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UX Career Growth Crossroads: Should You Take the Manager or IC Path?

Should you become a manager or continue growing as an individual contributor? Advice from Amber Davis, UX Research Director at Audible.

It’s a common misconception that the only way to level up is to become a manager. 

That’s one way forward, but it’s definitely not the only one, and it’s definitely not for everyone. If you’re a UX professional looking to take the next step in your career, you have options. 

Career growth is a very personal journey. The “right” path is different for each person depending on their unique goals, skills, experience, personality, and passions. A UX management role—with all its challenges and unique responsibilities, such as coaching your team members or building a brand-new research practice from scratch—might end up being a dream job for one person, and a living hell for another. 

The trick to professional bliss is to think carefully about what you want, get the inside story on exactly what your options are, and assess your choices without prejudice. 

A while back we had the chance to talk with Amber Davis, UX Research Director at Audible, on the Awkward Silences podcast. Amber has first-hand experience in both individual contributor (IC) and management roles, and she had some super smart insights to share about how to successfully navigate the professional development journey.

✨ Looking to network, upskill, and develop your career with UXR experts? Check out the Best UX Research Conferences and Events in 2023. 

To manage or not to manage? That is the question.

Hitting a crossroads in your UX research career (or any career, for that matter) can be a little unnerving. Whether you feel like you have too few choices or too many, you can wind up with a severe case of analysis paralysis. The experience is especially stressful when the decision is about a role change that will change everything about your position, your responsibilities, and your day-to-day work. 

For UX professionals who are trying to decide between specializing in a particular area of UX research or trying their hand at management, Amber has several suggestions and reality checks to share. 

(P.S.—If you're currently in the market for your next role, you might find value in these common UX research job interview questions and tips for answering them.)

First, take a moment to self-reflect 

“Self-reflection—asking yourself if this is the right move for you—is totally the right first step,” says Amber. She recommends starting that process by looking back on your career for clues about what actually makes you happy. What brings out your passion? What gives you energy instead of draining it? 

🏆 Looking for more ways to learn and connect? Follow these Top UX Research Leaders on Linkedin.

The Seven Stories Exercise

One tool Amber uses was suggested by her graduate school career counselor. The Seven Stories Exercise® is an assessment framework that helps individuals identify their strongest skills, and—perhaps more importantly—what kind of work is most fulfilling to them. The idea is to write down key achievements you’ve made while doing work that you love, and then analyzing those stories to pull out common themes about your motivations, skills, and so forth. 


Amber has also used good old-fashioned journaling:

“I’m honestly not someone who tends to journal, but really tapping into what you’ve done in the past, what you hope to do in the future, and the emotions around those things can be really helpful,” she says. “It gives you the chance to ask yourself important questions about what makes you happy, what frustrates you, and so forth. And knowing that helps you decide which is your best next step.”

Understand your career options

It can feel like there’s an implicit assumption that going down the management path is the only way to continue advancing in certain careers, but that’s almost always a misconception. As Amber points out, there are more and more opportunities for UX professionals to choose from. Management is one option, of course, but you might also think about becoming a Staff UX Researcher, or you might even pivot to a related-but-different role in product management or overall strategy. 

Often, the key to broadening your horizons is to be intentional about the companies you consider. Smaller companies tend to have fewer opportunities, especially in specialized areas like UX. But larger organizations are usually able to offer a variety of different paths for professional growth. 

It’s trite, but part of the process of determining where you go and what you do next is about “thinking outside the box.” Don’t limit yourself to the obvious.

Recognize your value

Avoid self-sabotaging by assuming you don’t have the right experience or qualifications. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you don’t have the right titles on your resume, but don’t let that keep you from going after a UX manager role. You might be surprised to learn that you have more experience than you think. 

Being an individual contributor in user research actually involves a lot to the same management and leadership skills that make for a good UX manager:

  • Working with designers, engineers, and stakeholders
  • Helping people adopt and apply a user-centered mindset to their own work
  • Influencing people to ensure they ask the right questions
  • Helping stakeholders frame the UX story for the C-suite
  • Coordinating interns, contractors, and vendors
  • Managing your own projects

All of these things are examples of how you’ve already started to prove that you’re manager material.

Finding out what you’re getting into 

If you’ve thought it through and decided that a UX manager role might be for you, your next steps are to learn more about exactly what that looks like in your organization. 

What a UX or user research manager is and what they do varies by organization, so it’s important not to make any assumptions. That said, there are a few fairly universal truths about the job. Perhaps the most obvious is that while being a manager gives you more opportunities to influence things at a strategic level, it also requires that you step away from the research you’re used to doing.

