I remember a graduate student once asking me if she should continue on to a PhD program after completing her master’s degree. I asked her what she thought the benefits were to getting a PhD; she responded that having a PhD would put her on a faster track into management.
Her thinking was driven by a common and faulty assumption held by many—that eventually, to progress in your career as a UX professional, you have to become a manager.
The truth is, there are many career paths for UX professionals, including many leadership roles that don’t require managing people. In fact, organizations typically need a balance of managers and high-ranking individual contributors (meaning not managing people) to tackle varying leadership responsibilities that require different skill sets.
I’m more confident than ever that management involves distinct and sometimes intrinsic skills, and should not be viewed as the default next step in one’s career progression. And there’s a ton of research that supports this. According to one Gallup study of 2.5 million manager-led teams in 195 countries, only one in ten people possess the innate talents needed to be a successful manager. The same study quotes that companies fail to choose the management candidate with the right talent for the job 82% of the time.
In this article, I share the top five things that surprised me most coming out of my first year as a UX manager that the management literature I read didn’t prepare me for. My hope is that my reflections will drive more informed discourse for those considering management as a career ladder transition.
A little about me: After spending seven years working as a user researcher in an individual contributor capacity, I transitioned into a management role at Google one year ago. This has involved managing a team of five full-time user researchers, as well as an intern.
My reflections are specific to managing in-house employees who work for a single company versus those who manage in environments such as consultancies or agencies. I imagine there are overlapping trends across the different work environments, but there are likely differences that my thoughts don’t account for.
1. Being a manager is not about being in the spotlight.
One thing I quickly noticed as a new UX manager is that I’m in the spotlight much less often. This is in part because I no longer deliver an ongoing stream of individual contributor outputs, such as research reports.
Instead, I direct my attention to activities such providing feedback on projects to ensure they align with product goals and quality expectations, bubbling up emerging research insights to leadership, securing headcount and budget, general performance management, and resolving team conflict. A lot of this work involves behind-the-scenes tasks that support a high-level strategy; tasks that, if I do well, are invisible to many.
I admit this initially brought some insecurity for me as a new UX manager. I needed to shift how I defined what success looks like in my new role. I eventually learned that in a healthy work environment, your success as a UX manager is measured by the success and output of your team and not about how many kudos and praise you individually receive as a manager.
There is nothing wrong with being driven by accolades. However, if praise is a primary driver for you, I might question if management is the right path.
- To what extent are you energized and motivated by public recognition?
2. Soft skills supersede hard skills.
Hard skills refer to people’s tangible and often quantifiable abilities, which can typically be acquired through training. Soft skills, on the other hand, refer to things such as the ability to relate to and work well with others.
As a UX manager, you of course need to have that baseline of hard skills to effectively lead and guide your team, to be respected, and to have a common language to collaborative effectively.
In my first year as a manager, however, I used my soft skills much more than my hard skills. UX management heavily involves soft-skill driven tasks: being a strong advocate for user centered design, showing concern for individual success and well-being, serving as an inspiring coach, and building a healthy culture.
Just like nature didn’t give me the inherent abilities to become a great litigator like my husband, I’ve learned that not everyone holds the soft skills needed to be a great UX manager. This doesn’t mean someone is a bad person; it simply means they have other strengths. Unfortunately, many organizations wrongfully promote people into management roles because of their exemplary individual contributor skills or work ethic, not because of their strong soft skills.
If you’re curious to see if soft skills are among your core strengths, I recommend investing in career coaching and exploring personality tests such as StrengthsFinder, True Colors, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test.
- Do you enjoy working through problems that involve regular use of soft skills, such as conflict resolution, coaching, and advocacy?
- Do your innate strengths align with those quoted by research or your employer as being essential for managers?
3. Being a manager can be lonely.
It came as a rude surprise to me that being a UX manager can be lonely.
No matter how authentic and approachable you are as a manager, social conventions often result in people consciously or unconsciously filtering their communication with you. You also typically have fewer people in whom you can confide, who are of similar level of responsibility, and are appropriate people to share with.
Let me give you an example. As a manager, I once had a challenging situation in which the right thing to do was to advocate for someone on my team. When the situation caused tension between me and a more senior member of my team, I had few people to talk to. Sharing the conflict with my report served little purpose and would have only made her feel unnecessarily bad, and the private nature of the issue prevented me from sharing details with other managers on the team. Long story short, the situation left me feeling isolated.
I’ve also found that although it’s common for companies to invest heavily in career coaching and planning for individual contributors, fewer resources exist for managers. When resources do exist, they tend to be broad and not specific to the the things that are unique about managing UX professionals (a topic for a forthcoming article!). This can result in even more feelings of isolation, because you might feel unsupported and unguided as you navigate the unique challenges of being a UX manager within your organization.
Before making a career ladder transition into management, see if your company has a mature mentorship program. Such a program should provide opportunities to connect with mentors at and above your level, who are not on your team, and with whom you can be transparent. See if a variety of UX-specific management training is provided.
