8 Fundamental Lessons For Any UX Design Manager

Whatever industry you work in, one of the ways in which you can grow professionally is by taking on a manager role. But where do you start when you're on this part? While there are a lot of resources and courses to learn design or research, I believe things are slightly different regarding management. No matter how many new tools or techniques emerge, the fundamentals go a long way here - the basics for UX design managers, which you can read in this article. 

Lessons for UX design managers cover image

I’m confident about this, as it helped me a lot as a studio lead. In hindsight, most of it seems fairly obvious. Yet, like with any good design, these are invisible to the eye.

In the following, I want to point out these fundamentals.

Who Should Be Reading This?

This article applies to anyone in charge of designers and researchers in any way, shape, or form. It includes planning design and research, resource allocation, and directly managing UXers. It also covers mentoring and coaching for these roles.

I wish there were a clear list of titles for this. But titles in UX management and leadership vary a lot. They range from UX lead and UX manager to design/research lead or manager and anything in between, even studio lead. You usually get a better idea of the role only when you see the responsibilities that come along with the role.

And speaking of titles, I think I can guess the next question on your mind.

What’s a Studio Lead? 

The role is a combination of design and research team lead. Most responsibilities involve taking care of the designers and the researchers onboard, from onboarding to regular check-ins to periodic evaluations.

Besides that, the studio lead has some additional responsibilities:

  • UX project planning and estimation, along with allocation and project support,
  • Support for the business development managers in client calls,
  • Design and research recruitment, overseeing the process and being involved in final decisions.

The role, along with the headcount, grew over time. Currently, there are two studio leaders for about 30 designers and researchers.

This role in UX Studio has one more specific characteristic: It is rotational, which means that the studio leaders change periodically. Any designer or researcher who has been with the company for at least 1.5 years is eligible for the position.

I raised my hand towards the end of 2020 and started in this position early in 2021. This year, I handed it over, continuing the rotation.

The Making of This Studio Leader

This has been probably one of the best jobs I’ve had. I’ve learned a lot, both professionally and personally.

Most of the things I’ve learned as a studio leader aren’t taught in schools. Also, most of them are simple and not related to design or research. But they’ve helped me a lot, and I believe they’re worth sharing.

8 Fundamental Lessons For Any UX Design Manager

1. It’s crucial to get the right people on board. 

The biggest part of a manager or team leader’s job is building a great team. A great team is made of two things: the right people and the right structures and processes to support them.

But getting the first one right is crucial. Without the right people on board, problems will constantly arise for various reasons. This can create a stressful environment and distract from delivering good work.

As the Great Resignation was one of the defining moments of 2021, recruitment was a big priority when I started. Luckily, UX Studio has an excellent recruitment process, and I also worked with a great hiring manager.

In time, we got multiple signs that we had the right people on board. The first big one was the first in-person retreat after the pandemic. Most of the team was new by then, yet people connected quickly, and everyone had a good time.

Another sign for this came occasionally on 1on1s. Here, out of the blue, people mentioned that they like the atmosphere in the company and the new team members are great. To top it all off, we constantly got good client feedback about the work teams did on projects.

2. Building trust with your team members is key.

One crucial part of the job was taking care of the researchers and designers on the team. Yet, I couldn’t help them unless I knew what was really bothering them.

Still, sharing issues at work often comes with a fear of being judged. From time to time, there’s also the fear of negative consequences. What if you’re punished for speaking up? There are also tricky situations when people say everything is fine, only to find out there are significant issues soon after.

This is where trust comes into play. Without trust, people won’t tell you their real problems. And, in the long run, they will probably leave.

building trust illustration

Yet trust is like a two-way street. You must share a bit of yourself but mostly be there for others. In 1on1s, I was genuinely interested in what people had to say, paying attention and actively listening. Also, I cared about the people in my team and followed up on issues as much as possible. And I think they felt that.

One of the things that helped me see how I was doing as a team lead was when someone shared what really bothered them. Whether it was about how I appreciated some team members more and others less or about someone not pulling their weight – every time I heard about issues, I was happy that someone trusted me enough to share them with me.

3. Being able to notice problems is super important.

Because it’s the manager’s responsibility to shield the team from issues, I firmly believe that noticing problems is a superpower.

The easiest way to do this is to regularly and continuously talk with everyone on your team. Even a 10-15-minute chat can help here. As you talk to people, patterns come up. Different team members will mention the same thing but in different ways. Here, paying attention and connecting the dots to identify higher-level problems is part of your job.

As a manager, I believe you have two types of issues:

  • Individual issues, like someone not being happy with the tasks they’re assigned,
  • Team issues include collaboration issues and how the team generally gives or receives feedback.

In noticing issues, it’s essential to identify what type of issue you uncover correctly. Mixing them up will only skew the size of a problem. For instance, if someone is not happy with the project they’re on, that doesn’t mean everyone feels the same.

The sooner you notice problems, the better. It’s an important first step. After that, it’s essential to prioritize.

4. Prioritize issues to focus on what matters.

As a lead or a manager, you’ll notice issues constantly. Yet there’s a catch. You have a finite amount of resources available. Even if you want to, you cannot solve everything. There will always be something to improve. So, it’s essential to prioritize.

