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Jan 24, 2022

Effective UX leadership: 5 qualities that will make you a great UX leader

Leaders in the UX industry share their thoughts and experience on what makes a great UX leader, the skills needed, and how to develop them.

UX leadership is about bringing people together to achieve a shared vision. Effective UX leaders know how to align and inspire the team to create compelling user experiences that delight customers, gain the support of business executives, and lead to better products.

UX leaders are more than experienced UX practitioners or managers. They define outcomes and direction but also empower their teams to deliver the best results. They listen to team members and help them grow by providing them with the support and resources needed.

To better understand what defines UX leadership and what essential qualities and skills are needed to succeed in a UX leadership role, we spoke to UX design leaders at PayFit, LeaseQuery, Coursera, Avast, and Webex. In this article, we'll explore what it takes to become a great UX leader and conclude with a list of recommended books for current and aspiring leaders.

How to become a better UX leader

To become a better UX leader, you need to understand the expectations and responsibilities of your leadership position, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and create a plan to address the gaps in your knowledge.

Self-awareness is one of the most important things if you are a UX leader or you are planning to become one. Knowing yourself, improving yourself, and managing the appropriate balance in your own life is crucial to being a good leader.

Thais Souza, Design Director at PayFit

It's essential to start with a self-assessment. Which leadership qualities do you think you have? Which would you like to develop? “One way of developing your self-awareness skills is to build a feedback culture around you and be always open to receiving feedback from your boss, team members, and stakeholders,” explains Thais Souza, Design Director at PayFit.

Becoming a great leader also requires continuous learning and growth. As Jackie Dane, Director of User Experience at LeaseQuery, points out, “Find others in the industry who are leading successful teams and follow them. Stay in touch with your mentors throughout your career, and keep in mind, your mentors don't necessarily work in UX.”

5 Essential UX leadership skills

The skills required to become a great UX leader vary from technical skills, such as solid knowledge of UX design principles and processes and how to create a UX vision and strategy, to soft skills, such as empathy, being open to feedback, and effective communication. Let's take a look at the most important skills and how you can best develop them.

Effective leaders are curious, vulnerable, bold, and humble. We ask questions, even when it's hard or scary. We show up with vulnerability and engage in tough conversations and feedback discussions to help others grow into their own leadership. We are bold in vision but humble enough to stand corrected and change course when needed.

Cheryl Couris, Director of Design at Webex

Leading with empathy

For Thais, there is not a unique thing that will make you a good UX leader but a combination of many qualities such as empathy, integrity, humility, resilience, vision, confidence, positivity, among others. Yet, she thinks empathy is key in driving you to be a better UX leader.

Being a leader is a continuous learning process and understanding where people are coming from helps facilitate a more human environment. After all, what’s more important to human communication than understanding others?

Thais Souza, Design Director at PayFit

There are a few practices you can focus on to strengthen your ability to lead with empathy. Ask open-ended questions to learn about how a person feels, focus on deep listening, and show your openness to learning and solving problems together.

As Jackie points out, "A UX leader should be a coach, guide, and listener. It’s very similar to UX research. We need to listen carefully and observe to understand what our team members need to do their best. Then we help them work together and lean on each other to succeed."

Building exceptional UX teams

Great leaders understand that success results from teamwork—they're responsible for hiring UX professionals, developing them, and bringing them together in a team.

Here are some best practices from Thais to help you manage and lead a UX team:

Create a UX vision and strategy to guide the team along the way

“I still see many product and design teams making decisions on impulse as they're developing the product, leading to a lack of purpose and results. It's important to translate the vision into a clear UX strategy to decide what actions to take and what not to do,” says Thais.

A well-defined UX strategy gives the team a clear direction to follow and keeps everyone focused on solving the right problems for the users and the business. It shows why certain decisions have been made, what the team will be working on, and how their work will impact the company. A UX strategy is a powerful tool for motivating and inspiring your team to achieve better results.

Build a strong and empowered team

As Thais points out, “It's vital that you not only recruit but also develop and reward the team to carry out the strategy.”

Try to get to know your team members on a more personal level–this will help you build stronger connections with them and better understand their needs, aspirations, or concerns. Also, make sure to set clear goals and expectations with your team and break those goals into smaller milestones. This way, you can measure progress, evaluate what's working and what needs improvement, and celebrate your team's achievements along the way.

