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Building and Managing UX Teams: A 360 Degree Guide

by
Dave Malouf
Dave Malouf

At some point, people will follow you, listen to you, or otherwise be engaged with what you’re trying to achieve.

Leadership comes naturally to some. The other 99% of us have to work hard at it.

How Design Leaders Build Teams

Building a team that scales over time is one of the biggest challenges for any leader.

As I explained in The Guide to UX Leadership, The first order of business is to understand the factors at play and imagine the future.

1. Visualize your team’s future

Block out some time to sit and focus on the big picture—to  sketch out your team vs. the workload vs. imagined changes to the rest of your organization.

Work with collaborators to ensure the vision is feasible (given the workload and organization). Accept that the only constant in the future is that it isn’t predictable.

Start off by looking at roadmaps across your organization’s portfolio of products and services, then drill down into each one to understand the tasks requested of you and your future team. From there, work with your collaborators to create broad estimates and roughly determine the scope of work required, plus the number of UX team members you’ll need.

At some point you need to start with an estimate of the resource required against that roadmap.

Let’s say you see 6 projects emerging over the next 6 months to a year. You take that map and layer over it your recruiting durations. How long does it take you to recruit and ramp up a new hire? What resource can you attach to each project?

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If time is a problem because projects surprise you, you should supplement hiring with contractor availability. Sticking with the same contractors shortens ramp up time.

2. Break out the skills you need

Once you have a picture of the future, you then deconstruct the skills required to achieve that vision.

Some skills may not be in your domain, but you need to list them just so you know you’ve got them all. Create an affinity chart of the skills broken down by category.  Ask for cross-functional leaders to evaluate them, add to them, and re-categorize as you all see fit.

Lay out the skills (not the roles) you need because our attempts at categorizing what we do (especially in our world of digital design, titles, roles) has been a complete failure (ironic, I know).

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As you can see in the above image, I laid out the skills first in an “unattributed skills” list. Then I use my expected roles and ensure that all the skills line up to titles that I’m confident I can hire for. This is incomplete on purpose since the details and role groups depend on your context.

Clearly document all the skills you need. Some may seem like universal skills, but you’ll find it will make a difference later on as an evaluation checklist.

3. Start your recruiting

Now, you build job descriptions.

Consider how roles will change during the time of the vision you set out. You also need to imagine how people will be promoted and gain leadership for themselves. Finally, you need to consider how you’ll need to change and grow as a leader to keep up with your team.

The trick is hiring for short term needs with an eye for longer term needs.

When you hire your first 3–5 people, you’ll most likely hire broad generalists (since no single function will have enough work to separately hire, say, a visual designer, an interaction designer, and a researcher). You may even need people who do all three of those things—plus front-end development.

The question is how and when you prepare to start specializing within the organization. Like the evolution of any organism, at some point, cells need to specialize more and more. Specialization needs clear pathways for career growth and promotion, too.

4. Evaluate and hire the right candidates

When it comes to actual candidate evaluation, the best methods do two things: focus on skills and outcomes, and consider the needs of everyone working with this individual.

How does a candidate tell their story about how their skills lead to direct outcomes/results in their work?

When looking for a culture fit, beware that you don’t make the mistake of “hiring people like me”.  

For this purpose, the book Hire With Your Head is a great read.

Managing and Coaching Designers

Once you have a team, leadership boils down to how well you oversee and develop direct reports.

1. Become a buffer

Give air cover. Take the heat about negative team perception, and defend the team without them knowing.

Remember that translating messages from executives is about making it relevant. A strategy about meeting margin growth through reducing redundancy needs to translate into something that directly affects how the design team changes workflow. For example, you can explain that the team needs to now create a design system to help developers scale code over time.

Often as designers we get fixated with the answers we came up with. Then we feel demoralized when we are told, “But that doesn’t work for the business.”

When I was managing the design team at Intralinks, we were trying to increase our offering into new spaces. By explaining the constraints of the design problems as a business driver, instead of something we should feel victim to, we energized the team and worked towards some pretty neat designs that didn’t cost nearly as much.

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2. The One-on-One (1:1)

There are three types of 1:1 meetings you should be holding on a regular basis that include (but may not be not limited to) your team:

  • With your direct reports.
  • With your peers.
  • With your supervisor.

Meet weekly with each member of your team and bi-weekly with your peers. (You can add other people, should you feel regular contact is important.)

Direct reports should own this meeting. The agenda of the meeting needs to focus on how their current work addresses their short and long term career needs—it’s not a status update. This is a coaching session, first and foremost.

Meeting with peers on a regular basis helps you limit surprises, not to mention uncover situations where you can help. Control the pace and own these meetings.

For 1:1s with your manager, take what your direct reports said, then flip the roles. Everyone needs coaching and you’re  not excluded—no matter how senior you are. Hold yourself responsible for making sure that your manager doesn’t highjack the meeting.

You’ll also want to meet with these roles on a regular basis:

  • Technology heads
  • Key cross-functional people
  • Human resources representatives.

i. Technology heads (monthly)

Stay up-to-date on the technology of the business, its progress, and trends. Meeting with people inside the technology groups of the organization will help you prepare for what is coming your way. Own the agenda of these meetings, but let them pivot in reaction with the conversation flow.

Consider asking the following questions:

  • What are the expected upcoming roadblocks? (Especially between your teams and theirs).
  • As a manager, what issues do you face related to your team’s development? Is there any way I can help?

ii. Key cross-functional people (monthly)

Whether this is product management, sales & marketing, or customer service/engagement, you must connect yourself to the pulse of the organization.

