A guide to UX leadership & 7 pillars for leading better teams
We’re going to address the elephant in the room straight off the bat: what’s the difference between a manager and a leader?
Our previous chapter—the first in this six-part UX management guide—looked at the role and responsibilities of a UX manager. So, why are we now looking at UX leadership—haven’t we covered that already?
In short, no.
UX leadership and UX management are different—not every manager is a leader. Take a look at these key differences:
A great UX manager shows many of the characteristics of a UX leader—but UX leadership is less of a role and more of a mindset. Ideally, your UX manager and UX leader are the same person.
“It's optimal that the two of these roles be intertwined—an ideal manager is also a leader who can inspire their team, encourage them to do their best work, and remove roadblocks so they can stay focused and happy.”
So, how can UX managers ensure they’re also UX leaders?
We’ll be answering this and more in this chapter—buckle up!
What makes a great UX leader?
A great UX leader uplifts and supports the entire UX team—their focus is empowering the team to do the best work possible by listening to them and providing the resources they need. It’s about bringing people together around a UX strategy to achieve a shared vision.
Great UX leadership motivates employees to, put simply, be better. It’s important for encouraging them to develop their skills and approach design with curiosity and intrigue. A great UX leader instills their mindset in their team—starting them on the path to UX leadership.
Another key attribute of a UX leader is their commitment to advocating for UX design and build a design-first organization. Despite the documented benefits of UX investment, many businesses still see UX as an afterthought. It’s a UX leader's job to change that using their leadership position and UX experience.
Here’s what we got when we asked the experts what they think makes a great UX leader:
“Design leadership's core roles are being a source of creative inspiration, encouraging collaboration with their counterparts on other teams, and serving as a sounding board for solving difficult problems.”
“A great UX leader is someone who can think strategically and bring a holistic view of the user experience to every decision they make. They must be an effective communicator and have an in-depth understanding of how users interact with products/services, as well as be able to analyze data effectively.”
Leadership styles in UX
Ever heard the phrase ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat’?
If you’ve not, that’s going to sound really messed up—but it essentially means that there’s more than one way to get the job done.
Our point? UX leadership styles vary, and not every UX leader approaches team leadership the same way. Here are some of the different types of UX team leadership:
Servant leadership seeks to achieve a vision by providing the team with the support and resources they need to do a great job. Leaders with this style serve their team's goals and organization above all else—they don’t prioritize their own objectives.
Employees under this style of UX leadership are more likely to feel heard by the UX leader—and are 4.6x more likely to work to the best of their abilities. We briefly touched upon servant leadership when looking at a day in the life of Scott from Churnkey—here’s a reminder of what he had to say:
“Do whatever you can to support them. Clear the path of anything that can be a distraction or debilitating. Encourage them to learn new tools, skills, and to get outside of their comfort zone. And above all, prioritize empathy—both within the team and outside of it.”
Servant leadership focuses on bottom-up empowerment—giving the team the confidence and skills to do great work—and providing a framework within which the team can flourish. These individuals lead from the back—an important point to make before we move on to our next—similar—leadership style.
Transformational leadership emphasizes change and transformation. Transformational leaders strive to inspire their followers to achieve more than they ever imagined by tapping into their potential. These leaders focus on change, the future, and the people around them.
The primary goals of transformational UX leadership are to inspire growth, encourage loyalty, and instill confidence in team members. These leaders are typically charismatic, convincing, and able to energize and motivate a team around a shared vision—they lead from the front.
Democratic leaders—sometimes called participative leaders—listen to their team and involve them in decision-making. It’s a popular approach to leadership due to its ability to build trust with the team and empower them to share their ideas on essential matters.
This typically leads to a collective effort of a team to identify problems and develop solutions—and avoids assigning blame individually.
Authoritative leaders tend to inspire those around them—and often view themselves as mentors to their team. Authoritative leaders provide teams with feedback, guidance, and motivation. It’s a hands-on approach to leadership that provides overall direction and individualized feedback and guidance.
These are just some approaches to UX leadership—the ones we believe to be most effective for UX leaders and teams. Now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of UX leadership: the pillars to help you build a user-centered culture.
7 pillars of leadership to build a user-centered team
Great leaders build great teams. Here are seven key pillars of effective UX leadership for you to develop your leadership skills and style.
1. Self-awareness is your most important trait
The first pillar of UX leadership involves reflecting on your skills as a leader and a UX designer. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses is essential for professional—and personal—development.
There are a number of ways you can do this—and a multi-faceted approach is your best bet for ensuring you’re covering all bases. Firstly, make sure you build a feedback culture in your team that includes you. Feedback shouldn’t just come from above—especially when you’re looking to improve your leadership qualities.
