Sep 25 · 9 min read

This is an excerpt from the ebook The Guide to UX Leadership, written by founder of IxDA and design leader Dave Malouf and originally published on UXPin.com.

Understanding Before Leading — Context, Outcomes, and Influence

If we know anything as designers, it’s that empathy, understanding and meaning are vital to all that we design.

Being a leader of anything is really just another design project.

First, you need to understand the players (of which you are a big one), the environment(s), and what success looks like for those involved.

This means not just doing observational inquiry, but also learning from existing materials. You’re basically combining the cognitive psychology of HCI research with your own practical ethnography.

We’ll do this work together. From learning about yourself to understanding the environment(s) in which you’ll be leading, we’ll learn the frameworks and methods I’ve discovered along my own winding journey.

Know Thyself First

For any leader, self-awareness is their most important trait.

I highly recommend the Strengths Finder framework. It doesn’t just tell you who you are, but suggests activities, tools, and mindsets for:

• Strategizing your own growth path

• Conducting your own gap analysis

• Figuring out how to fill your gaps through either learning, behavior change, or collaboration (my personal favorite)

• Analyzing the strengths of others to build relationships

But knowing yourself isn’t an exercise done in isolation. You require peers and mentors to help you through reflection, criticism, and practice.

For instance, I have founded &/or created communities (like the Interaction Design Association) that are focused on peer-level coaching and engagement. Local chapters of the UXPA are also useful for professional development. Falling into a group of diverse professionals has been the single most invaluable tool for my career as a leader.

Lead yourself first.

Learn Your Environment Through Others

It’s easy for most people to swim through their daily experiences like fish swimming around the reef.

The reality is that, unlike fish, leaders of any type are not passive participants in an ecosystem. Design leaders focus on change. To catalyze that change requires an understanding of the building blocks that will be mixed anew.

To start, I can’t recommend enough the book First 90 Days for grasping your universe and how to lead it. But more than any book out there, you can immediately apply user-centered design principles to better understand the contexts and people whom you work with and for.

Companies are social and cultural structures. Everything physical about an organization is just a reflection of the people inside. To succeed as a leader, you must be genuinely interested in other people. Empathy works both ways: for users, and your colleagues.

Designer Pro Tip

One of the biggest mistakes new design leaders make is not understanding their company’s business model. When you become a leader, it’s not enough to understand design. You now need to understand how design moves the needle.

Christina Wodtke, Owner of Elegant Hack and author of Radical Focus

Asking Questions With the Right People

As a first step, identify the 5 most influential people in the organization.

They may or may not be executive leaders. Reach out to them and ask for 1 hour of their time for an interview.

When you’re done, try to repeat this process with at least 10 other people (depending on the size of your organization) for 1–3 months. Include your peers, your direct manager(s), and their peers in those 10 people. You can certainly scale this down or up according to your ability to stay on track with your first 30, 60, 90 days tasks.

Here are the 5 sets of questions to ask each person.

1. How did you get here? Why do you choose to be here?

By adding the line about “Why did you choose to be here?” you reveal so much about the story of the organization, it’s myths and the surrounding culture.

At Rackspace, the phrase repeated again and again from especially senior people was “There is just a huge opportunity here”. Now everyone wants to go where there is an opportunity, right?

But the “there is a huge” part of that phrase pricked up my ears. Why is the opportunity described as “huge”?

Upon further inquiry, it turns out that senior people (even newly hired ones) were expressing their hope with a feeling of being overwhelmed with what they discovered. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it reset my expectations about the scope of work needed to resource UX projects.

2. What is the most valuable thing our organization produces? How do we know we deliver that value for customers? What are the biggest obstacles stopping us from consistently delivering value?

These questions help reveal any lack of consensus on how your company adds value to customers.

For example, at Rackspace, the different product teams were certainly delivering value, but they all perceived and described their contributions to customers in different ways in my interviews.

You’ll find that lack of consensus is a common issue across large organizations. Usually, the bigger the company, the more your role needs to bridge that gap.

3. If you were new, what 5 things would you wish you knew about the company? Why?

By asking this question early on with several people, I immediately noticed several patterns for scope and decision making:

Pattern: Any project requiring more than a quarter probably won’t survive.

Lesson learned: Think in small chunks, or your team will eventually burn out from dead-end projects.

Pattern: Rackspace is a relationship-based organization.

Lesson learned: Dig deeper into why. At first, I thought I knew what the phrase meant, but I didn’t know Rackspace’s emphasis on employee development until 6 months later. Can’t learn everything the first time around.

Pattern: At Rackspace, the consensus is how decisions are made.

Lesson learned: Use your influencing muscle carefully. Observe meetings, processes, communications, etc. to uncover the real influencers for a given team and focus your attention on those people. When I discovered an influencer for my work, the next step was figuring out how to connect. Sometimes that meant scheduling 1-on-1 meetings. Other times it just meant taking them out for coffee. It’s just a form of politicking.

4. What are the next opportunities for you and the organization?

This question helps you understand if the person you’re speaking with is future-oriented or not.

When interviewing direct reports, it helps to set apart those who are growth-oriented from those who like having a “job”.

5. Who else should I speak with to understand how the organization operates?

You learn two things from these lists: who is special, and who is an outlier.

