Managing a UX team: An interview with Cameron Rogers

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Cameron Rogers on managing UX teams

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Gerry Gaffney

This is Gerry with the User Experience podcast.

My guest today is studied psychology at University of Melbourne and he’s worked for over 15 years in user centred design and user experience.

He’s lead UX teams in several organizations, including a recent five year stint at Seek. Seek is a group of companies in the employment sector working across Australia, New Zealand, China, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Mexico, Africa, and Bangladesh. There he was head of design, user research and user experience.

Recently he moved to the REA Group in Melbourne as a research manager. I’ve been meaning to get him on the podcast for some time to have him talk about the challenges of running design teams and UX teams.

Cameron Rogers, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Cameron Rogers

Thanks Gerry. Thanks for the nice welcome. That was lovely. Thanks for finally having me. It’s been a long time.

Gerry

It has indeed, hasn’t it? So tell me, does managing a UX team mean that you miss out and doing the hands-on work?

Cameron

Nice question. There’s two ways to kind of think of this. I think, for me over the last few years I’ve still managed to keep my hands dirty a little bit as a UX manager, dropping in and out of projects on an as needs basis, so, depending on the needs of the organization that you’re working for, there either might be a bit of flexibility within the role. Also to keep your skills sharp or, in my case I tended to drop into projects when people were going on leave or in the unfortunate circumstances where someone left the company.

So lots of opportunity to keep my hands dirty that way. So it’s a very literal way of answering the question, but kind of more philosophically I think, you know, for me, I always think of managing a UX and design team as exercising and keeping your hands dirty anyway. So, I guess the phrase I don’t design products anymore, I design teams, and I think a lot of the skills that you learn as a designer, a lot of the ways that you conduct research, understand the problems, experiment, come up with solutions can be applied to organization structure, practices and those sort of things as well. So I like to think, I’m keeping hands on by applying the same skills but just in a different context.

Gerry

I guess that segues reasonably neatly into another question I have here, which is: Was managing a team a natural progression for you?

Cameron

Yeah. There’s a nice little story behind that. I think, you know, one of my dirty little secrets in the background is that as a designer I had a modicum of skill, but I was nowhere near as good as a lot of the people that were around me. So I kind of gravitated into a leadership role myself in many regards, partly because there was a bit of a cap as to where I was going to go as a designer. But also, I think there was a lot of tendencies over the years, whether it be, you know, volunteer work on the side in leading teams and managing groups of people, stepping into roles as president of sporting club and those sort of opportunities and it kind of seemed to me to be more of a natural career opportunity for me personally. So it wasn’t so much about progressing up. It was more about, well, where am I going to best use the skills and the passion that I have to, to kind of stay in the same space, but also make sure that I can be the best that I can be.

Gerry

Did you have somebody to mentor you as you move towards being a manager?

Cameron

I’ve had lots of people over the years. I’ve had formal mentors, I’ve had informal mentors. I think the old phrase of, you know, there are people who I would consider mentors who wouldn’t realize that they were giving me the type of advice that I needed, and frankly wouldn’t realize that I was looking at them in that way. I had, you know, really formal, rigid for want of a better word mentoring, processes in place back in my time at Telstra, but over the years I’ve gravitated more towards informal, you know, regular catch-ups and as I’ve kind of grown in my roles I’ve now gravitated towards more a peer mentoring model where I get together a semi-regular basis with similar people who are in similar roles and experiencing similar sets of challenges and opportunities. And I find it for me that’s a really good way to both contribute, but also to be able to tap into the collective mind and hopefully get better myself as well.

Gerry

You mentioned volunteering there, using some of your volunteering background. I think for me, I found volunteering can be a very powerful way to, I guess to stretch yourself into move into areas that you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to move into. Have you found that?

