The success of design-driven companies such as Apple, BMW, and Disney has motivated CEOs across all product sectors to proclaim that their companies are becoming more design-centric and customer-focused. During quarterly status broadcasts and other meetings, UX practitioners routinely witness their executives espousing the delivery of quality experiences as a top priority. Sadly, this “top priority” awakening constitutes a delayed response. Providing a high-quality experience has been a competitive necessity for the past decade .
Given the market demand for high-quality UX combined with these routine pro-UX CEO proclamations, one might assume, to borrow from Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 Broadway musical Candide, that “now is best of all possible times” to manage a corporate UX function. Life should be easy, and design delivery a fun and efficient process. In this perfect world, tangible C-level support would be automatic, with UX budgets filled to the coffers and UCD methods deeply embedded throughout the R&D lifecycle.
Yet here we are in our third decade of UX professional practice often struggling with the basics. Most UX managers today will attest that their day-to-day reality remains a struggle for resources, effective stakeholder collaborations, rational schedules, professional credibility, and, above all, a seat at the table in strategy meetings. With recurring frequency, corporate UX teams have become collateral damage as a result of organizational chaos, unrealistic expectations, and under-investment, combined with pressure from technology-driven processes and unrealistic schedules. I experienced this pain firsthand for 18 years in roles leading large global UX teams at both SAP and Oracle. I have also observed a significant increase in UX-management turnover in Silicon Valley over the past five years. LinkedIn data from UX-manager profiles indicates an average tenure of approximately three years, after which time the incumbent UX manager either quits in frustration or is terminated, frequently in conjunction with reorganizations, including some team layoffs.
When a sports team underperforms on expectations, the owners typically fire the coach. They do so because it is not commercially viable to fire the entire team. Underlying this routine postseason firing ritual is the myth that the next coach possesses a silver bullet or secret sauce that will magically eradicate the underlying structural maladies that led to the present unsatisfactory state of affairs. Corporations, like sports organizations, have very few mechanisms by which to adjust. Therefore, they tend to overutilize the ability to make personnel changes along with reorganizations. The result is often a cyclical swing of the pendulum between centralization and decentralization, while management positions are filled and vacated like a childhood game of musical chairs.
It takes an entire company working well together to deliver a high-quality product or service. Great design talent without great engineering and great product management will not deliver. The reverse is also true. Yet when it comes to assigning a scapegoat for poor quality, it is typically the UX leader who finds themselves in a position analogous to the football coach at the end of a losing season. Regardless of whether you are the incumbent trying to build or maintain a sustainable UX process or the newly hired manager expected to deliver an instant miracle, you will likely be required to operate in a somewhat turbulent environment.
To put it crudely: Know what your boss’s bonus is based on and make sure your actions are aligned to help them achieve it.
So what can the UX-management community do to prosper and deliver value amid the perpetual chaos of corporate life?
At the meta level, the key to success is fourfold. First, you must develop a UX mission that is in clear alignment with the business goals. Second, you must leverage that alignment to earn your seat at the table. Without these first two steps, additional downstream efforts will eventually fail. The third step is to build accurate lines of information acquisition that cut through the chaos and the organizational hierarchy levels so you really know what is going on. The last step is to carefully respond with tested decisions and tactics that optimize both design delivery speed and quality without compromising UX team sustainability.
The modern intellectual origin of design patterns is often credited to the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander, as described in his seminal book Notes on the Synthesis of Form . UX teams have leveraged design patterns in UI guidelines, standards, and code frameworks to improve consistency, execution speed, and overall quality.
Do similar patterns exist for management?
Unfortunately, the guidance encapsulated in general management books, while often applicable, does not fully address the day-to-day challenges a UX manager faces when besieged by continuously reorganizing stakeholders and perpetually changing product requirements. Nor do these generic books provide adequate insight into the dynamics inherent in running a shared-services function like UX that does not have rigidly established professional boundaries compared with those of marketing or engineering.
Several UX management books have been published to fill this gap. The most recent is User Experience Management . The first was Institutionalization of Usability . Both contain insight and operational guidance in creating a UX function from scratch, maintaining its daily operation, and moving the host organization up the UX maturity model ladder one step at time.
