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The Guide to UX Leadership — part 2

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 Click here for Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4.

UX and religion — UXPin ebook

Evangelizing UX — Building your flock of believers

Did you know that once you become a UX designer, you were joining a religion?

You didn’t? Well, it is.

Once I’ve explained our religion of UX, we’ll explore how to gain more believers.

The Religion of UX

Contextual inquiry, affinity diagramming, usability tests, etc. are all bizarre rites barely understood by laypeople.

Relics & Totems
We worship the spirits of human beings. We place their images all around us. We document their every move, and then hang those on our walls. We carry around Moleskines and pen collections as if they are as sacred as the crucifix.

A Sacred Space
Like many religions, not everyone has access to sacred space. But for those who do, it is a wondrous place. In our case, it is called The Studio.

Our books document our dogma. I bet you can name your top 4 books that all UXers must read.

Of course, splinter groups are created from the dogma, but the overlaps connect us. We have our Interaction Designers, Information Architects, Visual Designers, and the most orthodox of the bunch, the HCI folks.

Neuroscience and psychology guide us, but we also love magic. The source of our magic is our steeped history and relationship to art. That balance and tension between science and art drive us. It keeps us passionate.

Evangelism and Truth
Like every faith, we spread or we die.

Whether you really believe that we are religious or not is irrelevant. You believe in something that most people don’t, and that alone makes you a congregant.

Becoming a UX leader means you become clergy.

What is Your Red Pill?
“I can’t tell you what [user experience] is. I can only show you.”

When a concept as abstract as user experience needs to be explained in order to be supported, it will usually fail, unless you find a shared experience for the truth you want to share.

Maybe you’re the first UXer in a startup. You must constantly prove to others that you need more people. People will question you about the time required for your tasks. Why do you need more people as “you’re only doing wireframes, right?” Or, my favorite: “If you just coded that, too, then I could remove a developer from my payroll”.

Maybe you’re in an enterprise with a team of 10, and a new product is launching. The VP of Product assumes the existing team can just take on the new work. Unfortunately, your team lacks confidence in the design so they’re pushing you for more research time.

So, one of your jobs at almost every stage of your career is to make others adopt your truth. You want others to be force multipliers for UX.

Let’s dive into a few useful tactics for spreading the good word of UX.

Adapt to the Maturity Level of the Business

A startup is clearly motivated by how “the possible” drives revenue growth. A large enterprise is concerned more with optimization and extension.

Assess where your company lies along the 8 stages of UX maturity so that you can start building buy-in with the most influential groups first.

For example, when I was in a management role over a decade ago at a startup, the executive team was eager to grow towards IPO or acquisition. One of their big liabilities was a system burdened with legacy and tech debt. The company was motivated to refactor the technology stack and better differentiate their core experience.

Given their rapid timeline, they were most responsive to ideas that were immediately feasible.

This motivation led me to a two-pronged set of realistic tactics.

• On one side, I worked closely with the CTO and his engineering team to talk about how best we could work together. We drafted an agile plan for execution to first show that our UX strategy was immediately actionable.

• On the other side, a new sales team was eager to ensure the value proposition was right for the new market. I explained how the UX strategy would help differentiate the product, and they helped clarify how certain customer segments might respond.

In this way, I earned buy-in from the two most influential sides in this context: Production (the builders) and Sales (the earners). Since both sides were historically allied with executive partners, I received the budget much more quickly when presenting the strategy as a unified plan.

Build Your First Flock

An evangelist is only as good as the stretch of their voice.

You can’t be everywhere. If you’re trying to scale across increasingly larger organizations as your career grows, you must build a group of disciples to shepherd their own flocks.

Build your flock of believers — UXPin ebook
Photo Credit: Sumo Logic

The first step is, obviously, about getting your own flock.

Of course, you can hire for that. But you need two things: purpose and cash. You probably have an abundance of the first and almost none of the second.

Here are the steps as I’ve experienced them.

1. Clarity
Anyone influential must understand your purpose as clearly as you do.

As I’m jumping into my current strategic role at HPE Helion, I’ve tried to place myself next to the following message:

By helping our organization understand what our customers value, the Insights and Strategy team will increase customer satisfaction, reduce churn, and increase sales.

Most of this messaging occurs in the meetings and 1:1 conversations I have, but it’s also like any political stump speech. Focus on the keywords and use them whenever you can.

If you read the above the keywords are helping, value, strategy.

And then the ending emphasizes tangible ROI.

2. Vision
Vision is the story of your desired outcomes.

What will the organization look like if it was able to achieve your goals? How will customers’ lives be impacted?

Your story must be dramatic, emotional, engaging. It needs to draw people in. People need to make the story their own while still retaining the core message.