Ask your team to give feedback on your performance as a UX leader, and encourage honesty and open discourse. Make space for their opinions to be heard—giving feedback to a senior member of the team can be daunting, so it’s up to you to ensure your team knows you want to hear it. The same goes for your leaders—ask for frequent and honest feedback on your leadership.
Alongside this—and when feedback identifies areas for improvement—you can use different learning resources to build your knowledge and skills. Books, videos, podcasts, forums—the list goes on. You can also take your learning to the next level with platforms like Uxcel.
Uxcel offers UX researchers, designers, and leaders the online learning resources they need to deepen their understanding of core and niche UX concepts, methodologies, and tools. The courses, challenges, assessments, and more all work together to help you build your skills and knowledge. It can even help you identify strengths and weaknesses—so you can lead with your strengths and find lessons in your weaknesses.
2. A shared vision and language around UX is key
The second pillar of UX leadership is to ensure everyone is speaking the same language. It’s your responsibility to standardize how your team—and the wider organization—talks about UX.
This not only includes the actual language used, but it also refers to the way your organization views UX—the overall vision for UX within the organization. That’s a key difference between UX managers and UX leaders, as we heard from Daniel Chabert, CEO & CO-Founder at PurpleFire:
“A UX manager is focused on the day-to-day running of a user experience team or department, and is often responsible for ensuring that team deadlines are met.
A UX leader is someone who not only manages the team but also has a vision for where they want to take UX within their organization in order to create an optimal user experience.”
How can you make this happen? Documentation—and lots of it. You’ll likely require different documentation for internal—your UX team—and external—the rest of the organization—stakeholders, but make sure everything is accessible to everyone.
Getting people to care about UX isn’t just about giving them the information they need, however, it’s also about piquing their interest and retaining their attention. As a UX leader, you need to advocate for user-centric decision-making wherever possible.
“UX leaders should ensure that everyone understands the importance of the user experience and how it impacts their business goals. They need to provide resources for team members to develop their UX skills and UX knowledge.”
3. User feedback is your be-all and end-all
UX decisions should not be made based on assumptions, they should always be based on data. Data-driven decision-making should be standard across the organization, but it’s especially important in the user experience team.
It’s a UX leader's responsibility to remind the UX team and wider organization that user feedback should be at the heart of every decision. When questioning UX decisions, answers should always start with ‘Because research found…’.
Where possible, UX leaders should advocate for continuous research as a decision-making tool. Keeping a finger on the pulse of customer wants and needs ensures that organizations deliver products and services that delight users.
4. Measuring design impact helps improve
Another key pillar of UX leadership is stressing the importance of measuring impact in order to improve. Mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow—but this learning and growing doesn’t happen by accident. UX leaders need to reflect on how designs and processes could be better—both with the UX team and with the rest of the organization.
“Encourage show and tell, often. Since our work is interdisciplinary and gets refined the most when it's exposed to the light of different opinions, perspectives, and challenges.”
This should be a team activity for the greatest impact. Having the UX team collaboratively reflect on the work they do and the impact it has is a great way to encourage development and growth.
Insights into the performance of designs can come from a variety of sources, including user feedback, product analytics, and more. These insights can be collected by the UX leader and shared with the team during a workshop or learning session. This also helps unite the team around the goal of building a user-centric culture.
5. People do well when they can
Our fifth pillar of UX leadership revolves around this concept:“People do well when they can, not when they want to.”
Think of it this way: nobody wants to do a bad job, but they can only do as good a job as they have the skills and tools for. Your approach to leading a UX team should revolve around ensuring they’ve got the skills and tools they need.
This also rings true when considering the leadership style of a UX team. Does your team feel like they have the freedom to make mistakes? Do they feel supported by leadership to try new approaches and designs?
Here’s how Scott from Churnkey, views UX leadership:
“I treat my team like adults. They have the authority to solve problems their own way and the autonomy to organize how they want to work.
It's made possible because they know who our customer is, they know the vision for our product, and I give them the space to do the work, not sit in design meetings or get micro-managed.”
6. Step up, step back
Our sixth pillar somewhat stems from our fifth: if people are doing well—leave them to it. Put simply:
- If your team is successfully collaborating with each other, step back and leave them to it.
- If your team is struggling, step up and show them what’s needed.
It’s important to build a culture that’s comfortable with making mistakes and failing—failing forward is still progress. It’s the leadership style that determines whether failure is a step forward or a step backward—and it’s essential that you build a culture that views failure as a stepping stone to success.
Knowing when to provide support and guidance is tricky—as, frankly, it differs with each member of your team. Some thrive on solving their own issues, whereas others greatly appreciate a nudge in the right direction.
