• Just What is a UX Manager?

    Earlier this week, I wrote quick blog post, calling out seven lessons for UX managers from this year’s MX conference. Then on Twitter, Livia Labate, who leads the experience design practice for Marriott International asked, “Dear @AdaptivePath, what is a UX Manager?”

    Here’s my not-so-twitter-length response:

    UX managers come with all sorts of fancy-pants titles. This isn’t about titles. This is about responsibilities. The core difference between a UX manager and the staff of a UX team is the responsibilities she holds. (And, as an aside, I’m using ‘she’ because frankly it appears to me that the majority of UX managers are women.)

    Someone who manages user experience has stuck their neck out and said they’ll deliver business outcomes through improving the experience that customers have with a product or service. That doesn’t mean soft results like better user testing results, that means delivering the things businesses ultimately care about: adoption, growth, revenue, retention, and margins.

    That means you believe UX is a force that can not only improve people’s experiences but that it can also drive business.

    Why I <3 UX Managers

    Okay, let it be said that I’m biased. I love UX managers — they are folks who have stepped up to hold the reins of leadership, put their reputations on the line to lead a team to deliver results, yet still connect and remember the values that attracted them to the field of UX in the first place. I heart y’all.

    I’ve spent the past six years trying to get to know as many of you as I can, either speaking at or chairing Adaptive Path’s Managing Experience conference.

    What I’ve learned is that this is an emerging discipline. People have grown out of a UX, information architecture, visual design, developer, or marketing role to take on a position that never existed before they held it. There’s no one in their organization to model their position after. There’s certainly no playbook being handed down from their predecessor. They’re forced to make it up as they go along, and many happen to be quite good at turning that into an opportunity.

    What’s happened in business in the last couple of years is a recognition that UX is important every day of the year, not just at the start of the project or before the product is released. Businesses needed UX capabilities all year round, in-house. We used to see a lot of “UX Teams of One,” but recently it has become the “UX Team of Plenty.” And as soon as you have a real team, you have the need for managers.

    What UX Management Isn’t

    Perhaps it’s easiest to start with the things that don’t make a UX manager.

    If you’re not in-house, you’re not a UX manager. From my perspective, UX managers in the pure form only exist in-house. There’s super talented people who deliver great experience from a partnered consultancy, but the in-house UX manager sees the full spectrum of challenges that go with balancing last month’s results with today’s realty, next week’s plan, and the next three years of strategy. Adaptive Path works for these people and hopes to empower them, but we also don’t have the same challenges they do.

    If you don’t have to make tradeoffs, you’re not a UX manager. If what drives your decisions are a devotion to perfection at every point and you don’t pull up until it’s achieved across the board, then you haven’t had to practice management.

    If you can explain it to Mom, you’re not a UX manager. If you talk about job titles that are difficult to explain to Mom and Dad, User Experience Manager has to be up there with the most difficult. It sounds made up, right? I see the occasional rant about “you can’t design experiences” and “you can’t manage and experience.” Of course you can’t precisely control the sum total how a person feels and thinks about a service based on how they interact with it. But that doesn’t mean give up trying to deliver good experiences and go home. As someone shared with me just last week, experiences are like a shadow. You might not create it yourself, but you can do plenty of things to influence it. And that’s the crazy thing managers have bit off. They’ve agreed to deliver results on something they can’t directly manipulate and change. So if you can press a button and find out if your work is done, you’re definitely not a UX manager.

    The Core of UX Management

    Much of being a UX manager is common to any manager. It’s about humans, and bringing humans to work together, as Peter Drucker would say, with common goals and joint values. What UX does have going for it is a strong sense of shared values. What’s difficult for a manager is aligning UX values with the results desired by the organization, defining the objectives that matter to both her team and her business.

    UX managers balance the outside with the inside. Business results really only exist on the outside of the organization: customers download, touch, “buy,” share. Good UX managers get this more than any other kind of manager. But the outside results are enabled by the managers’ ability to align what’s going on inside: people, processes, costs, projects.

    UX managers don’t do it themselves, not the work and not the solutions. They’re leaders, as Kipum Lee states, whose job is problem-framing, not problem-solving. They can help their team and their team’s peers break down and see the problems in the right way to yield interesting results. They provide the right objectives and the right resources against them so the outcomes are as expected or — even better — impressively surprising.