For the first two decades of corporate UX practice, large, centralized departments were assumed to be the optimal mature structure. First-level UX managers during this period typically operated under the shelter of an umbrella UX organization. Today UX teams are typically distributed much closer to where development is taking place.
Over the past decade, both software development practice as well as the UX labor market have changed significantly. Major trends include:
- The dominance of agile development methods
- Cloud-based architectures
- Open source UX libraries for Web and mobile
- Design-thinking pedagogy popularization 
- Google Design Sprint methodology adoption 
- MBAs in design strategy
- Computer science programs containing required UX courses
- Short UX boot-camp programs and online education alternatives 
- Global growth in the number of academic IxD programs.
From a UX-management perspective, most of these changes are revolutionary, not evolutionary. The employment-related side effect is that the gap between the supply and demand of UX practitioners has finally started to close, at least in the eyes of general management.
The cumulative effect is that most corporate UX functions have transformed from a centralized unit into a collection of decentralized, smaller teams at the divisional level, often in conjunction with solo practitioners embedded directly inside a development group. In the centralized era, the daily “recognize and respond” management loop could be distributed across the collective knowledge of several leadership levels containing many years of experience and a broad internal network. There was also more support for manager mentoring inherently built into the centralized model. Today, first-line UX managers may also find themselves in a federated configuration comprising a central UX team for standards and evangelism, combined with many local dedicated UX teams embedded within autonomous product divisions.
In the decentralized scenario, the UX manager is typically flying solo and rarely reports to a boss with UX expertise. At best, they have an informal network with UX managers in other divisions, but at times those same managers may also be competitors for resources and authority.
An additional complexity is that the boundaries of UX ownership are being challenged by the widening range of participants with both encroaching and/or complementary expertise. There is an evolving trend for both computer science and MBA programs to include design-thinking methods as well as UX technical training.
The daily trauma of continuous adaptation to the aforementioned trends can be mitigated by adopting a holistic management framework. Implementing one can enhance the ability to recognize situations early and respond effectively based on a cumulative body of professional experience, instead of local trial and error. Organizational models, business conditions, and technologies will continue to change, but, like a magnetic compass, a solid framework can situate the manager on the map, increase the range of visibility, and shorten the route to the desired destination.
The framework illustrated in Figure 1 assumes no specific UX organization structure or corporate UX maturity level. It is bracketed by two constraints that will always exist. At the top sits the company business model and at the bottom is the R&D budget.
|Figure 1. Management framework.|
Between these upper and lower boundaries, management patterns can be decomposed into four interdependent groups:
- Decision making
- Tactical operations
- Conflict techniques.
In theory, effective management requires constant focus on all four groups. In practice, most daily recognize-and-respond loops will concurrently utilize a combination of the decision and tactical patterns in the middle of the framework.
Four universal leadership skills apply everywhere. Mastery of them differentiates the most experienced managers from the novices. These skills are:
- Time control — skill in schedule negotiation
- Information acquisition — establishing real-time unbiased channels
- Emotional detachment — staying calm under pressure
- Timely and informative outbound communication.
Making any pattern actionable requires defining both what you manage and how you manage it. This what/how playbook approach is utilized in each of the following detailed sections.
Operational planning sits at the top of the framework and can be subdivided into the items enumerated in Figure 2. In this tool, planning refers to the process of allocating time, budget, and human talent toward the delivery of UX services. The mission equates to how the UX team is positioned politically in support of both the top-line corporate goals (e.g., profit and quality) and also the personal priorities of the executive to whom the UX manager reports. To put it crudely: Know what your boss’s bonus is based on and make sure your actions are aligned to help them achieve it. The UX team mission should be adjusted as business needs and stakeholder obligations evolve.
|Figure 2. Planning patterns.|
Time allocation can be estimated through critical path analysis models, but such techniques are only as accurate as the data from which they are constructed. UX managers are in the unique position to improve the precision of development schedules by executing user-research-needs discovery activities as the initial R&D step. The research results can be applied to gain scope alignment before committing to an official development schedule. Additionally, when the research informs the creation of a conceptual UX prototype, this further articulates product direction and reduces risk for all stakeholders, further improving schedule accuracy. Unfortunately, a conceptual design cycle prior to project commencement is not yet typical R&D practice. However, this approach does have a precedent in agile called a spike activity, which simply has the goal of gaining sufficient knowledge to select a technical path and does not complete code for a specific user story.
