Fresh: pushing the envelope

XIV.1 January + February 2007
Page: 10
Digital Citation

Managing, just barely

Fred Sampson

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I have a question for you: Are you the manager of a user-experience design team?

If you answered "yes," I have another question: What were you thinking?!!!

Jakob Nielsen's corporate usability maturity model suggests that it takes 20 years to establish Stage 8 of the model, the user-driven corporation. Can you wait that long to see success?

As a manager, you face many challenges. First is managing the team and its members, a team that likely includes creative types who might resist bureaucracy, structure, and taking direction. Can you afford to create an IDEO-style brainstorming environment? Can you afford not to? Do you, the UX manager, face unique people-management challenges? Perhaps it's the same as for a manager in any other field: The job would be so much easier without employees, not to mention customers.

Your other top challenges are managing the perception of company executives, managing the expectations of other teams during product development, and proving your team's value in all directions. UX consultant Richard Anderson compares this challenge to that of changing the course of a large ship from a rowboat: You expend a lot of effort for minimal effect.

I have to assume that a prerequisite for the role of UX manager is patience. Nothing happens as fast as you would like it to, from convincing executives that the organization needs a dedicated UX function, to evangelizing change within the organization, to seeing results. Another prerequisite might be faith that what you're doing will show results, that you can demonstrate positive ROI, that your team can be effective without slowing product cycles, that you do not manage a sales-prevention department. It would be easy to get discouraged from all the roadblocks that the unbelievers set up. Miss a deadline because of usability testing, and you run the risk of being ignored. Fail to communicate, fail to be perceived as part of the team, and you'll be bypassed. Fail to cultivate a corporate-executive champion, and you may as well light a candle in the darkness: It's better than cursing the darkness, but still not very illuminating.

Or how about this challenge: Let's say that your CEO has taken a sudden interest in design—she's been reading Business Week or Fast Company—and the edict from on high is to ensure that good design guides every company product. Are you prepared? How do you ensure that the organization looks to you and your people for guidance, not an external, high-visibility expert? If you've been making your case and lobbying for more visibility, perhaps someone will remember and say, "Hey, let's ask our user-experience people what they think!" Or is your function still seen as adding lipstick to the pig before it's nudged out the door?

If you've been actively pushing your team's position on the corporate usability capability model, it should have been your efforts that prompted the CEO to start paying attention to design in the first place. <sarcasm> Not that she's going to admit it; all good ideas flow from the executive offices. </sarcasm> Still, that was pretty clever of you, emailing executive summaries and links to relevant articles, leaving copies of <interactions> in conspicuous locations. Or maybe you've been polishing your elevator speech, and you took advantage of those 15 seconds with the CEO to explain why your department should be driving development of the next disruptive, innovative, design-laden product release.

Mind you, I know what being a manager is like—been there, done that, buried the evidence. I know that you spend far too much time putting out fires and playing parent to employees who should have grown up by now. You'd like to be planning and leading, but instead you're reacting to the crisis of the day. You want to delegate more, but your best people are exhausted by chasing impossible deadlines and demands. Or maybe they're lighting those fires that you're busy putting out. How in the world are you going to see your way down the 20-year capability maturity track when you can't see into next week? Which is closer, success or retirement (or a stroke)?

Mark Hurst says that "changing the organization is the most difficult and most important part of user-experience work." As a manager, isn't that your top responsibility? Do you trust your staff to do the right thing on a daily basis so you can focus on turning that tanker with a rowboat? I suspect that the answer must be yes, or you're not serving the best interests of your company. It's yes, or you wouldn't be there.

Look for answers—or, at least, better questions—to the UX manager's challenges in the May-June 2007 issue of <interactions>.

I thank Rick Herder and Tracy Hutcheson, both managers of user-experience design teams at IBM, and Richard Anderson for sharing their thoughts on this subject with me.

back to top  References

1. Richard Anderson, Riander Blog, "Changing the course or pace of a large ship:", September 21, 2006

2. Mark Hurst, Good Experiencem, "The Most Important User Experience Method:", June 20, 2003

3. Jakob Nielsen, Alertbox, "Corporate Usability Maturity:",, April 24 and May 1, 2006

back to top  Author

Fred Sampson

About the Author:

Fred Sampson is co-chair of BayDUX, a senior member of STC, past president of the Silicon Valley Community of STC, and vice president for finance of ACM SIGCHI. In his spare time, Fred is a staff information developer at IBM's Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, California. Contact him at

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