Cameron

Yeah, volunteering was something, I mean it’s my family has a long volunteering culture. So it was something that was just… It wasn’t that it was expected, but it was something very natural for me and I still see that in a lot of my extended family members as well. And then for me, you know, very early on, as I say I stepped in as president of a local sporting club and, you know, I met a lot of mistakes stepping into a leadership role there as a, as a young person. Luckily within a volunteering organization there’s a lot more compassion generally around those mistakes when you’re young and a little headstrong. And so for me, you know, I gained a hell of a lot of benefits from going through that process, understanding a little bit about myself, understanding a little bit about people, understanding, know what sort of conversations you could have and drive and what sort of outcomes that you could get to. So yeah, volunteering was a really big part of myself early on and I think there’s numerous synergies through into the working life.

Gerry

I guess you’re alluding there to um, you know, having a political stance within an organization. Is being political something that you find useful?

Cameron

Politics in different organizations operates in different ways. I try to steer clear of anything that’s, this is probably not the best way to phrase it, but you know, you need to be able to understand how to influence people but also to understand how to make trade-offs, how to balance your own point of view with those of others. I think intrinsically UX designers generally have a fairly well defined sense of empathy. So, you know, we all talk about trying to apply the same sorts of techniques to an organization as you would to, you’re building a product or designing a solution. So for me there’s a lot of those kind of elements at play. Not to say that I always get those right. You know, within an organization there are always moments in time where you would like to take a step back and do things over again. But you know, it’s, it’s nice to stop and rethink, quite often around the way you’ve approached different conversations and challenges and take them with that mindset of what am I hearing, what are the needs that are being expressed, how can I work within those boundaries.

Gerry

How has the role of UX changed much in the years that you’ve… I guess you’ve had two big long stints as UX manager, you mentioned Telstra and Seek and I mean you’ve got what, 10 years under your belt as managing. Has UX changed much during that time?

Cameron

Yeah, it’s been an interesting journey. I think for me, if you go back to, you know, 10 years ago, as a, um, a leader within an organization, you’re armed with a whole bunch of slide decks and PowerPoint presentations and conversations around what is the value of design, what is UX, why should we talk to customers, you know, a lot of those fundamental influencing conversations that you had to have. I’ve noticed there were still pockets of those conversations that occur, but, you know, I’m seeing more and more often that those foundational pieces aren’t needed anymore. Organizations have started to understand the potential impact, understand what it is they would like to see achieved. And so quite often now it’s moving from the selling of the idea into the implementation and process side of things, which is, you know, it’s quite a nice change. It’s nice to kind of put those slide decks away and not have to drag them out all the time. It just, really what it does is it shifts the conversation to a new set of opportunities and challenges.

Gerry

Yeah. And I think it pushes people to be more rigorous as well because if it was always sort of running around and saying we need to focus on the users, we need to focus on the users and then suddenly your organization says we need to focus on the users. And you go, Oh God, okay, how do we do that?

Cameron

Right. Yeah. And I think that’s the, that’s the kind of, the places that we’re getting to now. And so, you know, …in many regards, you know, we’ve got people drinking the Kool aid and they are getting into that, into that mindset of, you know, everything that we’ve been kind of talking about over the last decade or so is starting to take shape. And you’re right, it just creates a new set of opportunities and challenges that we need to tackle.

Gerry

What makes a good UX manager?

Cameron

I think, you know, for me, and I’ve got my own biases around this obviously, for me, I think a good UX manager is someone that has actually gone through the process themselves, has actually, you know, got their hands dirty and being through the design process, understands the conversations that occur and understands some of the challenges and opportunities that a designer will face.

So I like to think that some of the best UX managers are people that have actually practiced the craft. But then not necessarily, I think I mentioned before, not necessarily with the best of the craft, so I don’t think that you need to be, you need to have perfect skills in all of the various areas, to to be a good manager, but somebody who can lead that conversation, have that conversation with the teams that they’re leading, and can actually provide the coaching and the guidance around some of the scenarios and some of the areas where people could focus.

Gerry

Now I know you’ve had a strong focus on building a diverse team and it’s certainly one of those topics that’s pretty hot at the moment. How do you establish, well firstly, what is meant by diversity and then how do you go about implementing it or achieving it within your team?

