CHI 2010: Growing the UX Management Community

By Jim Nieters

Published: April 19, 2010

“As User Experience matures as a discipline and grows in influence in the business community, UX leaders need to support one another by sharing their insights with their counterparts in other organizations….”

As User Experience matures as a discipline and grows in influence in the business community, UX leaders need to support one another by sharing their insights with their counterparts in other organizations, as well as with the educators molding the next generation of UX leaders at universities offering Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) programs. Indeed, the success of UX design and research initiatives within organizations depends significantly on how UX leaders position their teams and partner and build support with other senior leaders in their organizations.

To advance these goals and help evolve leadership practice throughout the UX community, at CHI 2010 in Atlanta, Carola Thompson, who is Senior Director of User Experience at MindJet, and I co-chaired the Management Community. Our goal for this community was to bring discussion of UX management to CHI 2010, hear and answer the questions of those tackling new challenges in managing their UX teams, and gain insights from both experienced leaders and new voices. Our hope was to provide UX leaders the opportunity to share the tactics and lessons they’ve learned in managing their teams, as well as methods of ensuring strategic relevance for User Experience, working in partnership with senior leaders in all disciplines within their organizations. Thus, this Management Community had three areas of focus:

  • Identify and learn from common situations leaders face.
    Share knowledge about connecting User Experience to business, including tactics and case studies for evangelism, return on investment (ROI), and increasing the relevance of User Experience.
    Provide venues for UX leaders to connect and share stories about both their challenges and their successes, so everyone could learn from their experiences.

Topics relating to UX design and research always generate a lot of buzz within the UX community. Management of User Experience often generates much less. So, I particularly appreciated the level of interest in this Management Community and the participation of both UX leaders and those who are interested in pursuing management at some point in their careers.

“No matter how good the UX designers and researchers in a company are, if the practice of User Experience does not have credibility and respect equal to that of disciplines such as product management and engineering, our insights and designs do not make their way into the products that get built.”

The reality is that, no matter how good the UX designers and researchers in a company are, if the practice of User Experience does not have credibility and respect equal to that of disciplines such as product management and engineering, our insights and designs do not make their way into the products that get built. In environments where User Experience lacks credibility and respect, UX designers and researchers spend an inordinate amount of time just trying to get their great ideas accepted. Few would suggest this is the best use of their time. Effective UX leaders make it possible for UX designers and researchers to do their best work by helping both business leaders and leaders in other disciplines understand the value of User Experience and fostering respect for User Experience throughout an organization.

With great UX management, UX designers and researchers don’t have to fight to be heard and are more successful. Why? Because effective leadership simplifies their lives. As Don Norman points out in The Invisible Computer, the best user interfaces are essentially invisible to users, because we notice only interfaces that get in our way. The same is true for UX management. The best UX management is essentially invisible. When UX leaders ensure their team members are respected and have a voice in the product development cycle—and that their work is relevant, their efforts on their teams’ behalf often go unnoticed by the UX designers and researchers who work for them. These individual contributors feel they are effective, because they are able to do great work and have it result in superior products.

UX designers and researchers notice management only when they experience friction. I recently encountered a situation where a UX designer on my team was unable to get some great ideas accepted by a product team. I intervened, and within six months, these ideas had become part of the product. In his performance review, this designer stated that he believed it was his superior idea that had enabled its adoption. He had forgotten that he could not get his idea implemented until I intervened and aligned the organization around the idea. That’s fine with me: I want my employees to be confident in their abilities. At the same time, I also recognized a teachable moment that helped this employee understand the larger context for getting his work accepted.

My point, though, is that we all need to recognize that effective UX management is as essential to the success of User Experience as great UX design and research.

The Management Track at CHI 2010 included several activities:

  • Workshop: “Researcher, Practitioner Interactions”—Sunday, April 11
  • Course: “Leading Innovation Workshops”—Monday, April 12
  • Course: “Managing a User Experience Department”—Tuesday, April 13
  • Panel: “Managing User Experience, Managing Change”—Wednesday, April 14
  • Management Community Luncheon—A luncheon for UX leaders who are interested in building a robust management community on Wednesday, April 14
  • Management SIG (Special Interest Group) Discussion—Thursday, April 15

Course: “Leading Innovation Workshops”

“One of the main benefits of our conducting innovation workshops or collaborative design workshops is that they place UX professionals in the position of facilitating dialogue around transforming their businesses….”

