Three Unexpected Things I’ve Learned About UX Management

Center Centre staff and the first graduating cohort of UX students in October 2018.

This month, our first class of students graduated from Center Centre after two intense years of coursework and real-world projects. Throughout those two years, I learned many things along with the students, including how to be a better manager.

Even though I’m a faculty member (facilitator) at Center Centre, my role is more like a UX manager than a conventional educator. We modeled Center Centre’s program after the workplace. Students work on actual projects with real stakeholders, real budgets, and real deadlines.

As a facilitator, I manage and lead these projects. I have one-on-one meetings with students, and I help students if they struggle with work-related tasks like leading meetings or reaching deadlines. I work with my students as a UX manager works with their direct reports.

My journey into UX management has taught me many things I didn’t expect to learn. Below are three significant techniques I now find invaluable for managing a UX team.

1. Ask Questions Instead of Giving Answers

When a student asks me for help with a problem, I rarely give answers or advice. Instead, I respond with a question.

For example, a student once said to me, “I want to write a blog post, but I’m not sure what to write. Should I write about the usability tests I moderated or the prototypes I built with the team?”

I responded with, “That’s a good question. What do you think?”

The student paused and thought for a moment. Then, he said, “I think I’d like to write about the usability testing I moderated. I was excited to moderate, and I want hiring managers who read my blog to know that I can run usability tests.”

I said, “That sounds like a good idea to me.” And I meant it.

There are a few reasons why I respond with questions instead of answers. First, I don’t want students to depend on me or anyone else for solutions. I reply with a question to help students figure out their own answers. That way, they get used to working through challenges on the job without always relying on others for help. (I do make an exception if a student is struggling. Sometimes, students are so confused or frustrated they need direction from me. In that case, I provide suggestions.)

Second, when students find their own answers, those answers are more meaningful to them than mine. Most people are more dedicated to a decision if the decision is theirs. I prefer my student come up with a solution so they’re committed to executing it.

Third, students usually think of the same answers I have in mind. Sometimes, students even respond with ideas that are better than mine.

When I first started working with students, it was hard for me to respond to them with questions. I wanted to tell them what to do because it’s easier than asking them what ideas they already have. Now, I’m comfortable responding with a question. I use this technique regularly with students.

2. Be Open to Learning from the People Who Report to You

There’s a common belief that when you’re a manager, you should know all the answers, and you should always know more than the people who report to you. I’ve learned this is not a realistic expectation.

Sometimes, I know more about a topic than my students. Sometimes, they know more about a topic than I do. And that’s okay.

I used to think I had to act like I knew everything in front of students. Thankfully, I don’t operate that way anymore. No one knows everything, myself included.

One of the benefits of working with a team is that each person brings unique knowledge to the team. Everyone on the team, including me, the manager, can learn from everyone else.

Recently, I facilitated a remote project retrospective with my colleagues in the Boston area (I work in Tennessee). I had never led a remote retrospective before. Instead of figuring out the remote activity from scratch, I asked one of my students, Shane, for suggestions. He ran a similar exercise a few weeks prior during a project.

I asked Shane what remote collaboration tools he used and what activity he used for the retrospective. He shared his documentation with me so I could see his process.

Using Shane’s approach as a template, I customized the retrospective to make it my own. The activity went well. Getting input from Shane saved me time and got me the results I wanted.

3. Allow People to Answer Each Other’s Questions

I’ve learned to let students answer each other’s questions, regardless of whether I know the answer.

One day, my student Ella asked everyone, “How many times do I test to validate or invalidate a hypothesis?” Ella needed help practicing principles she learned in our Development Methods course.

I wasn’t sure how to answer Ella. Meanwhile, the other students in the room had great suggestions. I kept quiet and let them respond to Ella.

One student, Jonas, suggested Ella define a KPI, an outcome, or another type of end state to measure the hypothesis.

Another student, Brenda, said Ella will know how to validate the hypothesis once she sees a pattern in her results. Brenda said this is like knowing how many participants you need for a usability test. You conduct usability tests until you gather enough data to find a pattern. Then, you can stop testing.

I was humbled. Jonas and Brenda had great suggestions — suggestions I did not think of. Ella got the information she needed from her peers, and I got to learn from her peers’ contributions.

Even if I do know the answer to a student’s question, I hesitate. I wait to see if another student can answer the question. I give students a chance to learn from each other instead of learning from me.

As a Manager, Be Open and Trust Your Direct Reports

It’s amazing how far your team will go if you let them come up with their own ideas, support each other, and teach you new things.

I used to think I had to have answers for every question. I used to think it was better to give directives to my team instead of letting them have input on decisions. I used to think a lot of things about management that I don’t believe are true anymore.

I still make mistakes, and I’m still learning to be a better manager. But I’ve come very far in just two years.

When I don’t know how to do something, I now approach it with the mindset of, “Can my students help me learn this?” instead of, “How can I pretend I already know how to do this and quietly struggle to figure it out alone?”

By taking the former approach, I’m transparent and open about my skills. I’m modeling effective management skills for my students who may one day become UX managers.

Thanks to my former student, Ella Nance, for her help with this article.