Just What is a UX Manager?

Adaptive Path
Jun 28, 2017 · 7 min read

By Brandon Schauer

Editor’s note: This post from the Adaptive Path archives was originally published June 20, 2012. We think it’s still an excellent introduction to UX management, and an interesting benchmark to reflect on how this role has evolved five years later.

Earlier this week, I wrote quick blog post calling out seven lessons for UX managers from this year’s MX conference. Then on Twitter, Livia Labate, who leads the experience design practice for Marriott International asked, “Dear @AdaptivePath, what is a UX Manager?”

Here’s my not-so-twitter-length response: UX managers come with all sorts of fancy-pants titles. This isn’t about titles. This is about responsibilities. The core difference between a UX manager and the staff of a UX team is the responsibilities she holds. (And, as an aside, I’m using ‘she’ because frankly, it appears to me that the majority of UX managers are women.)

Someone who manages user experience has stuck their neck out and said they’ll deliver business outcomes through improving the experience that customers have with a product or service. That doesn’t mean soft results like better user testing results, that means delivering the things businesses ultimately care about: adoption, growth, revenue, retention, and margins.

That means you believe UX is a force that can not only improve people’s experiences but that it can also drive business.

Why I ❤ UX Managers

Okay, let it be said that I’m biased. I love UX managers — they are folks who have stepped up to hold the reins of leadership, put their reputations on the line to lead a team to deliver results, yet still connect and remember the values that attracted them to the field of UX in the first place. I heart y’all.

I’ve spent the past six years trying to get to know as many of you as I can, either speaking at or chairing Adaptive Path’s Managing Experience conference.

What I’ve learned is that this is an emerging discipline. People have grown out of a UX, information architecture, visual design, developer, or marketing role to take on a position that never existed before they held it. There’s no one in their organization to model their position after. There’s certainly no playbook being handed down from their predecessor. They’re forced to make it up as they go along, and many happen to be quite good at turning that into an opportunity.

What’s happened in business in the last couple of years is a recognition that UX is important every day of the year, not just at the start of the project or before the product is released. Businesses needed UX capabilities all year round, in-house. We used to see a lot of “UX Teams of One,” but recently it has become the “UX Team of Plenty.” And as soon as you have a real team, you have the need for managers.

What UX Management Isn’t

Perhaps it’s easiest to start with the things that don’t make a UX manager.

If you’re not in-house, you’re not a UX manager. From my perspective, UX managers in the pure form only exist in-house. There are super talented people who deliver great experience from a partnered consultancy, but the in-house UX manager sees the full spectrum of challenges that go with balancing last month’s results with today’s reality, next week’s plan, and the next three years of strategy.

If you don’t have to make tradeoffs, you’re not a UX manager. If what drives your decisions are a devotion to perfection at every point and you don’t pull up until it’s achieved across the board, then you haven’t had to practice management.

If you can explain it to Mom, you’re not a UX manager. If you talk about job titles that are difficult to explain to Mom and Dad, User Experience Manager has to be up there with the most difficult. It sounds made up, right? I see the occasional rant about how “You can’t design experiences” and “You can’t manage an experience.” Of course you can’t precisely control the sum total how a person feels and thinks about a service based on how they interact with it. But that doesn’t mean give up trying to deliver good experiences and go home. As someone shared with me just last week, experiences are like a shadow. You might not create it yourself, but you can do plenty of things to influence it. And that’s the crazy thing managers have bit off. They’ve agreed to deliver results on something they can’t directly manipulate and change. So if you can press a button and find out if your work is done, you’re definitely not a UX manager.

The Core of UX Management

Much of being a UX manager is common to any manager. It’s about humans, and bringing humans to work together, as Peter Drucker would say, with common goals and joint values. What UX does have going for it is a strong sense of shared values. What’s difficult for a manager is aligning UX values with the results desired by the organization, defining the objectives that matter to both her team and her business.

“Problem-framing, not problem-solving.”

