Note: Opinions expressed in this article are solely mine and do not express the views of thoughts of my employer.
You will never know if you are up for a challenge until you do it.
I was thrust into a role I wasn’t ready to accept. I cringed, complained, considered quitting, applauded myself for coping and finally made peace with reality. I am not talking about a ayahuasca ceremony; but my first 100 days as a UX lead.
My humble brag
I transitioned to UX after being a developer for 7 years. At the time I quit my developer job, I was an Associate Tech Lead. I did not (and also didn’t want to) lead a team officially. I was a senior individual contributor and mentored new-comers in the team. I enjoy deep-work and usually find really-good excuses to not managing a team. But all of that changed when I switched to UX.
My journey in UX domain began after a 8 month hiatus post quitting my developer job. No — I wasn’t traveling the world or doing any other crazy thing that millennials like me do. I spent most of it in recovery and then convincing people I do not need a degree to be a designer.
My first job as a UX designer lasted 1.5 months in a startup. I do not want to delve deep into the reasons why I quit. But in short — it was not a good fit. I have never quit any job in my life this fast; if that counts.
Dejected by the state of design hiring, I decided to be a full-time freelancer. But then fate had other plans. I started to take up freelance writing gigs about UX, when a client of mine asked me to apply for a full-time UX designer role at their design studio.
I couldn’t but laugh at this sinister turn of events by the stars. I decided to give it a go; after all I had nothing to lose. Two days after applying for the role of a UX designer, I received a call asking my availability for an interview for the role of a UX — Project Manager. I tried to explain there must be a misunderstanding but the HR insisted that my profile fit the bill.
Universe does have a wicked sense of humour.
The in-person discussion went well and I explained to the hiring manager I was still a beginner in UX and didn’t feel comfortable taking upon a Project Manager role. I told him explicitly — if he found someone else better than me, then he should give them the role. Also I preferred a heads-down job rather than chasing people and getting work done. Plus I barely knew enough design to pass as a designer, let alone a manager.
Stepping up to challenge
After some discussion, I was offered the role of a Senior UX designer. I was happy that I didn’t have to manage a team and stick to improving my craft. Two weeks into the job, I took to it like a fish in water. There was high influx of projects coming in and not enough people to manage the team. Lo and behold, my responsibilities changed to interfacing with the clients and managing the team internally. Damn you, universe!
In a month’s time, my role was changed officially as the UX Lead. I was happy and sad in equal parts. Happy that my efforts and talent were finally acknowledged; sad because I could no longer do deep-work.
My worst nightmare came true. When you are a developer no one comments about the way you write the code; except maybe the code reviewer. But when it comes to design, everyone has an opinion. And they all think they are RIGHT.
I have read several articles about dealing with clients or explaining the importance of design but nothing prepared me for the reality. Some of the clients were quite approachable and cordial. But some were downright difficult to handle. If you have dealt with a 1 year old toddler who refuses to listen, then you know what I am talking about.
It took me a couple of initial meetings to get accustomed to the temper tantrums and vague requests. I may have been offered this role without asking for it. But now that I am here, I intend to do it to the best of my ability.
I realised that complaining or getting angry wouldn’t solve my problem, so I turned off all judgement and expectations. This is easier said than done. Finally all those hours of meditation was paying off!
Client is a human too
As a designer we are always told to get into the user’s shoes. Out of exasperation, I did a mental role-reversal and assumed I was the client. I jotted down the reasons why I am unreasonable:
– I am trying to raise funds. Bank balance is reducing by the hour and I need to make payroll for the employees.
– My employees don’t understand my vision.
– No one has questioned me before.
– I don’t know how to express myself
– I am actually right and can prove my hypothesis
– I enjoy making other people miserable.
Barring the last reason, clients were merely projecting their insecurity/fears. Those comments had nothing to do with me.
Is it right for someone to do this? No. But then this is an unsaid job responsibility of a designer. It was moments like these that made me wonder — is it all worth it?
My life would have been better off as a developer. Fewer people to convince and fewer egos to massage.
I do not have a definitive answer to this question. Certain questions cannot and should not be answered right away. They should be allowed to steep like tea leaves in water. I shall hold on to this question for now.
- I mentally re-enforced every day — the feedback is about the design and not ME.
- Developed a thick skin and decided not to take anything personally. If things get too heated, I maintain a poker face on the outside and plan my grocery shopping or decide which TV show to watch next. Any action you perform in an emotional state will most probably not be rational and have a backlash.
- Be a parent to the client. Allow them to express themselves and then make my point. Persuade them using the same ‘words’ they like/use.
Psychologically people agree with their own point of view and this persuasion technique did get me some wins.
- Admit when I am wrong. There were instances when the client’s feedack was right. After all, they are closer to the customers than me. By not being on the defense all the time, I was able to look at my own mistakes.
- Pick the right battles. Not every rational design decision will be approved by the client. They might demand some unreasonable change that will do no good. But I still go ahead with it. I have learnt to let go of things. Prioritise the requests and give the clients some easy wins. #Parenting101
Handling a team
As a team lead, my job is to shield my team from the turbulence of the clients and be a buffer. Being a solitary person who like to be left to his own means, having to clarify or make a decision every 5 minutes left me in a frenzy.
Managing 6–7 projects required me to remember the context each time while speaking with someone. I felt mentally drained on most days after 8–9 hours of work. Now I know why some CEOs prefer to wear the same clothes or eat the same meal each day; at least one less decision.
While the work in itself wasn’t taxing, it was the constant context-switching that drained my mental reserves.
I had to make split-second decisions before signing off on a design. I was still getting the hang of things and barely holding on. There were moments when I wished people would not ask me to make another decision. My best strategy at times was to roll a dice 🤦♂️
Firm yet gentle
Being a soft-spoken person I had to learn how to be assertive and firm while dealing with the team. Everyone comes up ‘valid’ reasons for not completing a task, but guess what — the client doesn’t care.
Time to put on the parenting hat again. Some kids listen when you say once, some need cajoling, some need emotional support and some are stubborn. One trick would not work with everyone.
Like clients, I did a mental role-reversal with team members reporting to me. I listed reasons why they did not complete a task. Trust me this is tough to do when you are racing against time to deliver a project and keeping aside my own biases and ego. But absolutely essential if you want to be a good leader.
- The requirement was not communicated clearly.
- I did not understand it and I am shy/afraid to clarify it.
- Some personal situation at home is hampering the work.
- I have a better solution than yours but don’t want to step on your toes.
- I don’t like you.
Again, barring the last reason, my direct reports were dealing with their own issues. It is not me.
Above all, I questioned myself — had I committed the same mistake would I hold myself to the same standards?
For example, if a team member at work makes a mistake, we’re more likely to attribute it to their personality, character, or skill level. However, if we make the same mistake, we’re more likely to attribute it to the situation (i.e., we were rushing, felt tired, or it was someone else’s fault).
Sometimes life gets tough and we are all victims of situations. I learnt not to judge or label someone immediately. This helped me not to get all riled up. The strict side of me is now reserved for certain repeated mistakes rather than for certain people.
So yeah I have successfully completed 100 days as a UX lead. There were hits and misses, mistakes I could have avoided, unexpected luck that helped me out, raised tempers and lessons for a lifetime. I am still learning and will always continue to.
Of all the roles I have held so far, I feel I have grown the fastest in this one. Do I still miss deep-work? Hell yeah! But do I hate managing? Not completely 🙂
As Sri Sri RaviShankar rightly said, “Smart are those who do what they love. Wise are those who do whatever is expected out of them.” (paraphrased)
I wonder what more life holds in store. Excited, petrified and stoic — all at the same time.