Cameron

So working at Seek, obviously a massive focus and frankly my, my learning curve there around how to build diverse teams and with some of the challenges that organizations go through… I learned a lot in, you know, quite a few years there. So I think for me, my approach around diversity is to make sure that you’ve got your processes in place. I think if you have one hiring manager doing all the hiring themselves, you end up with you quite often with a homogenous group of people. Over the last couple of years I’ve learned a lot about, how to write some gender neutral or feminine coded job ads. I’ve learned a lot about how to create a diverse panel of interviewers to make sure that you’ve got a whole range of different viewpoints in the interview process. I’ve learnt about how to create hiring rubrics that make sure that you are acknowledging all the different areas of diversity that you want to tackle.

And so there’s a whole bunch of things that people can do in their day-to-day processes to eliminate some of those unconscious biases and open up opportunities for folks that maybe wouldn’t have got the opportunity previously.

Gerry

Yeah, you reminded me, I just read something this morning that Jennifer Sutton posted on Twitter and it was a link to an article by somebody called Florian Beijers, I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that surname correctly, but about being a blind developer. And that was a really interesting article actually.

Cameron

Oh, I haven’t looked at it, but it’s a sort of thing that pops up on my reading list regularly. So I’m sure it’ll pop up soon. There’s some really interesting ways that you can start to eliminate some of those, those biases. And it starts right from the word go when you’re writing your job ad, there’s a whole bunch of ways that you can make sure that your job ad is neutral or is attracting the right people. And, I think it was Kat Madfield who was doing a bunch of research around these in years gone by. There’s a whole bunch of little products and things that have popped up and allow people to run their job meds and their job descriptions through a process and understand how they can change those to make them more inclusive.

Gerry

Sara Wachter-Boettcher was on UXpod, probably a year ago now. Her book was Technically Wrong and she was really scathing about Silicon Valley-type organizations in particular and saying, you know, they talked the talk about diversity, but then when you look at where they’re going for, for their graduates and so on, they’re only going to a select number of colleges. So despite, you know, pretending if you like that they’re chasing diversity they’re in fact, closing off lots of avenues by the very practices that they’re embedding.

Cameron

Yeah, you can still see some of that still coming up and I think, you know, there were some statements that get thrown out there regularly that are a little bit eye-opening. Quite often you read in press releases or you hear in conversations around the lack of a pipeline and for me it’s a little bit of a cop-out when it comes to diversity. I think an organization that’s truly interested in creating diversity within their ranks should be aiming to hire all of the people within diversity section. You know, it’s not enough to say there’s only 10 percent of these people around, the question should be, wwell there’s 10 percent of these people around, we want them all working for us and that actually changes the mindset around how you set up your organization and set it up so that it is inclusive and the processes that you put in place internally to make sure that when you do attract the right people you retain them as well.

Gerry

Do you feel that… You don’t have to answer this question, but do you feel that you achieved a sufficiently diverse team when you were working at Seek, your most recent gig?

Cameron

We were way, way ahead of where we had been in the past. There’s always room for improvement. We’d gone through a process to make sure that our gender balance had changed markedly during the course of the few years that I was there. I won’t get my numbers completely right, but definitely tipped over from a small percentage of female people through to more than half. We also had a good proportion of people that had come from, who had English as a second language, which again was part of it. It was a part of the process. It wasn’t something that we were screening for particularly. But when you, when you put good pillars in place around your recruitment process, you open up the door for, for a whole variety of different folk to come in.

We were getting really close. I was really proud of where we’ve been starting to get to. Inherently still though, if you scan around, you know, there’s still probably some conversations around age. We’re going through a lot of people that reskilling themselves and changing from one career into another. We had a couple of folk that have managed to get through that process, but arguably our screening process was cutting a few people out as well. So I think there’s still a little bit of room to go in that space, but we were getting close

Gerry

And of course an ongoing problem in Australia in general is s the lack of inclusion of people who are Aboriginal or of Torres Strait Islander origin. Is that something that you were able to address at all?

Cameron

Yeah. We hadn’t actually managed to address it within our design team. I know there were broader initiatives within the Seek organization looking to get into that sort of space and within the Melbourne community there’s a whole bunch of different initiatives that are happening and popping up at the moment as well, including sponsored internships and, and those sorts of opportunities. So it’s definitely something that’s starting to correct at the moment.

