Why UX Designers Need To Become Project Managers

Why UX Designers Need To Become Project Managers


One reasons UX Designers love their job so much is because of the variety—we get to work with different clients, technologies, people, industries, and techniques.

How’s this for variety? You need to learn how to become a project manager, too. Matt explains why.

We recently published our UX Techniques Bank, and have had some lovely feedback via Twitter and email.

Our reason for creating the Techniques Bank was to communicate the breadth of what is available. However, we’re aware that it’s a pretty overwhelming list—no one project would ever utilise every single technique.

In which case, which techniques should you use on your project, and in what order?

My own experience mirrors that described in these articles—that every project is different. However, telling a client, “Sorry, I can’t give you a detailed plan because this project is different from the last 5 projects I’ve worked on—let’s work it out as we go along!” simply isn’t going to cut it.

UX Designers need to become Project Managers.

To ensure that User Experience is given the focus that we all agree it deserves, UX Designers need to be sitting in the driver’s seat. Jon Kolko touched on this in his talk at Web Directions South 2012. We need to be the one who is creating the project plan, so we can be sure that it incorporates appropriate UX activities. It’s tempting to want to say to yourself, “No, I’m a designer and I just want to do user research and analysis and design stuff.” However, by abdicating yourself from project management responsibility, you’re empowering somebody else with the influence to make decisions on what UX activities should be included in a project plan.

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There’s another reason why project management is an important skill for UX designers—the ability to be involved throughout the design and production phases. If you’ve ever handed over deliverables to an development team, only to discover later that the final product is a pale imitation of your vision, you’ll know why being involved during development is important. One way to guarantee that your vision is maintained is to project manage the build.

Where do you see the line between UX Designer and Project Manager being drawn? I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts.

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Written by
Matthew Magain
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  • I agree and yet I don’t agree.

    If we become too focused on PM then we will basically loose time to do all those UX tasks, we just get to oversee. Stepping away from the interaction with customers and designing.

    Then comes the question which PM method Prince2 or agile (coach or Scrum Master). Which one is best for UX…. or should we know it all and be flexible like our toolkits of techniques.

    I can see the points for this happening as often, as you say, we need to lead from the front and to get the project happening we need to PM it.

    Personally I have avoided this as I have found myself doing very little UX Design or Research and just PM all the time. The result being a lack luster UX, as there was little UX direction from me…. yeah my bad! Which seems self defeating.

    I would love to see “the how” on this one. ! Even when Jon Kolko chatted on this at UX Australia in his workshop the details of HOW where very sketchy.

    I’m sure this will be a hot topic.. :)

    • Perhaps I should have worded my stance as “UXers should learn project management skills.” It’s not necessarily about the role as being in a position to influence planning, budget and strategy. For some projects, this isn’t necessary as the individuals involved are enlightened. However, for others it can be a real cultural shift to place design at the heart of the project. In these cases, it may be necessary to push a UX agenda. One way to do this is by taking on more of a project management role.

      As we discussed on Twitter, there are a few issues buried in this conversation, and a range of scenarios where the approach I’ve touched on will or will not make sense.

      For instance, is taking on a joint UX/PM role an effective way to champion UX in an organisation that isn’t bought into user-centred design? Absolutely. Is it the only way? Sometimes! Is it possible in every project? Of course not. Is there a danger that the design will be compromised, because UX activities run the risk of being sidelined by PM responsibilities? On small projects, this is less of a concern. On large projects, this is definitely a risk. Finally, is having such a compromise better than having the project apply no UX approach at all? I’d argue, yes. I’ve played this role on a project where a separate PM wasn’t warranted and incorporating user research was a foreign concept. The end result was the organisation made an effort to include UX activities in other projects from that point forward. Demonstrating the value of UX on one project in a limited capacity meant that other projects had less of a fight on their hands, and bigger budgets for user research from that time on.

      As for which methodology, perhaps that’s for another post. I’d love to hear what others think is the most compatible project management methodology for user-centred design.

      • “Designers need to focus on Design. That’s why they have PMs.”

