How do I become senior? Musings on career progression for UXers

In 2015 I spent 9 months teaching people to become UXers as a General Assembly teacher in Melbourne. 

The majority of the students were between 24–32. The younger group had perhaps worked for 2–3 years and decided that they needed additional skills to become a UXer. The older group had been working 5–10 years and UX was to be a new career.

For both of these groups, they were aiming at the end of the course to be Junior to Mid-weight User Experience Designers.

But I also had a group who were in their late 30s — early 50s. This is not a group who want to go into a junior or mid-weight position. They have families and mortgages; they also have 20 plus years working. 

The problem was the industry still considered them to be junior or mid-weight because of their lack of demonstrable technical skills.

I think that is a mistake because this group have skills that are definitely senior — their business and people management skills.

So what actually makes someone senior? 

From a LinkedIn post by Matthew MacDonald, a senior UXer is someone with 5 + years doing UX. He has used this demarkation as the difference between salary bands. I disagree with this divider; even with 5 years experience in UX, if the person does not have people management and business skills they are not senior.

So what do I actually consider are the skills needed to be senior?

There are three aspects for seniority

  1. Technical competency
  2. People management skills
  3. Business skills

Technical competency

Using the T-shaped model discussed by Peter Boersma and further clarified in his extension with business skills to create ‘Shoulder IA’, my expectation is that a senior UXer can technically do any skills within the cross hatch of the T. They should also have found their technical specialism from one of the sub-disciplines of UX — Interaction design, Information architecture, Content strategy, User research and usability, Visual design, or UX Strategy.

Due to many new and improved methods being introduced into UX, I also expect that senior UXers are continuing to update their skills. For example an Information architect should be keeping up with new developments in SEO, web search, semantic web, machine learning, and information retrieval; and a Strategic UXer in customer journey mapping, using business model canvas, and disruption and innovation models.

People management skills

People management gets a bad wrap from many designers; “I just want to do the work, not manage people”.

This is reflected in my funniest interview experience. I was interviewing for a Senior UXer in London to lead the workstream for a large project. The role itself was a practitioner role, but with the responsibility of assigning work to a more junior member of staff. 

Our question to the interviewee was “You are the senior UXer on a project and have to assign work to a more junior member of the team. How would you assign the appropriate work to this person, and work with them to ensure it was completed satisfactorily?”

The interviewee looked at the interview panel in disgust, “No-one told me this is a management position — I don’t do management. It takes away from being a UXer.”

He stood up, gave the interview panel back our business cards and walked out.

This is an extreme case of not wanting to do people management. 

I consider that as you move to being a senior UXer, your role contains some people management — not necessarily being someone’s manager, but the ability to work, guide, mentor and constructively critique work from others.

For a senior UXer, I expect that they will be able to:

  • Discuss design — either one-on-one or via design critiques
  • Assign work to others within a group according to their specialisms or where they want to develop skills
  • Merge work from multiple practitioners into one cohesive deliverable 
  • Be able to work with others, or as Dan Brown writes, “Designing together”
  • Manage your own time

Business skills

Very few of UXers work in an environment where they do not balance design with the pull and push of business. Our role is to design products within the constraints of the business and their users.

There are two aspects to this

  1. Ensuring that we have the skills that allow us to navigate the design from inception to build to release — Politics
  2. Understanding the business we are working for to design the best product that meets the business goals — Business strategy

Politics

This is the hardest one to do — one I get hit over the head constantly, even after 20 years in the business.

From a senior UX perspective, the main skills to learn are:

  • Workshop faciliation —being sucessfully able to bring a group of people together, bring them through a workshop, and extract value from it
  • Project management — understanding how to manage a project, but not necessarily doing it
  • Presentation skills — being a senior UXer means being able to communicate your designs to all audiences, whether it is inside your organisation, clients, users or your peers
  • Stakeholder and opinion leader interviews — these interviews have a dual purpose; to extract information and to ‘hear’ the stakeholder bringing them into the fold of the project
  • Client management 
  • Managing up

The greatest of these skills are Client Management and Managing up. 

Client Management — the art and science of working with, leading and establishing trust with someone for whom you are doing work

Growing from being a worker bee to someone who leads, means you have to deal with people more; or in the majority of our cases — clients, be they internal or external.