Each one of these departments helps you develop insight into the business and keep ahead of problems. They will also help you set your team’s long-term agenda.

Here is a generalized list of questions to stay on track with each department:

  • How can my team help with any problems your team is experiencing?
  • What is your schedule? (Does it line up as expected with your own?)

  • What issues are keeping you awake at night?

iii. Human resources representatives (monthly or bi-weekly)

Most leaders seem to forget these meetings. Believe it or not, HR is an amazing resource for you.

Reviewing your staffing, current performance, and future needs against the business demands gives you a source of reflection from a key advisor available to you. Too few managers really use their HR team in this strategic way.

This is less about questions and more about a chance to get good council. Consider discussing the following points:

  • My team is having these pains, do you have any suggestions for helping us get back on track?
  • Here are my recruiting needs. How can we meet those needs more quickly?
  • Is there anything coming down the pike that I’ll need to be communicating to my team soon? What can I do to prepare now?

Developing Your Designers

There’s a half-true statement bandied about among managers: “People don’t leave jobs. People leave their managers.”

Personally, I’ve left jobs even when I loved my managers, so I know this statement is only partially true. A good manager is actually at the heart of why people stay.

The managers we remember most are the ones who helped us grow.

Focus on these two areas on when developing your team.

  • Short-term tactics.
  • Long-term development.

1. Short Term Tactics

Discuss assignments in full detail, then have them lead you through the places where they expect the work to be easy, or possibly a stretch. Dig down and understand what they mean with each answer and whether or not that maps against your own experience.

There is even an entire framework developed for this purpose that I highly recommend called Situational Leadership II (Don’t forget the “II”—it matters.) The framework helps a leader and a team member assess their situation and figure out the right level, type of guidance, and support they need.

1:1 meetings also help you hold each other accountable through its shared language. This will set up the near-inevitable periodic evaluations that inform bonuses and pay increases.

2. Long-Term Development

For your junior direct reports, long-term development is about helping them understand possibilities.

Whenever I work with someone new, I always ask them “What do you want to do in 5 years?” It’s a nice time frame, one where hopefully a new employee still sees themselves at the company, yet also far enough out where the level of achievement is really up to them.

In these conversations, you need to create a job matrix (see below) that outlines the levels of each employee against the skills, behaviors, and outcomes expected from someone at that level. This way, everyone in the organization sees their growth path. They know what’s needed to move from step 1 to 3 in a period of time. 

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A few details to note in the above image:

  1. Each role has number of years experience, but also number of years expected in that position before growth to next level.
  1. I’ve plotted out where core qualities should fall on a spectrum of proficiency.
  1. I’ve summarized each core quality with a simple quote that represents mastery.

Like any strategic agenda, the patterns are the same:

  • Understand the vision.
  • See the possible paths for achievement.
  • Pick the initial steps along the way.
  • Set clear goals explaining impact on the individual and business.
  • Evaluate and adjust as you go.

Managing Up & Across

I’m sure many people are familiar with the phrase “managing up.” In my experience, what it means is owning your relationship with your manager.

But how do you do that? Well, leading is making sure things go well, right?

Here are some basic tips (that you’ll also find helpful with cross-functional peers).

1. Don’t make people guess what you mean

There’s a training opportunity for you here—it’s called Precision Q&A. The gist of it is that you can always better clarify your words and intent.

If I say I need a tall building, that’s great, but how tall is tall? Shouldn’t I give scale? Isn’t there a big difference between a 10-story building and a 100-story building? Or, if I ask for something, perhaps I should mention who it’s for and why it’s required?

In other words, be crystal clear when making requests.

Being a leader also means listening to requests. Own the responsibility of clarity there, as well. Ensure you fully understand what you think you heard. If nothing else, repeat the request back to the person in your own words to double-check.

2. Be visible in what you and your team do

People usually don’t notice what happens in their peripheral awareness, especially if it doesn’t catch their attention.

That’s why it’s so essential to highlight your contributions, promote your team, and speak up about their business value. (And especially, don’t ever take credit for other people’s work.)

Conclusion

Leading requires followers. These followers need to respect and value you. The best way to do this is to build them up, protect them, and forge new paths so they can grow.

Like everything I described in The Guide to UX Leadership, this requires specific actions:

  • Analysis
  • Vision
  • Planning
  • Evaluation
  • Communication

To see that anything goes well at scale requires good people next to you, behind you, and in front of you. Taking ownership of your 360 degrees of relationships is the strongest guiding principle for success.

For more advice based on 20+ years of UX experience, download the free Guide to UX Leadership by Dave Malouf.

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Dave Malouf

by Dave Malouf

Dave was mostly recently the Principal Experience Strategist at Hewlett Packard Enterprise where he helps create a viable insights and strategy practice based on empathy and data analytics. He has worked in front-end design for the past 20 years. In his previous role at Rackspace, Dave lead the interaction design team as a Sr. Manager of Product Design. His other roles have included senior UX positions and leadership roles at Motorola and Intralinks. Dave is also an active speaker and writer. His work has been published at BoxesAndArrows.com, Core77.com, UXMatters.com, UIGarden.net and JohnnyHolland.com as well as in print for Interactions Magazine. He has spoken at IDSA, Interaction, IA Summit, UI Conf, and have taught workshops for private corporations and local UX organizations around the world. He is also the Founder of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), program co-chair of Rosenfeld Media's Enterprise UX conference, and a former Professor of Interaction Design at Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD).

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