        I used to agree, but now I take offense to that. For years designers have heard the “You’re too good as a designer, no point in leading or getting promoted” argument from folks who clearly just want designers and developers to learn their place.

        More and more, I believe the best leaders are ex-designers and ex-developers. We need to take “doers” and make them direct organizations.

        • I’m sorry to say I find this comment demeaning. Myself as a UX strategist and many designers I’ve worked with, like many developers, do not want to work in management. Not everyone has the ambition or will to govern other peoples’ work.

          I myself worked as a project manager, product owner or team leader for years before realizing I really don’t want to be responsible for other people’s performance and now I work as a specialist with my own deliverables. While I do still have responsibilities towards the rest of a team, and they have responsibilities against me, I have no specific mandate to direct them, which suits me just fine.

    • “If we become too focused on PM then we will basically loose time to do all those UX tasks, we just get to oversee”

      Sounds like a promotion. People who take pleasure in sitting at their desk, skip meetings and just design (like me) usually don’t go very far in the organization. Designers need to step up and become decision makers – because we’re more prepared to make UX decisions than PMs, and because we need more “doers” in leadership.

  • Somehow I can agree with you but I refuse to call the points you’re giving project management. A UX designer and a project manager are to different roles. But nevertheless a UX designer has to get up and fight for the things he wants and needs to do.

    In my point of view the UX designer is the one to lead the strategic and design oriented part of the project – so which workshops to do which artifacts to create etc. – whereas the project manager is the one to ensure the organisational part. The project manager ensures everyone in the team has all the things to be able to work. The UX designer guides the path through the project.

    For sure, both roles need to work together really closely. Even one person could do both roles but it’s still to roles.

    • Thanks for your comment Martin. I agree that in an ideal world, the PM should be guided by the UX designer, and should take their advice and factor user research activities into the project.

      In my experience, this rarely happens. When budgets or deadlines are tight, user research is the first thing to go. Just as common is not consulting the UX designer about that aspect of the project in the first place, with the UX designer then being forced to squeeze in compromised guerrilla research activities with whatever he or she can scrape together.

      Perhaps the organisations (and project managers) with which I’ve worked need more educating than others. As I elaborated upon in my response to Gary’s comment, in these circumstances, I believe there is value in UX folks taking on some PM responsibilities, in order to have more say in what the plan looks like. I’m sure there are circumstances when clients and PMs give UX designers full support in conducting the necessary UX activities, I just don’t see them very often in my engagements.

    • This is a bigger conversation. It really depends on the culture of your organization and how much clout you have to allocate budget.

    • Interesting thought, thanks.

      I’ll be taking it more upon myself this year to lead on UX initiatives instead of laying low and letting the PM do that. I might mention that in the yearly review, to argue for a significant raise – after all, if I have to fight to lead, I should be compensated accordingly :)

  • When I do some freelance I’m the PM.

    Also I’m working in Advertising agencie and we have a PM just to organize our calendar, but if I don’t do the follow up along the project is certainly that somebody will influence.

    It’s happen all the time.

  • As Vitor alluded to, I think this depends on the size of the project.

    For small teams, UX sharing PM responsibilities may make perfect sense. However, for larger projects, the PM responsibilities can get in the way of UX activities.

    I work as a UX Strategist in a medium-size web agency (70 employees) with dedicated project managers. For many projects, I essentially take over most client communication during research, IX, and IA activities. The PMs are left to focus on scope, time, and budget concerns. However, I do rely on the PM since they are the closest to the client. I invite them to all collaborative sessions because their input is usually extremely valuable due to their deep understanding of the project.

    • Agreed Andrew, a joint UX/PM role in a small team can work well, but doesn’t make sense for larger projects.

      Sounds like the skills necessary to perform your role are similar to those need for project management, which is what I was getting at.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  • I agree with @Martin Gude’s comments. As someone who’s started off in UX, and moved into project management and now product. Each role is unique and it’s up to the person in their role to not only do it right, but own it. There is crossover at times too, so the basics should be common knowledge to all. Same goes for a developer, dev should know the business case driving the need before writing a line of code or Marketing should’t be promoting a new feature until they have been given a demo/specs from Product.