As a mid-weight UXer you are probably not exposed to the client that much; there is a senior UXer, Project Manager or Account Manager who is the primary contact and your work is directed by that person.

Becoming a Senior UXer means you need to be ready to establish and lead that relationship. 

The major skills are:

  • Collaboration — being able to work with, not direct the client
  • Active listening — hearing and responding to the client, understanding the undertones of conversations
  • Negotation and persuasion — sometimes the client wants one thing that different to the needs of the users and you need to negotiate a sucessful outcome for both
  • Understanding business priorities and designing your application or site around the limitations of what can be done — this is where you may give up the purity of the design for soemthing that will work well enough in the time that it allocated

Managing up — learning that you need to manage your boss and their bosses as much as the people reporting to you, or the client.

Many times we forget in the depths of a project, that we need to keep the people above informed, so the project isn’t derailed by the politics above.

Unfortunately I have spent my professional life trying, failing, getting a little better, and failing a little less. My worst experiences were in organisations where I was matrix managed (how many bosses did I have at the BBC… 2,3,4 or 6?) and ones where I wasn’t just on the same wavelength as my boss.

My number one question I now ask my boss is, “What can I do to make you successful in this organisation?”

The skills are the same as managing a client, but are inward focused. 

And lastly Business strategy

As I discussed above, there will be a time where the puriy of the UX and the product will need to be moulded to the needs of the business.

A digital product will not last long in the market if it does not make money or provide value to the organisation. And as you become a Senior UX you need to be more aware of what that means: 

  1. The product features that are developed first — developing the Minimum Viable product
  2. Understanding how the product or service will make money (ROI) or be benefical to the company (reduce costs)

Your role is to understand application of business strategy to the UX work you are doing.

I see that many UXers in the early to mid stages of their careers 'miss' this aspects of working with the business. 

At Deeper T, we focus on developing these skills so people can become senior. If you are interested in learning more, please follow us @deeperTUX

UX Leadership Roles: Multiple Paths

Over the last 15 years, I’ve had a recurring conversation with senior UX professionals: “I want to progress in UX, but I’m not sure I really want to manage teams.” It seems to many that the one way up is the management track—and in many organizations, this is the only upward path for UX professionals.

In my long and varied career working on staff within companies and for clients in agencies and consultancies, I have seen many roles in User Experience that need a senior, mature person—some with people-management responsibilities; others that continue to focus on product design. These roles include the following:

  • Creative Director
  • UX Principal
  • Team Leader
  • UX Manager
  • UX Project Lead

Each of these UX professionals plays a specific role within an organization. For senior UX professionals, their quandary is to work out which role is required when and what role suits them best. 

Before I get into describing each of these roles in detail, let me tell you a story. Many moons back, I worked for a digital agency as Head of UX, reporting to the Head of Strategy. The UX team was small—just three people—and we had just landed a large project for a telecommunications company. I had left the BBC to join the company and was expecting to be Head of UX—a UX Leadership role with more direction setting and less doing. However, the role was, in actuality, more of a UX Principal role, in which I was doing the work, running the workshops, and acting as the connector between the agency departments and our clients; and less that of a manager, creating the methods and business offerings for the department and managing the team.

I was unhappy and stretched thin. There was no time to hire more people to do the work because I was busy leading UX projects and no time to manage the more junior members of the team, who needed mentoring and got caught up in the details. It was the wrong situation for me, and I had no idea how to get out of it without just leaving the company.

This isn’t the situation in which I want senior UX professionals to find themselves. Instead, they should know about the different types of roles that may have the title UX Manager, so they can make a clear decision about what job they should accept based on what their strengths are, where they want to take their career, and how they want to get there.

Creative Director

The Creative Director … is a UX role for the person who leads the creative portion of a project. This person comes up with ideas, thinks of possibilities, sets the direction for the design solution, works creatively with the client or the project team, and lets others do the details.

The first role I want to describe is the Creative Director. This role is not to be confused with a Visual Design or Branding role. It is a UX role for the person who leads the creative portion of a project. This person comes up with ideas, thinks of possibilities, sets the direction for the design solution, works creatively with the client or the project team, and lets others do the details.

