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5 Characteristics of Great UX Leadership: Expert Insights

Priceline’s Head of Design shared his qualitative insights about the skills that help UX leaders stand out from the pack.

7 mins read

And…we’re back! As part of our ongoing expert event series, our first conversation of 2024 found us discussing great UX leadership with Ryan Leffel, Head of Design at Priceline.

Ryan reflected on his winding design career — from pitching to clients at an agency to designing in-house for a brand, with a small detour through entrepreneurship when he ran a gym. He now oversees operations for Priceline’s Product Design, Marketing Design and User Research teams.

Ryan discussed how design has changed, navigating tricky terrain and the five character traits that he believes distinguish a good UX leader from a great one:

  • Keep your Team Motivated Amid Uncertainty
  • Always Look to Solve Problems
  • Become Fluent in ‘Business Speak’
  • Create a Stage to Present Insights
  • Fall in Love with Feedback to Improve Your Work

Watch Ryan’s conversation with Marvin CEO Prayag Narula: What It Takes to be a Great UX Leader in 2024 & Beyond or check out the highlights here.

UX Leadership Characteristic #1: Keep UX Teams Motivated Amid Uncertainty

Ryan’s been with Priceline since 2019. As someone who joined a travel company just before a global pandemic (where travel essentially shut down), he shared his perspective on dealing with uncertainty and change.

At Priceline, he was getting used to high velocity testing with quick turnaround times. Months into his stint, the lockdown hit and travel ceased. The world had changed overnight. 

Confronting an uncertain and ambiguous future, Ryan continued to employ a no-nonsense approach:

“When we’re at work, we still have a job to do. Don’t worry about things that haven’t happened yet.”

Speaking of the future…what does it have in store for designers? Lattice’s VP of Design Jared Erondu shared his industry outlook for 2024.

Ryan and his team used the opportunity to take a step back from the testing. Their design work was impacted by how people were flying at the time. People were trying to get back home or see loved ones and wanted to understand the different flying protocols.

Coordinating efforts remotely from their homes was a challenge. However, Ryan saw this as an opportunity to improve the team dynamic. “It became a time when people needed to connect, and we embraced that,” he said. Like many of us, Ryan’s team hosted informal Zoom meetings where they would watch movies, play games or just unwind together over virtual drinks. 

Fostering collaboration and community, the Priceline design team got closer during that period. It had a positive impact on the quality of their work. 

“When a team starts to bond, trust and respect one another, then the work ultimately gets better,” Ryan said.

Similar to Ryan, Twilio’s Vanessa Whatley has seen cataclysmic changes during her career. Check out her advice for building resilient research teams.

Building resilient research teams with Twilio

UX Leadership Characteristic #2: Constantly Look to Solve Problems

Designers today have a lot more to worry about than before. 

When he began at an agency, Ryan was designing for one screen — a computer / laptop. One screen became two as they began designing for computers and mobile phones. Fast forward to present, and there are various channels and touchpoints with customers that designers now occupy themselves with.

Ryan’s takeaway from the experience has become his mantra, “Be comfortable with change — it’s inevitable.” A lot of good can come from change. 

When confronting constant change, designers can choose one of two points of view:

  1. This is a problem. Woe is me. 
  2. This is a problem. It’s an opportunity for me to help improve the situation. 

Ryan’s approach to problem solving is simple. “You can’t always control an outcome, but you can always have an influence,” he said.  

The audience voiced some such concerns — business leaders ignoring their recommendations or design and research teams locking horns in disagreement. 

With potential roadblocks on the horizon and disagreements inevitable, how does a design leader navigate tough conversations? 

It’s never easy, but a true UX design leader understands how to navigate tricky situations that arise in the workplace. 

It’s going to happen — so prepare yourself. 

Maintain an audit trail (or perhaps a research repository?) that you can revisit to highlight previous research-backed recommendations. 

To build alignment across teams (research and design are usually joined at the hip), get together and ask, “How do we proceed with the best interests of the company in mind?”

Ryan’s advice?

“Whether it’s managing up or communicating down, being transparent, honest and communicating early on is really important,” he said. 

There’s nothing wrong with being stuck or needing help. There is something wrong when you wait until the last minute to update your various stakeholders. Once you become aware that something’s afoot, communicate it to people around you.

Here’s more advice for designers on dealing with change from Fidelity’s VP of Design, Ben Little. 

UX Leadership Characteristic #3: Become Fluent in ‘Business Speak’

While we’re on the topic, design leaders must learn how to communicate with c-suite executives. S&P Global Product Leader Pawana Burlakoti echoed the same sentiment.

“One of the skills a lot of designers, especially early in their career, often overlook is the ability to sell their design, to present their work. Be able to articulate work in a way that’s going to resonate and people are going to understand,” Ryan said.

