UX Researcher discussing affinity map with group

While UX has seen an increase in the level of leadership over the years, those taking the reins of the teams have largely come up the ranks from visual or UX design paths with researchers often running into a “glass ceiling” both in terms of available leadership roles and the ability to lead design. Researchers are often treated as second class citizens within design teams, where designers “pick up” research skills or the research gets democratized in ways designers would feel undermine their knowledge. While others have written about UX not being UX without research, many research teams continue to be understaffed, first to be reduced during layoffs, and often report into designers; however, the inverse is a rarity.

These changes and the merger of roles have often led to a reduction in research within organizations or limiting the research to “as time allows,” which more often than not means rarely or never. There are, of course, many factors leading to this shift in research within design but one thing that seems to not be shifting is the inclusion of research in leadership roles both within design teams and as overall leaders of design.

This is unfortunate as, despite design having a greater leadership role in organizations, we’re seeing that in many cases when design does have a seat at the table, it’s not leading to the desired outcomes that motivated an increase in design leadership. By thinking of design leaders as more than creative personalities like Jony Ive, companies may find more of the results they want from design by elevating design researchers into leadership roles.

How I’m Defining Design Leadership

Photo of a UX team meeting with their team leader

Just as every designer may not have the skills or passion for leadership, not every researcher has the skills it may take to lead design either, even if they began their career as designers, as many do, and shift into a researcher role. While the list is non-exhaustive, the following represents what I view as key activities a design leader must take on:

Coaching talent

Developing an understanding of each individual’s strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations then leveraging this knowledge to help grow them within their career. As you find opportunities for the individuals internally, helping bolster their position or introduce them to opportunities at other organizations aligned to their interests and growth.

Shepherding the design culture

Design teams need constant maintenance to ensure creative flames continue to burn bright and modern organizations often introduce employee angst that needs to be managed. Design leaders need to keep the culture fresh, provide the right level of challenges for the team, and prevent silos from forming or blind focus on a current project.

Advocating for design decisions

Even with well-supported evidence from qualitative and quantitative research, design decisions will always have some controversy or naysayers. Design leaders need to build relationships in order to understand the case that needs to be made in order to ensure the decisions the team has made around the design are upheld to prevent waste, rework, and potential team morale issues.

Influencing engineering and product teams to make room for design

Even if you’re lucky enough to be in an organization that has elevated design to the C-suite, they will likely have peers in engineering and product that will have equal or greater weight in key decisions that affect design. In most cases though, design will report into one of these other functions and the need to understand and advocate for design while making compromises to serve the needs of all functions only increases.

Balancing budgets and showing the value of design

Whether the team works as an internal consulting firm or it’s matrixed into other groups, the need to work with spreadsheets to understand the budget and make a case for funding for design (or more designers) will fall on the shoulders of any leader in design.

Pushing design trends forward

While not every leader of design is a visionary genius, a strong design leader does keep a pulse on trends within the field and industry while advocating for improvements to ensure the designs don’t grow stale.

Research Skills That Aid in Design Leadership

Several of the things that are required of design leaders end up being skills researchers naturally build on in order to be effective practitioners and advance into more senior roles, even if they aren’t often leadership ones. Some of the most important ones that researchers can leverage as they move into leadership roles include:

Developing and promoting empathy

In order to be effective researchers, developing empathy not just for the people we design for is important but developing empathy for business partners/stakeholders is a critical requirement. Design leaders need to develop empathy in order to effectively coach the individuals on their teams as well as ensuring productive partnerships with leaders in product, engineering, etc. Researchers are often naturally attuned to taking empathic stances and providing support for others.

Reducing personal opinion in favor of more objective design criteria

While design research takes perspectives and isn’t necessarily objective, researchers do have a duty to fairly report on the views of others rather than focusing on their own perspective and opinion. Researchers are used to having their views proven wrong when learning about new individuals and changing our own opinions, and those of the team to do the right thing for those we design for. Design leaders need to be open to pivot their own opinions about design based on research findings or based on fresh perspectives brought in by newer designers or trends. Since researchers have built their careers by taking stances of curiosity and being willing to learn new perspectives, they are adept at taking the stance of “strong opinions, loosely held.”

Influencing engineering, design, product, etc. to make changes based on research findings

Even in the cases where there’s a research leader, they typically are not at the same level as the design leader meaning all ability to ensure actions are taken from research are dependent on being able to persuade and influence others. Leaders of design teams need to do this at scale but the practice researchers have gained in their career make them particularly adept here.

Managing research recruitment budgets or project research budgets

Whether a researcher is running the research team and managing the entire budget or just running research for a single project, researchers have to learn to manage and stay within a budget when recruiting and paying participants, getting tools, etc. Oftentimes, these budgets are fairly resource constrained so researchers find creative ways to make the budget work for maximum effect. Researchers moved into design leadership roles can expand this budgeting knowledge and apply it to improve the operations and fiscal responsibility of design teams.

Comparing Typical Designer and Research Traits for Leadership

group of people sit around a computer and whiteboard with sticky notes

While the prior section painted researchers as nearly ideal leaders of design teams, in the interest of fairness I wanted to also discuss some areas where researchers might be lacking and the types of teams/organizations where a designer might be a better leader for the team and vice versa.

Designers elevated into leaders for their team are more likely to increase the passion and improve the overall craft of the designers. They are also more likely to take stronger points-of-view on design that can lead to faster design decision making. This contrasts with researchers who are more likely to strive to be more inclusive leaders that embrace the wider perspectives of the team. Many researchers, but far from all, may also be hesitant to take a position that they don’t have data on–this is often offset as a researcher gains more experience as they often have prior examples to pull from that can improve their decision making speed or at least their comfort in “shooting from the hip” as needed to move the design along.

Due to the above traits, organizations that require the UX design team to also handle the brand vision, heavily drive marketing, or require a strong voice for design may find themselves in better hands with a leader coming up from design. Conversely, if the design leader needs to serve as a multiplier of the voices of the designers and move the design practice into a position of closer collaboration with partners in the organization or provide more evidence for design decisions than a researcher would be the better practitioner. Researchers are going to be more likely to be comfortable with the quantitative data needed to showcase the value of design into an organization.

This also suggests that a designer is a better leader for a design team starting out while a researcher is more likely to be the more supportive leader for an organization with more established design practices.

Summing It Up

Both researchers and designers moving into leadership roles bring valuable perspectives with each being suited to different challenges for an organization.

Organizations looking at their next leader of design, shouldn’t restrict themselves to the “usual suspects” but should cast a wider net to seek out researchers if that type of leader aligns with their organizational challenge of bringing together groups in closer partnership, showing more of the value of design, and empowering and amplifying the voices of the individual designers.

On a related note, researchers should not count themselves out as a great leader for design isn’t necessarily a great designer herself but may just need to possess the right blend of analytical thinking, passionately curious, and gifted storytellers–all traits researchers naturally develop.

While not covered in this article, it’s also important to look beyond people in management and leadership roles currently as many individuals with great leadership potential come from underrepresented groups or were less likely to be the strong self-advocate.