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September 2018 – Frank Gaine
UXswitch polls its members about topics that interest them from time to time. Recently, we’ve seen a growing desire to learn how one goes from being a hands-on designer to being a design manager. In this article, we’ve interviewed design managers like Cees van Dok at TomTom who have made that leap and discuss the skills, behaviours and circumstances that are required to do so.
Some people are born with an innate desire to lead other people and to steer matters on a higher level. Others develop the interest and confidence to do so through work and life experience. Either way, if you find yourself having less and less interest in the day-to-day doing of UX (such as wireframes and visual design) and instead find yourself wanting to influence what is designed in the first place, then management might just be for you. Further indicators of your true calling include being genuinely interested in the development of other people’s careers and how a design function could be run better to optimise output.
“I always had a curiosity for the bigger picture, how design fits into the larger organizational goal” commented Daniel Alb, Head Of Design at Monsoon Consulting. Méabh Redmond, Head of Customer Experience Design at Rubicoin added “As a designer I began adding footnotes to my output asking to talk about whether our designs and processes were meeting both user and business objectives. This diplomatic probing was noticed and allowed me to have more strategic conversations”
Now that you know that you want to progress into design management, let’s turn our attention to how to get yourself that dream role.
Getting into Management
There are a number of ways to get yourself into a management role. It’s true that you could apply for a role advertised online. However, the reality of this situation is that you’re competing with everyone else on the internet, many of whom might have more experience or be cheaper than you. One way of differentiating yourself here is to ensure that your portfolio, cv/resume and LinkedIn profile are up to date and contain a management skew to match your ambitions. For example, the portfolio of the aspiring UX manager should be different to that of a UX Designer. Jay Kaufmann, Head of Product Design, Search & Personalization at Zalando SE suggests for example, that a Design manager’s portfolio should visualize your process and demonstrate that you can abstract design to the level of thought leadership via blog pieces or talks.
The other way of getting into management is through the organisation you already work for. This has its advantages as you can imagine. It’s somewhere you’re already familiar to the decision makers, somewhere you’re already proven and trusted. Looking to make the move to management within your current organisation might mean that you have to play the long game as vacancies only arise from time to time. Robert Coyle, Head of UX & Design at Creme Global notes “Avoid giving time frames or put a gun to anyone’s head because creating roles like this is not straight forward in big companies, and even in small companies it takes time to iron out.”
If you decide on the latter strategy, you should look and act like a manager long before the opportunity comes around to apply for that role. Let’s now look at how you can do so.
Walk the Walk
You’re more likely to get an internal promotion if you have a reputation of getting stuck in and producing excellent output, someone who is seen as a constructive member of the team. Daniel Alb of Monsoon Consulting comments “My advice is also to step up in times of crisis. This demonstrates your leadership skills and work ethic. Be available and put in the elbow work”.
Furthermore, it’s important to work on your communication and interpersonal relationships. Cees Van Dok, CPO and Head of UX and Design at TomTom says “Without being bossy, you need to start influencing other people with your point of view”. Robert Coyle from Creme Global backs this up by saying “The company wants to see a degree of affability and composure in their leaders. So you have to behave like someone who can take a pie in the face gracefully.” While on the theme of influencing people, it’s advisable to get to know people in different departments across the organisation, make friends. Gain a reputation of being able to think about the impact of your designs on development or marketing timelines for instance.
Our research has shown that mentorship is also a critical component of your rise into management. David Cooke, Head of Product Design, NewsWhip recommends that you seek out a mentor who is already in management. “There’s nothing like learning from someone who’s already doing it well, someone you can touch base with from time to time when you have questions. Simply reach out and say ‘I’m out of my comfort zone on this one, can you help?’”. On the other side, be seen to mentor new arrivals. This will form an essential part of your role as a manager going forward and is a genuinely good way of paying it forward. Cees Van Dok at TomTom agrees and advises us to “Really care and look after the UX people in your team in more junior roles”.
It might seem obvious but part of your strategy to getting a role in management should be to ask for more management responsibilities. Be opportunistic, if a gap appears or there is a temporary managerial vacancy, volunteer for that responsibility. Daniel Alb reminds us “Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. If you do, opportunities will happen without you having to chase them”. Make it clear you are interested in all things management and keep your eyes open. Robert Stevens, Head of UX Northern & Southern Europe GfK says “Look out for opportunities to be involved in conversations that are happening about planning and strategy. If a meeting is taking place discussing these things, slide on up or simply ask to join”.
Finally, in preparing yourself for any such position, educate yourself on everything to do with managing people, business cases, new technology, design thinking and more. “I think you need to be become … knowledgeable in the adjacent disciplines within your company … you’ll need to brush up on sales & marketing, process improvement, operations and what have you. In summary you need to understand the business“ says Robert Coyle. David Cooke of NewsWhip agrees and recommends you take time to keep up to date with the latest musings from industry leaders such as Jared Spool and organisations such as the Design Management Institute.
How about formal education programmes? Great if you have the time and money to invest. Otherwise, consider getting certified by bespoke shorter courses, as Robert Coyle notes “My secret weapon for upskilling in recent years has been Udemy”. Depending on your benefits package, your workplace might even pay for some of them. It’s always good to have more recent learning on your profile rather than relying on your original qualifications that might be quite some years old at this point.
The Promised Land
When you make it to management you might miss the creativity you once applied to those juicy interaction design conundrums or visual design challenges. Patrick Mooney, Director Of User Experience, UnitedHealth Group states “Rest assured, you can always apply your creativity to designing your UX function, the systems, processes and philosophy they use to get things done and not to mention the activities needed to keep them engaged, enthusiastic and committed to your organisation”. A designer’s natural empathy should also make you a more effective manager. Both Méabh Redmond and David Cooke emphasise the value of listening and asking open non-leading questions when it comes to dealing with your team members, be that around design work or other more personal affairs. Therefore, you can still practice familiar design skills as a manager.
In Daniel Alb’s experience, one of the hardest things for the new manager with a design background is to trust the team to deliver and to take your hands off what they were doing; ”Sometimes the solution your team presents might not have been what you would have done as a designer but you have to trust the methodology they applied, giving them design autonomy”. “Coach, don’t dictate” adds David Cooke of NewsWhip, realising that autonomy is one of the most critical factors in workplace contentment. Cees van Dok wades in by saying “provide inspiration by suggesting solutions without trying to impose them … steer and nudge the learning but let people discover themselves.”
Once there, Méabh Redmond of Rubicoin suggests that you should continually want to improve your craft as a manager. She points to the benefits of extending your networking activity; “Reach out to design leaders in other companies. Describe what you are trying to achieve in your organisation and ask for help. You’d be surprised, most people say yes”. You’ll end up with a new perspective and, who knows, a friendly audience when it comes to your next career move.
It’s also worth remembering that when you get promoted, there is no reason for you to stop there. A UX Manager can become a UX Director and even end up representing the Design function on the board of a large organisation. Best of luck and let us know how you get on.
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