Incomplete understanding of product scope manifests as constantly shifting requirements, forcing repeated design changes that perpetually lead to additional schedule extensions. This cycle has a whiplash effect on the entire R&D organization.
Because of the inherent inaccuracy of most initial schedules, a common trap that inexperienced managers fall into is assuming that the product schedule is valid at all. In 38 years of practice, I have never seen a software product ship on time—in fact have never met anything close to the initial target date. Managers in all R&D functions have burned out their teams trying to accommodate an arbitrary schedule derived from weak data or simply executive fiat. UX teams suffer as collateral damage in this situation, even if they are loosely coupled to the schedule as a shared service center inside the company.
The most fatal planning mistake is to make assumptions based on resources yet to be hired. As former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated, “You go to war with the army you have, not the one you wish you had” . Translating this insight into action suggests always being in hiring mode, even if official headcount/positions are not open. Doing so maintains a queue of candidates and significantly expedites talent acquisition. By the time official positions are open in most companies, the clock is already ticking toward a deliverable deadline to which no staff member is yet assigned. In addition, establishing external contractor relationships in advance is an important survival technique. Advance preparation to rapidly onboard both internal and external talent reduces the risk of UX becoming a bottleneck in the development critical path.
Remaining in a state of hiring readiness mandates clarity regarding the skill profiles needed in the future. Smaller, localized teams typically cannot afford the degree of specialization found in larger, centralized ones. This has increased the popularity of hybrid UX roles that include both design and research responsibilities. The hybrid individual contributor provides the manager more flexibility in resource balancing.
Building in skill redundancy across team members for both specific UX skills as well as product domain knowledge is also critical for sustainability, although this can be difficult to achieve for both talent and budget reasons. Employee attrition is always a risk when the job market is strong, but also emergencies and other staff life events are inevitable.
Conflicts of interest can arise at the planning level and merit proactive attention. A common scenario is when responsibility boundaries across R&D functions are not clear. Most often this is between UX and product management, but it can also be between UX and engineering. Within the federated UX model, authority issues can arise between a corporate UX standards team and a local/embedded UX team. These relationships and their boundaries are best negotiated in advance to minimize headaches in the middle of product delivery. This requires ongoing negotiation regarding boundaries and budget allocations, particularly as personnel changes occur.
The ability to negotiate successfully with many stakeholders is the key management skill required of the planning patterns. This ability is enhanced by cultivating good working relationships throughout the organization.
Emotional detachment, one of the management skills, is particularly important in the context of decision making. Unfortunately, maintaining a healthy emotional distance from organizational politics is much easier to say than do.
Time-control skill is also applicable to good decision making. The ability to slow down and not respond to every perceived crisis immediately is critical. You need to train yourself to step back, calm down, and perform a comprehensive fact verification before taking any action. The most important guidance in the “how to” dimension is to never act on secondhand information. Secondhand information is often erroneous and usually incomplete. It also risks being biased consciously or unconsciously by the provider, so always clarify with at least one firsthand source to establish the actual facts. Once accurate information is in hand, the traversal through available decision options can safely begin.
The “what and how you manage” list for the decision patterns is shown in Figure 3. It includes your own objectivity, your team’s emotional state, as well as the selection, reward, and recognition of staff who have a significant positive effect on the overall team culture.
|Figure 3. Decision patterns.|
Creating a sustainable creative environment requires active management on many fronts. Best practices include building multidisciplinary teams, using formal innovation methods such as design sprints, rapidly removing disruptive individuals from the team, and aligning rewards and recognition in a fair and transparent manner. These are among the basics of good personnel management in any discipline.
The last pattern to understand is that teams typically follow the behavioral norms set by their leaders. If the manager treats everyone respectfully and is transparent in sharing the logic behind key decisions, this will become the standard the team holds itself to as well.
Tactics are the methods you select to actualize plans and decisions. The what/how decomposition for tactics is shown in Figure 4.
|Figure 4. Tactics patterns.|
The landscape of corporate stakeholders is constantly changing. Even if executives themselves don’t change in person, their priorities evolve in reaction to competitive pressure and business growth opportunities. Therefore, the selection and deployment of specific tactics is not a one-time event. Revision at a rate consistent with the evolution of the business environment is expected.