When designers invest too heavily in their craft, they can lose sight of the important stakeholders’ business concerns.

“You’re so focused on the craft of design and pixels and thinking about, ‘how do I make this thing look beautiful?’ that you’re not really thinking about ‘how do I actually talk about it?’” Ryan said. 

When speaking with management, you have a limited amount of time. It’s essential to hit all the points they need to understand. Keep in mind though that anyone’s retention is small — don’t overwhelm your audience. Eliminate things they don’t need to know. Talk them through why you are recommending a certain decision. 

“You’re always going to have to talk about why you’ve made certain decisions and why those certain decisions are going to be good for the customer and for the business. That doesn’t change,” Ryan said. 

Finally, ensure the channel of communication with management is a two-way street. A CEO or manager’s perspective is valuable, no matter their design background or expertise. With an intimate knowledge of the business, their input can lead to new ideas and overall better designs.

You never know where the next best idea will come from.

UX Leadership Characteristic #4: Create a Stage to Present Insights

Establishing a research practice from scratch is no mean feat. 

Ryan acknowledged that every company is unique and has its own set of challenges, so there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach. He shared simple advice for first-time and sole researchers trying to build out the capability at their firms:

“Be a researcher. Spend time with stakeholders,” he said.

Without knowing it, Ryan harked back to one of our earliest conversations with Lattice’s first researcher, Claire Rowell. Claire and Ryan both suggested treating any communication outside the team as a research project in itself. 

Talk with people you expect to work with, and those who you don’t expect you’ll work with. Ask them what they know about research, and their expectations from the practice. 

“You’ll probably have some education and maybe a little selling to do. Fill in the blanks of things people don’t know that you could bring to the table,” he said.

We don’t like to toot our own horn, but highly encourage researchers and design leaders to do so. No better way than to create a stage to showcase your work.

At Priceline, Ryan and his team conduct a webinar, where designers and researchers alike share what they are working on. This brings exposure to their projects and helps them hone in on those communication skills (from above). 

Additionally, they circulate a newsletter to the rest of the organization. It allows designers to showcase their best work, and increases stakeholder engagement and understanding. Product Leader Gina Rahn also uses a newsletter to communicate insights and generate ideas within her company. 

Design for Change

Multiple eyeballs on your work allows you to test your message — what are people responding to? Feedback or user traffic help you hone in on the work that’s most important to your corporate culture.

“There’s always a lot going on in companies. People are working on 100 different things, and it’s just impossible to get that roundup of everything. This is just one way to help bring people together,” he said. 

UX Leadership Characteristic #5: Fall in Love with Feedback to Improve Your Work

The Japanese concept of kaizen means continuous improvement. Continuously learning and improving your skills is vital for a designer’s professional development. 

Have a learning mindset. Ryan broke down how learning is split across a person’s time. You learn:

  • 70% from the work you do everyday
  • 20% from communication and collaboration with other people and;
  • 10% from self study

To foster a culture of kaizen — both as a practice and individuals, Ryan and Prayag both agreed on 2 fundamental principles that drive improvement in your work:

  1. Reflection: Think of every meeting as if you’re running research. Try something new. Engage with your superior or team members after. Ask for feedback. How did that go? What could I have done better? 

“That’s research. Maybe not in the traditional way as people think – with user testing or looking at data coming from an A/B test. It’s taking data based on what you and your team are doing and using that data to make yourself and your team better,” said Ryan.

  1. Repetition: Learn to tell a good story about your work. In time, you’ll learn how to craft a compelling narrative that engages stakeholders. Ryan and Prayag both confessed that early doors,  they suffered from public speaking anxiety. In time, they’ve refined their process and speaking to an audience has become second nature to both of them. Practice makes perfect.

Start small — just run your work or presentation by someone. You don’t need to roll out large scale surveys to understand what you need to tweak in your approach. Within your organization, it (should be) a safe environment that allows a person to feel vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback at any step of the way. 

It’ll only make you and your work stronger.

Advice for Future UX Leaders

Ryan’s parting advice for current and future leaders in UX was three-fold:

  1. Be empathetic. Learn. Take the time to learn about different personalities on your team, and how you have to approach, talk to, and help guide those people in different ways.
  1. Embrace the craziness. It’s a wild world today, worse than ever. That’s something that we need to learn how to embrace. Rather than running from those things or letting the fear of what hasn’t happened yet dominate how we’re actually feeling, look for the opportunity to understand how we can be a positive influence for the outcomes that we’re looking for.
  1. Step out of your comfort zone. Try new things and get feedback. Research is not only about learning a digital product. Research can also be done when it comes to how you communicate and the type of process you and your teams use.

Want to dig in even deeper? Check out the whole conversation about great UX leadership with Ryan.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

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