Leading Design: You’re not alone

I’m reflecting on Day One of the Leading Design conference in London. The event is targeted towards leaders of UX and Design teams and is in its second year of running. Talk topics ranged from how to create the right habits and develop teams, to lessons learned on the way to becoming a leader.

Personal stories

My favourite parts of the talks so far were the insights into speakers’ personal journeys towards career success. There is a strange trajectory for many of us, where we start working in a job because we are passionate about the subject or craft, increase our skills and experience, then become managers and find ourselves with a new set of challenges. It can often feel like you are isolated when dealing with these, so it was heartening to hear that many of us face the same problems. Russ Maschmeyer told a great story about his development from a designer to a manager of designers. He was initially excited to be offered additional responsibility and felt that he didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity, but over time realised that the type of work involved in management had become less inspiring to him. He found a way to return to being a designer but still offering leadership in different ways. Stanley Woodalso talked about his own journey towards design leadership, which involved working out what kind of leader he wanted to be and speaking to other companies to see how they ran design teams. It was great to hear both talk about the challenge of being an introvert and a leader. The two are not incompatible but you have to acknowledge your personality type and figure out how to make it work with the tasks you need to do.

Psychological safety

Julia Whitney used the term psychological safety in her talk ‘The Human Blueprint’ to describe the factor which research has shown enables teams to perform well. They have to feel comfortable being able to take risks, make mistakes and discuss them openly. Leaders have to be vulnerable, willing to fail and learn. The problem is that often whilst running teams and ensuring everyone has support and mentoring, the leader’s own development can slow down. Several speakers recommended taking time to reflect, finding a network and asking for help. I have found being part of a small community of other UX leaders a useful sense-check in making decisions and exploring solutions. It’s worth remembering that we do have common challenges and admitting we need support is a step towards learning and becoming even better. Irene Au discussed the challenges faced by design leaders in different company cultures and her article on the health of design teams is a great reminder of how detrimental lack of morale can be.

Creating strong, diverse teams

Having spent the past few years working on a graduate scheme for UX designers, it was excellent to hear how other companies are approaching the task of recruiting the next generation. Adam Cutler talked about IBM recruiting 1,500 designers and lessons learned in the process. It was interesting to hear about the culture evolving as the new designers were influenced by those already in place. Having the right mix of experienced designers to new graduates was important. I was also enthused by GE’s UX Leadership Program which Samantha Soma discussed. This is a two year scheme involving rotations around the company, which is the format we also use for our graduate scheme. Many tips were familar, such as the need to manage the transition into the business environment and create stretch opportunities. Janice Fraser gave a very clear summary of why it is more difficult for women to advance to senior leadership positions. This reinforced the need to have a strategy, be a sponsor and find a sponsor to support your development. Lots of inspiration and actions to work on!

The stages of UX maturity

How do you measure the maturity of UX in your organisation? This is a question I have often considered whilst developing a UX function. What are the signs that show we are moving forward? Nielsen’s stages of corporate UX maturity provide the original framework and are still relevant. More recently Jared Spool has some great observations about what takes organisations beyond the UX tipping point. Here is another take:

The first step is admitting you have a problem

In Nielsen’s 8 levels of corporate UX maturity, stage 1 is characterised as Hostility Toward Usability. Now it’s unlikely that many companies could take this attitude and survive today, but there are still organisations where UX is not fully understood or valued. In order to build a UX function, there needs to be a fundamental acknowledgement that you want to deliver a better experience for your users. This will deliver a commercial and competitive advantage, and it is the right thing to do.

Show me the money

A crucial turning point is when the powers that be recognise and value UX enough to invest in resources, equipment and training. I still hear from designers in the wider community the old chestnut ‘I wanted to do user research but we had no budget’. This tells me that the project is not utilising all aspects of the UX process and the design decisions have not been tested. Once you secure the budget to conduct regular user research and you have at least one UX person or you are training someone in UX, you’ve shown the investment that comes with a degree of UX maturity.

Collaboration and integration

Evangelising UX can be a long process! After initial investment, one or more people will typically start spreading the word about UX. This can take the form of events, talks, representation in meetings with stakeholders etc. Often by this point there is a UX team of sorts, but it can be isolated. This will typically mean UX work gets done on some projects but not others. There will be wins but the process is inconsistent. You need to sit with key stakeholders and find new ways of understanding their objectives. If things go well, the UX team start to embed themselves in other teams, working alongside Product Managers and Developers. Collaborative UX is another key milestone. As Nielsen says ‘To progress beyond…you must convince all managers and team members that user experience is part of their jobs and that user research results help them do better and more satisfying work’.


Does an organisation ever become fully user-driven? I’m not sure but there is a tipping point where all of the above becomes easier. A great sign is senior level UX appointments, giving users and design a seat at the table of critical business decisions. There will be regular recruitment and an established framework for careers in UX. But UX is also a team sport and projects will be typically highly collaborative, with user research, prototyping and testing happening regularly.

As Spool points out, it’s entirely possible and likely to find teams in the same organisation at different stages of maturity. Sometimes teams have worked with a particularly strong UX advocate who has embedded values that steer the product development and they may be more mature. Others may have experienced some commercial success despite usability issues in products, and they may not yet have realised the potential of a embedded UX process. The task of a UX leader then is to adapt the approach to each team, understanding that one size rarely fits all.

How mature is UX within your organisation?

As a user…

This month the latest entrants to our UX graduate scheme started training on the fundamentals of UX. One of the sessions was about usability testing — why and how we do it: how to recruit, moderation and observation best practice and how to analyse the results.

I went along to the training session as a test participant. An informal usability lab was the setting. We were testing a prototype of a website designed for employees of a business.

As a UX team manager, I’ve moderated and observed user research many times but of course I’m rarely on the other side of the fence.

Here is what I experienced as a usability testing participant:

1. It is nerve-wracking!

Even though I know the script inside-out (thinkaloud principle, we are testing the design, not the user etc etc) I still felt a little under pressure completing the tasks. Why couldn’t I find that piece of information? Was I being slow? Did I need more coffee? It is human nature to place high expectations on ourselves to review, interpret and master technology quickly and to feel inadequate if we don’t. The gentle reassurance and patience of the moderator really was important. A powerful reminder of why empathy is the most important quality for a UXer. And don’t skip the script!

2. There is a lot of insight to be gained

We had a simple prototype with four navigation items, yet there were still plenty of times I got lost or needed to click several places to complete the task. There were also spontaneous observations about the way the design made me feel. Sometimes when we are under pressure as designers we can assume things are obvious, de-scope or postpone testing. Test early and often! It’s well-worn UX advice that still stands.

3. Participating can be fun

In this instance I was seeing a brand new design and I didn’t know what would happen next. Would I find new information or ideas that could make my life easier? Or a new product to add to my existing toolkit? Whether or not users are early-adopters, many are curious about the future and want to help shape it.

So overall a great reminder of why we work this way and I encourage everyone to try being a participant from time to time.

Thanks to the excellent team at Webcredible, our training partners!