22 March 2013

UX management: The business aspects of delivering user experience

Previously on this blog, we’ve looked at the growing trend of user experience and customer experience representatives at the highest echelons of organizational structures: The “CXO” role. More common, however, are dedicated UX managers. This post explores their roles in some more detail.

UX management is not new concept; as soon as in-house UX activities become the responsibility of more than a sole individual, roles and lines of reporting become more formalized. And this means that – in addition to their responsibilities to deliver user-centered products and services – they find themselves under the commercial demands of a manager as well. Does their team, group or department contribute to the bottom line and deliver value? Does it support innovation?

But first a step back: What’s driving the growth in UX management roles?

Origins of the role

Most obviously, perhaps, it’s that companies are becoming more attuned to the value of good customer experience. Rather than hoping this naturally arises through the good intentions or good luck of various people around an organization, companies formalize UX by establishing teams, groups or departments and roles that own the responsibility for it.

Another reason is that the traditional source of managers – business schools – have become enlightened when it comes to the value of design for business success. A Masters or MBA student coming out of today’s forward thinking “B schools” will have had an education that has included themes such as design thinking and customer experience. These managers – perhaps due to either their educational background or personality – are better qualified to take on UX management roles than someone with no relevant experience.

But the ranks of UX managers aren’t filled with managers who are there just for the sake of managing; they’re often UX practitioners who found themselves in the role without seeking it explicitly. Seniority, years of experience, or just an ambition to do so has landed them in this challenging role.

UX management challenges

The challenge comes not only from the demand to represent users and deliver a superior customer experience throughout every touchpoint a service provides, or for every product a company distributes. That’s only one measure of success. They also need to have the same clout as established departments such as product development, innovation and engineering. Only when a UX manager has staked out the proper level of influence will she (or he) be truly successful in the role.

Structuring UX management

The roles and responsibilities of UX managers have been a topic of discussion for many years. Within the ACM SIGCHI community, UX managers formed a group on LinkedIn to share their learnings and advice. And early activity (in 2005) was to identify the different business models for UX management that already existed. Three were identified, encompassing most typical set-ups: The ‘Fully centralized mode’, the ‘Hybrid model with a central UX group’, and the ‘Hybrid model with more distributed UX resources’.

For those interested in the pros and cons of the different structures, their SWOT analysis and findings are very interesting.

The role itself

Brandon Schauer, from Adaptive Path (which runs a series of conference on “Managing Experience“), succinctly describes aspects of the role that are key to success:

UX managers balance the outside with the inside.
Business results really only exist on the outside of the organization: customers download, touch, ‘buy’, share. Good UX managers get this more than any other kind of manager. But the outside results are enabled by the managers’ ability to align what’s going on inside: people, processes, costs, projects.

UX managers don’t do it themselves, not the work and not the solutions.
They’re leaders, as Kipum Lee states, whose job is problem-framing, not problem-solving. They can help their team and their team’s peers break down and see the problems in the right way to yield interesting results. They provide the right objectives and the right resources against them so the outcomes are as expected or — even better — impressively surprising.

UX managers are translators.
They connect the business strategies down to UX activities and vice-versa. As Sara Koury says in her interview, UX managers translate business strategies into design opportunities for staff. They connect the values and passions of their staff to the work that aligns with the greater business strategy. As the UX team’s work is getting done, they — as Vidya Drego points out — build a case, measure impact, integrate others in the work, then broadcast their story to the organization.

UX managers measure.
Yup, I’m gonna say it: you can’t manage what you can’t measure. And if you’re on the hook for delivering results, you better know how those results are being measured and even have to measure the two or three steps upstream from that revenue-creating-moment that the business cares so deeply for. A UX manager understands the analytics, using the quants for insight and inspiration as much as any qualitative research source.

UX managers nurture a team.
Creative teams are especially dicey. As Margaret Gould Stewart suggests, managers have to build out their team of superheroes that have complementary but different skills that can step forward and lead when the time is right. It creates confidence, camaraderie, and career growth.

UX managers make tradeoffs.
They have to choose where to do the pragmatic or obvious things so they can deliver innovative and impressive experience where it matters. That means coaching (or coaxing?) teams to have the right focus and balancing resources. You know what UX really sucks at Apple? The expense reporting tool. If you get why, you’re a manager.”

Source: “Just What is a UX Manager?” (Brandon Schauer, Adaptive Path)

User experience (53), UX management (13)