UX managers balance the outside with the inside. Business results really only exist on the outside of the organization: customers download, touch, “buy,” share. Good UX managers get this more than any other kind of manager. But the outside results are enabled by the managers’ ability to align what’s going on inside: people, processes, costs, projects.

UX managers don’t do it themselves, not the work and not the solutions. They’re leaders, as Kipum Lee states, whose job is problem-framing, not problem-solving. They can help their team and their team’s peers break down and see the problems in the right way to yield interesting results. They provide the right objectives and the right resources against them so the outcomes are as expected or — even better — impressively surprising.

UX managers are translators. They connect the business strategies down to UX activities and vice-versa. As Sara Koury says in her interview, UX managers translate business strategies into design opportunities for staff. They connect the values and passions of their staff to the work that aligns with the greater business strategy. As the UX team’s work is getting done, they — as Vidya Drego points out — build a case, measure impact, integrate others in the work, then broadcast their story to the organization.

UX managers measure. Yup, I’m gonna say it: you can’t manage what you can’t measure. And if you’re on the hook for delivering results, you better know how those results are being measured and even have to measure the two or three steps upstream from that revenue-creating-moment that the business cares so deeply for. A UX manager understands the analytics, using the quants for insight and inspiration as much as any qualitative research source.

UX managers nurture a team. Creative teams are especially dicey. As Margaret Gould Stewart suggests, managers have to build out their team of superheroes that have complementary but different skills that can step forward and lead when the time is right. It creates confidence, camaraderie, and career growth.

UX managers make tradeoffs. They have to choose where to do the pragmatic or obvious things so they can deliver innovative and impressive experience where it matters. That means coaching (or coaxing?) teams to have the right focus and balancing resources. You know what UX really sucks at Apple? The expense reporting tool. If you get why, you’re a manager.

Where UX Management is Headed

OMG is UX Management going to be tested in the months and years to come.

UX managers’ heads will explode. The cloud, multi-channel, omni-channel, and the sheer spread of the market will make or break UX managers. UX will have to be coordinated and deployed across numerous touchpoints, requiring, as Kevin Nolan says, stretching more resources across more screens. Cross-channel architectures will have to be defined. Bets will have to be made of where to be good, where being okay is enough, or where to not be at all.

They’ll have to partner more closely with new peers. Because experience is increasingly becoming a critical or only remaining point of differentiation, UX managers are often being paired with product managers and development managers to deliver solutions. It’s no longer a reporting relationship, but one where each is responsible for defining overarching strategies for their function that also snap together to form product strategies

UX managers will need to define experience strategies. Why be on iOS (or not)? Why support a certain customer journey (or not)? Beyond translating business strategy to UX objectives, UX managers will need to define the strategy for the what experiences they deliver and how to deliver them. I’m excited to hear “experience strategy” more often and more confidently being discussed. It’s a focused and decisive plan for how an organization will interact with customers across touchpoints, and UX managers and leaders will need to have the to communicate outward to the organization, their team, and to do their own jobs well.

UX managers will have to master even more. Agile is just the start. Lean is coming fast. New tools and services supporting UX research and UX design seem to appear daily. There’s the explosion of content strategy and adaptive content happening. Getting more customer insight more frequently to the right teams will be key. New issues like channel strategies, CRM & identity, pricing, and much more will appear. It’s gonna be crazy but fun.

UX managers will have to scale up teams. Managers will have to learn how to organize work and grow the skills of teams without being in-touch every day with every team member.

What UX Management has going for it

Businesses don’t exist for the sake of employees, meetings, PowerPoint, or even profits. They only exist because they provide a useful, desirable, and valuable product to customers; a product that is more and more often considered to be the experience people have. UX managers get that. In droves. More and more the heart of a business will be how continuously re-imagines and delivers the new and right ways to interact with customers.

Into this stuff? Good news: ONE Design is hiring a Design Manager in San Francisco! Check out all our open positions here.

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Stories from Capital One's designers on how using humanity, simplicity, and ingenuity can empower people to have better control over their money.

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Stories from Capital One's designers on how using humanity, simplicity, and ingenuity can empower people to have better control over their money.

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