Also, I believe it’s very important to prioritize well to avoid focusing on the wrong problems. Generally, those are the ones that come back to bite when you least expect them. No one likes wasted effort, and dealing with issues that get worse and worse is painful.

What helped me a lot with prioritization was understanding the impact of an issue, whether it was a team or an individual issue. How many people would be affected? How much would they be affected? The bigger those estimates, the sooner that needs to be solved.

Additionally, you should focus on the top one or two issues at most. Those are the ones that will move things forward. Trying to work on too many things at the same time usually backfires.

Before I became a team lead and the Great Resignation started, our focus at UX Studio was redefining the company’s mission. However, once things set into motion, the focus shifted to rebuilding the team. And it paid off. Within a year, we had a new team with great designers and researchers doing amazing work on various projects.

5. The more decisions you make, the better you get at it.

Making decisions is an art and one of your biggest tasks as a manager. Whether it’s project planning or who to hire, you must make daily decisions. Still, there aren’t a lot of courses that teach you how to properly make decisions.

What’s more, as a team lead, the scope of your decisions changes. They now impact other people. And this is where fear creeps in more than usual.

That’s probably the biggest obstacle to making decisions: the fear of making the wrong one. I felt this the most in the beginning with recruitment. Even if the profile we were looking for was clear, I was reticent about who we made offers to for fear of how things would go.

Still, practice is the only way to get better at making decisions.

There are two critical steps here. The first one is ensuring you have the most essential information to understand the context. The second one is to make that decision. If the outcome is good, you can use that to train your decision-making instinct. If the outcome is bad, you can learn from it to do better next time.

I overcame my initial fear of making decisions in recruitment by asking more questions about candidates. This helped me better understand how they think and what they’re like, making it easier to decide about hiring. It also helped me build confidence in making decisions in other areas.

6. Hard conversations don’t have to be bad experiences.

Giving negative feedback or addressing issues head-on are hard conversations, and they come with the job. They’re called hard conversations for a reason.

I’ve learned here that, with the right approach, these can be a positive experience for both sides. Crucial Conversations and David, our CEO, helped me with this.

hard conversations illustration

Transforming hard conversations into positive experiences starts with how you approach them. The key is to start from a calm and composed place, with an open attitude that shows you want what’s best for both parties. Showing up angry or in full offense mode only creates more problems.

I applied this to every hard conversation. I usually started calmly and positively, asking how the other was doing. This diffused the tension so actual dialogue could happen. After that, I’d bring up the topic I wanted to discuss.

Whenever I did this, delivering the message and having an honest conversation about the situation was easier. In turn, this helped solve the issue on both sides. The person on the other side didn’t feel attacked and was more open to finding solutions.

7. Hard decisions are essential.

The next thing to understand is that decisions come in many shapes and sizes. Some will be easier, and others will be tough. As a manager, the hardest decision you’ll ever make is to let someone go.

Keeping on someone who’s struggling professionally or who isn’t a team match can cause problems in the long run. If they’re struggling professionally, keeping them on might lead others to question the standard of work. Likewise, if someone is not a team match, that can negatively impact the atmosphere.

Part of a manager’s job is to make sure that your team can work without any obstacles. From that perspective, you must weigh an individual’s good versus the team’s general good. And once you’ve tried everything and it’s still not working, it’s time to let people go.

I had to do this a few times during my time. The first time was the hardest. I wish I could say it got easier, but that isn’t true. Still, every time I let someone go, I let the team know what happened and what were the reasons.

In doing that, I found an upside to making hard decisions. When others understand why you made that decision and see that you prioritize the general well-being of the team, they trust you more.

hard decisions illustration

8. Managing yourself is just as important.

Managing a team and working on multiple things simultaneously can be exhausting. If you’re not managing yourself, being there for your team members will be hard.

I first encountered this in Julie Zhuo’s The Making of a Manager. A chapter there talks about knowing your strengths and weaknesses and using those to guide you in your job as a team lead.

That is a good first step in managing yourself. But I would take this further: you must learn to manage your energy and focus. I noticed this in myself: it was much easier to be calm and deal with issues when I’d slept well or after a proper break when I didn’t randomly start thinking about work.

So, taking breaks and recharging is essential. For some people, that might be reading a good book. For others, it might be going on a hike or partying. Whatever recharging looks like to you, schedule plenty of breaks for yourself while you’re a lead or a manager.

To Summarize

Team leading or managing is always a challenging job, especially when it comes to design or research. You learn most of the things here on the job while doing it. And they’re rarely related to design or research. They have to do with the situations and the people you work with. For management, I believe these are your best teachers. Learning these lessons wouldn’t have been possible without the supportive environment inside UX Studio. David, our CEO, and other senior team members helped me navigate and learn these things one by one.

What are some other essentials you learned as a design or research manager? What worked well and what didn’t work well from your experience? Feel free to share your experience with us on our social media channels.

Searching for the right UX agency?

UX studio has successfully worked with over 250 companies worldwide. 

Is there anything we can do for you at this moment? Get in touch with us, and let’s discuss your current challenges.

Our experts would be happy to assist with the UX strategy, product and user research, or UX/UI design.

Laura Sima

Designer in training gone digital marketer, now into UX design. Always curious about innovation, data and design.

Improve user experience in your product

Download our Guide
The Product managers' guide to UX design