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Toward a playbook for UX leaders

Issue: XXVI.2 March - April 2019
Page: 24
Digital Citation
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Authors:
Uday Gajendar

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While applying for a UX manager position recently, I was asked to send in my portfolio along with the usual résumé/CV. It’s a rather perfunctory request, but that’s exactly it. It’s like some bodily reflex by the hiring staff, performed dozens of time daily, without thought. I was about to conform to this request, but I paused midway in my equally perfunctory response (“Of course, I’ll send over the link…”). This time, the rebel in me awoke, questioning: “Is a portfolio truly the best way to showcase my qualifications as a design leader?” Especially for one who is experienced and operating at a more meta level in a company, shaping strategy, process, and culture to enable good design to thrive? I wonder…

Let’s take a step back. A typical UX portfolio is a compilation of visual evidence that forms a composite persuasive portrait, conveying the skills and capabilities of that individual, as a story of their work and career. It’s a material output that’s meant to be a statement of what has been made, in order to address a current hiring need, indicating how things may be if they hire that person. It’s a measure of one’s potential value based upon past progress packaged in a targeted way—which of course is no guarantee, but rather simply another ingredient in the candidate-evaluation mix. Yet what is considered de facto has evolved into a faulty, confined litmus test. For whatever reason; it’s nobody’s fault. Portfolios are now basically a first-round, pass-fail assessment to advance to further rounds of interviewing. Note: My bias against the portfolio construct is born out of the context of Silicon Valley of the past decade, which I’ve witnessed firsthand as both a hiring agent and a job candidate—it’s basically devolved into a simplistic dog-and-pony show of enthralling visuals embellished by a rote templatized story of canonical UCD steps, with a sprinkling of business metrics and anecdotal skirmishes with pesky tech constraints. Is the portfolio following this template? Cue an arched eyebrow and hasty Slack DM to the hiring manager, before dashing off to a daily standup with the product team! Sigh.

Yet we must contend with this construct, this mechanism of hiring, as designers mature and grow into leadership roles. So how do they tell that story effectively, and by what means? I’m not sure portfolios are the best way forward.

Now, to be sure, the portfolio still has value for junior and midlevel designers seeking employment, especially for visual design and production graphics. The portfolio is a useful vehicle for showcasing one’s craftsmanship, with general process details and some reflections on what was learned. There are many lovely examples out there highlighted on social media. And they’re just fine for that—as long as they speak to the role expectations and the designer’s ability to address the demands with visual evidence shaped into a compact narrative.

However, for someone pursuing UX leadership roles at the principal, architect, or managerial levels, I’d suggest the portfolio framed as such is not the best method to gauge one’s worthiness for those roles. For someone operating as such, they have transcended the grammars of design production toward the rhetorical arts of conversation and facilitation, proactively anticipating insights gleaned over years of informed intuition. As a result, they may not have the most beautiful visuals or a prescriptive, templatized narrative worthy of peer judginess. Yet they have a case study, or a series of narratives of conflict and resolution with lessons (or rationale) brought back from the edge (or depth) of despair, for self-improvement or more—perhaps punctuated by some useful artifacts that do not take center stage, as in your typical portfolio. There just has to be a better way for a design leader to tell their rich and diverse story!

Enter the playbook.

I offer the playbook as a construct that helps UX leaders to convey their value and point of view beyond pretty images in a gallery. A playbook is grounded in methods and approaches developed from a) practical expertise and b) personal mannerisms (aka “style”) that come with years of experience tackling various situations. Together they form a distinctive statement of how you navigate ambiguity, wrangle complexity, and strive for value at the meta levels of vision, strategy, process, and culture. It’s not about artifacts wrapped into a convenient story, but rather about a set of plays that you can pull out of your pocket because you have seen that situation, or some variation thereof, before. As such, you can spark a productive dialogue on how to proceed with senior leadership members and thus assert your value as a UX leader in a very real way.

