Working as a UX Lead - following up
If you haven't read my previous posts in this series, you might find the other parts interesting: Working as a UX-designer and Working as a UX-lead. Both of those came from reader questions and this is, I guess, a follow-up to that follow-up.
Anyway, a couple of weeks back, I got an email from Jonathan:
Would like to hear more a little more about the kind of strategic and tactical work a UX Lead is required to do in broad strokes (understand it differs from organization to organization). After reading your article on being a UX Lead and personally making the transition, this is something I'm really curious about.
Well Jonathan, I'm glad you asked (in fact, I'm glad for all reader questions).
Like you said, this does vary from organisation to organisation, so I'll only be able to answer based on the organizations I've had experience with. The beauty of being a consultant though is that I get to work with companies of all sizes and kinds, so hopefully I can represent some middle ground.
The way I see it, a UX lead is split into two distinct roles. In some organizations you'll do a mix of both and in others you'll be limited to one or the other. Ideally, this is based on your preference and skill level. These two roles are:
Setting the long-term vision and direction
Don't lead unless you want to
I've discussed this topic a bit already, so I'll just say that choosing to lead a team is a very personal choice. It's important to think about what you want and not just act on what you think the company expects from you. Someone that doesn't want to lead will never really succeed and the consequences of doing poorly doesn't just affect you, but the entire team as well - it almost always tends to ripple outside the team too. That being said, it's quite unfortunate that leading a team has almost become a requirement of a senior designer these days if they want to grow in their field.
As for the other part, and I think this relates more to Jonathan's question so I'll spend the majority answering it.
Vision and direction
Vision and direction is important in terms of seeing the bigger picture. It's easy to become caught up in whatever crisis you're currently trying to avoid while simultaneously being in end-to-end meetings. Thinking about the long-term can feel like a joke when you have 15 minutes of spare time a week to commit to it. Unless you intentionally set aside dedicated time for thinking long-term, you'll just continue to fight fires day after day.
I make sure to create a UX-strategy so there can be a unified view of what that long-term goal and vision is. Because strategy is such a misused word, I like to define it as three things:
Where we are now
Where we'd like to be
How to get there
Now that may sound really simplified to most of you and something that's copied from a "Strategy for dummies" book, I think keeping it simple is fundamental to making sure everyone is onboard and agreeing with the strategy. So just like I've argued that designers need to speak business, I think it's important to keep your language as accessible as possible. As much as I love explanations like "Strategy is a concise, high-level approach to achieving an objective by playing strengths against weaknesses in an unexpected way," it doesn't actually tell us what we need to do. Whether you're leading a team or just setting the vision and direction, the last thing you want to do is make someone on your team feeling stupid. This only leads to fear and fear keeps people from participating. The one thing you need to understand is that in order to achieve truly exceptional user experiences, everyone needs to onboard. Don't create barriers.
Being a good communicator and sharer is more valuable than being a rockstar designer.Frank Bach, Lead Product Designer Headspace
Honestly, this is something that takes a lot of practice. It's not like programming or design where you have the option to practice at home during evenings. Honing your skills will happen by doing the job and you will probably mess up - I know I have. I've found that being honest about being out on a bit of thin ice usually gets you a lot of grace.
Defining a purpose
Defining a purpose with your user experience and design is crucial because it gives you something to anchor onto when shipping new features. That can be a technical feature like being highly accessible or it quick load times or it can be more ambiguous. On a project I'm currently working on, I've advised them that all designs need to be more intentional than what they currently are. What I mean by that is that we can't just nudge users in a certain direction, we need to clearly point them in the direction we need them to go. Every page and every feature needs to have a clearly defined purpose and that's absolutely vital to our end-goal.
Unfortunately I find that there's still a lot of clients who ask designers to come in at the end of a project and "apply the UX". It simply doesn't work that way. If the UX strategy isn't defined at the very beginning, it will be very expensive/time consuming to apply it at the end. If they're not willing to invest that deeply it'll end up being really bad directly impacting their solution
It is though important to know that it's pretty rare that you'll be brought in at the very beginning of a product's lifecycle. This means that in many (if not most) cases, there'll be a lot of fixing and redesigning over months (or even years) until you've reached your goal - and by now it's not unlikely that you've iterated on that goal a couple of times. It's a long process and it takes time and energy to convince stakeholders of why this is important and worthy of their investment.
So Jonathan, I hope that answers your question at least to some extent! I look forward to hearing more about how you're transition is going and any new questions or comments that arise!