XXIV.3 May + June 2017
Page: 74
Digital Citation

Leadership beyond the UX box

Janice Rohn, Carola Thompson

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A clear strategic direction. A shared vision that people can rally around. A vision that is clear and credible. Companies and employees are hungry for all of it. The challenge is that many companies have moved to product lifecycle development techniques that typically aren't conducive to creating that unifying vision.

back to top  Insights


Agile is a contributor to this situation. Many companies have reduced their capabilities and bench strength in planning and product management. With companies moving to agile, it's not uncommon to find that roadmaps, requirements, and the typical best practices for product management have been replaced by concepts such as "fail fast," which seems like a very odd goal for a company to have. Although it's better to know quickly whether or not something works, fail fast can lead to missed opportunities without the strategic context. A goal of succeed fast makes much more sense. Perhaps it's easier, in the short run, to fail fast rather than to perform top-quality research and do the hard work: the analysis, the planning, and the figuring out what no one else has figured out yet.

But wait. Who in the organization has the leadership skills, the ability to create a shared vision, and the facilitation and communication skills to guide organizations in this endeavor? You guessed it: UX leaders. We have the capabilities and access to recognize this challenging point in the evolution of our beloved high-tech companies and to help pull them out of this suboptimal state. We have the ability to research our own companies and internal customers, to recognize the importance of creating a vision (since that's what we do for a living), and to see the forest and the trees— not to mention the leaves, too.

What this means is that UX can, through strong leadership, take on a much more strategic and influential role than the UX organization of even five or 10 years ago. When examining the evolution of UX teams within organizations, one can see it's fairly common for UX to begin in a more tactical role. Over time, assuming that the UX leaders are successful, we become more strategic and influence regularly at the C-level, including the CEO and CTO. UX moves from a purely tactical role, such as working to improve product design, to a strategic role to help change how companies and organizations work, along with helping to define their strategic vision, mission, and strategies (Figure 1). Strategic UX enables companies to succeed fast.

How can UX leaders help to influence not only the product user experience but also the company's direction? Here are some simple guidelines to becoming a leader beyond the traditional UX box.

back to top  Build your Network and Allies

Just like Dale Carnegie's classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, the typical UX leader has only a subset of the organization reporting to them. This means that relationships with the vast majority of people in an organization fall into the "influence" category. The other challenge is that a number of internal stakeholders could see UX as infringing on their responsibilities and territory. As a UX leader, you want to ensure that you proactively understand and address any of these potential areas of concern.

To not only be successful in terms of leadership but also to participate at a more strategic level, UX leaders need to understand their internal customers at least as well as the external customers for whom they're designing. Some tactics to accomplish this are:

  • Perform stakeholder interviews with all key stakeholders. Ask questions about their understanding of the UX role and its functions, what they would like to see you accomplish, their goals, their terminology, and their challenges, and discuss how you can help them achieve their goals. While conducting the interviews, address any areas of misperceptions and continue to monitor these areas over time.
  • Educate the internal stakeholders about UX benefits, processes, and best practices, including the benefits of strategic UX.
  • Equally important: Translate UX terminology into their terminology and explain how UX helps them to achieve their goals. Translate how UX helps sales, improves customer support, and reduces churn in the development cycle, along with any other important KPIs.
  • Be aware of any stakeholders who view UX as potentially infringing on their departments or responsibilities, and spend extra time working collaboratively with them. Ensure that you continue to perform best-practice UX without relinquishing responsibilities to these departments.

By building close, positive relationships, UX leaders are better positioned to identify and understand the organizational challenges in creating a unified company direction and vision, and are also positioned for their ideas to be embraced. To be successful, the UX leader must bridge the gap to help stakeholders understand how UX will make them more successful.

back to top  Become the Source of Truth and Data

Most companies still struggle with initiatives such as how to gather data, how to analyze it, how to apply it, and how to transition into a truly data-driven organization. Many companies claim to be data-driven but don't have the dedication or rigor to actually be so.

UX is well positioned to take on a major leadership role. It could become the primary driver of data by performing ongoing foundational research, such as field studies, usability studies, and surveys. Most companies are still not performing customer field studies on a regular basis. UX understands the need for direct observation in the context of use, as well as how companies can become more innovative by performing these studies to truly understand unmet customer requirements—as compared with solutions posing as requirements passed along from multiple intermediaries, which results in a very different outcome.

As an example, it's fairly typical for product management and other roles to have discussions with stakeholders who are the buyers, rather than the actual end users. Although it's important to understand the needs of buyers within a business-to-business organization, these buyers typically have very little knowledge of the actual needs of the end users. This results in cost and schedule overruns due to rework and can lead to failed products. The number one reason that companies typically fail in this area is lack of end-user involvement and input [1].


When UX becomes the source of knowledge and data for the organization, it can help drive the organization to a more stable vision and roadmap based on this data.

back to top  Tell Stories

So you have been cultivating your relationships with your colleagues, understanding their goals and terminology, and conveying how UX can help them. You have been performing research to gather solid data and have become the source of knowledge and truth. So that's enough, right? Not quite.

It turns out that communicating data on its own to the organization is not the most effective way to influence people. What is the best way? Storytelling plus data.

Stories are memorable, personal, and impactful. Our brains are wired to turn stories into listeners' own ideas and experience (known as neural coupling [2]). You've probably experienced this when you state an idea and someone adopts it as their own (which is a good thing, by the way). The brain also releases dopamine when it experiences an emotional event, making it easier to remember with greater accuracy [3]. And when processing facts, only two areas of the brain are activated, versus five areas of the brain when data is combined with a story.

Stories are more impactful: People are more likely to buy from a person or organization that they believe in. For example, during a study, students were asked to make a one-minute persuasive pitch. On average, there were 2.5 statistics in the pitches. Only 5 percent of the listeners remembered the statistics when only the data was communicated, compared with 63 percent who recalled the statistics via a story approach [4].

