avatarMike Kuechenmeister

Summary

UX leadership is facing significant challenges, with roles being cut and influence waning, due to a failure to adapt to evolving leadership demands and effectively integrate design into broader business strategies.

Abstract

The UX field has experienced a difficult period, with job opportunities dwindling and leadership roles becoming increasingly scarce. Despite years of striving for recognition at the leadership table, UX leaders are now struggling to demonstrate their value and impact within organizations. This struggle is attributed to two main factors: the transition from individual contributor roles to leadership positions without acquiring the necessary new skills, and the inability to integrate UX into the larger organizational context effectively. The article suggests that UX leaders often come from either a management path or a senior individual contributor path, both of which may not prepare them adequately for the strategic and collaborative demands of leadership. The failure of UX leaders is further compounded by their difficulty in navigating less mature organizational environments and their reliance on established frameworks that may not exist in their current roles. The article also outlines patterns of ineffective leadership, such as being overly complacent "Order Takers" or confrontational "Angry Idealists," and emphasizes the need for UX leaders to balance idealism with pragmatism to guide their teams towards delivering tangible business impact.

Opinions

  • UX leadership roles are being disproportionately eliminated compared to other functions, indicating a marginalization of UX influence in decision-making processes.
  • UX leaders often lack the necessary leadership skills and organizational context awareness, which hinders their ability to drive impact and partner effectively within the organization.
  • Design functions that operate in silos are less effective, underscoring the importance of building relationships with other business functions and establishing processes that align with the organization's dynamics.
  • There is a tendency for design leaders to either become too complacent, merely taking orders without challenging the status quo, or to become confrontational idealists, creating a toxic work environment.
  • The skills that previously led to success for UX leaders are now deemed inadequate for the future challenges in the field, necessitating a shift in leadership approach and skill sets.
  • UX leaders must embrace their role as agents of change, foster authentic cross-functional partnerships, and actively contribute to business outcomes to rebuild influence and adapt to technological advancements like AI.

UX leadership is failing (and what we can do about it)

Design spent years trying to get a seat at the leadership table. But in too many cases, the inability to drive real impact is resulting in resources being cut and influence diminished.

It's been a brutal year for UX. Even a cursory glance at UX job postings on LinkedIn reveals that the relatively few opportunities out there are getting hundreds of applicants within hours of being posted. The chance of even being called back for an open role is incredibly slim. Research suggests UX roles are being eliminated disproportionately to other key functions like Engineering. Leadership opportunities are even more scarce with VP and Executive level roles almost impossible to find. Even key design leadership roles at large companies like J&J, IBM, and Expedia are in some instances being eliminated. UX influence, it seems, has been greatly marginalized through countless rounds of layoffs this year. There are probably many factors, but the one that jumps out at me is that after years of wanting to be at the leadership table where big decisions are made, in too many cases, UX leadership is failing to deliver.

Where do UX leaders come from?

Similar to engineering and product management, design leaders typically come from one of two paths:

One career trajectory is from the management path where they start as UX managers usually leading a handful of individual contributors. Eventually, becoming managers and then Directors, VPs, and Heads of Design. The challenge is that the role evolves, but the people sometimes don’t. These people tend to carry the “manager” mindset with them even though leading at a Director or Executive level has an entirely new set of leadership skills and expectations.

The other path is by becoming a very senior individual contributor. Typically, these people spend time at the Lead or Principal level and are promoted to Directors, VPs, and Heads of Design. The challenge for these people is they tend to focus on the design solution being delivered rather than the larger organizational context of the design org and how design fits into the other functions. This robs the UX function of its ability to not just deliver a great user experience but also create true impact as a partner within the larger organization.

Why do UX leaders fail?

Design functions poorly when it operates in a silo. The maturing work of building relationships with leaders of other functions, establishing processes that fit the current dynamic, maintaining a healthy tension that balances delivery, and maturing partnerships and processes make leadership a challenge for anyone especially those who have only experienced mature design organizations. These people have benefitted greatly from existing partnerships, standardized processes, and clear role definition. Many leaders coming from mature practices struggle in less mature organizations when their framework of support is removed.

What comes easy for many leaders coming from mature organizations is looking good. It's easy to look competent to business leaders who don’t know what to look for. Everyone wants some of that design magic that Apple, Google, Facebook, etc. have. But getting a product or team off the ground, and maturing it through stages of growth, requires very different skill sets than it takes to be successful at a mature product organization.

There is also the consideration that this generation of leaders was just the first to get the opportunity. Perhaps they are among the longest-tenured team members or in the right place during a time of need. Regardless, the skills that lead to success in the past are probably inadequate to lead into the future. Evidence of that is the advent of the DesignOps discipline in larger practices to support leaders and managers in planning and organizing their work. Somewhere along the line many teams never developed that skill on their own as they do in other functions.

Patterns of Leadership

Effective leadership requires thriving within the tension of idealism and pragmatism. Imagine a narrow path with a large ditch on either side. On one side is complacency. On the other is anger and resentment). Too often, design leaders fall into one of these two patterns of leadership, depending on their background and current business dynamic:

The Order Taker

This leader’s mode of operation is complacency except to cover their own ass. They do not challenge the status quo, and have no strong opinions on what problems should be solved, what work should be prioritized, and if the team is creating business value. They abdicate to product leadership and ambitious contributors on the design team. This allows them to take credit for success but dodge any actual responsibility for the team’s work. Unfortunately, it puts the team into a place of primarily just taking orders and not being able to advocate for their own needs and ideas.

The Angry Idealist

These leaders start with what they think the ideal design solution and design org should look like but quickly become disenfranchised when they realize that the ideal state isn’t going to become reality without much effort and compromise. This leads them into conflict with people with whom they need to partner and places their team in a place of having to manage that conflict downstream. Inevitably this creates a toxic and resentful culture that no talented contributor wants to work in.

The ideal situation is unenviable but often necessary. Design leadership must skillfully stay on the path to navigate the dynamic of multiple agendas and drive vision and clarity that enable their team to deliver real impact in both short and long-term time horizons.

How can UX leaders do better?

There’s no end to the opportunity that exists for design leadership to connect the power of their team with the broader context of driving business outcomes. The challenging landscape is well documented in UX Collective’s post The State of UX in 2024. If we are going to rise to the occasion, here are a few places to start:

  1. Learn the difference between Leadership and Management There is a time for each and both are very important, particularly depending on the role. The ability to reflect and recognize whether leadership skills or management skills are appropriate and taking the right approach is critical. Embrace the role as a primary agent of change within the org and motivate, influence, and empower people to contribute towards a shared vision.
  2. Create authentic partnerships Product design is a team sport. And teams model what their leaders do. One of the most important things a design leader can do is to create healthy relationships with stakeholders and peers who lead other functions. Not only is this key in aligning across functions but it also sets the standard of what healthy partnerships look like for the team. Big problems are only solved when we live out this cross-functional partnership at every level.
  3. Fully embrace the purpose of UX is to drive business Take an active interest in how the business works to sit alongside all functions, be vested and credible, and truly partner on driving outcomes at the highest levels of the business. Have the courage to take a point of view and bring people together around that vision. UX has the potential to directly contribute to the financial health of a company by improving customer satisfaction, loyalty, and engagement, leading to increased conversions, reduced costs, and ultimately, higher revenue.

As the great leader Winson Churchill once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” The future of UX is bright. We have so much value to offer and our community is filled with incredibly caring and talented people. But to rebuild our influence and navigate the impact of advanced technologies like AI, we need a generation of design leaders who are brave and introspective so we can reflect, grow, and build on what has come before us.

UX
Product Design
Design Leadership
User Experience
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