Create a continuous learning culture

“You should always encourage innovation and learning to sustain your team and grow new leaders,” says Thais. There are different ways to nurture curiosity and continuous learning in your team members, such as providing them with opportunities to attend workshops and conferences or sharing your own continuous learning journey to inspire and motivate them to do so as well. Also, try to encourage team members to set their own learning goals and share them with the rest of the team–this will show you what they want to learn and make them accountable for reaching the goals.

Promoting a culture of feedback

The general sense of what I think about leading and managing a UX team is like having a dialogue. I need to understand how team members are working together and individually to know their strengths and weaknesses. Feedback is essential for improving and helps build that awareness.

Mark Wu, Head of UX & Design at Avast

Communication is the backbone of effective leadership—but only when it's an ongoing process. That's why you need to give feedback regularly to your team and be open to receiving feedback about your performance. Mark Wu, Head of UX & Design at Avast shares his tips for creating a feedback culture:

  1. Create a safe environment. Create an environment where people feel safe to give and receive feedback. If there’s an issue, people should be able to speak up and share their points of view.
  2. Use different forms of feedback. You can use different types of feedback, including real-time feedback, 1:1 meetings where the UX manager and their direct report can share opinions, provide updates or resolve issues, or 360 surveys to see how everyone in the team can do better in their role or improve their skills.
  3. Express vulnerability. People would not be sure about what they can say if you sit there without revealing what you genuinely think or feel. Acknowledging your fears, challenges, doubts, or when you're wrong will open up more room for people to give feedback and be open about what they think.
  4. Use frameworks to help you remain objective. Frameworks such as the Four-Step Feedback Model or the OSCAR feedback model can help you provide better feedback and be honest but with care. “If there’s a major problem, you want to make it clear. And if things are going well, you want to explain that. But it’s about not making things sound worse or better than they are,” says Mark. “I think that’s a skill that can be developed and frameworks can help you do that.”

You should also encourage team members to give feedback to each other. It's a great way to improve performance and ensure team alignment and communication.

Samuel Moreau, VP of Design & Research at Coursera, says, "We do a lot of design reviews, standups, share-outs. We often do a thing called 'I need help.' Someone would say, 'I’m working on this thing, I need help,' and then everyone would give them feedback and help them move forward. It’s a 15-minute session where people get design feedback from other designers working in another area."

The benefits? "It makes everyone more aware of the work going on. It makes the work better because you have a lot of eyes on it quickly. Also, it creates a more collaborative environment because you’re not afraid of showing your work," Samuel explains.

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Delegating effectively

Delegation is a powerful UX leadership skill. It allows you to free up time and focus on high-level tasks such as strategic thinking and coaching and mentoring the UX team. Plus, it’s a great tool to empower UX professionals and help them build new skills by giving them greater autonomy.

Delegating is hard, right? A defined process and clear communication are key, so everyone can expect what the task or assignment looks like.

Cheryl Couris, Director of Design at Webex

Here’s how to delegate effectively:

  • Define the task and be clear about the outcomes you want to achieve
  • Choose the right person or team to delegate the task to
  • Assess your team members experience, workload, and development needs to provide the proper support
  • Explain the reason for delegating the task to that particular individual or team
  • Set performance standards and agree on realistic deadlines
  • Don't forget to provide feedback and give people the recognition they deserve

Cheryl Couris, Director of Design at Webex, says: "We have a Kanban board in Jira and usually kick off each two-week sprint with a planning session to discuss and assign projects and tasks.”

"Recently, I kicked off a major initiative to define the 12+ month vision for our product—this is something that takes a village and I could never do it alone. I gathered the resources and requirements in a FigJam file and huddled with designers across eight different scrum teams to assign who would do what," Cheryl continues. "I find having a name on each item is helpful. Knowing who is responsible for each piece of the puzzle promotes accountability and clarifies who will deliver what.”

Evangelizing UX

As a UX leader, an important role you’ll play is evangelizing UX and acting as a champion for user-focused design with the rest of the organization. Here are a few tips for making your UX work visible and engaging to the rest of the product teams and business stakeholders.

“It takes togetherness to ship and build software, especially at scale. That's why I tend to be very inclusive with the other disciplines such as product and engineering in the design process,” says Samuel. “My strategy is to bring people in. One of the first things I do is invite everyone to brainstorm and make everything about sketching.”

Not everyone can go into Figma and understand how to build beautiful designs and prototypes, but everyone can draw a line, a box, a circle. This way, the act of designing is open to everyone.

