Finding Your Path to UX Leadership

Finding Your Path to UX Leadership


Where do you see yourself in the next five or ten years? Leading a multidisciplinary in-house UX team? Presenting on stage at your favourite UX conference? Hosting a UX meetup?

These are all ways you can take on a leadership role in UX. Last week, we looked at the essential qualities of UX leaders. This week, our UXperts share their advice on overcoming barriers and practical tips to steer your career in the right direction.

Where do you see yourself in the next five or ten years? Leading a multidisciplinary in-house UX team? Presenting on stage at your favourite UX conference? Hosting a UX meetup?

These are all ways you can take on a leadership role in UX.

Last week, we looked at the essential qualities of UX leaders. This week, our UXperts share their advice on overcoming barriers and practical tips to steer your career in the right direction.

If you aspire to be a leader in UX, read on for advice on how you can make your mark in the UX community. And don’t worry, you don’t need to be a unicorn to make it!

Cory Lebson

Cory Lebson (@corylebson), author of The UX Careers Handbook (CRC Press, 2016), has been a user experience consultant for over 20 years. He is the Principal and Owner of Lebsontech LLC, a successful user experience consulting firm he established in 1997. Lebsontech is focused on user research and evaluation, user experience strategy, UX training, and mentoring. Cory also speaks frequently on topics related to UX career development, user experience, user research, information architecture, and accessibility.

What are the barriers that prevent people from becoming great UX leaders?

I think that one of the primary barriers to people being great UX leaders is the assumption that leadership needs to take the form of workplace team leadership when there are so many additional ways to be a leader.

Not everyone has the inclination towards workplace leadership. In fact, while workplace leadership can certainly be valuable on a resume, other forms of leadership actually offer far more exposure within and outside of the UX community. In addition to a solid resume of UX experience, that exposure is just as critical (if not, perhaps, more critical) to UX professionals whenever they are considering looking for a new job. Really, though, UX professionals need to practice these other forms of leadership all the time, not just when job seeking. This helps build their personal UX brand – a critical piece of any UX job search.

Who are your role models in the industry?

It’s all those UX leaders who help build UX community – local community, national community and global community, by creating events, activities, conferences, blog posts, articles, and podcasts. It’s all those UX leaders who strive to help others grow and learn. UX is a career field about people – about people helping people – and that extends beyond what we get paid to do. We’re in a field where this kind of leadership is so common and so appreciated by so many.

What can people who aspire to be leaders do now to move their career in the right direction?

Get out there! People should go beyond their workplace and build community, build ideas, and inspire others. Find out what is missing or could be better in a given local UX community, for example, and help create it! Yes, there is enough time in the day and it’s well worth it – to the community, to the individuals within the community, and to the leaders who get to feel good about what they created while simultaneously building a name for themselves beyond what they may do on the job.

Jodie Moule

Jodie Moule is Co-founder & CEO of Symplicit, a Customer Led Innovation firm based in Australia that has focused on research, strategy and design services since 2003. Following a Design Thinking philosophy that was grounded in the psychology and industrial design backgrounds of the founders; Jodie believes that understanding human behaviour allows you to change the customer experience, and that change happens through great design. Follow Jodie: @jodiemoule @thecookapp @symplicit

What are the barriers that prevent people from becoming great UX leaders?

I guess it comes down to each individual and your tenacity. Opportunity always presents itself, it’s just whether or not you are a ‘grab the bull by the horns’ kinda person, or ‘the world owes me’ type. In my experience, it’s the opportunistic types that get shit done, don’t make a fuss, and therefore, ultimately get the gig. Proactive, persistent, and high energy wins every time in my book. In that sense, the barrier is attitude. Your attitude. 

Who are your role models in the industry?

How do I not sound like a wanker and say I don’t have any? I tended to be profoundly impacted by everyday people that I observed from my life when I was younger, and then strived to be like them in some way.  

Growing up, I was lucky to be surrounded by strong independent women who I admired. My Grandmother was fiercely independent. She supported her whole family through the war times, and was one of the first female lifesavers in Australia – which was a major coup, given women weren’t allowed to wear swimsuits and do that stuff back then. Shows how strong she was fighting the machine back in the day. Same with my Aunty – she was a high-flying airline consultant who lived, what I thought, was an incredibly glamorous lifestyle that I aspired toward. Even my Dad was a world champion Hot Air Balloonist in his spare time. These were the people I was surrounded by growing up, and they were the people I admired, and was heavily influenced by.

I also tend to admire people that do things I’m really bad at – or who have achieved something in a unique way that I think is clever or cool. For example, I walked into ‘Victor Churchill’ the other day – a crazy high-end butcher in Sydney. What that guy has done for butchery is something really different and amazing. What a vision! You can learn from that, no matter what industry you’re in.