- Does your organization provide the resources you’ll need to grow and develop as a new and experienced UX manager, including ongoing training and mentorship?
- Are you okay with having fewer people on your immediate team in whom you can confide regarding work tensions and stressors?
4. Your own manager matters more than ever.
I can’t stress this enough—you won’t be successful as a UX manager unless you have the right manager supporting and encouraging you, especially as a new manager.
Think back to when you were a kid learning to ride a bike for the first time. Your parents no doubt continued to provide praise and coaching as you fell and even perhaps wanted to give up. As a new manager you will fall and make mistakes. When this happens, it’s important to have a manager with whom you can be vulnerable in these moments and who will continue to encourage and mentor you.
One friend of mine, excited for a new career growth opportunity, quickly accepted an offer to manage a team without vetting his prospective manager. The relationship ended up being an unhealthy one for reasons that, in hindsight, my friend could have uncovered upfront in the interview process. My friend suffered terrible anxiety as a result and his career trajectory was adversely impacted. This example might be a bit extreme; but you get my point—consider who your manager will be before accepting that exciting and new management role.
I would also caution against accepting a management role unless you know your manager will give you room to develop your own unique management style that will no doubt be different from his or her own. It’s common to initially mimic a new manager’s style, but we’re all individuals, and you will ultimately see solutions and opportunities that are different from your manager’s viewpoint. Divergent thinking fuels the design process, so this is a good thing!
Finally, it’s important as a new UX manager to have a manager who will help you direct your attention appropriately. User experience managers have a long list of things competing for their attention, and it can be challenging as a new manager to know where to invest your time and energy. Your manager should provide such guidance in collaboration with you.
- Can your potential manager speak to specific examples of how she has supported other managers through growth and learning opportunities?
- How does your prospective manager describe his ideal hire, and does his description align with building a team of diverse talent and personalities?
- How have prior reports rated your potential manager on past employee satisfaction surveys?
- Why did prior managers leave the team, and what do current reports have to say about your prospective manager?
- Can your prospective manager clearly articulate expectations for how you invest your time as a manager on her team?
5. Managers aren’t incentivized more than others.
If you want to become a UX manager, know that making such a career path change can come with more risks and fewer rewards than you might expect.
First off, there is less need for management roles within organizations than there are individual contributor roles. If your team is downsized or dissolved, your role at the company could be at greater risk than the roles of those who report to you.
Also, if you’re unhappy in a particular role as a manager or lose your job for whatever reason, you’re going to have a harder time transitioning to a different role within or outside of your organization.
I’ve watched many experienced managers become stuck in their careers because they can’t find management roles that match their qualifications and experience. While it is possible to transition back into an individual contributor role after being a manager, the transition can be hard; some hiring managers might view you as being overqualified for individual contributor work or might question how committed you are to an individual contributor role. I disagree with this thinking, but it nonetheless can be a blocker.
In terms of pay and perks, UX managers don’t always make more money. In fact, when you account for longer hours worked, managers can make even less money than those who report to them.
At Google, for example, employees often receive extra income through a perk called a Spot Bonus, for which people are nominated in response to things such as product launches. These bonuses can result in several thousands of dollars of extra income per year. Because I did much less individual contributor work during my first year as a manager I received just one Spot Bonus; in previous years I received several. This resulted in a decrease in my annual income.
- How comfortable are you with being susceptible to layoffs or reorganizations that might result in opportunity or job loss?
- To what extent is your income a motivator for you at work?
- How might you feel about knowing one of your reports makes more money than you do?
Should you become a UX manager?
Ultimately, this is a question that requires a lot of exploration and that comes down to factors such as your values, your personality and strengths, and how you derive energy. I hope the questions I’ve provided are helpful as a starting point in your explorations.
Honestly, for most people, management probably isn’t the right career ladder, especially if your sole motivation is wanting to advance your career trajectory; if the aforementioned is true, it’s only a matter of time before you fall victim to the Peter Principle, which comes with a long list of career damaging and negative psychological consequences.
If you’re interested in further exploring if management is the right career path for you, let me leave you with a few resources that have been helpful to me.
- Career coaching. This is a great opportunity to explore your personal and professional values to see if they align with the management career path. Career coaching can be costly, but some companies will pay for coaching through their education reimbursement policies.
- Arnie Lund’s book User Experience Management: Essential Skills for Leading Effective UX Teams. Arnie also offers lectures on the topic of management at various UX conferences.
- Ian Swinson’s Managing Experience 2012 talk “How Did I Get Here?”, and his Enterprise UX 2016 talk “Designing and Driving UX Careers.”
- Jerrod Larson’s article, “On Becoming a UX Manager: New Skills, Requirements, and Rewards.”
I’d also like to leave a note of appreciation for all of the great managers I’ve had in the past who have gone out of their way to elevate and support me throughout my career. I now have clarity as to the challenges you were no doubt facing and how you set aside those challenges in pursuit of supporting me.
Thanks also to my career coach Tracey Lovejoy, whose teaching and feedback helped inspire and inform this article.