Samuel Moreau, VP of Design & Research at Coursera

According to Cheryl, one common reason organizations are hesitant to adopt user-focused design practices is either lack of UX knowledge or proof of the value UX design can bring to the product and the business. "My biggest tip is to find a partner in your organization that you can collaborate with. Work together to do some low-key user-focused validation or iteration, gather the feedback or data, and do a read-out for visibility," says Cheryl. "Correlate your work to business outcomes and define how you will measure success. Then, follow up and repeat."

Tip 💡

Discover how to measure the success and progress of your UX activities with these essential KPIs for UX teams.

"I also find getting stakeholders bought in from the beginning is helpful—meet one-on-one to listen and be curious. Working to address an executive’s top few concerns is a great way to build shared investment in UX as a practice," says Cheryl.

1. ‘The Making of a Manager’ by Julie Zhuo

“In this book, Julie provides honest insights into what it means to be a manager and how to best transition into a managerial role. Definitely worth a read if you're a manager or looking to become one.”Thais Souza, Design Director at PayFit.

Like most first-time managers, Julie Zhuo, former design VP at Facebook, wasn't given any formal training and had no resources to turn to for help. It took her years to find her way, but now she's offering you the shortcut to success. Whether you're new to the job or a veteran leader, The Making of a Manager is the handbook you need to be the kind of manager you've always wanted.

2. ‘Radical Candor’ by Kim Scott

“I read books on UX and books on leadership. Right now, I’m reading ‘Radical Candor’ by Kim Scott and loving it."Jackie Dane, Director of User Experience at LeaseQuery.

Radical Candor offers valuable tools that any team leader or manager can use to build better, stronger relationships with their employees. The book reveals an insightful approach to management that creates a working environment where individuals can reach their full potential and produce better results.

3. ‘Herding Tigers’ by Todd Henry

“My favorite creative leadership book thus far is 'Herding Tigers' by Todd Henry. I also recommend Julie Zhuo’s 'The Making of a Manager' and 'Radical Candor' by Kim Scott. You should read these even if you never want to be a people manager—leadership is an attitude, not a title."Cheryl Couris, Director of Design at Webex.

Doing the work and leading the work are very different things. In Herding Tigers, Todd Henry draws from interviews with brilliant leaders and his experience consulting in creative organizations to provide an indispensable handbook of practical advice for new managers of creatives.

4. ‘Essentialism’ by Greg McKeown

“In terms of being sustainable, you need to define what is essential to what you need to do, what can shift the needle, and what can make the highest impact. 'Essentialism' has been key for me to perpetuate this concept. It’s actually a book that I buy for all new starters who join our team."Mark Wu, Head of UX & Design at Avast.

Essentialism is a must-read for any leader, manager, or individual who wants to learn how to do less but better in every area of their life. It's not just a time management strategy, but a systematic discipline for discerning what is essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so you can make the highest possible contribution to the things that really matter.

5. ‘Creativity, Inc.’ by Ed Catmull

“'Creativity, Inc.' tells the story of how to foster a culture of quality and accountability told with Pixar movies as a backdrop. I find it very inspiring as a business and leadership book, plus I’m a huge Pixar fan.”Samuel Moreau, VP of Design & Research at Coursera.

For nearly twenty years, Pixar has dominated the world of animation. Written by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc. reveals the ideals behind that success. One essential ingredient was the unique environment Catmull and his colleagues built at Pixar, based on leadership and management philosophies that protect the creative process and defy convention.

Wrap-up thoughts

There are many qualities and skills that UX leaders should aim to achieve, from empathy to team management to delegation. Like anything, these can be learned and developed with hard work and practice. We hope this article serves as a guide for all aspiring and current UX leaders who want to grow and improve their leadership skills.

Frequently asked questions

What skills should a UX leader have?

UX leaders should have a wide range of skills, including leading with empathy, building and managing high-performing UX teams, giving and receiving feedback, delegating effectively, and evangelizing UX with the rest of the organization and business stakeholders.

What are the roles of a UX leader?

A UX leadership role involves managing the UX team and providing guidance and advice to team members to help them achieve their full potential. UX leaders are also responsible for driving the UX vision and strategy, showing the business value of UX design, and evangelizing UX within the organization.

What makes a good UX team leader?

Great UX leaders have a solid knowledge of UX laws and processes. They guide the team towards a shared vision but remain flexible and adapt to change. They know that great results come from UX professionals working effectively together. That's why they listen to team members, coach, and mentor them to help them grow in their careers.