Taking Your First Steps as a Director of UX

Boadicea Statuary Group” by Rafesmar is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

I’ve been having a lot more conversations in recent months with people who are new to leadership roles in UX.

  • They worry about transitioning to the role.
  • They worry about what their first steps should be.
  • They worry about how to handle taking over from somebody else (or, in some cases, how to be the first person with a UX leadership role).

This isn’t a complete plan — but I’d suggest doing all of the following:

  1. Meet everybody — not just the designers. Pay extra attention to any person or group who interacts with customers (sales, customer support, technical authors, etc.) or drives product direction (CEO, CTO, product managers, etc.)
  2. Get everybody to tell you stories. Stories about how the company started. Stories about how the product got to its current state. Almost nothing about company culture gets written down — especially in early stage startups. The quickest way to get a handle on the company and its politics are to listen to people’s stories about how the company got to where it is now. They may not be true, but they will be useful.
  3. Who are you replacing and why? You might not be replacing somebody with your job title — but some person or group will have been trying to do the work. Find out who those people are. Listen to the stories they have to tell. If the company didn’t promote from the inside find out why.
  4. More leading. Less doing. Remember as a director your job is not to do all of the UX work — it’s to lead all of the UX work.
  5. Figure out what the company believes their product vision(s) are. What do people think they are building? Do not be surprised if different parts of the company have different ideas of what this is.
  6. Figure out who the company believes their customer(s) are. Who do people think they are building for? Do not be surprised if different parts of the company have different ideas of who these are.
  7. Figure out who the company’s customers really are, and what they think the product vision is. Do not be surprised if these differ from (5) and (6).
  8. Look before you leap. The temptation to immediately jump in and start fixing things is worth resisting. Watch how things normally run for a few weeks first. Figure out what the biggest problems are — not the most obvious ones. Try and balance quick wins with longer-term efforts so people can see and feel progress.
  9. Get alignment as a first step. Get everybody on the same page on the direction of the product and the customers it serves. This doesn’t have to be final. It doesn’t even have to be vaguely correct. But it’s much easier to move everybody once they’re in a group heading in the same direction.
  10. Keep talking to everybody. Set up weekly 1–1 meetings with your direct reports. Make sure you have a weekly 1–1 with whoever you are reporting to. If you’re managing managers then set up less regular 1–1s with their reports. Look at the list of people you talked to in steps (1) and (2) and do the same with the key influencers.

The feedback I get after advice like this is “But it’s so many meetings! How will I get any design work done?”. Which has a simple answer.

That’s not your job any more.

I know that’s hard to hear, but it really isn’t. At the director level your job is not product design. It’s organisational design.

Your product is now the design capability of your organisation. Your end-users are the people inside your organisation. In that context meetings are user research. You get to use all your discovery, analysis & synthesis skills — but in service to the organisation, not the product.

Fortunately those skills, applied in the context of management, are going to give you a huge advantage. Good luck!

(I’ll be talking a bit more about The UX of Management at UX Scotland later this year. Do come along if you’re interested.)


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