On Monday, April 12, Fabian Hemert and Stephen Gollner of Deutsche Telekom Labs, in Berlin, and my colleague at Yahoo!, Eric Bollman, and I taught the course “Leading Innovation Workshops.” One of the main benefits of our conducting innovation workshops or collaborative design workshops is that they place UX professionals in the position of facilitating dialogue around transforming their businesses, which is an important focus for most UX leaders and the key focus of business leaders.

When UX professionals conduct successful innovation workshops and create the appropriate visibility for them, they achieve more than just gaining themselves a seat at the table. As Carola Thompson pointed out, they are, in effect, creating the table at which all peer disciplines gather to develop strategy. Engineers, product managers, and UX professionals come together to brainstorm and design solutions for not only products, but business problems as well.

More than 40 people attended this course, which ran 4.5 hours. In the end, our students gave the course very strong positive feedback, and I felt that we had met our objectives.

Next, I’ll tell you more about a few of the other activities that I found to be of particular value to the Management Community.

Course: “Managing a User Experience Department”

I particularly appreciated Janice’s recommendation that we essentially apply user-centered methods to understanding our organizations’ cultures and leaders, then use what we learn as the basis for how we position our UX teams.

On Tuesday, April 13, we were very fortunate to have Janice Rohn teach the course “Managing a User Experience Department.” All of those who attended this course received the considerable benefit of Janice’s leadership experience at such companies as Level Studios, AT&T, World Savings Bank, Siebel Systems, and SUN Microsystems. In her three-hour course, Janice talked about best practices and the top pitfalls to avoid.

I particularly appreciated Janice’s recommendation that we essentially apply user-centered methods to understanding our organizations’ cultures and leaders, then use what we learn as the basis for how we position our UX teams. Every company culture is different, and we cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to integrating our UX teams into our companies—any more than we can say all of our users are alike or apply a single pattern to all design challenges. Janice provided an end-to-end solution guide to tasks UX managers should consider undertaking. While I’ve been a UX leader for a number of years, I found myself thinking Ah, right, I should be doing that a number of times. This course proved valuable not only for new managers, but also for experienced leaders who wanted a refresher. I enjoyed the course and the dialogues that resulted.

Panel: “Managing User Experience, Managing Change”

On Wednesday, April 14, Carola Thompson facilitated the panel “Managing User Experience, Managing Change,” which included panelists from whom I was happy to learn:

  • Irene Au—Director of UX at Google
  • Nida Zada—Director of UX at Plaxo
  • Catherine Courage—VP of UX at Citrix
  • Arnie Lund—Director of UX at Microsoft
“This panel provided significant insights into how these leaders have built and led their teams. The participants not only provided relevant observations, but built off of one another’s insights.”

I am typically quite critical of panels, but this panel provided significant insights into how these leaders have built and led their teams. The participants not only provided relevant observations, but built off of one another’s insights. Sometimes panels fall flat, because all of the participants agree. In other cases, it is difficult to discern whether a panel has offered any worthy insights, because participants cannot find any common ground. This panel found the right balance. Their dialogue built from one panelist to the next.

For example, Catherine Courage, when talking about how she transitioned from SalesForce to Citrix, highlighted how she could not just copy the formula she used at SalesForce to transform the organization. Just as Janice Rohn had highlighted in her course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to ensuring the success of a UX team. Catherine provided some valuable examples from her experience.

Irene Au also pointed out that, when she moved to Google from Yahoo!, she discovered how different their business and organizational models were. She had to understand these differences and influence Google in ways that would move the leaders there. The approach she took at Google was, in fact, very different from that she had taken at Yahoo!

The upshot is that cultures, strategies, and personalities differ from company to company. UX leaders need the strategic flexibility to understand the differences between companies, and use arguments and strategies that are appropriate in each environment. I found myself avidly interested from the beginning to the end of this panel discussion.

