as an industry-wide profession. I do think we are heading there.
So, what is this golden stuff of UXR leadership that might take us beyond leading a pure UXR team? Well, look around and try to understand what are the signs of a good leader in your organisation? Does your organisation have a clear leadership culture?
No matter the company, successful leadership is a combination of thinking long-term, having a point of view, and speaking up. How you express those things is determined by the culture, for example — do leaders bring you top-down led strategies and set milestones to be met, or do they encourage you to bring ideas they take forward and upward to set goals? Very different leadership cultures, but both can be effective. Knowing what good leaders look like will help you to find your voice for speaking up, as you will have good examples. Knowing the culture will help guide you when you do speak up, and it may help what you say have more alignment.
I’ve been sharing my strong views on UXRs taking the lead for some time now. In 2020, I gave a talk, Research Can Lead, at the UX Live conference. I invite you to read my full Medium article here.
I’d also love to hear from peers in the industry as well. If you’re a UXR leader, what’s your best management advice? Have you had similar or very different experiences in UXR management?