The “special” people are the names repeated often across interviews. For instance, the VP of Product, the CMO, and the Director of Engineering might all mention the VP of Project Management.

The outliers, on the other hand, are the people who only certain individuals mention. For instance, the VP of Product might also mention a specific designer or support person, but that name never pops up elsewhere.

Don’t dismiss this person, however. This outlier may exert power through a process they manage or approve.

6. Documenting the Results

When conducting these interviews, I recommend the #1 tool in a designer’s toolbox: post-its.

I break down core concepts and constantly add to an ever-growing affinity diagram. As I do this, I sketch out visualizations and immediately discuss them with the interviewee.

Documenting Results — UXPin Ebook
Documenting Results — UXPin Ebook

By presenting visualized ideas to others, their reactions will not just be “yes/no”. They will also be “yes, and…” and “no, but…” Both are important in revealing hidden insights about the organization.

In my case, I did a lot of mind-mapping because most of the responses were related to connections between people, processes, and systems. When visualized with a mind-map, the connecting lines started to take shape, illustrating the system at Rackspace.

It very much confirmed that the company was truly not a hierarchical system at all.

When you’re done with your research in your first 30 days, you will have a clear picture of who and what your organization is all about and your place in that world.

Designer Pro Tip

Securing a win in your first 90 days buys you respect. It also sets you up to make harder arguments about quality.

First, you orient yourself, get to know the players. Most designers are matrixed, so you have a literal boss and a business side boss.

Find a way to get each something they need badly. If you have to choose, choose the business side boss as your literal boss hired you and is already invested in you.

A win can be metric-based, like increasing conversions, or on the soft side, like getting work delivered on time.

You could set an individual OKR around the issue you believe needs fixing. But it’s not about OKRs. It’s about credibility. You can’t win an argument about something as subjective as quality unless you’ve already proven you understand business wants and needs.

Christina Wodtke, Owner of Elegant Hack and author of Radical Focus

Define the Outcomes

Now that you know your environment, you can start planning.

Leading is not reacting. Leading is planning.

Create a clear framework. For me, I try to outline:

• The desired outcomes (e.g. increase sales by 10% in 3 months).

• How you will know through your senses that you achieved those outcomes.

The last part sounds intangible, but it’s quite practical. Let me break it down below.

Mere KPIs, while useful, are not the same as sensory outcomes. It’s one thing to be told you’re going 60 MPH. It’s another to see the road focused in front of you while blurry through the side windows.

You can also apply this to your work. It is one thing to reach sales numbers after a redesign. It’s quite another to triangulate the results against NPS surveys and positive product reviews for a complete understanding.

What does success look like? When will you know you’ve arrived at some level of sufficient success?

In the most tactical sense at Rackspace, one of my core plans was to get organizational buy-in around what exactly a “managed cloud” service looks like for customers.

• Desired outcome: Changes in product roadmaps after a new vision. I created was approved by product teams.

• How I knew through my senses: Witnessing the design team explain their rationale with data. Noticing more people discussing the roadmaps.

By first defining success, you can back plan how you and your collaborators will get there.

Plan for Influence

Planning for success requires more than a series of JIRA stories. You may conduct the following activities as you start executing UX work:

• Creating/building relationships with stakeholders (e.g. stakeholder interviews)

• Visualizing assumptions

• Creating value proposition canvases (e.g. Lean Canvas)

• Doing culture mapping exercises

• Running design sprints (ala Google Ventures)

But beyond standard design activities, you need to also plan for influence. Through counsel with mentors at Rackspace, I followed a staged plan:

• Reach out to my network of peers (first built with the interviews discussed earlier) and ask for their expertise on specific problems. Invite them to design workshops to share insights.

• Apply the learning from that workshop to create a focus (a story as a framework), and next steps. “Story as a framework” means that I’d present the problem as a narrative (characters, plot, setting) for faster stakeholder understanding.

• Bring the feedback from workshop participants (along with the story) to mentors and managers to close the feedback loop.

• Create a quick story presentation for support from managers, peers, and stakeholders. In our case, we created a video prototype.

• Iterate from feedback, field research, interviews, usability testing, and analytics. We eventually iterated the video prototype into a rapid digital prototype. You can use something as basic as Keynote or more collaborative and end-to-end like UXPin.

• Invite key internal stakeholders when showing the rapid prototype to users. Ensure that stakeholders see the impact of the new vision (and the criticism).

• Return to the product teams with the most positive reactions and start carving out areas for more iteration. Execute.

The above framework helped me build influence by explaining a complex design problem as a simple story. Once stakeholders understood the story, I’d involve them at different stages as needed.


All the above may not feel like you’re coding, or moving pixels, or out doing user research. The truth is that you’ll be performing those activities anyway, especially if your current position is more junior in the leadership continuum.

Some may think that leading is being in the front of the boat rowing, instead of on the wheel steering.

The reality is that leading is all about doing. You can’t lead without managing and you can’t manage without leading. The questions are more to what level and in what quality.

UXPin — the design tool for teams and professionals
UXPin — the design tool for teams and professionals


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The design tool for teams and professionals. From UI design and prototyping to collaboration and handoff. Speed it up with UXPin. • www.uxpin.com



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