The Creative Director will probably not be a strong project manager, worrying about resource management or allocation because details are not his strong suit. But a Creative Director is vital to each project and comes up with and holds the creative vision.

  • Ideal role for the Creative Director:
    • Acts as the creative lead on one or two major projects.
    • Provides input to and reviews the other projects in the team’s remit.
  • The wrong roles for someone who wants to play the role of a Creative Director:
    • UX Principal—responsible for doing the detailed work
    • UX Project Lead—coordinating people and their contributions to a project
  • Role to support the Creative Director: UX Manager—managing staffing resources and workstreams

UX Principal

The UX Principal loves doing the detailed work and coming up with new UX design ideas. 

UX Principal is a role that very rarely exists within organizations, but when it is does, it is very valuable in keeping senior UX professionals doing what they enjoy and in creating great work.

The UX Principal loves doing the detailed work and coming up with new UX design ideas. This person works well with clients and stakeholders because he is passionate about user experience and identifying the right solution, possesses maturity, and has client-management experience.

The UX Principal leaves the team management to someone else. Though he can take responsibility for some workstream leadership, taking responsibility for this sort of work isn’t his natural state. The ideal number of people this person would manages on a project is two.

The UX Principal may also be called a UX Strategist and have responsibility for identifying the UX strategy for an organization, product, Web site, or application. The difference between a UX Principal and a UX Manager is the role they play within an organization. A UX Principal likes to be a thinker and doer, not a politician or manager. In contrast, a UX Manager takes responsibility for team management.

  • Ideal role for the UX Principal: Leads UX work on one project
  • The wrong roles for someone who wants to play the role of a UX Principal:
    • UX Manager—only managing the team and their work
    • UX Project Lead—coordinating people and their contributions to a project
  • Roles to support the UX Principal:
    • Project Manager—coordinating the work of others on the team
    • UX Manager—taking away the people-management burden and acting as a trusted support within the organization

Team Leader

The Team Leader likes to lead the work and has project-management skills, so can do resource management across project workstreams.

The Team Leader role is slightly different from the UX Principal role because it involves more coordination and mentoring of team members. The Team Leader likes to lead the work and has project-management skills, so can do resource management across project workstreams. He also likes to work with clients.

I see the Team Leader role as still being very focused on detailed work, but gaining the experience to move into a pure UX Manager role or possibly deciding to move to a UX Principal role that has fewer managerial responsibilities.

Many Head of UX roles in digital agencies are actually Team Leader roles. Their work needs to be very billable and they lead the work with clients. However, the managerial role of leading the UX strategy for an organization and managing people is less important to them.

  • Ideal role for the Team Leader: Leads UX work on multiple projects, leveraging his good time-management and mentoring skills.
  • The wrong roles for someone who wants to play the role of a Team Leader:
    • UX Manager—only managing the team and their work
    • Creative Director—acting as the creative lead on a project, but without responsibility for the details
  • Roles to support the Team Leader:
    • UX Manager—providing senior management support to grow the Team Leader’s management and technical skills
    • Project Manager—providing project management support for the Team Leader’s multiple projects

UX Manager

The UX Manager is not expected to contribute to detailed project work, but may lead UX design reviews and review deliverables from designers and researchers.

In this purely managerial role, the UX Manager is not expected to contribute to detailed project work, but may lead UX design reviews and review deliverables from designers and researchers. Devising UX strategy for the organization or major clients may be part of this role, as is working with peers in other disciplines to lead the organization’s vision.

The UX Manager is responsible for developing the people on his team—in particular, junior and mid-level members of the team; working with the business to understand what it needs from the UX team; and identifying opportunities or creating new products. He enjoys project planning and resource management for a program of UX work.

Management roles range from middle management that is responsible for managing a team to a Director or VP of UX role that is part of the senior leadership team leading the strategic direction of the company or clients.