Gerry

Have you had to justify diversity as, you know, from a business perspective as some sort of business goal?

Cameron

I’m pretty lucky. So you think about the organizations that I’ve been working in over the last while, they’re fairly on top of things, so it hasn’t necessarily been something that I’ve had to justify myself. So it’s something that I’ve been able to support and it’s something that I’ve been able to, you know, talk about, I believe, but it hasn’t necessarily been something we’re, we needed to do the legwork to ensure that the organization was ready to support.

Gerry

One thing that struck me a few times while you were at Seek is that, you know, you always seem to be very open about the work that you were doing there, and you and others within the team presented at UX conferences and the like. Is there a tension between doing that and maintaining ownership of your intellectual property? And if so, how do you balance those kind of competing needs?

Cameron

Yeah, the team was really good at talking openly. So I take much more of a, you know, the collaborative whole type of view. And I think if you take a leaf out of the book of our software colleagues, I really gravitate towards the open source movement. So for me, you know, talking externally about processes, talking externally about the things that we’re doing, the way that we go about our work, I think was all fine. We’re always very careful that if we were going to be talking about any data that we would talk internally first about whether it was sensible and most often we weren’t talking about the specifics of particular projects that we were working on. But you know, for me there are multiple reasons why it’s a good practice to be talking externally. And it stems from, you know, in a team that’s rapidly growing, you want to attract the top of people into the organization.

So talking externally that your processes else to attract people, encouraging people to talk externally also helps them to crystallize their own knowledge and make sure that they understand what it is that they’re doing internally. And it also opens up myriad opportunities for feedback from the community as well. So when we’re talking openly about our practices and processes we’re more likely to engage in conversations with other organizations about their practices and processes and then we’re more likely to, improve upon those as well. So it was a conscious decision for us to go down that pathway and we were definitely seeing myriad benefits as a result.

Gerry

And no pushback from management saying, hey, you’re giving away of stuff?

Cameron

No, no. So interestingly there were, there were some clear objectives around what I was trying to achieve that I managed to discuss with the senior management group before I went down that pathway and they were all in agreeance around the objectives and they were more than open for us to experiment around doing different types of activities to achieve those objectives.

Gerry

Excellent. Now, what the extremely rapid changes taking place in technology, how do you make sure that your team has got current skills?

Cameron

So I think having a highly collaborative, highly engaged team really helps, so as your team size grows, you’ve got a number of different people plugged into a number of different communities and encouraging them to share that information is, you know, key to that. We had a massive Slack culture. I’m in the Seek office. The sharing of knowledge kind of happened through there, little mini discussion groups popped up left right and centre. And then more formally, I’ve almost been a massive fan of tapping into the internal knowledge base on a more formal basis as well. So at Seek for the last four years or so, every month we’d run our UX Dojo where we had somebody internally who was an expert on a particular topic or was interested in a topic, or wanted to become more expert in a topic would present back to the entire team and pull them into a group activity to show or explore that space a little bit more detail. And sometimes that would be a UX designer, sometimes that would be an engineer, sometimes it’d be a product manager, but the idea was to make sure that we had a constant learning environment and were encouraging people to participate.

Gerry

Okay. To change topics. I often think that we act as though the mobile phone is some sort of technological end point. You talk to people and they think that what they’re going to be designing for in 10 years time, but I don’t think it takes much imagination to envisage that the mobile will soon be seen as dated as a cheque book does now. What’s next?

Cameron

Your guess is as good as mine, Gerry.

It’s been interesting watching the last couple of years. There seems to be every year there’s a technology that’s the flavour of the year. As a UX community we’re talking about the potential impacts of that technology on our practices and what we’re going to need to do. So can you think back, you know, a few years ago we were talking about the Internet of Things and then we were talking about chatbots and then we’ve been talking about AA. Bbut interestingly, a lot of these themes are still, you know, a couple of years later, they’re still in the infancy. It’s still really not taking root.

Gerry

Chatbots though, are pretty much, you know, that they’re becoming very standard now in a lot of offerings, aren’t there?