Accurate information acquisition and the maintenance of stakeholder relationships are applicable to every tactic employed. The active solicitation of stakeholder input regarding UX team performance will not only build trust but also proactively guide the rebalancing of UX resources before an ensuing crisis results, if delivery expectations are not being met.
Investing in UX style guides, interaction standards, and UI coding toolkits grows the intellectual capital emanating from the UX team. All three will accelerate the product-development lifecycle. Patents and publications represent contributions to the state of the art and should be actively encouraged and widely promoted as another form of IP contribution. They put capital into the political bank.
Investment in physical resources such as usability labs not only facilitates formative and summative user testing; it also provides an educational platform to raise the experience literacy level of the whole company. Additional smart investments include providing the latest technology and building a futuristic office environment. Both will aid in maintaining a positive team culture, promote creativity, and aid in recruiting. Arnie Lund  provides a comprehensive discussion of these and many other best practices.
However, the most important investment is providing ongoing training. The rapid pace of change can quickly lead to the obsolescence of both UX standards and the team’s skill base. Investments in training will yield improvements in both speed and quality. They also demonstrate a commitment on behalf of the company to employee growth. In federated UX deployments, training activities can be shared across multiple teams and simultaneously provide a broader UX community-building opportunity.
Overseeing all these concurrent tactical vectors requires constant multitasking, a key management skill, as noted in Figure 1. There will always be more activities to initiate and track than there is time in the day. Delegation to trusted senior staff members is critical, but the most important thing is to stay healthy: Leading a UX team will remain a stressful endeavor, and no one performs at their best if they are not feeling physically or mentally fit.
There are times when a leader needs to go to war. It should be avoided, but not at all costs: Sometimes you need to be aggressive to drive your mission forward. At other times you may become subject to a politically motivated attack. This requires skill with the conflict patterns shown in Figure 5. As long you honestly believe that your position on a given issue is aligned with the stockholders’ interests, you are on firm ethical ground. It would be a rare case where improving the user experience of a product or service would not be in everyone’s best interest. Most often these battles are over ownership of UX, budgets, and professional boundaries as well as changes to processes and priorities.
|Figure 5. Conflict patterns.|
When internal conflicts do arise, practical guidance can be derived from the 1972 movie The Godfather , starring Marlin Brando as the mafia family head, Don Corleone. Mafia methods are more applicable than military ones because conflicts take place inside your own community, and alliances can change without warning. The price of invoking any conflict pattern is damaging relationships that took significant time to build. Before intentionally starting a conflict, a thoughtful analysis should include the risk of side effects, including collateral damage to your team and your own personal credibility.
Conflict patterns are the most complex to execute. They rely on all four of the universal leadership skills in conjunction with the four key management skills noted in Figure 1.
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” This classic line from Don Corleone applies to challenges over policy and resource ownership related to UX authority. It also provides guidance when upstream and downstream organizations attempt to defer blame to UX for shortcomings of their own making.
Veteran managers with political capital in the bank will have a higher probability of success executing any of the conflict patterns.
The dimensions to be managed include the security of your position (and by proxy your team’s safety), as well as your future opportunity within the broader executive community inside the company. Success is frequently correlated with possessing a high degree of personal credibility that can be built only through a track record of delivery and respectful engagement over years of prior stakeholder transactions. This implies that veteran managers with political capital in the bank will have a higher probability of success executing any of the conflict patterns. Conflict patterns will generally backfire when attempted early by a newly hired UX manager.
If you lead a centralized team, periodic turf challenges will take place when line-of-business executives decide they need their own UX organization. This commonly occurs when the organizational pendulum is already swinging toward decentralization across all corporate functions. Don’t automatically assume it is a bad thing, even if it diminishes the immediate scope of your UX managerial authority. If you believe there is a valid business reason to further decentralize or even to recentralize, then become an active participant in shaping that future. These breakup situations will likely involve negotiations with people you don’t trust to have your best interest in mind. So… as Don Corleone said, keep your enemies closer, allowing you to actively participate instead of wonder what’s happening behind doors closed to you. The best option in this situation is to assume an offensive posture and try to influence the outcome.
