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How to Lay the Foundation for a Dynamic UX Team

Before you scale up a research team, you need to build up your managerial skills first—and get organizational backing.

Words by Andrew Warr, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Throughout my career, I have had the privilege to found, build, and scale research teams at Airtable, Google, and Meta. The first team I built was at Google—a team of two full-time UX researchers and one contractor working across the Chrome and ChromeOS products.

At Meta, I built the Instagram research team—16 product researchers. Most recently, I built the research team at Airtable—21 people working across market research, research operations, and UX research.

In this series, I’ll share the tried-and-true approaches that I have found to successfully build and scale a research team. Whether you're a leader yourself or a practitioner, you can use these strategies to develop and grow your research practice and team.

This first part of the series focuses on the prerequisites to building a team, which includes gaining management experience, as well as building or identifying the need for a team.

Prefer a PDF? Download this article alongside Andy's full Guide to Building and Scaling a Dynamic User Research Team.

Build up your prerequisites

If you’re a first-time manager, it’s important to build management experience. This is essential for you to know if management is the right path for you. It also helps you get to know the people who may be reporting to you. But how can you get management experience before becoming a manager?

✔ Volunteer to lead a project or team

This is a great way to get experience managing people and resources. You can volunteer to lead a project or team within your current organization, or you can look for opportunities to volunteer outside of work.

Before managing people at Google, I first led five cross-functional teams who conducted research across the US understanding consumers' experience with the first-ever Chromebook and ChromeOS. While this didn’t involve direct people management, it did require coordinating people and the work, which are two essential management skills. This helped prepare me for managerial roles down the road.

✔ Manage a contractor or vendor

While you won’t be responsible for a contractor or vendor’s development and growth, you can oversee the progress and quality of their work. A vendor relationship tends to be project-based, which is a good starting point. Managing a contractor may last six months or more. Start small and build up.

When I first hired a few contractors at Google to scale research, it allowed me to gain additional experiences coordinating people and their work over a longer period of time than a single project. Doing so also helps you learn to manage administrative tasks, such as approving billable hours.

✔ Manage an intern

Working with an intern will provide you with the opportunity to manage their work, as well as their development and growth. Given that an internship program is designed for an intern to gain applied experience and develop skills, they may not be independent and will require attention. The duration of the internship will also mean this experience is timeboxed.

When I managed my first intern at Google, the experience allowed me to coach a researcher for the first time. We worked together on applying the intern's research skills in an applied context, and considering the implications of research findings on a product.

✔ Take a management class or workshop

This is a great way to learn the basics of management and to develop your management skills. There are many different management classes and workshops available, so you can find one that fits your needs and interests.

My manager at Google supported my journey to the management track enrolling me in Google’s flagship management course. In addition to learning concepts such as situational leadership, I was also able to learn from a cohort of new managers from other disciplines across the company.

Classes and workshops can especially help give you that extra boost towards becoming a team leader.

✔ Shadow a manager

Take this as an opportunity to learn about the day-to-day responsibilities of a manager. Ask your manager if you can shadow them for a day or two. This will give you a chance to see what it's like to manage a team and to learn from their experience.

Getting management experience before becoming a manager is important. It will help you to know if management is the right path for you, and it will also help you to develop the skills you need to be a successful manager.

Meeting with both new and experienced managers helped me learn from their challenges and experiences.

Build a case for a team

Not everyone becomes a manager with a team already built out for them. You may have to build a case for headcount in order to build a team from the ground up.

Here are a few strategies to make a case:

✔ Document what work is NOT being done

In addition to documenting the work you are doing, explicitly document what work you’re unable to do. Map this work to company priorities. For example, let's say you’re working on the highest priority project already. You don’t require a reprioritization, and it’s recognized that the unstaffed work does in fact require support. This makes a case for additional headcount.

When I was at Google, a VP of Product asked me to outline what else we would be able to accomplish with an additional researcher. Since working at Airtable and Uber specifically, I have found it to be a more compelling argument to outline what we will not be able to accomplish with the available resources, which may prevent a company goal from being achieved.

✔ Identify skill gaps

If there is a persistent need for a specific type of work (e.g., quantitative research) and this isn’t a skill you possess, make a case for additional headcount.

When I worked at Airtable, we were expected to report out a user attitudes survey each month—but we didn’t have a survey researcher on the team. Since we reported the user attitudes survey to executives on a quarterly basis, this conveyed the need for that particular skill set.

✔ Show the value of your work

Identify projects that have had an impact on the business, such as making decisions or leading to certain outcomes. If a company wants more of these outcomes, there is a case for additional headcount.

Building a case for headcount can be challenging, but it’s important to remember that you’re ultimately trying to help the company succeed. If you can demonstrate that additional headcount will help the company achieve its goals, you’ll more likely be successful.

When I worked at Airtable, the CEO asked his Chief of Staff and I to understand the differences in ease of use between Airtable and a competitor. Once we completed the work, the executive team wanted the same done for other competitors as well. Given my limited bandwidth, it wasn’t possible for me to conduct this research, but it did result in us hiring a Principal Research to conduct ongoing competitive research.

Unfortunately, there have been cases where senior UX researchers have been lured to companies with false promises of building a team and becoming a manager, only to find that the company doesn’t have the need or resources to do so.

Identify (and confirm) the need for a team

If you’re considering joining a company with the explicit ask to build a UX research team from the ground up, make sure to establish the need for such a team before accepting the position.

Unfortunately, there have been cases where senior UX researchers have been lured to companies with false promises of building a team and becoming a manager, only to find that the company doesn’t have the need or resources to do so.

To avoid this situation, ask the company the following questions:

✔ Have you already invested in research?

Ideally, the company should have conducted research themselves or hired a contractor to conduct one or more research studies. This ensures that they know what research is—and gives you some indication about the type of research the company needs.

✔ How have you used research previously?

This will allow you to determine if the company knows how to act on research.

✔ Do you have a budget and headcount set aside for research?

Research doesn’t come free. At a minimum, teams need money for participant incentives. You may also need funds for contractors, vendors, or tools. Budgeting for research expenses is a sign that the company is willing to make an investment. Furthermore, having a headcount set aside for research is a sign that they see the need for a team of researchers.

✔ Do you have executive (C-suite) support?

This is essential for the success of the UX research discipline. Executives need to believe and understand the value UX research brings to a business. An executive being part of the interview loop is an indication of executive support—they are investing their time.

✔ Why build a research team, and why now?

Adding a new function and building a team needs to be a purposeful decision. A company may wish to build a research team because of specialized skills needed or the volume of research needs.

When I interviewed at Airtable, the company had several leading indicators that they were serious about building out a team. They had hired three contractors before deciding to hire their first full-time UX researcher. They also had four headcounts set aside for the research team. Furthermore, cofounders and C-level executives were part of the interview process, demonstrating their buy-in to hire for this role.

If the company is unable to answer these questions satisfactorily, it may be a sign that they’re not ready to build a UX research team. In this case, it’s important to proceed with caution and make sure that you’re comfortable with the risks involved.

Wrapping it up

Gaining management experience before becoming a manager is essential for knowing if management is the right path for you. Taking these steps will also help you develop the skills required to be successful.

Building a case for a team requires identifying what work isn’t being done, finding skill gaps, and showing the value of your work. And if you consider joining a company to build a team, it’s important to establish the need for a team.

In the next post in this series, I’ll walk you through the steps to build a team—including considerations for team structures and hiring.

Andrew (Andy) Warr is a UX leader with over 15 years of experience leading impactful, high-quality projects across multiple business and product lines at hyper-growth companies, and over 10 years of experience building, coaching, and managing strong-performing teams.

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