Cameron

Yeah. I think they have a very specific thing, niche in which they work really well. I think we were maybe trying to expand upon that niche a little bit too rapidly and a couple of years ago and it be a sound. Maybe it’s settled into its right place,

Gerry

Isn’t that we do with every new technology, every new idea? We gimmick-ize it, you know, we treat it as a gimmick and we force it in everywhere, whether it’s appropriate or not.

Cameron

Right. It seems like why? And then eventually we settle back and then they spin up again in a couple of years.

Gerry

In your work now with Seek and now of course with REA Group, both of those would be data intensive organizations. I guess you’re looking at very, very large data sets. And the ability to, you know, to apply machine learning and, and some degree of AI to those data sets. Is that something as a UX person that you’re looking at, are you working more with data analysts are AI experts than you used to?

Cameron

That’s been happening the last few years, it’s really interesting seeing that emerge and I mean I’ve only been at REA for a short while, so can’t really comment about REA, but watching what’s been happening over the last couple of years, the kind of pairing of the data analysts with the UX designers, the ability for them to kind of work through some of the behavioural analytics around what’s happening on products and within the websites and extrapolate from that is really interesting. I think when it comes to the AI and machine learning side of things, there’s some really interesting ethical conversations as well, that UX folk can start to contribute to around what happens in these scenarios. So yeah, a really interesting space and probably a nice one to keep an eye in the next little while.

Gerry

Does UX have a future at all or can we all be replaced by AI?

Cameron

It will have a future. Whether it’s exactly the same future is, I guess, a question. So I think, you know, the, the inherent skills that, you know, the majority of UX designers have are have definitely skills that are useful within the workplace. There will be component parts that potentially start to get spliced off the edges. And even, you know, some of the, some of the creativity that we’ve seen in the role in the past is arguably being reduced at the moment with emergence design systems and those sort of things. But I think there’s always going to be a role here. I mean, there’s always going to be a role for, you know, making sure that there’s an element of humanity within the products that are being developed. And if you think of UX, you know, the core of UX being the understanding of the user and bringing that knowledge into a young team, then that role will always still be around.

Gerry

I might argue with you that an AI is just as just as likely to be able to understand motivations and, more importantly, measure people’s responses than a human is.

Cameron

Maybe, and just as you’re saying that I’m giggling thinking of some of the humans that I know and where they lie on certain spectrums. So yeah, it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Gerry

So for somebody working in UX now who aspires to be a manager, what do you suggest they, what course of action should they take or what should they be doing?

Cameron

Well, I think the first part for me is kind of, stop and understand their motivation for wanting to be a manager. It’s not all beer and skittles as the saying goes. So yeah, in the past, a lot of people aspired to a management role because that was the next step in the career ladder. These days most organizations are coming to the realization that people leadership and management is not a step in the ladder per se. It’s a sideways movement. And so for a lot of organizations you see dual path career progression models start to appear where once you get to a certain level of competency, the opportunity to pursue an individual career pathway or people leadership pathway starts to emerge. So I think for me, for people thinking about UX management as a career, you know, gravitating towards some of those organizations where they actually do understand that is a good first step.

And then also understanding which of those organizations have graceful return pathways because again, once you kind of dip your toe into the water and find out, you know, for a lot of people they very quickly realize that they really enjoyed the hands-on work that they were doing and that they don’t actually enjoy the people side of things as much as they thought they would. So being able to slide backwards and forwards between those two parallel pathways, I think it’s really, really important.

And so for people who are thinking of going down one of those pathways, really dipping your toe into the water first. Whether it be through mentoring, whether it be through asking to take on, you know, one or two direct reports maybe to start to understand the processes and understanding what’s involved in the people management side of things is really important. And then having some conversations with some senior folk to around what it means to also influence at a senior level and have those conversations, because that’s a massive part of the role as well, but quite often gets neglected and over overlooked is that by taking on one of those roles, you take on a commitment to create space for the people that you’re leading to do great work and that quite often is, a difficult part of the conversation.

Gerry

You can catch up with Cameron on Twitter.

Cameron Rogers, thanks very much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Cameron

Thanks Gerry.

Gerry GaffneyManaging a UX team: An interview with Cameron Rogers

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