Just as journalists have determined that stories are more impactful when they have a human-interest angle, the same is true in business situations. Data can be overwhelming, particularly without context and story. The ability to tell a story enables UX leaders to increase their influence in the organization.

back to top  Build the Vision

UX leaders are also well positioned to help create the vision for an organization. It's critical as leaders to ensure that this is a collaborative process with cross-functional stakeholders. As UX leaders, we possess a special set of tools that empower us to bring people together to create a shared vision. By facilitating these activities, we bring tremendous value by harnessing the collective intelligence of an organization in effective and powerful ways.

In order to lead the creation of the shared vision, a UX leader must know the:

  • Business
  • Product/service value proposition
  • Organizations that compose the business, and how they interrelate
  • User profiles of all the key corporate stakeholders, as well as customers.


This will help to build the credibility needed to drive and facilitate the collaborative activities, which in turn will build the vision. Top vision-building activities include:

  • Field studies—to discover potential areas of innovation and gather accurate requirements, along with their importance and frequency
  • Innovation workshops and activities—to foster innovation across the team
  • User profiles/personas—to ensure that everyone has a shared understanding of the key users
  • Roadmaps—to ensure alignment in the organization
  • Next generation designs—to provide the design vision.

back to top  Collaborate

Collaboration is critical to creating a strategic vision that achieves internal buy-in. Enter collaborative design workshops. They have been called Deep Dives by IDEO [5], Design Sprints by Google [6,7], and Design Labs by Yahoo! They are essentially design-thinking workshops that can last four to five days. This approach follows the design-thinking phases of empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test as outlined by the Stanford [8].

At Splunk, we call these workshops Splunk Dunks—immersive design workshops. We added a couple of key concepts and tools that that set them apart from other design-thinking workshops: The first is the notion of a steering committee, and the second is called a promise pyramid.

The steering committee is the set of executives who are responsible for the business success. Product delivery is the topic of the workshop, so the committee typically includes market-group leaders, general managers (GMs), and the leaders of development, product management, and UX. These executives participate in the workshop at key points to set the direction, provide guardrails, and commit to execution.

The promise pyramid (Figure 2) is a three-level pyramid with key pain points or market needs at the bottom, goals or solution areas in the middle, and business metrics that will be affected if this work is executed successfully at the top. The promise pyramid ensures that everyone in the workshop understands how the work they are doing will affect the company from a business perspective.

UX is well positioned to take on a major leadership role.

These two mechanisms help to close the gap that often exists between executives and the folks in the trenches. It creates alignments from top to bottom.

Initially UX was initiating and justifying these workshops, and now engineering and PM are requesting these to be run.

back to top  Share the Credit and Joy

The most successful UX leaders recognize that the best innovations come from cross-functional teams collaborating effectively. Collaboration not only results in better solutions; it also results in greater buy-in and an increased likelihood that the solution will reach customers. A key part of creating this buy-in is ensuring that your colleagues are key contributors and stakeholders of the shared vision.

In addition to collaborating, successful UX leaders ensure that they promote the contributions of others. Make sure to credit your key contributors in your presentations, email, and other communications. By providing this well-deserved credit, UX leaders are helping to ensure not only success on that project, but also support from those individuals on future projects.

Increasingly, companies are not taking the time or effort to celebrate wins. As a leader, even if other teams are not doing so, it's crucial to take a proactive leadership position and celebrate key releases and other accomplishments, even if that means just a lunch or pizza party.

back to top  Summary

UX leaders are in a unique position to provide strategic leadership for the entire organization, which includes driving and defining a clear and unified vision based on reliable data and a strong understanding of the company's value proposition, market position, target user profiles, market dynamics, and more. UX leaders can also lead organizations themselves, through skills such as combining data with storytelling to influence stakeholders, build solid roadmaps, and foster a strong vision.

By focusing on collaboration, understanding and aligning with stakeholder goals, and making others successful, UX leaders help their own departments to garner proper recognition as pivotal to the success of the organization.

As UX leaders, what can be more exciting than the ability to simultaneously influence at both the strategic and tactical levels?

back to top  References

1. The Standish Report, CHAOS Reports, 2012–2016;

2. Stephens, G.J., Silbert, L. J., and Hasson, U. Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proc. of the National Academy of Science USA 107, 32 (2010), 14425–144430;

3. Aaker, J. Course at Stanford Graduate School of Business, 2016;

4. Small, D.

5. ABC Nightline. IDEO Shopping Cart Video. (Dec. 2, 2009);

6. Banfield, R., Lombardo, C.T., and Wax, T. Design Sprint: A Practical Guidebook for Building Great Digital Products. O'Reilly Media, Inc., Sebastapol, CA, 2015.

7. Knapp, J., Zeratsky, J., and Kowitz, B. Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016.

8. Friis Dam, R. and Siang, T.Y. 5 stages in the design thinking process. Interaction Design Foundation;

back to top  Authors

Janice Rohn is the VP of user experience at OpenX, and an executive leader in UX, product, mobile, and front-end development. She has led workshops and SIGs, and co-chaired multiple CHI Communities focusing on UX leadership. She is also teaching leadership courses at NNG. She has worked at both consumer and enterprise companies, including Apple, Sun Microsystems, AT&T, and Experian.

Carola Fellenz Thompson is currently chief experience officer at Splunk. She is an experienced design leader, designer, and product strategist with experience spanning small and large enterprises including SAP, Cisco,, Sun Microsystems, and Intellicorp. She is also an accomplished speaker on user experience leadership, innovation, and design thinking.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. The evolution of UX.

F2Figure 2. The Promise Pyramid.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2017 ACM, Inc.

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