How does a UX Researcher become a manager of an entire User Experience Team at an international company? This is a common question I am asked. So I decided to summarize my experience and share my perspective on the topic.
My professional background
(Yes, you can skip this part and go directly to the second part)
As a researcher, I took my first steps in the UX field 8 years ago. At that time, it was not a popular career choice in Poland, especially among sociology students. Like many of my university colleagues, I started my professional journey by working in a digital agency where I was responsible for SEO and SEM campaigns. Seeing how much I enjoyed optimizing landing pages, my boss asked me one day: “You are an art school graduate and sociologist — why don’t you want to actually do user experience design?”. I really liked my job and my boss, but the question was excellent — it led me to the UX field exploration, and one month later, I was already working in a UX agency as a Junior UX Researcher.
At the UX agency, I met people who supported me in professional development and who really helped me to make a deep dive into the user experience. I learned about UX Research, but above all, I learned how to work assertively and effectively with clients and communicate professionally with them. I also gained professional self-confidence and high standards of collaboration with Designers and Developers.
This helped me a lot in my first in-house role. As the only UX Researcher in the entire large in-house UX Team, I was responsible for building the research lab and implementing the whole research framework in the organization. In addition, I executed projects and supported others in completing research projects by themselves. We did hundreds of usability tests over 1,5 years and dozens of UX projects. As a result, our digital product was one of the best on the market. Managing an entire large research area in a large organization taught me to make decisions quickly, prioritize projects and tasks, manage relationships with many different stakeholders, and communicate effectively with designers.
This helped me to quickly find my way into another company where I could build my first small research team of 5 people. Since they were UX Researchers, it was easy for me to step into their shoes and deeply understand what they were dealing with every day of their research work. The hardest part was understanding and accepting that not everyone works as I do. And I know that sounds terrible today, but as a UX Researcher I was doing a great job, and I was mistakenly convinced that this had to be the standard to which my entire team should aspire. Fortunately, I had a smart boss who asked me smart questions, shared in-depth feedback, and allowed me to see that diversity as a benefit.
Today I am a manager of a UX Team of 17 experts in an international logistic company.
Which research skills help me in the UX Team Manager role
I firmly believe that my previous research experience and skills helped me immensely in the current role. My curiosity and passion led me here, but I am thankful I can build my current role on the research foundation. Below I listed some of the most powerful skills I use daily at work as a manager, which I developed while being a UX Researcher.
As a sociology student, I have been learning to listen first and foremost. I specialize in qualitative research. During my university study, my favorite research method was biographical interviews. Listening attentively to the other person’s long, extensive life stories is a fundamental skill. Today, I use this skill to listen to what my teammates are saying about their motivation, needs, expectations, and pain points. I know that listening without judging helps to create a relationship of trust. Listening and silence can be extremely helpful tools.
As a UX Researcher, I have learned to use empathy in a way that allows me to let go of my assumptions in order to access the other person’s feelings, needs, emotions, and opinions. Today this approach helps me understand people, ask deeper questions, and respond to their needs in a better way.
On the other hand, I know how to separate my emotions from the other person’s emotions. Thanks to this, I can often see the cognitive bias arising from my own emotions and assumptions, not from the authentic rational assessment of the situation.
As a UX Researcher, I had to make dozens of daily decisions on what is more or less important, what to do now or later, what is really urgent, and what is not. As a manager, I have to make dozens of decisions about priorities every day. Well done prioritization help me to develop my team, better manage my own time, and better respond to the company’s business needs. Moreover, it helps me avoid frustration. As a manager, I always have too many topics on my to-do list and too many urgent issues to solve. Prioritizing is a crucial skill, and I learned it by being a single researcher in a large organization.
Effective time management
You can write a research report in 5 days or you can write it in 3 weeks. It depends on your decision and plan. Effective time management is the ability to decide how much time I want to spend on the task and what is an expected outcome of my work in the context of a defined goal. Does everything have to be polished and perfect? No. Sometimes it just has to be done. And this is what I learned as a UX Researcher doing several research projects simultaneously.
In my current role by managing my time well I am more available to my teammates, so I can focus on the crucial aspect of my work: people. I also believe that I can help them to improve their time management skills by giving a good example. If I allow myself to rest, take breaks, or long holidays, and my teammates are aware of my choices, hopefully, I can create a space where people feel free to take care of themselves and their work-life balance. Rested, unstressed people who feel in control of their time are more happy employees.
There are always too many topics, many problems to solve, and high expectations. Assertiveness is another beneficial skill I learned while working in UX agencies and as a single UX Researcher in corporations. It is not just the ability to say “no”, but also the ability to offer alternative solutions. It is an ability to accept the dissatisfaction of the other person who hears refusal. This is also about receiving feedback and giving it. Finally, it is a skill of setting my own boundaries and the boundaries of my team. Heh, you know those requests for “just one more banner” or “a nice short presentation”, right?
Ability to structure information and make a quick decisions
During interviews with users there is always a need to make quick decisions on “what’s next”: what should I ask next? How should I ask? Should I ask an in-depth question about this topic? Should I ask a follow-up question? Should I skip this topic and move to the next question? All those decisions are required to make deep and insightful research sessions and deliver valuable knowledge. As a leader I need to make dozens of quick decisions while answering questions, asking for something, answering emails, getting information on the new project, or requesting a budget. I need to also accept that sometimes those decisions are uncomfortable, but the best possible in the given moment.
Experience with design projects and ability to find a knowledge balance
As a UX Researcher, I was dealing with a lack of knowledge every single time while taking a new project on a new topic. I am not an expert in voice authentication, blockchain, or telecom processes. But I know how much I need to know to be able to talk with users, and stakeholders and create valuable design recommendations.
As a manager of the UX Team, I constantly learn about Design and DesignOps, but I know how many details I need to learn to support Designers’ work. When I do not understand something, I openly share it with my teammates, who are always happy to explain the topic to me. As a manager, I have to know how much I need to understand to make good decisions. So, I would say this is about finding a balance between lack of knowledge and expert knowledge, not about being an expert in UX Design per se.
Btw, 7 years ago I went to the postgraduate one-year intensive UX Design course. I was learning about the whole design process, prototyping, and how to use Axure and I did my first design project from A to Z. I learned about UX design practice and theory. Thanks to that, as a UX Researcher I was able to collaborate with designers in a better way. I strongly believe that a good understanding of designers’ work also in its technical aspects, is required if you want to be a professional UX Researcher.
My previous experience helped me to step into the role of UX Team Manager and my research background is my superpower. I know that it can be a benefit for many other researchers. But first of all you need to show that you can lead. How to do it? There is an amazing article created by David Burkus. He said: “Just because you don’t have a title, that doesn’t mean you’re not a leader. Still, working on any team creates leadership moments that you’ve probably seized upon in the past. You just might not have known about them, or you might not have recognized them.”
Good luck Researchers!