    Yes I know in an ideal world with big budgets, flexible deadlines, clear project outlines etc – this is easier to manage. But deadlines change, budgets shift but most importantly as long as expectations are always set and agreed on, then you can continue to manage your element.

    As a freelancer, its a challenge to work out this balance, but start with setting expectations and the rest will usually follow. Plus when freelancing, project managing is quite simple. There are lots of great tools around to assist, you really should be able to a). own the UX and manage its direction, b). not have to spend too much on PM as expectations are set, clients are onboard etc.

    • when freelancing, project managing is quite simple … you really should be able to a). own the UX and manage its direction, b). not have to spend too much on PM

      Couldn’t have said it better myself Oliver. Thanks for chiming in!

  • My two “euro-cents”.
    I work as a project manager in a small system integrator company in Milan, Italy. I started my job as an information architect and ux designer. In my company, in which user-experience design has ever held a crucial role in the design and implementation process, it is quite typical that who works as an ia/UX evolves in the pm role, in the end. This is partly due to the importance that UX design holds in our approach and partly (largely?) due to the fact that the ia/ux owns and cultivates some (soft) skills which are equally key to the pm role: above all, the ability to understand the other’s point of view (empathy), which in my opinion is one of the skills a pm should have in order to be able to negotiate.
    A few days ago during a meeting of the UX Book Club in Milan, we had the chance of discussing more or less the same topic: for it seems that, at least here in Milan, many ux designers experience the role of pm, expecially in small teams/projects and when such a role is not properly assigned.

    • Really interesting to hear how your role has evolved, Barbara, and that other UXers you’ve spoken to have had similar experiences. It’s true that there is an overlap of skills, and it’s inevitable on smaller projects that the roles will overlap or possibly blur into one.

      Thanks for your comment!

    • PM’s rely on UXERs because they hold large amounts of information. You need to be getting regular updates. That doesn’t mean holding time wasting meetings. It also doesn’t mean UXERs become PMs – if that is happening there is an unhealthy overlap and maybe the PM is doing a bad job or the UXER is a control freak.

  • I will point out that you are better at a skill if you do it full time. When I did a lot of Front End Dev / Visual Design I was very good at what I did, on top of all the best practices, trying and experimenting with new techniques and tools all the time.

    When I morphed in to UX (over the last 12 years – not knowing it at the time) My skills shifted. The Front End Dev / Visual Design waned a little as my time went into UX skills. Same with PM.

    If you really want to be good at something you need to practice it. I can’t see at UX being good at PM without some bias. There just isn’t the time in the day.

    Sure you can do it and learn it. But do we go to the level of certification in PM

    • If you want to become a PM you should go through the PMI. Personally I don’t think UXER’s should take on this role in addition to UX responsibilities.

  • Hi Matthew!
    Your topic is very very interesting for me!
    I’m a UX Designer (application and game mobile) in a little italian company. In the last time, often, I work as PM. I think that is very useful (and important) take the PM rule for learn a new skill essential for a good process (design and management). But, sometimes, as mentioned by many of you, this rule damage the UX process. GANTT, calendars, diary, timesheet, are very complicated and require attention. This “attention” is not viable in multitasking. It is inevitable, therefore, that the activities of User Experience suffer.

    But you say that the difference lies between the small and large projects. If I understand good, in the first you can merge the two activities (PM + UX) while in large becomes more risk.

    The questions I have:
    What do you mean by “small” and “large” project? It’s something measurable in time? It is something which is measured on the level of complexity of the architecture, interaction and more?

  • It’s not that UX designers need to become protect management. They need to be aware of best practices in project management. From my experience there are many Project Managers that inherited their position. I’ve found these to be the worse! PM’s with PMI training I have found to be the best!

  • Project management in UX terms can be a separate role and where UX designer can take role of Project manager – UX. In this case s/he need to manage with other Project managers. It depends upon the size and complexity of what is been built.

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