What do I need to do to manage a UX team effectively?

Well, I’ve managed a few teams in my time (cue crogety old man music), and so I have some insights that can help your design team run (semi) smoothly. Some of these recommendations are applicable to ALL types of teams, and I list them for the sake of completeness.

Have a (realistic) shared vision and direction. Have a mission statement and a set of principles the team should follow, but make sure its pragmatic and achievable. If you pump up your team with lofty aspirations and blue-sky visions they will quickly become demotivated when the hard fist of reality shatters those dreams.

Set a rigid, yet flexible, process. Set a standard design process, based on best practices, so that junior designers can have a guideline to do their jobs and work from. But be flexible about the details of the process if team members come up with better ideas on how to do things…. keeping in mind that “flexible” is not the same thing as “disposable” – process is important, and a repeatable process will increase efficiencies over time.

Spread the love around. Don’t play favorites, let everyone have a shot at the big projects. Even if you don’t think a member of the team has the ability to do the job well, you have to give them a chance to step up. Just pay close attention and help them when they need it.

Listen and pay attention. You need to be there for the team, and a lot of that involves listening to a lot of complaints and gossip. Encourage and support, be ready to intervene if your team members need help. And try not to “gossip back” if you can help it.

Allow for disagreements, but don’t let them get personal. Design teams are passionate, and they will often wear those passions on their sleeves. Let them debate, but don’t let it get out of hand (and get in the way of work)… and don’t let people insult each other or their abilities.

“You are not the work.” This is one of the most important points I can make, which is that designers have to separate themselves from what they have done, because what they have designed will change before it’s finally implemented… and you may find through usability tests that the ideas/designs don’t work at all. Continuously reinforce that point to designers in your team.

Don’t compete, mentor. As a leader of a design team you should never put yourself in a situation where you are “competing” with anyone on your team. When I say that, I mean don’t be working as a designer and a manager at the same time, because that could cause jealousy and discord. If you have to step in and work, do it by partnering with a junior team member and use it as a mentoring opportunity as well.

Set up “peer designing.” If you have the ability, partner designers on projects. Having two or more people working together allows for the generation of more ideas, the ability for one designer to support or encourage the other when he/she needs it, and allows for “cross-training” while the work is getting done.

Credit the team, not yourself, for successes. If a design project goes well, give full credit to the people who did it. And if things go badly, don’t throw anyone under the bus. You are where the buck stops.

Don’t play favors (and don’t hire friends). Don’t spend all your time with just one member of your team, be equitable with how you invest that time with everyone. if you don’t, people will be left out and they may not give their all when you need it from them.

It’s very tempting to build a team with colleagues you worked with before, because they are a known quantity and you enjoyed working with them before. Don’t do it. In my experience, brining in friends to work for you will end up resulting in bad things happening. Because they have worked with you as a peer they’ll not respect you as much when you are the boss.

Appreciate that people are different. You are going to have a mix of different skills on your team, and not everyone is going to be the “perfect designer” that you can just throw at a project and let them go. Pay attention and balance out what people do with what they are good at and the most passionate about whenever possible.

Mentor, don’t command. You cannot mandate design direction to your team. They are going to have thier own ideas, they are individuals with their own perceptions of the problem space. You may “know” the right approach is to do A, but sometimes the best thing you can do is let the team decide that A is the way to do it on their own (with a little coaching form you).

Allow for regular personal “research time.” Unless you are under a crushing deadline which requires “all hands on deck,” give your team time to become better designers and researchers by reading articles and books. Make continuing education a necessary part of everyones time. And allow for time for the team to share what they learned with each other (preferably over drinks at a social hour).

Have fun. Captain Kirk once said that the more complex the mind the more important the necessity of play. User Experience Design teams are usually made up of some very smart “complex minds” indeed – always allow for opportunities to explore and play.

Moreover, …

Here are some commonalities among effective teams:

  1. Take the initiative. The key to being proactive, is realizing that you hold the responsibility for your own actions and decisions. By understanding that you yourself are the one who will either benefit or suffer from the consequences of your actions, you will naturally take the initiative to plan for possible future problems, make an effort to improve the situation, and think of ways to become more productive. Blaming others or leaving the work (and thus your fate) to others may make you feel better temporarily, but it is not effective at all.
  2. Focus on the final goal. Effective teams have a very clear vision of what their future should be, and are focused on a final goal that they must work towards. As Steve Covey says, it is the “ability to envision, to see the potential, to create with [their] minds what [they] cannot at present see with [their] eyes”. Develop a team missions statement right at the start. Focus on that mission, and work towards that goal collectively as a team. Check back on that mission regularly, and use it as your guiding pole, to make sure that you are always on the right path to success. This would avoid getting distracted by other work that has no impact on success, and would lead your team to focus their time and energy in achieving the final goal in the fastest time possible.
  3. Set priorities. Teams have limited time and resources. They cannot do everything and do them all great, within a limited timeframe. Thus, to be effective, they have to extremely results oriented. As a team, decide your priorities based on the missions statement, and focus only on the important tasks.
  4. Create win-wins. A good and effective team works together in a cooperative manner. Collaborative team members COMPLETE one another, and not COMPETE with one another.Too often,  people think that in order for one party to win, the other needs to lose. But in a win-win mindset, everyone wins, the end result benefits everyone. Make your team understand that “there is no such thing as a self-made man. You will reach your goals only with the help of others.” Hence, seek win-win agreements that are mutually beneficial and satisfying, so that resources are focused on achieving the actual team goal instead of being wasted on trying to stand out within the team.
  5. Seek to understand. Many people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. This habit is especially evident when there are disagreements within a team. Disagreeing is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is only healthy if used correctly! Communication is extremely important in teams, particularly during disagreements. Strive to understand first, before seeking to be understood.  Everyone in the team must understand the other person’s point before starting to defend their own perspective. Don’t hear with your ears, but listen with your heart and mind. (read more on how to reap the full benefits of disagreements here)
  6. Synergize. One plus one equals 3, 4, 5, 6…. Two heads are better than one. When a team is truly synergizing, they can come up with solutions that are way better than the sum of all the single solutions each person could have come up with individually. They can achieve a lot more than each of them could have done so independently. An effective team understands this principle well, and strives towards amplified success by tapping on the synergistic effects of teamwork. To generate synergy within your team, stay open-minded, communicate well, and actively brainstorm new solutions to old problems together.
  7. Maintain work-life balance. Great teams, no matter how amazing, are still made up of humans. Humans with flesh, blood and feelings. They should thus have the time to rest and re-energize. As a team manager, ensure that you preserve and enhance this greatest asset you have — your team. There are many ways to do this: Go on a team outing; allow team members to work from home to take care of a child; have coffee breaks together; encourage them to work out at the gym; etc. Only when your greatest asset is well taken care of, can your team be effective when they work.



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