User experience managers are now a hot commodity

As UX gains ground -- and converts -- there's a need for people who can keep teams motivated and connected with the business.

An interesting career opportunity, sitting at the intersection of development, architecture and design, is emerging. That role, user experience (UX) manager, is increasingly sought as organizations scale the UX design element within organizations, and rely almost wholly on digital interactions. 

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Photo: Joe McKendrick

"There aren't enough experienced UX managers to fill all open positions," Jared M. Spool, "maker of awesomeness" at @CenterCentre/@UIE, relates in a recent post. That's because "experienced UX managers are often happy where they are. It takes years for new managers to get the requisite experience to manage growing teams." 

How does the UX manager fit into the big picture? A very special set of skills and motivational abilities, Spool says. "A great UX manager... can coach their management peers on how and when to ask for UX resources to get the most out of the team's capabilities. A great UX manager will also coach the team's individual contributors on how to surface the value of UX design and research in the organization. Being inside the organization's management structure, they can identify where design and research can be most valuable, and feed that into how their direct reports position the team's work."  

UX managers should have technical chops, but can come from diverse areas of the business. The highly interdisciplinary nature of UX is explained by Lana Whitehead of Kent State University, who says it reflects the way "humans are complex. Whether you choose marketing, engineering, or business, understanding user experience will give you a significant advantage as you make strides to advance in your field. If you have an unquenched curiosity for how people behave, then allow UX design to be your springboard for seemingly endless career possibilities."  Whitehead outlines at least five key paths one can take in a UX career.  

UX designer  Their objective is to create a user experience based on research and analysis. "Roles involve consulting with clients to better understand their goals for a product, creating product designs and prototypes, developing personas, and analyzing user feedback."

Visual designer: "Visual designers create the concept, artwork, and layout for digital projects based on the client's vision of the final product and the prototype they've been given." 

Information architect: "Responsible for scoping, constructing, and optimizing website content as it appears to users. Expected to produce workflow diagrams and organize data into site maps." 

Product designer: "Currently one of the most common and broad job titles in the UX design industry. The job involves designing products we use in our day-to-day lives and constantly improving how the product looks and functions to minimize cost." 

Project manager: "This position is essential in a design environment. Plans, budgets, oversees, and documents every part of an assigned project." 

The above are team members, but as UX gains in importance to enterprises, there is a need for managers to keep things coordinated and connected to the business. The need for UX managers only grows as organizations recognize and support the expansion of their UX teams, Spool observes. "Hiring experienced designers and researchers who are good self-managers will do the trick for organizations whose UX teams are just starting out. However, once a UX team grows beyond four people, the need for a manager starts to grow. Team members need coordination and help to manage their efforts. Managers are most effective with eight or less direct reports."

When the UX team expands past eight members, then it's time for a second UX manager, Spool continues. "We regularly see UX teams with more than 40 team members," he adds.