    UX managers are translators. They connect the business strategies down to UX activities and vice-versa. As Sara Koury says in her interview, UX managers translate business strategies into design opportunities for staff. They connect the values and passions of their staff to the work that aligns with the greater business strategy. As the UX team’s work is getting done, they — as Vidya Drego points out — build a case, measure impact, integrate others in the work, then broadcast their story to the organization.

    UX managers measure. Yup, I’m gonna say it: you can’t manage what you can’t measure. And if you’re on the hook for delivering results, you better know how those results are being measured and even have to measure the two or three steps upstream from that revenue-creating-moment that the business cares so deeply for. A UX manager understands the analytics, using the quants for insight and inspiration as much as any qualitative research source.

    UX managers nurture a team. Creative teams are especially dicey. As Margaret Gould Stewart suggests, managers have to build out their team of superheroes that have complementary but different skills that can step forward and lead when the time is right. It creates confidence, camaraderie, and career growth.

    UX managers make tradeoffs. They have to choose where to do the pragmatic or obvious things so they can deliver innovative and impressive experience where it matters. That means coaching (or coaxing?) teams to have the right focus and balancing resources. You know what UX really sucks at Apple? The expense reporting tool. If you get why, you’re a manager.

    Where UX Management is Headed

    OMG is UX Management going to be tested in the months and years to come.

    UX managers’ heads will explode. The cloud, multi-channel, omni-channel, and the sheer spread of the market will make or break UX managers. UX will have to be coordinated and deployed across numerous touchpoints, requiring as Kevin Nolan says, stretching more resources across more screens. Cross-channel architectures will have to be defined. Bets will have to be made of where to be good, where being okay is enough, or where to not be at all.

    They’ll have to partner more closely with new peers. Because experience is increasingly becoming a critical or only remaining point of differentiation, UX managers are often being paired with product managers and development managers to deliver solutions. It’s no longer a reporting relationship, but one where each is responsible for defining overarching strategies for their function that also snap together to form product strategies

    UX managers will need to define experience strategies. Why be on iOS (or not)? Why support a certain customer journey (or not)? Beyond translating business strategy to UX objectives, UX managers will need to define the strategy for the what experiences they deliver and how to deliver them. I’m excited to hear “experience strategy” more often and more confidently being discussed. It’s a focused and decisive plan for how an organization will interact with customers across touchpoints, and UX managers and leaders will need to have the to communicate outward to the organization, their team, and to do their own jobs well.

    UX managers will have to master even more. Agile is just the start. Lean is coming fast. New tools and services supporting UX research and UX design seem to appear daily. There’s the explosion of content strategy and adaptive content happening. Getting more customer insight more frequently to the right teams will be key. New issues like channel strategies, CRM & identity, pricing, and much more will appear. It’s gonna be crazy but fun.

    UX managers will have to scale up teams. Adaptive Path delivered a couple of staffing plans to clients last year as a part of our strategy work. I expect even more cases of that this year. Managers will have to learn how to organize work and grow the skills of teams without being in-touch every day with every team member.

    What UX management has going for it

    Businesses don’t exist for the sake of employees, meetings, PowerPoint, or even profits. They only exist because they provide a useful, desirable, and valuable product to customers, a product that is more and more often considered to be the experience people have. UX managers get that. In droves. More and more the heart of a business will be how continuously re-imagines and delivers the new and right ways to interact with customers.

    There are 19 thoughts on this idea

    1. Andrea Ong Pietkiewicz

      Bingo! I’ve been looking forward to this post ever since it was promised.

      I do beg to differ, though, that UX managers must be in-house. I work in an agency setting, and more often than not, I’m the one who guides our clients in identifying what internal plans, projects, processes, objectives, etc. need to be considered. Too often, whatever is being designed is being approached from the shiny-object perspective. I’m sure you’ve all experienced a client who looks baffled when you ask what KPIs they need to track.

      Not all organizations have the luxury of an in-house team with UX expertise. So when they come to an agency, it’s a great opportunity for the agency to lead.

      Thanks for this great piece!

    2. Paul Daly

      I think you’re right on that pure UX Manager is in-house. You’re competing with Technology, Marketing, Sales, etc. for resources (competing is a harsh word but it’s real–this is the tradeoff part). Management consultants don’t have skin in the game; they go away, their advice can be ignored. The people managing part of a UX Manager happens in any situation. I see it as functional manager vs. people manager–and you really need to be a effective functional manager else you lose your job in a drawdown when they just reassign your people to someone else.

