The Growing Demand for UX Managers

by Jared M. Spool

The hot UX job right now is User Experience Manager. It’s a sign that things are changing for the better. UX is growing in importance inside many organizations.

Organizations only need managers when they’ve been growing their design teams. They only grow their teams when they value design.

However, there’s a problem. There aren’t enough experienced UX managers to fill all open positions. Experienced UX managers are often happy where they are. It takes years for new managers to get the requisite experience to manage growing teams.

UX-Design-as-a-Service teams drive the demand.

It’s the teams at the UX Design as a Service stage of our UX maturity model that are driving this growing demand for UX managers. This stage happens when an executive within the organization believes UX is important enough to start making serious investments in people and teams.

The two stages before UX Design as a Service, UX Dark Ages and UX Spot Design,don’t warrant UX teams. In these stages, the organization has yet to realize the value of delivering well-designed products and services, so they aren’t investing in a team of designers and researchers.

In the later stages, Embedded UX Design and Infused UX Design, UX professionals are moving into individual product and service delivery teams. The demand for managers who specialize in UX teams stops growing, as individual team managers now take over the work.

This stage drives the demand we see for more UX managers, as more organizations are moving into this stage. Organizations are growing their UX teams to be large enough to warrant managers.

They’re finding that not just any experienced manager will do. They need managers with UX knowledge and experience. Thus, the demand for UX managers.

Managers make their teams effective.

A great manager focuses on the effectiveness of the people who report directly to them (often referred to as the manager’s direct reports). They do what it takes to ensure each team member working for them produces their best work every day.

They ensure each direct knows what’s expected of them. They get each direct the tools and materials needed to do their job. They help their direct reports understand how their daily work contributes to the overall mission of the organization.

A great manager also focuses on the development of their direct reports. They look for opportunities to grow. They provide feedback to each direct on what they do well and where they can improve. They regularly talk to the directs about their development progress.

The growth of UX teams demands management.

When an organization only has a couple of designers or researchers, special management doesn’t seem necessary. Hiring experienced designers and researchers who are good self-managers will do the trick for organizations whose UX teams are just starting out.

However, once a UX team grows beyond four people, the need for a manager starts to grow. Team members need coordination and help to manage their efforts.

Managers are most effective with eight or less direct reports. As a UX team grows beyond eight members, the organization will need a second manager to help out.

Once they grow the UX team past 24 or so members—where it’s large enough to require four managers—they’ll probably need to hire or promote someone into a manager-of-manager position. This is quite common these days. We regularly see UX teams with more than 40 team members.

UX Managers are a special breed of manager.

It’s tempting to put anyone with management experience in this position. Yet, as any UX professional who has worked under a manager who didn’t get UX can attest, this creates many stresses in the job.

A UX manager can provide a level of support for the UX team that a manager without UX experience and knowledge can’t. They focus on needs that are unique to UX teams.

A great UX manager will help the UX team move their design and research work to be more pro-active. They can coach their management peers on how and when to ask for UX resources to get the most out of the team’s capabilities.

A great UX manager will also coach the team’s individual contributors on how to surface the value of UX design and research in the organization. Being inside the organization’s management structure, they can identify where design and research can be most valuable, and feed that into how their direct reports position the team’s work.

Growing the UX team will always be a priority. UX teams are always too small for the work they need to accomplish. A UX manager can use their knowledge of UX work to identify where the team needs to grow their skills. They’ll use this for both hiring and the ongoing development of their direct reports.

UX Managers make UX Leaders.

UX Managers are different from UX Leaders. UX leaders push a vision forward, while UX managers focus on making the team effective. They are related roles in an organization, but they aren’t the same.

It’s possible that a UX manager can also be a UX leader. They can have a clear vision and spend a significant portion of their time promoting that vision.

However, many highly-effective UX managers prefer to grow leadership skills within their team. They use the role power that comes from their appointment as a manager within the organization to support the leadership that comes from individual contributors on their team.

For example, an individual contributor can be leading an effort to roll out a design system. The UX manager can use their own role power to support that team member’s initiative, giving it credence and recognition.

To make this work, the UX manager needs to be constantly growing the leadership skills of their direct reports. Leadership is a learned skill and critical for every UX professional to develop.

We need to make more UX Managers.

As we grow our teams, we need our individual contributors to start picking up basic management skills. Even without direct reports, these skills are useful for helping the teams they work with to be more effective.

Not everyone will want to become a manager. There should definitely be growth paths for individual contributors.

Yet, for those who wish to try their hand at designing effective people, management can be a great path. The shift to ensuring entire teams deliver well-designed products and services is quite rewarding and much needed in our field.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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