Luncheon for UX Leaders

“We want to create a Management Community whose participants can derive enduring value through their participation every year at CHI.”

Later in the day on Wednesday, Carola and I chaired a luncheon, during which several senior UX leaders gathered to discuss the rationale and methods for building and sustaining a Management Community. Participants included the members of Carola’s panel, plus Dan Rosenberg, Janice Rohn, Larry Tesler, Jeremy Ashley, Dennis Wixon, Arnie Lund, and many more. During this luncheon, we first agreed that we want to create a Management Community whose participants can derive enduring value through their participation every year at CHI.

This year, Carola and I reached out to individuals in our networks, asking them to submit papers, panels, case studies, and courses focusing on UX management. In future years, we hope have a self-sustaining community, with participation from managers across the UX industry. We are, after all, the leaders who have helped form the UX industry as it exists today, and we should share our knowledge and insights about how to create and sustain relevant UX teams.

We agreed that we want to promote a virtuous cycle, wherein experienced, highly skilled UX leaders can share their insights, and we can all learn from one another and evolve the profession of User Experience. Therefore, CHI needs to continue attracting the best UX leaders and professionals in the industry by augmenting its academic focus—which makes CHI valuable to many—with practical courses, workshops, and panels that offer significant value to UX professionals.

In addition to requesting that UX leaders submit highly practical and relevant content, we will seek a larger number of UX leaders to review papers, workshops, and courses. We need content that elevates the overall level of skill among UX managers and professionals, so we can continually make a greater impact on the companies for which we work.

In addition, we agreed that it would be valuable to connect with business schools and involve experts who can help us build bridges between UX and business. We will also seek out senior industry leaders who can provide their expertise on how UX design and research can best impact business results. Carola and I will be working with participants from this luncheon to ensure a rich dialogue for CHI 2011.

Management Community SIG

“We talked about creating a SIGCHI Management
group, comprising a core team of UX leaders who meet regularly and gathers
feedback and suggestions from a broader group of UX leaders and professionals
from across the industry.”

On Thursday, April 15, Garett Dworman was kind enough to lead the Management Community SIG from 11:30am-1pm. I was delighted to see participants from not only across the US, but around the world! Participants in this SIG identified their top goals for a Management Community, then the group brainstormed on the best ways to meet those goals. Garett elicited input from everyone who participated, and the discussion generated valuable ideas and interest in the Management Community for future years at CHI.

During this SIG, we talked about creating a SIGCHI Management group, comprising a core team of UX leaders who meet regularly and gathers feedback and suggestions from a broader group of UX leaders and professionals from across the industry. This group would serve many needs. Some of its goals would include the following:

  • Implement an online discussion group that enables current and aspiring UX managers and professionals to pose questions to other UX professionals and receive answers either publicly or privately.
  • Provide mentorship on a personal level.
  • Create a repository of information about the management of UX in particular and leadership best practices in general.
  • Write new content and case studies for education and reference.

We agreed that creating a SIGCHI community could provide continuity across CHI conferences. The SIGCHI chairs intend to investigate this possibility and communicate their thoughts to the 2011 Management Community chairs and others, in the next month or so.

One idea that came out of our Management Community SIG is to leverage a new iPhone application to inform UX professionals about the Management Track at CHI 2011. For UX professionals who want to pursue activities in the Management Community, this iPhone app could populate their schedule with the events and venues in the Management Track. This year, a volunteer created an iPhone app for CHI 2010, and I made regular use of this useful tool. Ideally, this iPhone app would be able to identify papers, case studies, courses, and panels by community and add them interactively to an attendee’s CHI schedule.

Looking Forward to CHI 2011

“Let’s not wait for someone else to make the content at CHI more relevant to UX professionals. Let’s each do what we can to create value….”

For CHI 2011, it is my hope and Carola’s that many of you will contribute to the Management Community. UX leaders who share their insights with their peers make the conference much more valuable to their fellow UX leaders and other professionals—and, ultimately, to themselves. Let’s not wait for someone else to make the content at CHI more relevant to UX professionals. Let’s each do what we can to create value and make the conference more relevant and insightful for UX professionals who share similar interests. Just like the slogan for CHI 2010 says, “We are HCI.”

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