When I got into this space, we were too busy making our own way to think about role models. I certainly read what others had to say and formed my own views, but ultimately I just got on with it. I think that was good on reflection. It’s best not to be too distracted by others, and pave your own way.

What can people who aspire to be leaders do now to move their career in the right direction?

Work hard, don’t give up, and focus on your career, because it will have to come first to everything. No really, give up on the idea of work/life balance for a long while. I have found the harder that I work, the more I focused, the less distracted by other things I was – the more successful I got.

There is no point being half-assed about it all. Success comes to those who work bloody hard to make it so. Start building a profile and personal brand.  Get yourself into positions where you are doing the things that leaders do – like have a voice in industry, write articles, present at conferences, do great work, be excited and engaged. And of course – take every opportunity you get – work hard and just fit it all in. Those who snooze lose.

James Noble

James has helped re-define, create and evolve user experiences for over two decades. Founding one of Asia Pacific’s most innovative experience agencies Carter Digital. An active UX industry advisor, mentor, radio presenter, public speaker and serves on a number creative juries globally including Australia’s first UX & Digital Craft representative for Cannes Lion in 2016. Follow James on LinkedIn, Medium, or Twitter.  

What are the barriers that prevent people from becoming great UX leaders?

Ability, knowledge, people

Some things take time to learn, evolve and perfect. Staying positive, understanding limitations helps you be honest with the team and yourself. Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’, own it. We never have all the ux suite of tools in our bag, have insight and the ability to know ‘how’ and ‘where’ to find a solution to a problem.

Some barriers are universal and difficult to shake. This is a team, leverage each member’s core skills to each task and trust they can achieve the right result. Share your knowledge and trust your team, massively reduces people who are prone to micro-managing. Leading from the front and focus on the bigger picture, adding value to your leadership, and help others feel a sense of empowerment, ownership and satisfaction. Make sure the right people are in the right seats, the right person in the wrong seat can hinder the entire team you are trying to lead. A strong leader will make the hard choices for the greater good and know when to make those tough decisions.

UX leaders are from all areas of industry, businesses and departments. Being siloed within your own comfort zone or organisation can happen to everyone. Look outside your environment and look for similarities with what you do to others. Something as simple as switching from Apple iOS to Android for a few weeks you’ll see how it affects interactions with the interface, environment and mood while you use it, help you break routine and spark new approaches to problem-solving.

Who are your role models in the industry?

This seems like an easy question, it isn’t. UX is part of a much bigger picture, and you have to look outside your comfort zone to find answer.

Staying within the standard comfort zone it would be Luke Wroblewski for his forward thinking and research articles on mobile first, Tina Roth Eisenberg (aka Swiss Miss) helping make UX mainstream and contributions to Creative Mornings, Mike Monteiro for saying what everyone is thinking and of course, the mighty Steve Jobs/Steve Wozniak combo for kickstarting the personal and digital revolution.

If I was honest, in my drive and motivations, my mind turns more towards Charles and Ray Eames, for understand and thinking outside the norm, Erik Spiekermann creating a typeface the world never knew we couldn’t live without, Wes Anderson for his beautiful understanding of the left vs. right human psyche and application of symmetry and of course NASA, without them we probably wouldn’t have Elon Musk trying to save the world, who also has a masterful plan b: MARS.

What can people who aspire to be leaders do now to move their career in the right direction?

Consuming information in all its forms, regardless to the likelihood of remember it. Learning is more than the user experience industry, startups can be a constant source of information and inspiration. Never stop learning.

Improve communication skills, and know public speaking comes with the territory as exposure grows within the ux community.

Voice your opinion if you have one and try to write articles on these observations, a difficult ask (I know). Don’t be afraid to be wrong, you can’t be, it’s an opinion right?

Create what makes you happy, the rest will take care of itself.

RELATED:  Transcript: Ask the UXperts: Make Meaningful Work with Dan Szuc

Dan Szuc

Dan (@dszuc) is a Principal Consultant at Apogee, as well as the co-founder of the UX Hong Kong conference. He has been involved in the UX field for 25 years, and has been based in Hong Kong for 20 years. Dan has lectured about usability, user-centred design, and user experience globally. He co-wrote The Usability Kit, an implementation guide providing best practices and guidelines for usability teams, and he holds a Bachelor of Science in Information Management from Melbourne University in Australia.

What are the barriers that prevent people from becoming great UX leaders?

The barriers to great humanistic leadership are the very systems that people work in that promote toxicity and lack of care. Where rewards systems are given priority and where people are incentivised to show a continuous lack of respect. Where people are treated like numbers and speed is considered the constant routine at the detriment and degradation of work itself.