  • Ideal role for the UX Manager:
    • Manages a program of work and the people on each project.
    • Develops a UX team to meet the business’s requirements.
  • The wrong roles for someone who wants to play the role of a UX Manager:
    • UX Principal—leading UX design and/or research on one project, with no people-management responsibilities
    • Creative Director—acting as the creative lead on a project, but without responsibility for detailed design
  • Roles to support the UX Manager:
    • UX Principal—providing detailed design and/or research and UX leadership on individual projects
    • Creative Director—establishing a symbiotic relationship to cover the details and the vision

UX Project Lead

The UX Project Lead … manages the direction of User Experience on a single project. This person likes working with stakeholders and clients to take a project to completion.

The last of these roles is the UX Project Lead, who manages the direction of User Experience on a single project. This person likes working with stakeholders and clients to take a project to completion. While the UX Project Lead leads the UX team, he does not do any detailed design or research work. In contrast to the Creative Director, though he may not develop the creative vision, he makes sure it gets implemented.

In some organizations, this role overlaps with or may fall under Product Management. However, it still focuses on User Experience.

  • Ideal role for the UX Project Lead:
    • Leads the development of a product or has responsibility for project management for the development of a UX design solution.
    • Is responsible for holding the product vision.
  • The wrong roles for someone who wants to play the role of a UX Project Lead:
    • UX Principal—leading UX design and/or research on one project, but with no people-management responsibilities
    • Creative Director—acting as the creative lead on a project, but without responsibility for detailed design or cross-project coordination
  • Roles to support the UX Project Lead:
    • UX Principal—providing detailed design and/or research and UX leadership on individual projects
    • Creative Director—establishing a symbiotic relationship to cover the details and the vision

Conclusion

The definitions of these five roles can provide a framework for senior UX professionals who want to move forward in their careers. By looking at their strengths, what they enjoy about their job, and their career goals, they can decide which of these paths they actually want to take to become a UX leader. 

Originally published on UX Matters in September 2016

Why another UX conference? The reasons I have launched Deeper T

In 2015 I returned back to Australia, after many years overseas. I had been successful working in my chosen field of User Experience working for organisations as diverse as the BBC, Argus Associates (Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville’s first IA company) and Time Out.

I was lucky to be introduced to a General Assembly by another ex-BBCer Mike Atherton and arrived back in Melbourne ready to teach career changers.

I taught three cohorts of students who ranged in work experience from straight out of high school, to working in industry for close to 30 years. With my TAs (Alex and Laura) we turned out 38 UX professionals.

But (and this is a big but) for a large number of the students they were working for the first time in project groups, managing clients and leading workshops. We only touched on this at General Assembly – our focus was teaching them the basics of UX, in particular iterative design and usability testing.

For the next 2.5 years, I’ve answered questions about deep IA, how to run a workshop, working with developer and how to scope a project.

General Assembly or university courses do not provide these answers to their students; neither are there conferences or workshops that focus on the complete professional. We expect that our juniors, mid weights and intermediate UX professionals will pick up these skills at work. This is a bit of a crap shoot, if a person gets a great manager then they develop these skills being shaped and mentored in each project; if not there are very few people that a UX professional can contact.

This is why Deeper T exists.

I recognised that our profession needs ‘complete’ UX professionals with technical, people and business skills, and this is not the technical unicorn everyone talks about.

So what do I mean by technical, business and people skills.

Technical skills – I get loads of questions and phone calls about deep IA and content strategy, as my ex-students work on projects where information has to be structured. They know the basics (mainly how to prototype and test), but past that anything that requires more in-depth research, or more that web/app interfaces they are stumped. The technical skills arena is where there is plenty of competition in the market — this is what’s taught.

Working with People – part of User Experience is working with others; in multi-disciplinary teams, with stakeholders, with clients, and with users. UX professionals need to hone these skills to be successful. And like most people working in teams is not instinctual. This is learning how to work with others, manage your own time, work out how to compromise, and give direction.

Business skills – moving forward in a UX career means working closer with business and product. UXers therefore need to understand the basics of business and how to measure impact on their organisations and users. Many UXers start off thinking their projects are just all about the user, and so it continues for many practitioners, but to be successful you need to provide value to the business; talking in their terms, presenting well, understanding ROI and working closely with product managers.

Deeper T has many parts to it, because a set of workshops does not do it all

We offer

  • One-on-one coaching
  • Training in house
  • Workshops
  • Career planning

But let’s start with the workshops…