So What is a UX Manager?

By Brandon Schauer

Four years ago I strove to answer ‘Just What is a UX Manager?’ But times have changed and so has the role. So ahead of this year’s MX Conference, let’s talk about the role today.

Yes, there’s plenty who have the title, but UX Manager isn’t always a discrete title or clear role. But it is still one of the most critical roles in businesses today. Why? Because having a customer is paramount to having a business, and the UX manager is the role where today’s everyday decisions about the fate of the customer and the business are made.

What’s got customers most aggravated? Ask the UX Manager. Where is the business stubbornly rubbing against the grain of the customer? Ask the UX Manager. What will noticeably improve or worsen for the customer’s experience in the next week, month, or year? You know it: ask the UX Manager.

These insights and responsibilities means the UX Manager is a role of actively remaking the interface between business and customer. They steadily shape the relationship between the two like a river shapes a valley. The UX Manager is where forces come together, harmony is either found or tradeoffs are made between customer and business, between current state and future, between strategy and tactics.

So just who is a UX Manager?

This sounds like a pivotal role and an insightful person you’d like to find, yes? But you may or may not be able to easily find the UX Managers in an organization. As I said, it’s often not a title as much as it is a mentality.

You might say the UX Manager is the manager of a User Experience team. But that simple answer is complicated by the numerous ways that UX designers are integrated into their organization: sometimes embedded in a Agile developer team, sometimes led by project management, sometimes integrated into marketing, and yes, sometimes standing alone.

But as software eats the world, as every business becomes more digital, and as more and more experiences truly become the products that customers buy, user experience is becoming the job of everyone in the organization and so you could say every manager, could in some way, be impacting the customer experience.

That means that the org chart doesn’t matter as much as the responsibility and mindset do. You might not know a UX Manager by their title — maybe Design Director, Project Lead, VP of Customer Experience, or even Product Manager or Scrum Master — but you’ll know it by why they work, who they work with, and how they work to make experiences great.

A UX Manager defines what good experience is

They set the values of what a good experience is and what the values of their team are. And those values are rooted in a deep respect for the customers that the business serves. Did last week’s work meet the bar? Is the backlog of work to be done the right work? Are the partners in the work good ones? A UX Manager shapes the expectations and sets the bar for what the team and the business strive for and what simply can’t be tolerated, whether it’s explicit in the form of standards or implicit in how they behave, make decisions, and spend their time and resources.

So, they set the bar so others can figure out how to reach it.

They select the right level of zoom for good experience. Sometimes quality in the experience is all about honing the details and giving attention and love to what really matters. Sometimes quality is about the big ideas that will take the experience to the next level. The UX Manager can help a team find the right level of zoom from which great design can happen: the micro-interaction, screen, touchpoint, or journey.

So, they size the opportunity so others can seize it.

They establish what good experience will be, tomorrow and in the future. A good design sprint better solve a few of the most acute customer problems. But it also better move the experience towards the future. A UX Manager can create a compelling vision of where the experience must be in the future, plus define the path and pace from where the work is today.

So, they set the destination so others can chart the way to it.

People follow their lead on experience

They are champions for the customer. They bring the perspective of the customer into the business, and they can do it at scale. Let’s step back to consider that in a pre-digital world, there was often a front line that sat in front of the customer every day, in the customer’s context, hearing about their needs and tailoring what the business offers to fit the customer’s situation, one by one. Today, the UX Manager is a front-line manager for thousands or millions of customers, and it’s their passion and responsibility — explicitly or self-assigned — to bring the needs and problems of that far-away customer into the decisions the business makes everyday. The UX Manager knows what success looks like for a customer and can infuse that into the business.

So, they stoke the passion for the customer so others can spread it.

They are a champion for their team. The UX Manager shapes opportunities for them to be great. They grow and evolve it, shaping the structure to meeting the opportunities and career growth of the people within it. They advocate for and escalate their team’s issues so that they can do their best work and thrive. The UX Manager generously thanks and recognizes the efforts of team members. They create a figurative and literal space for them to work with each other, work with others, try and fail, learn, grow, and be effective. After all, a happy UX team just might be a great predictor of future business success.

So, they create the space so a strong culture can form by the team within it.

They are a partner for the organization. They understand the strategy of the organization and evolve the experience strategy and capabilities to work in harmony with it. They advise, speak candidly, genuinely about what works and what won’t align to customer and business needs. They invest in forming productive relationships of common objectives and shared values. Their advocacy for focusing on the user experience matures the practice of UX within their team and across the organization.

So, they own the expertise in experience, but not the entire experience.

They shape how experiences are made

They crave efficacy and impact. The UX Manager is obsessed with what works for the customer and how to prove it, not what’s trending on dribble. Measurement and feedback is treasured and learning is prized. They make tradeoffs and bets, because attempting to make every experience the best means none of the experiences will be.

So, they help everyone value substance and strategy over style.

They optimize for speed and scale. They care about Getting Sh-t Done (GSD) and the speed at which meaningful results can happen. They find where experiences can scale the fastest and where insights, ideas, and work can be best reused. They maximize design-time by reducing interference and interruptions.

So, they get the most out of their team doing their best.

They connect the right efforts. Organizations rarely focus on one thing at a time, and highly matrixed organizations hardly find the overlaps. The UX Manager sees the relationships and gaps that the customer would and connects the dots between efforts. These often have cumulative impact to the value of the experience and efficiencies in the work.

So, they connect the organization by connecting the experience.

What works best for the UX Manager? Beats me.

The effective UX manager doesn’t practice a labor of love for succeeding for themselves or on their own. Instead, they naturally focus on others — the team, the user, the participants in the delivery of the experience, and the insatiable belief in the idea that a better experience is quite possible. At this year’s MX Conference we’ll be exploring how the role of the UX Manager is really not about the UX Manager. As we design not just interfaces and processes but work across fields to design systems, beliefs, and the organizations that make up great experiences, we need to talk about how we beats me.

Special thanks to Kristin Skinner and Peter Merholz for sharing their numerous ideas and experiences for this post. Tickets for MX (March 29–30 in San Francisco) are on sale now, get yours before we sell out!

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