Soft Skills for UX Designers

By Janet M. Six

Published: March 20, 2012

Send your questions to Ask UXmatters and get answers from some of the top professionals in UX.

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss the soft skills that UX designers should cultivate.

In my monthly column, Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to:ask.uxmatters@uxmatters.com.

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Dan Brown—Information Architect and Principal at EightShapes
  • Leo Frishberg—Principal Architect, User Experience at Tektronix Inc.
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Paul Sherman—Director of User Experience Research & Design at CloudPassage; Past President of Usability Professionals’ Association; UXmatters columnist
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Russell Wilson—Vice President of Product Design at NetQoS
  • Josephine Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Q: What soft skills do you need to be an effective UX designer?—from a UXmatters reader

“As you continue to learn, mature, and refine your skills as a UX designer, it’s important to have the right balance of UX tools and techniques, or hard skills, and soft skills.”—Daniel Szuc and Josephine Wong

“As you continue to learn, mature, and refine your skills as a UX designer, it’s important to have the right balance of UX tools and techniques, or hard skills, and soft skills,” reply Daniel and Jo. “You need to sharpen both types of skills over time. We see soft skills as the abilities that help you to navigate projects more effectively—such as learning better how to communicate your approach to planning and running user research and reporting back your results. Of course, there are many more soft skills than those we’ve discussed here. Soft skills can help people who are outside a UX design team and looking in to better understand how UX professionals can help organizations. Help them not only to deliver better products, but perhaps also to get them working more effectively together along the way.”

Empathy First!

“The ability to understand and share the feelings of others is a vital skill that is characteristic of every good designer I know.”—Adrian Howard

“I don’t think there are any soft skills that you don’t need to be an effective UX designer!” answers Adrian. “That said, the one soft skill that is key is empathy. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others is a vital skill that is characteristic of every good designer I know. You cannot build great products without understanding people. You cannot understand people without empathy.”

“I think every UX Designer needs to have a deep sense of empathy,” says Jordan. “I’d hire a UX designer with no experience and a deep sense of empathy over one with years of experience and no sense of empathy.”

Every UX Designer needs to have a deep sense of empathy.”
—Jordan Julien

“Active listening and empathy—these are crucial to any role on a product team, but are especially important for design in general and UX design in particular,” replies Leo.

Daniel and Jo also recommend that we develop empathy “for the people for whom we design and also the stakeholders who need to work with the results of our user research.”

Effective Communication

“The ability to practice active listening is key.”—Paul Sherman

“The ability to practice active listening is key,” suggests Paul. “This means not just hearing and comprehending what stakeholders and users are saying, but also conveying back to them what you’re hearing. This is a great way to confirm your understanding, by the way.”

“If you can’t communicate your ideas, both in writing and verbally, you will find it very difficult to be effective.”—Russ Wilson

Russ recommends your developing strong communication skills. “You don’t have to be a world-class speaker, but if you can’t communicate your ideas, both in writing and verbally, you will find it very difficult to be effective. I find user experience to be a very communication-intensive craft. We are always working with developers, product managers, users, and various other stakeholders. We have to demonstrate our designs, collect feedback, and collaborate each and every day.”

Daniel and Jo also emphasize the importance of clear communication “for everything we do—from writing a research plan to running research and presenting results, so people who were not involved in the research can understand not only what to do with the findings, but even get a sense of ownership in solving the problems that we discover.”

“One of the biggest parts of any UX designer’s job is presenting his or her recommendations.”
—Jordan Julien

“One of the biggest parts of any UX designer’s job is presenting his or her recommendations,” replies Jordan. “Designers make these presentations to clients, internal stakeholders, and, sometimes, directly to users. You can always improve your presentation skills and style. I’ve found the best way of doing that is to get more experience presenting. The more often you present, the more comfortable you’ll be when presenting, and the easier it becomes to understand what needs to go into an effective presentation.”

“Most of our work is somewhat subjective, in that there is never one and only one right answer.”
—Russ Wilson

Russ reminds us that designers also need to have good persuasion skills: “UX designers have to sell. Most of our work is somewhat subjective, in that there is never one and only one right answer. Why should we use this blue instead of that one? Why should we implement this behavior or interaction instead of another? I’m not saying that any arbitrary solution is acceptable, and it’s just a matter of choosing one. There are many situations where a choice is obvious, so is not subjective. But for the many cases where there are choices, the UX designer must be capable of persuading and selling their solution to various stakeholders.”