    3. Brandon

      DA, I’ve seen situations like the one you describe. A product manager might make decisions that bring in incrementally more revenue, but also slowly erode the overall value of the product experience.

      A prior client referred to these decisions as “bad revenue.” You make the decision to add a couple of buttons and then a couple more steps to a process to accomodate more revenue opportunities. But after a while you have so many of these “extras” that it gets in the way of sustaining and growing the “good revenue,” that being the exchange of the customers money for the value that they were coming for in the first place.

      While I think these situations are challenging for a UX Manager, I also think it’s that UX Manager’s responsibility to understand the bigger business needs and help the product manager find the right solutions, just as Meliss Matross did at Hotwire.

      Alternatively, if the UX Manager digs in her heals and doesn’t help the product manager find solutions that are better revenue through better UX, the manager risks creating the culture of complaint that Nancy Dickenson warns about.

    4. DA

      Your view on pairing with peers like Product Managers and dev folks that share responsibility of product is great.

      What would be your opinion in scenarios where the Product Managers in an org own the online product and are responsible for UX, revenue and product enhancements but tend to loose focus on UX on account of revenue targets and conversion numbers. UX managers have a diff PoV for the product to be successful on account of UX they deliver but deprioritization of same from PMs on account of their understanding of the product defeats the purpose. Hence the product suffers from delivering great experience to customer and ultimately customers suffers the most.

      Would love to hear your thoughts and opinion on same.

    5. John

      Great article. Particularly like the explaining to your mum point.

      I think it is also an important part of the User-Experience Manager’s is to help define the project and product process’ used throughout the company. E.g. if Agile should be used and how.

    6. Brandon

      John — good point. As Ian Swinson covers in his MX talk about UX leadership roles, “UX managers design the process not the product.”

    7. Teresa Mak

      Thanks Brandon for the awesome article. After going to countless UX events, where being in-house is branded as not so cool, it was great to see others in my shoes at the MX conference, and certainly your article embodies that spirit. More and more I see my role defined by the development of experience strategy over the careful planning of individual products, to the point where I’m trying to influence workplace culture by way of how my team does it’s work.

      Thanks again for the great article!

    8. Michele Ide-Smith

      This is a great article Brandon with some useful points. I work client-side for a software company, managing a small UX team in a division of the company. We are part of a larger UX team (15 people) with a Head of UX. Many of the points you make resonate with me. For example working closely with Product and Development Managers. I am also trying to work closely with Brand / Marketing Managers. However, some of what you say differ to our situation, so I’d like to add our perspective. For example, you mention:

      “UX managers don’t do it themselves, not the work and not the solutions. They’re leaders, as Kipum Lee states, whose job is problem-framing, not problem-solving”.

      I agree it’s preferable for a UX Manager to facilitate the people doing UX work, rather than doing it themselves. However, as with many management roles, in reality this is not always possible. When you have resource constraints you can end up fire fighting and get stuck in doing the work yourself. I think longer term UX leaders have an educational role to play in our organisations to demonstrate that UX Management is a role in itself.

      Secondly, I think the rest of the UX team can usefully contribute to developing process and strategy, even if they are not UX Managers. Our UX team uses a ‘hub and spoke’ model. As UX practitioners we are all embedded in development teams (occasionally two UX per team/project). As a functional UX team, we meet regularly and we work together on improvement projects. At the moment we are working together on improving our recruitment strategy, developing design principles and other internal projects.

      Thanks again for this article, and I look forward to other articles on UX Management which relate to working client-side!

    9. Julianne Bowman

      Great article. Having spent six years managing an inhouse UX department, a lot of this rings true for me.

      I especially agree with the point about managers facilitating the work, but not necessarily getting stuck into it themselves. This is probably the hardest transition to make for anyone moving into management. When I first starting managing my department, I fell into the trap of trying to be hands-on on projects and quickly found that there was just too much going on in my team for me to invest my own design & research time in any one area.

      Rather, I needed to be on top of everything that was going on, how it was being resourced from my team, when my staff would be free to accept other assignments, and whether the work we were being asked to do was actually valuable (in terms of revenue, cost savings, retention, and so on). My role was to see how UX could benefit the organisation and then coach and develop my team’s skills to be the kind of staff the company could not afford to lose. Over time this meant that I went from being someone who ultimately works on interfaces to someone who ultimately makes the case for the value of design thinking and all its related activities.