The story should push boundaries, but not offend sensibilities.

When trying to build a strategic practice at Rackspace, we needed to gain support. We literally created a video prototype in Keynote of a new story that remained true to company values and it’s value proposition, was based on feasible design, and showed how the strategy would improve the lives of employees and users.

You can also try a more bite-sized approach. Segment your product into smaller units. Take a very small unit (e.g. a feature) and create a new vision for impact on the organization and customers. Shop it around as support is gained, validate it internally, and maybe even, covertly, externally.

Keep a record of your successes–and then slowly expand on your successes until you reach the decision-makers or the people who influence decision-makers.

Designer Pro Tip

Sometimes, a new design vision isn’t enough on its own (even if it’s just for a small product segment). People may require evidence of success before they support a new strategy.

In that case, consider prototyping your new vision and testing small changes as a side project. If you’re a UXPin user, prototype (…) inside the platform, then invite your allies and stakeholders to see the user’s reactions.

Afterward, invite the executive stakeholder to a 15–30 minute in-person session to suggest next steps. Mention who supports your ideas and describe how the stakeholder can scale up your process. If you house your deliverables on the platform, you can also reference the decision making role of each artifact.

Marcin Treder, CEO of UXPin

3. Ability
This is where “leader as doer” is so important.

In most of the organizations, “bias towards action” is a common reframe. But what is action? They don’t mean any old verb. What they mean is “make something I can see, relate to (and most importantly), use.”

When I was at Intralinks over 10 years ago, I was leading a team of 4 or so. Sales-protectionism required that we constantly needed to prove our abilities. Of course, convincing sales was just a means to the end of proving we were trustworthy to upper leadership.

Since the company was less UX-mature, I needed to prove the new vision by first showing a quick win.

In the first few weeks, my main vision was showing stakeholders we needed to move from an object-based system (one that focused on file lists) to one more focused on activities. But instead of showing all the product flaws, I eased my way by first explaining how we could tweak a niche area for a new persona. We built a new UI for the niche feature, and new conversations started sparking between designers, product, engineering, and even sales.

These new conversations evolved until multiple teams started questioning the current standards for “good enough” or “working” features. By that time, it was much easier to convince executives that a new interaction model was viable and feasible.

Budgets were unlocked, people’s time opened up, and we were able to get access to end-users. Leadership pushed account representatives to loosen their hold on the customers. As a byproduct, we also set a new precedent of empathy for our different customers.

4. Internal Empathy
Speaking of empathy, we designers spend so much time on users that we sometimes forget it takes a village to realize a design.

Can you just as easily put yourself in your collaborators’ shoes?

Demonstrate that you have your stakeholder’s back. Actively observe them. Internalize the criteria managers use to evaluate them. When designing for a future outcome, account for their needs.

For example, in the larger vision work I did for Rackspace, we ensured that one of the primary characters in our video prototype was always a Rackspace employee (in this case, a support operative). We imbued in that character the primary values of the organization, as well as showed that they win when the customer wins.

Spread Your Message Through Others

As an evangelist, you’re only as powerful as the number of leaders you harness around you. This means you move from voice to coach, from front of the stage to the side of the stage.

1. Empower other voices
Create and use platforms that allow your disciples to make their own name and create their unique voice. Create opportunities like lunch and learns and customer councils where your disciples preach the good sermon for all to soak in.

2. Shine a light on others
Call out the success of those around you. Don’t always focus on your own voice.

When you get a quick win, explain the specific outcomes (e.g. reduced customer support tickets by 30%).

Explain who helped execute each tactic, especially if they’re outside of the immediate design team. Give credit away. They will pay you back many times over.

3. Turn from player to coach
Start mentoring people. When you can’t mentor, educate.

For designers, give them your lessons not just in the topic of specialization, but in how to grow as a UX evangelist. Teach them the lessons you’ve hard-won. Don’t make them start from scratch. Tend to your flock.

Photo credit: UXPin customer LiquidPlanner

For non-designers, be generous with your knowledge and time. Present case studies from related industries (not just the usual suspects like Uber or Google). For example, when MS Office 2007 was ramping up, I followed the blog of the UX team intensely to share with others the lessons of a company striving to be more design-focused.

Share design insights from business publications. When evangelizing design, it’s much more convincing to share material from Fast Company, Gartner, and Harvard Business Review than from only UX publications.


Whether you’re dropped into leading 5 people or starting from scratch, your ability to build a following and create disciples directly impacts your success.

Based on what you know about yourself and your environment, create a plan where your voice is most effective. Then shift your plans to make others more effective.

The skills needed here are empathy, communications, strategy, and a strong sense of self.

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Click here for Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4.




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