Let’s dive into this playbook construct a bit more:

  • It’s inspired by American sports, in which coaches have a playbook of calls, strategies, and tactics for defensive or offensive maneuvers. They speak to a coach’s way of handling situations that happen again and again and again. It’s all based upon what they’re comfortable with per their unique style. From Phil Jackson’s “triangle offense” in pro basketball to Steve Spurrier’s “fun and gun” offense in college football, each coach was hired (and paid millions!) for their signature, proven approaches to dealing with complex situations. They embody, in effect, winning formulas for a team.
  • It’s less about a curated showcase of nice imagery or how you followed a prescriptive UCD process. Instead, it’s more about an expert set of adaptive approaches cultivated over time, refined and iterated per experience gained (read: lessons learned, stumbles and flops along the way) and thus applied with increasing self-awareness. The quiz-like nature of following rote UCD steps might be fine when evaluating juniors, but not for leaders adapting to dynamic, or less than ideal, contexts and relationships.
  • It’s also more about personal philosophy tied to practical cases. If you ask any junior designer, they will earnestly recite from books or lectures on HCI and UCD—since that’s all they know! And that’s cool. But it’s not a philosophy; it’s a recitation of acquired thinking. A meaningful philosophy is emergent and deliberative, expressing what someone experienced across various situations, choices made, and circumstances encountered—a particular realization of personal ideals contrasted with pragmatic reality. In parallel there’s a certain kinship of one’s self and one’s work amid a range of complex, wicked conditions—an ongoing yet rewarding struggle of identity and value.
  • It is more case-based (read: problem- and context-oriented), which is similar to conventional UX portfolios, but less about what was made and delivered as the hero, and more about how situations were addressed. What cognitive and persuasive models do you apply for influencing other leaders, learning critical insights, enabling communications/coordination with teams, and making decisions? For example: How do you apply design leadership? What are the values and processes you stand by? How do you enable and empower your triad peers (product and engineering, at executive levels)? How do you set others up for success while looking ahead to your own career development? How does this map to the UX org’s maturity (or lack thereof)?

Basically, when you’re dealt with a situation, what’s your play? How did that work out? What did you learn? How do you tackle the challenges of cross-functional dialogues and agendas? These of course are all typical challenges pertinent to design leaders that are very difficult to convey in a traditional portfolio construct.

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Ultimately, a playbook is a set of plays to address common dilemmas and contexts. It’s also about knowing how to evaluate the choices, risks, and tradeoffs, blended with those supposedly soft skills of interpersonal influence, in knowing what play to apply. Indeed, pulled together it’s a narrative of how a design leader applies their levels and types of craft to effect positive change and set up the conditions for good design to thrive.

You may be wondering: What does a playbook look like? Well, admittedly it’s sorta like a portfolio—in the end it’s a series of slides that’s tastefully formatted and deftly curated. But there is a twist on the framing, because language matters! Consider: “I’ll share with you my playbook” has a very different sense than “Sure, here’s the link to my portfolio.” Let’s not underestimate the power of words to shape perception and how people approach or respond to it. I’m firmly convinced we as an industry and field have developed a Pavlovian, conditioned response to portfolio with all its baggage—not really a good thing, as alluded to earlier in terms of how things have devolved. Thus, it’s time to modernize how we portray our story and likewise evaluate new design leaders.

To that end, a more useful question is, what are those questions you ask yourself to help define your playbook? Here’s what I’ve found to be helpful:

  • What were those moments of leadership? Think of the scenarios where you exuded confidence or aimed to build trust and respect, or reduce complexity and ambiguity while building rapport with the team. What models of engagement were applied?
  • What are the key themes that permeate your work and career? They serve to encapsulate your work and anchor discussions with prospective clients or employers, based upon points of view. Consider those situations that you found intellectually stimulating and creatively rewarding.
  • Why are you in this field in the first place? What is it that captures your passion and enables you to be your best possible self, an exemplar for others to follow or be inspired by?

Such self-reflective questioning, with an unflinching eye, will likely reveal the set of plays that represent your posture and attitude to how design should function successfully with others in varied situations. They are plays that you’re comfortable with, that were valuable, and that you keep coming back to because they express your true nature as a leader. And you probably didn’t even realize it!

A playbook may offer the path forward to improving how we assess and recognize the distinctive nature of UX leaders of different backgrounds and qualities, going beyond the standard portfolio. This also raises the larger question of how we assess design candidates overall, a much bigger and candid dialogue perhaps best addressed with a design-thinking workshop. To find the right person qualified to run that, we’ll need to study their portfolio—or rather, their playbook!

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Uday Gajendar (ghostinthepixel.com] has been a prolific UX designer and leader for more than 15 years, shipping designs for PayPal, Facebook, Citrix, Adobe, and others. He also enjoys coaching startups on UX fundamentals. udanium@gmail.com

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