      So far, so worthwhile. However, I’ve become increasingly aware that UX still isn’t mature enough as an industry to know how to evaluate its senior managers. If I had a penny for every recruiter who’s rung me up and asked to see my “portfolio,” I could take early retirement. My portfolio is now several years old and all my recent work is my team’s. My actual “work” is all the invisible stuff that makes my team’s work happen.

      I’d be curious to know how many really senior managers are still keeping portfolios of their own work. (Not including personal projects.) I suspect there’s not many, but this hadn’t filtered through to the UX recruitment industry because the main demand is for mid- to -senior level practitioners, not mid- to senior-level managers.

    10. j

      thank you – as a digital artist – traditionally from a games industry background – I’ve made a transition to web and needed this clarification especially as this is my first UX role. It is what I thought it was – (thank god) – its great you underlined it so succinctly. Thanks.

    11. Leah Ryz

      Awesome read.

      Nice to see an article that calls out the strategic responsibility UX Managers have, or should take on!


    12. Laurie Kalmanson

      My daughter proudly tells friends that her mom is a ux manager

    13. Rachelle

      “UX managers don’t do it themselves, not the work and not the solutions” – this is such a challenging lesson to learn. Many of us find our way into UX management via a love of all things interface, coupled with hands-on strengths and competencies. That doesn’t always translate to good management. If you don’t get jazzed plotting strategy, finding the right questions to ask, and facilitating the success of others, at some point you have to ask if managing a UX team is really for you. And, as managers, we must provide opportunities for the growth of those who are amazing at what they do, but for whom management is not the right path.

    14. Ali A. Bashiti

      Thank you for the great article Brandon. Although in terms of UX-ness we are lagging behind in the Middle East, it’s great seeing what’s to come. We have begun planting the seeds of Empathy when building products & services in this part of the region. Thanks to your workshops the team I am building are increasingly being recognized for their work in designing A+ experiences.

      Look forward to sending more of my folks over soon.

    15. PJ McCormick

      I think I agree with just about every word in this article. It definitely resonates with my experience at Amazon.

      Excited to be a part of this emerging discipline 🙂

    16. Judy Cotter


      Thank you for this article. It encapsulates my experience as a UX manager. Establishing a new product level experience design team has taken me into unchartered waters. Part evangelist, part practitioner, part grand experimenter. Always focused on the customer, the customer service staff and the design team gets the experience designed, delivered.

    17. Daniel Engelberg

      So does UX management basically cover the overlap between UX design and product management? It sounds like it focuses on the aspects of product management that UX designers do best.

    18. Cátia

      I just wanted to say thanks. Everyday I was struggling with my inner me, because I felt I wasn’t able to be both UX / UI designer and manager of a team of 9. Not because I don’t love one of them, but because managing doing everything you say is really hard work and time consuming and while everything goes smoothly stakeolders don’t seem to recognize.

    19. Danny

      Not all UX managers are female 😉 but the challenges are still very similar. Certainly around UX management Vs hands on UX. I’m in a organization which is to a certain degree, digitally naive, who brandish the phrase UX left, right and center without true understanding.
      I’m a UX team of one with no pathway to follow, no person who’s taken the steps before me. I carved out this role due to my design & dev background, being proactive, seeing errors and costly mistakes and sticking my head out.
      Its taken time, I’m by no means comfortable, I don’t feel a sense of completion. We/I’ve had challenges/still do and with differing line mangers and business direction we’re always thrown curveballs. Despite trying to instill a UCD focused process with partial success, influencing strategy and dev roadmaps – the latest structure changes have resulted in no UX presence in discussions of late. Unfortunately this means reacting to opportunities, often reliant on colleagues asking for assistance.
      One thing I’ve learnt over my UX careers and is certainly evident in my current situation – is to be adaptable! Maybe my job title (as team of one) is misleading, but dependant on project, resource, 3rd parties, budget, timeframes, I try add value – where ever those opportunities present themselves and lean on my all-round UX skills. With other likeminded colleagues, with a team of Uxer’s these responsibilities are easily shared and if you manage a true team rather than functions, you can empower your team to do great things.

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