Ask The Experts is a series in which we ask design leaders from our community common questions from UX professionals or those seeking a career in UX. This month we're covering career trajectory.
What advice would you give a mid to senior level designer who is wondering whether they should go into management or continue as an individual contributor?
Even though senior designers and design managers can sometimes share similarities, the most unique aspect of a manager’s job lies in the responsibility of supporting and growing other designers, and a design team.
Depending on the size of their team, a design manager may sometimes take on some individual contributors’ responsibilities of doing design/research work. However, what truly sets a design manager apart is that they are responsible for not only their own projects but also the design team that reports to them. This responsibility makes it essential for them to understand the strength and characteristics of each designer on the team in order to best match them with the goal of the design group, while also putting them in the best possible position to succeed, removing obstacles and cultivating relationships when needed. Hiring and mentoring new talents to ensure that they fit in the team, get up to speed, and excel on their new jobs. Can you see making other people successful an essential part of your job? In my opinion, this needs to be a resounding yes if you would like to become a manager.
A manger needs to be ready to step away from detailed design work, and shift their attention to more strategic problems, guide their team by providing timely and relevant feedback to their work. Managers typically do have opportunities to see a wider range of products and teams, to influence design direction of a larger part of the organization. If you enjoy connecting teams, initiating collaborations towards common goals, and sharing best practices along the way, you may want to consider being a manager.
Lastly, people management skills are a must for a good manager. Be prepared to address personnel issues and getting better at resolving conflicts involving your team members and/or teams that they work with. These frictions can turn into opportunities if managed well, or future obstacles if poorly managed. A manager who is good at resolving these issues have a better chance of keeping the group morale high, setting them up for success, and creating space for the team to grow."
Huifang Wang, Senior Manager of User Experience Design
Every company has various responsibilities for managers and individual contributors, so this will depend on your situation. Also, career growth isn’t always linear. For example, maybe you’re a product designer that is interested in switching over to product management.
Let’s say you’re a mid to senior-level UX designer who works in a company with two distinct career tracks: management and individual contributor. Regardless of the track you choose, you’ll have responsibilities that may blur the lines between the two. One important step is to identify your interest areas. Are you interested in people management? Do you want to get more into UX strategy? What kinds of projects do you enjoy? Ultimately, your path will be different depending on how your organization assigns responsibilities.
My advice is to pick the path that you feel most closely aligns with your interest areas. Your interests will change over time, so I would not view it as a final decision.
Related: The individual contributor path is typically not as well-defined at organizations, and you may have to do some work to help define it. I’ve enjoyed reading Staff Design because it’s helpful to read about others’ experiences."
Andrew Wirtanen, Principal Product Designer
This is a big choice for any professional and should be an on-going dialogue. Have that dialogue with your manager and mentors. Have it with yourself. The biggest question to keep asking: why might you want to manage others? Do you like the idea of helping others navigate their careers? Do you like guiding work (and those who do the work) at a higher level? Do you seek status? A range of selfish and more selfless answers is likely. But you should be clear on exactly why you would want to manage. And, without question, test drive it first. Mentor someone, sponsor an intern and be a team lead so you can better answer those questions. From my view, successful design managers want to help others in their careers and are comfortable guiding others through their design work (vs. overtly guiding the design). If you’re uncomfortable coaching a colleague or prefer to be designing the details, an IC path may be best. I know wonderful design managers. I know others that probably shouldn’t be managing. And, I know many who have great careers as an IC. Be clear on what creates rewarding work for you."
Aaron Stewart, Director Next UX & UX Research
I would suggest anyone considering a shift out of a design role and into management (or any other role for that matter) to do an honest reflection on what types of activities give them the most sense of value in their career. If it's promotions, increased income, and leading teams, a shift to management can be the right choice. For designers who gain more value out of the experience of designing and creating and enjoy taking an active hand in design work, management roles can be stifling and frustrating. I'd suggest for anyone considering a move like this to reach out to mentors or other professional connections in management and ask questions about what their daily work is like and how they experienced the change in role. Ultimately, it's about how you want to spend your time while at work and that's an intensely personal question that will vary for each individual." Erik Johnson, Co-founder and Designer
Career growth is hopefully a goal for any professional, but at what cost? The decision to move from a hands on creative role to a more management focused role can be a difficult one.
Having the option to enter management often assumes working for a larger organization that requires a person with a design background in a management position. Such a promotion comes with the ability to play a more influential role in project direction, and typically greater compensation. Sole practitioners also have a similar level of influence, though their projects tend to be more limited in scope, and often the positions (particularly in staff roles) offer lesser compensation.
Many professionals, both in and out of the design field, eschew management, preferring to avoid the added responsibilities as well as the opportunity to stay “hands on” in their vocation, which hopefully they at least enjoy, if not love, practicing daily.
But, just because you could, doesn’t mean you should move into management. I always consider the Peter Principle, the management concept that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence,” before offering advice on this topic. Just as some legendary sports coaches were not necessarily standouts on the field, some All Stars fail to translate their in-game achievements to coaching others. Similarly, a talented designer may be exceptional at their craft, but not have the organizational or social skills to effectively manage others, while a less skilled designer may grasp design principles just well enough to be able to communicate through their work, while brilliantly managing other designers.”
David Minton, Managing Partner