A key consideration here is this: know when to be a leader. Sometimes you need to step up and guide your team; other times you need to step back and let them lead the way.
7. Hire for your team
Our final pillar of UX leadership is to hire for the team you have right now. Hiring is a tough task—ask any recruiter and they’ll tell you—and it’s often part of a UX leader’s role to chat with candidates and make final hiring decisions.
Scott had some simple advice for hiring UX designers for your team:
“Hire people who love to collaborate across different disciplines.”
Now, it’s tempting to focus solely on the candidate you’re hiring: their knowledge, skills, experience, etc.. While this is definitely important, it’s not the only consideration; you also need to consider how they’ll fit with the rest of the team and the culture you’ve built.
Matching the team culture is just as important as having the skills and experience to get the job done. It’s your job as an effective UX leader to identify promising candidates during the hiring process.
Topics every UX leader should stay on top of
“Trends and tools and teams and customer needs and business requirements change all the time. Curiosity is essential for this role because the only constant here is change and improvement.”
As we heard from Scott, great UX leaders keep up-to-date with the fast-paced world of UX design. But, what exactly should they be looking at? Here are some topics that UX leaders should keep an eye on right now.
Continuous, democratized research is the future for decision-making
More and more teams are doing more and more user research—a win for the UXers who’ve spent years trying to highlight the value of quality user research. The Continuous Research Report developed by Maze highlighted three key takeaways from surveying over 600 designers, product managers, and researchers:
- Continuous research is becoming a well-established practice
- The industry is moving towards the democratization of research
- Continuous research enables more effective decision-making
UX professionals may be the primary consumers of user research right now, but you can expect to see that shift over the next few years.
Why do UX leaders need to stay on top of this?UX professionals and leaders need to ensure that user research is a continuous process and that the results are stored in a UX repository for organization-wide access. A word of caution, however, comes from UX leader and influencer, Julian Della Matia:
Artificial intelligence in UX design
Artificial intelligence is already making waves in most industries, and UX research and design is no exception. AI presents the UX industry with a variety of opportunities and challenges—those in a UX leadership role need to stay on top of both.
Here’s a quick breakdown:
Why do UX leaders need to stay on top of this?
The rise of AI in UX design is an important topic, whether immediately relevant to your team or not.
“Even if your product doesn't have the chance to utilize the latest in new tech, understanding new interaction paradigms and being able to learn new tools is an essential part of staying relevant.”
It’s not about whether it directly affects your team, it’s about whether it affects the UX industry.
Prepare to design for more
With new technologies come new potential experiences and platforms to design for. Staying on top of emerging trends is not only interesting, but it could also be the difference between leading the pack and getting left behind.
For example, how many times have you designed experiences for:
- Augmented reality?
- Virtual reality?
- The metaverse?
Not often, we’d guess. Staying on top of the new platforms on which user experience design is needed is crucial for modern UX leaders.
Why do UX leaders need to stay on top of this?
As a UX leader, it’s important to have a finger on the pulse of all things UX. Whether your team is actively designing for these platforms or not, you need the knowledge to understand and advocate for new UX design opportunities when they arise.
Increased focus on accessibility
Finally, accessibility is now a must-have, not a nice-to-have—as we heard from Scott Hurff:
“As more of the world comes online, it's essential to design products that are accessible to everyone, regardless of their abilities or disabilities.”
Staying on top of the many ways you can develop and deploy more accessible designs is key for modern UX design. It’s also important to consider and implement design trends with accessibility in mind. It’s tempting to adopt the newest trends without considering their impact—but this frequently means accessibility takes a hit.
Why do UX leaders need to stay on top of this?
UX leaders need to stay on top of accessible design trends to ensure UX designs are consistently meeting all user needs—regardless of trends or fads.
For example, graphic design trends that were popular in the 90s and early 2000s are making a comeback—but they’re not good news for accessibility. They can often be unreadable by screen readers, meaning they’re inaccessible to many users.
Becoming a better UX leader
“Create a supportive culture where the team is encouraged to input on decisions and share their opinions freely.” — James Nesbitt, MD and Founder at Myth Digital
“Foster empathy for customers throughout the organization. Show interviews you've conducted, bring teams along with you on interviews, and constantly synthesize and summarize the pain points your product is solving for real people.” — Scott Hurff, Co-Founder and CPO at Churnkey
“Stay on top of the latest trends in UX, including analysis and research methods, design tools, usability testing techniques, and user-centered design principles.” Daniel Chabert, Co-Founder and CEO at PurpleFire
UX leadership is about improving yourself to improve your team. The change starts with you, so ensure you’re developing your skills and knowledge in line with the fast-paced UX design industry.