Managing, just barely

“Pushing the Envelope” from ACM <interactions>, January/February 2007

By Fred Sampson

I have a question for you: Are you the manager of a user experience design team?

If you answered “Yes,” I have another question: What were you thinking?!!!

Jakob Nielsen’s corporate usability maturity model suggests that it takes twenty years to establish stage 8 of the model, the user-driven corporation. Can you wait that long to see success?

As a manager, you face many challenges. First is managing the team and its members, a team that likely includes creative, artistic types who might resist bureaucracy, structure, taking direction. Can you afford to create an IDEO-style brainstorming environment? Can you afford not to? Do you, the UX manager, face unique people-management challenges? Perhaps it’s the same as for any other manager: the job would be so much easier without employees, not to mention customers.

Your other top challenges are managing the perception of company executives, managing the expectations of other teams during product development, and proving your team’s value in all directions. UX consultant Richard Anderson compares this challenge to that of changing the course of a large ship from a rowboat: you expend a lot of effort for minimal effect.

I have to assume that a prerequisite for the role of UX manager is patience. Nothing happens as fast as you would like it to, from convincing executives that the organization needs a dedicated UX function, to evangelizing change within the organization, to seeing results. Another prerequisite might be faith that what you’re doing will show results, that you can demonstrate positive ROI, that your team can be effective without slowing product cycles, that you do not manage a sales prevention department. It would be easy to get discouraged from all the roadblocks that the unbelievers set up. Miss a deadline because of usability testing and you run the risk of being ignored. Fail to communicate, fail to be perceived as part of the team, and you’ll be bypassed. Fail to cultivate a corporate executive champion and you may as well light a candle in the darkness: it’s better than cursing the darkness, but still not very illuminating.

Or how about this challenge: Let’s say that your CEO has taken a sudden interest in design-she’s been reading Business Week or Fast Company-and the edict from on high is to ensure that good design guides every company product. Are you prepared? How do you ensure that that the organization looks to you and your people for guidance, and not an external, high-visibility expert? If you’ve been making your case and lobbying for more visibility, perhaps someone will remember and say, “Hey, let’s ask our user experience people what they think!” Or is your function still seen as adding lipstick to the pig before it’s nudged out the door?

If you’ve been actively pushing your team’s position on the corporate usability capability model, it should have been your efforts that prompted the CEO to start paying attention to design in the first place. <sarcasm> Not that she’s going to admit it; all good ideas flow from the executive offices. </sarcasm> Still, that was pretty clever of you, emailing executive summaries and links to relevant articles, leaving copies of ACM <interactions> in conspicuous locations. Or maybe you’ve been polishing your elevator speech, and you toolk advantage of those 15 seconds with the CEO to explain why your department should be driving development of the next disruptive, innovative, design-laden product release.

Mind you, I know what being a manager is like; been there, done that, buried the evidence. I know that you spend far too much time putting out fires and playing parent to employees who should have grown up by now. You’d like to be planning and leading, but instead you’re reacting to the crisis of the day. You want to delegate more, but your best people are exhausted by chasing impossible deadlines and demands. Or maybe they’re lighting those fires that you’re busy putting out. How in the world are you going to see your way down the 20-year capability maturity track when you can’t see into next week? Which is closer, success or retirement (or a stroke)?

Mark Hurst says that “Changing the organization is the most difficult and most important part of user experience work.” As a manager, isn’t that your top responsibility? Do you trust your staff to do the right thing on a daily basis so you can focus on turning that tanker with a rowboat? I suspect that the answer must be yes, or you’re not serving the best interests of your company. It’s yes, or you wouldn’t be there.

Look for answers—or, at least, better questions-to the UX manager’s challenges in the May-June 2007 issue of ACM <interactions>.

I thank Rick Herder and Tracy Hutcheson, both managers of user experience design teams at IBM, and Richard Anderson for sharing their thoughts on this subject with me.


Richard Anderson, Riander Blog, “Changing the course or pace of a large ship”:, September 21, 2006

Mark Hurst, Good Experience, “The Most Important User Experience Method”:, June 20, 2003

Jakob Nielsen, Alertbox, “Corporate Usability Maturity”:, , April 24 and May 1, 2006

About the Author

Fred Sampson is a co-chair of BayDUX, Vice President for Finance of SIGCHI, and a senior member of STC. In his spare time, Fred works as an information developer at the IBM Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, California. Contact him at

Copyright Notice

© ACM 2007. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in ACM <interactions>, Volume XIV.1, ISSN 1072-5520, (January/February 2007),