Consultative Skills

“UX designers can serve as the hub for a project and foster team collaboration.”—Jordan Julien

“About ten years ago, creative-team management skills were probably the most important skills a UX designer could have,” says Jordan. “However, the UX industry has evolved over the past decade and, although they’re still important skills, I’m finding less resistance from the creative team toward UX design principles. UX designers who have creative-team management skills can help the creative or production design team to interpret the guidelines that they recommend. These are commonly known as consultative skills, requiring a UX designer to step out of the realm of wireframes, site maps, mental models, and personas to enter the realms of other team members.

“The first other discipline I’d suggest every UX designer should become familiar with is the creative area. Become familiar with grid systems, design principles, and technological constraints. Once you’ve developed these skills to a level where you can communicate your designs to the creative team without any effort, you should think about expanding your consultative skills into other areas like technology, business strategy, account management, and project management. I strongly believe UX designers can serve as the hub for a project and foster team collaboration.”

Develop the ability to look outside your own domain and look out at the world around you and your business.”
—Daniel Szuc and Josephine Wong

Daniel and Jo recommend that designers become good facilitators: “You can rally people around core ideas and help a team refine these ideas, creating something that is better for all. And think holistically: develop the ability to look outside your own domain and look out at the world around you and your business. Finally, be open to learning new things, sharing knowledge, and working collaboratively with other people who are also responsible for delivering and designing great experiences.”

Russ suggests increasing your likability. “People are more willing to work with and accommodate someone who is easy to get along with and that they like than someone who is defensive and antagonistic. Don’t underestimate the power of being likable.”

User Research

“User research should inform and allow the UX designer to develop a deep sense of empathy.”—Jordan Julien

“Every UX designer should understand how to perform user research and interpret the results,” asserts Jordan. “User research should inform and allow the UX designer to develop a deep sense of empathy. Like many things in the field of user experience, basic user research skills may take a month to learn, but a lifetime to master. Having run several in-depth ethnographic studies, I’m still learning new techniques, tools, and methods to ensure that I can deliver the most insightful results.”

Self-Awareness

“UX designers play a central role on any product development project….”
—Dan Brown

“UX designers play a central role on any product development project, talking to many different people and dealing with many diverse situations,” replies Dan Brown. “So-called soft skills—maybe people skills would be a better label—are crucial. In 2010, Jared Spool wrote “Five Indispensable Skills for UX Mastery.” These skills include storytelling, critiquing, and presenting. No need to rehash those. Instead, I’ll mention a skill that, in my time leading my small design firm EightShapes, has become top of mind.

“Designers should have self-awareness. They should intimately understand not only their strengths and weaknesses, but other aspects of their personalities and preferences that impact their projects.”
—Dan Brown

“Designers should have self-awareness. They should intimately understand not only their strengths and weaknesses, but other aspects of their personalities and preferences that impact their projects. Ask yourself:

  • What’s the most effective way for me to get feedback?
  • How much time do I need to dedicate to brainstorming?
  • What cadence of design and delivery suits my style?
  • How much control do I need to have over a project?
  • How quickly can I adapt to new circumstances?
  • Are you a big-picture person or a details person?
  • How dogmatic are you about techniques and methods?
  • How comfortable are you performing with less than optimal inputs?

“Not every project will align with your preferences and quirks. But knowing who you are can help you set expectations with your project manager and anticipate project risks. I think a lot about the people skills designers must have to make projects work. You can follow my blog Surviving Design Projects for more on this topic.”

Resources

Daniel and Jo recommend the following resources:

Global Design Research Network. “Breaking Down Organisational Silos.” Global Design Research Network, September 5, 2011. Retrieved March 8, 2012.

Quesenbery, Whitney. “Choosing the Right UX Method.” UX Hong Kong, 2012. Retrieved March 8, 2012.

Sharon, Tomer. It’s Our Research: Getting Stakeholder Buy-in for User Experience Research Projects. Waltham, MA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2012.

Szuc, Daniel. “Designing for Change: Be Water My Friend.” Johnny Holland, September 12, 2011. Retrieved March 8, 2012.

Szuc, Daniel, and Josephine Wong. “The Design Workshop: Bringing It All Together.” UXmatters, August 8, 2011. Retrieved March 8, 2012.

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