Leading By Design: Three Lessons From the Front Lines

Recently, I was invited by the New York City chapter of the UxPA to present at an event called Journey of UX Leaders. I presented alongside Mona Patel, CEO of Motivate Design. We were both there to tell the personal stories of our careers to around 100 UX professionals and to discuss the decisions (and mistakes) that we’ve made along the way. We talked about what motivated us as entrepreneurs and leaders in the emerging field of user experience. When we were finished, we took questions from the audience. It was a great event, and I enjoyed the level of engagement from the group.

One of the main themes I touched on during my presentation was my personal focus on learning and my work toward creating a culture of learning at Moment. During my career in user experience work I’ve realized that regardless of our level of expertise or years of experience, we need to maintain a constant focus on learning. Our field changes quickly, and the only way to stay ahead of the curve is to cultivate our curiosity and share what we’ve learned with our teams and our community. So when my hosts offered me the opportunity to ask the audience a question on their post-event survey, I jumped at the chance. After all, if I was going to pass along some of my thoughts on learning, why not learn something myself in return?

In the spirit of that continuous learning cycle, here are the three themes from the audience members’ responses to the question, “What do you value in a user experience leader?” and how I think they can help shape future leaders in the field of user experience.

Mentorship

The first theme I gleaned from the responses was that UX designers want guidance from leaders to help them grow as they do their work. Guidance being the operative word, not direction. This is a critical distinction.

For those of us who love to design, it can be a struggle to take a step back from the work, but it is important to give your team room if they are to grow. Design leaders should think critically about the learning opportunities they give to their team members. We must know when to model behaviors for others and when to get out of their way.

Collaboration

Respondents also asked for a design leader to be collaborative with their team. There is a tension between this and the previous point about mentorship, and it’s a line that design leaders must walk. A leader today needs to build on the ideas of others — they need to work with their teams, not just dictate what they should do and how they should work. Design leadership has to be a low-ego endeavor. Design leaders should facilitate the work of others, and help to orchestrate contributions from diverse team members. Achieving the right balance of group participation and individual contribution is a challenging, but necessary step in becoming a leader.

Vision

Finally, in contrast to the notion of designer as facilitator, the group also valued design leadership that provides a clear vision and pushes the team to achieve it. An aspirational vision can align the team and motivate them to do their best work, but having a vision isn’t enough. Design leaders need to communicate their vision clearly and vividly to inspire their teams to achieve their shared goal. Vision isn’t valuable unless the design leader has the ability to inspire, persuade, and rally their team to achieve it.

The problems designers face today are increasingly complex and come with many interdependencies, and as a result, leading user experience teams means leading through ambiguity. It means continuous learning and adaptation, and never ceases to be a difficult endeavor. But by constantly looking to the designers you work with and alongside for cues, you can begin to understand the gaps in your leadership needs to fill. Learning is a two-way street, you can absorb, but you also must be willing to share, whether it’s through ongoing mentorship, constant collaboration with your team, or inspiring a shared vision.

We need deep empathy for the user (of course), but we need empathy for our teammates, too. Working at the level of complexity we face today is hard. As leaders, we create the conditions necessary for our teams to succeed. This is our most important job. But at the same time, we need to give them the freedom they need to be creative.