The most complex conflict scenario is when there is an overall product delivery failure and either the product management organization or the development organization attempts to blame the UX team. Proverbially this is referred to as being “thrown under the bus.” This is where offensively fighting back is the only viable response. To do so effectively requires that design documentation has been maintained, continuously tracking the inputs to and output from the UX team. The most frequent scenarios are:
- Product management delivers weak/incomplete requirements, leading to designs that miss the mark
- Development doesn’t follow UX specifications, leading to a subpar implementation.
The first case is a typical “garbage in, garbage out” scenario originating upstream of UX. With weak requirements input, even if the UX design meets usability metrics, from a business perspective the product will not succeed because the user’s goals will not be satisfied. The second case is a downstream failure and needs to be publicly called out as such. In the optimal product development cycle noted in Figure 4, there should be an official QA step to assure fulfillment of specifications and the ability for UX to reject implementations as incomplete before commercialization. In the absence of this UX QA step, product demonstrations to executives and sales teams will quickly identify usability deficiencies and the situation can devolve into a public blame game. To effectively manage this situation, it is necessary to have the UX specifications at hand during every demo and prove that UX delivery is not the source of the defects.
The “friends close” portion of Don Corleone’s advice is also applicable when complementary organizations such as marketing, QA, or a corporate strategy office become active in the popular trend to deliver a “total customer experience.” TCE truly spans more than the scope of a typical UX team, so there should be room for many contributors. This is not inherently a bad thing—often great results are achieved when the departmental roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and professional collaboration occurs. If the leaders of another function do harbor any malicious intent, they will be close at hand and their game plan will be more transparent, thus yielding accurate information to which the patterns described in Figure 5 can be applied.
When conflict is unavoidable, a second important lesson can be derived from The Godfather. This classic line comes when Don Corleone is counseling his hot-headed son (killed later on in the movie for rushing into an ambush when angry) to calm down and not seek immediate revenge. Here the Don states the principle that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” A well-planned, delayed, and precise reaction will be more effective than any spontaneous, emotional response.
Hopefully no UX leader needs to routinely apply these patterns of conflict. If you find yourself in this situation too frequently, look for a new job. Yet simply internalizing these patterns as an available option can bring a calming inner strength during periods of organizationally induced stress.
Courage is the most important of the four key management skills when invoking any of the offensive conflict patterns. Courage is required both to take the risk and to bear the consequences of failure. This is true for facing any difficult leadership challenge and is not unique to UX management. When you live by the sword you need to be prepared to proverbially die by it as well. This is perhaps why, as noted in the introduction, there is so much turnover in UX-management positions today.
While elastic, this framework’s effective application is dependent on manager personality, company culture, and product/market evolution rate. This article can be used as the baseline for creating a personalized version tailored to your own goals and organizational culture. The important thing is to proactively identify and deploy those patterns most applicable to creating a sustainable UX practice in your local context. Do not wait for a crisis to arise to begin utilizing this approach. At that point it is too late to construct the infrastructure necessary to manipulate time and collect accurate intelligence.
Proactively defining what you manage and how you manage it will increase your daily effectiveness while lowering your stress level. If you are running a large UX organization at the VP or director level with UX-management layers below, this framework can become the basis of a shared playbook and also a mechanism to set priorities and define team values.
With more than three decades of practice, including mentoring dozens of UX managers, I close with a few general observations:
- The pattern-based approach is effective because it provides a structured way to analyze and respond to corporate behavioral complexity.
- Pattern-based frameworks can be utilized as a mentoring technique for UX managers at all levels.
- A sustainable framework is not specific to UX organizational configurations or team size.
- Aggressive patterns, like any sharp tool, can be effective in the hands of the skilled practitioner and deadly in the hands of an amateur.
- Constant analysis and adjustment is required because corporate environments are dynamic.
- Sustainable execution requires building personal and technical infrastructure for time control, information acquisition, and emotional detachment, well in advance of the next crisis.
May the force be with you—and the collateral damage low.
Daniel Rosenberg (rcdoux.com] is a former global design executive with over 37 years of experience. He was one of the first practitioners in the field and is the recipient of the ACM SIGCHI Lifetime Practice award. He has numerous publications and IxD inventions to his credit. Currently his days are filled with teaching at San Jose State University, UX consulting, editing the Business of UX forum, and board memberships including the Interaction Design Foundation. email@example.com
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