Do you want to sit at the table or stay in the trenches?

Depending on what gets you up in the morning, each of these can be a pro or a con. Some people get excited about having a seat at the “big” table, while others don’t want that kind of pressure. Some people relish the idea of delegating hands-on tasks so they can focus on the bigger picture and on supporting the growth and success of teammates. Others might miss being in the research trenches. 

Whichever camp you fall into, it’s important to do your due diligence. Learn what will be expected of you. Amber was pretty surprised by what the day-to-day looked like in her first manager role. “I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t be doing as much of the exciting, day-to-day work,” she recalls. “I’d be doing a lot of budgets and planning timelines and creating Gantt charts.” And the meetings—so many meetings!

As you get a more in-depth sense of exactly what a manager role entails at your company, keep returning to what you learned from your self-reflection to make sure you stay aligned with what you really want.

Transitioning to a UXR manager role

There are two steps to laying the groundwork to transition to a manager role once you’ve decided that’s the path you want to take. First, you need to do your homework. Then, you need to have some conversations. 

Doing your homework:

  • Be aware of the situation. Is your organization growing in a way that will open up manager roles? There’s an art to being in the right place at the right time, and it has less to do with luck or coincidence than you might think. 
  • Get educated. There are a lot of courses you can take and books you can read to prepare for a new role. Amber took a course in design leadership (even though she wasn’t a design leader in her work). She also loves the Harvard Business Review, and follows influential design leaders on Twitter to keep up to date with what’s happening in the industry. The point is to be proactive about learning everything you can about the role you’re hoping to land. 
  • Walk the walk. “One of the reasons I was able to be successful is that I was doing the work before I even asked my manager about the position,” says Amber. “I was already influencing people in the organization, coaching designers and researchers, and managing informally.” You need to take the initiative and act the part before it’s officially yours. 

Having the conversation: 

  • Find the right person to talk to. If you want to explore your options and map out a path to a manager role, you may want to talk with your own manager. If that’s not feasible, or you want an outsider perspective, reach out to a sponsor or mentor. 
  • Put yourself out there. You’ve done all the legwork of figuring out what you want, researching what that means at your organization, and even getting some education and a little informal managerial practice. This isn’t the time to be shy about what you want. It’s okay to be enthusiastic. And it’s okay to ask direct questions about what the role would look like and what you’d need to do to make it yours. Even the best managers and mentors aren’t mind readers—sharing what you want makes it possible for them to help you get there.
  • Be open to alternate suggestions. The conversation might go exactly as you hoped, or it might take a sharp and unexpected turn. Don’t assume that’s a bad thing. Once you open up the lines of communication, your manager might open up about what they have in mind for you. You never know what other opportunities might be available, so don’t discount anything just because you didn’t think of it on your own. 

Management and individual contribution aren’t mutually exclusive 

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Of her first experience in a managerial role, Amber explained:

“I was really lucky. I was working in an agile shop, and that allowed me to play both an IC role and a manager role. That was perfect for me at the time. It allowed me to keep my finger on the pulse of what was going on with our customers while also showing up as a manager and getting the chance to flex and grow those new skills.” 

Being an IC and a manager aren not mutually exclusive and the choices you make about which role to take are not irreversible. You can potentially hold both roles simultaneously like Amber did, or you can move back and forth between the two. 

In fact, stepping into a management role—even temporarily—can make you a better user researcher. As a manager, Amber found that conversations with direct reports about the projects they were working on often sparked insights that helped her with her own work. She also found that taking on a mentor role that included teaching junior researchers about things like how to structure a research plan and articulate testable research questions really helped her strengthen her understanding and refine her skills. 

Finally, you don’t need to feel like you’re “doing it wrong” if you decide not to become a manager. Titles aren’t everything, and you need to do what’s right for you. The silver lining is that—nine times out of ten—when you do what’s right for you, it’s also what’s right for your organization. 

To hear more from Amber—including insights on how managers are like coaches, and tips for finding your personal management style—tune in to the full episode

amber davis podcast episode to manage or not to manage

Katryna Balboni
Head of Creative Content & Special Projects

Content marketer by day, thankless servant to cats Elaine Benes and Mr. Maxwell Sheffield by night. Loves to travel, has a terrible sense of direction. Bakes a mean chocolate tart, makes a mediocre cup of coffee. Thinks most pine trees are just okay. "Eclectic."

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