Working as a UX-lead

April 8, 2019

As I have just outlined what I think it's like working as a UX designer, I thought it would make sense to follow up with what I'm doing most of the time these days - the work of a UX-lead. The response to my post about working as a UX designer was super positive and I think that was partially due to that anxiety we all have if we are 'doing the right thing' in our roles. When I transitioned to a UX-lead a few years ago, I also had a similar bout of anxiety over what this role would actually entail and what success would look like. So, if anyone of you is thinking of transitioning into this role now - or in the future of your career - I thought sharing my experience might be helpful. I should point out that the below reflections are merely just that - reflections from my career and just like with UX design, the work is ultimately what you make of it.

The title sort of gives it away

The title says it all, as a UX-lead there's far less design and much more leading. For the past year I've been leading a UX team at IKEA and I would estimate that the total design time I've spent is probably less than 80 hours. A first change in my workflow between being a UX-designer and a UX-lead is that I've had to swap Figma out for Excel and Powerpoint. The second major change is that my calendar has gone from 3-4 meetings per week to at least 3-4 meetings per day. **

As a designer, the majority of my week was unscheduled. With the help of my PM and design manager, I could protect my “maker’s schedule.” Almost every day, I had a 2–4 hour chunk for “deep work”, as Cal Newport defines it, time “to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” On an average week, about 80% of my calendar was unscheduled, and 20% was scheduled.

I had the opposite as a product manager — 80% was scheduled and 20% was unscheduled. I needed to ruthlessly manage my time.

One benefit of having the title of “product manager” is that you can invite yourself to any meeting and “have a seat at the table” — something designers often yearn for. But you lose your uninterrupted time by going to all those important (and some unimportant) meetings. It’s much harder to get into the flow states needed to solve gnarly problems.Reflections from a designer turned product manager: 6 unexpected differences

To tackle this, I proposed scheduling "meeting-free" days, something that I was afraid to do, but then was surprised when it was met with positivity and even adopted by many others in the management team. When thinking about what kind of role you want to have and what kind of work you want to do, I think one of the key questions to ask yourself is: When do I do my best work? For me, I've learned that I need uninterrupted time to tackle tasks and without a clear deadline - if there's a meeting in 30 minutes, a gap of 1.5 hours is desirable before the next meeting.

What, how - and why

I often have to explain UX to people as something that's not just about what a feature should do, but also about how it should do it. Well, being a UX-lead is all of that and also being able to explain to stake holders, engineers, designers, and other team members why it should do something. Depending on which group you're explaining it to, you'll need to be able to justify it from a user, functional, or a business perspective as well.

I’ve always found “why” we’re building something as interesting as “how.” To put it another way, the problem-setting was as important to me as the problem-solving. This part of the product development process was often owned by PMs, not designers.Reflections from a designer turned product manager: 6 unexpected differences

One of the first things I did as a UX lead was to create a UX Strategy for the entire project (my next long post will cover this so sign up for my newsletter to make sure you won't miss it). A UX strategy is a definition of how we as a team define UX, what our priorities are, and how we choose to approach it. It should define our goals, but also our ways of working.

Managing people

My last full-time job before freelancing was as a Creative Director where I managed both designers and developers, so I had experience with this part. What's interesting to see is how my approach to managing designers have grown and evolved over the past decade. I've gone from being driven by the possibility of leading a team to getting the responsibility and trust of managing a team. My work is not to make decision, but to help guide designers make the right decisions.

“This is the crux of management: It is the belief that a team of people can achieve more than a single person going it alone. It is the realization that you don’t have to do everything yourself, be the best at everything yourself, or even know how to do everything yourself. Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together.”Julie Zhuo - “The Making of a Manager”

Is this for you?

Just like growth in companies - I think it's wise to question whether a move into leading a team is what's right for you.

We need the right kind of growth. Growth is not necessarily about stepping on the gas pedal, it can also be about steering in the right direction.William Nordhaus

While going from UX-design to UX-lead may feel like a promotion, it's important to know that it's also a very different role. Don't assume this is a natural step in your career, it's also a shift. If you love design, stay within that field.

For me personally, I've always been inspired and driven by the possibility of teaching and sharing my experiences with more junior designers. As a consultant, I have the possibility to switch between the two - I take projects as a UX-lead and then I can switch to design in the next project.

“I’m by no means a management expert. I’ve learned largely by doing, and despite my best intentions, I’ve made countless mistakes. But this is how anything in life goes: You try something. You figure out what worked and what didn’t. You file away lessons for the future. And then you get better. Rinse, repeat.”Julie Zhuo - “The Making of a Manager”

While I may have felt that anxiety during the first moments of this career shift, I have found the experience rewarding and fulfilling. Being in leadership has shown me that I can impact the project - and the related users - in positive ways, guide a team of talented designers and support staff in creating awesome deliverables, and know that good work was accomplished that day. Don't get me wrong, this is definitely a different level of stress and it isn't for everyone, but I want to encourage any of you that have questions about what it is to be a UX-lead to reach out to me and I'll do my best to answer them!

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