So in order to consider the barriers to being a great leader, we in fact need to consider the barriers that get in the way of answering – how do we make meaningful work? One major barrier to this is that people do not have a common space, language, process, toolset and practices in order to make meaningful work. So people end up clawing at each other to gain access to the top of the summit that is a myth to begin with.

Who are your role models in the industry?

My role models primarily come from diversity of publications we read as we seek a holistic and diverse understanding of what drives behaviour and this also helps us seek clarity on themes and patterns that influence thinking.

If we could describe the characteristics of our roles models it would include: openness, connectedness, a willingness to challenge own bias and assumptions, one that is not driven primarily by digital or technological solutions for all that ails society, a yearning to understand people more deeply to better understand their needs and issues and dreams and people who encourage a more respectful, considered and reflective discussion and debate as grounded in evidence and a willingness to challenge that for an enlightened plateau as we all learn together.

The role models would be too big a list to share here but they are easy enough to find and reach out to as we are lucky to be part of a community we generically call UX that encourages people who do care about the well-being of other people and who get disappointed when they do not see as much progress as we should be seeing in this instance of futures.

What can people who aspire to be leaders do now to move their career in the right direction?

Consider the skill sets needed to be a leader and consider that not everyone who thinks they are a leader, is a leader, and that people who may not think they are a leader are in fact good leadership material.

Think about the leadership style that suits your personality. If leadership is about helping others be successful in order to have a greater sense of success for teams, business and community, under what circumstances have you exhibited those traits and what are those traits?

Fundamentally, an important part of any leadership role is clear communication and the ability to express where you would like to take people and why. This implies the need for a vision and the openness to iterate on that story or narrative to get you there. It also means you need to learn from people and see how those learnings assist the iteration of your direction.

The question also implies the notion of a career and consider a view down the path. Break this down into 2-3 year chunks and then think about the why you do what you do in the first place and then consider the implications on your direction. It also helps to have more experienced and diverse views around you to help shed light on that direction.

David Travis

Dr David Travis (@userfocus) holds a BSc and a PhD in Psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market.

What are the barriers that prevent people from becoming great UX leaders?

I think there are two main barriers. The first is that many organisations still don’t get what user experience is about. For example, there’s a common belief that it’s only about visual design or making products that look cool. As a consequence, the people assigned to a leadership role may not have the right technical skills. Although those skills aren’t enough on their own to create a great UX leader, it will be very difficult to lead a team effectively without them.

The second barrier is having senior management support for some of the tough decisions that need to be made. Everyone loves user experience when it doesn’t impact delivery schedules or drain too much of the development budget. But when the user research shows that the product is a dog and needs to be redesigned from the ground up, our UX leader needs a supportive chain of command. If user experience doesn’t have a voice in the boardroom, the best UX leader in the business won’t be able to have an impact.

Who are your role models in the industry?

My role models in the industry are Jared Spool and Jakob Nielsen. They are both fine examples of UX leadership and both of them spend serious time growing the industry as a whole.

What can people who aspire to be leaders start doing now to move their career in the right direction?

You should certainly ensure you have the foundation level, technical knowledge that I’ve described in the previous post. You can develop those skills through training courses (such as on my course on Udemy) and through day-to-day practice on projects. But to become a UX leader, you also need to develop yourselves in two other spheres of practice.

I call the first sphere of practice “process skills”: these are the activities a practitioner uses when managing stakeholders and managing projects. This includes:

  • Active listening: really seeking to understand the design problem and providing a solution that will fix it.
  • Helping the organisation implement change: in many user experience activities, the real work begins when the activity (such as a usability test) has finished.
  • Making appropriate ethical choices: in some organisations, the pressure to do your research a particular way can be overwhelming.
  • Project management: good leaders know how to manage their time, manage the work of the team, and manage the projects that they work on.

The second sphere of practice is marketing. Typical marketing activities that user experience leaders need to master include:

  • Explaining the cost-benefit of usability activities. A good user experience leader will be able to ground the main benefits of user experience in the organisation’s domain.
  • Formulating a proposal and a research plan for the work you will carry out.
  • Generating new work. As a leader, you need to keep your team busy and you need to identify the next big enterprise project, ensuring that the user experience flag gets flown.
  • Leaving a legacy. Great UX leaders will grow their team, their company and the industry as a whole.

Catch up on part 1 of our leadership series: The Essential Qualities of a UX Leader.

What do you think makes for excellent leadership in UX? Let us know in the forums or leave a comment.

Written by
Luke Chambers
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1 comment
  • Nice article, thanks for this.

    I noticed a small issue tho – in Jodie Moule’s third answer there is some text being duplicated. It’s in the end of the first and in the beginning of the second paragraph.
    A few sentences got repeated right there.

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