Recently, I have been asked over and over again by budding young designers which skills I look for in UX candidates but that I have a hard time finding when interviewing. This is an important topic. Our industry is doing a poor job in preparing young designers to become future leaders, and our educational system is doing an even poorer job preparing students to land their first job in an ever more competitive industry.
I have tried to answer the questions I receive on this topic in forums such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Slack in an actionable way. Yet, the way those platforms are structured have made it difficult to do this topic justice. It is my goal in this article, therefore, to address this vital topic more completely and provide actionable insights on the surprisingly-rare skills I have found to be vital over my 20 year career as both a hands-on design and design leader.
It always amazes me how many designers fall in love with their first idea. When I interview potential candidates for UX Design positions I run through a series of creative exercises & tests to evaluate candidates ability to think outside the box. The vast majority of them either clam up and can’t complete the exercises or stop with their first (and usually most obvious) idea. I have found that this correlates to day to day design work as well. Many designers get so excited with their first idea that they fail to explore others. This causes a few problems:
- Design critiques and feedback sessions with stakeholders turn into “yes or no” conversations instead of taking bits and pieces of various different ideas.
- Products often fail to achieve their potential to improve customers’ lives.
- Executive interference increases. Executives feel the need to step in and deliver solutions to be implemented when they are concerned about the quality of the product. This is their way of trying to ensure success (which of course usually has the opposite effect).
- When executive interference increases, the creativity of the team actually decreases along with morale and pretty soon the entire design team is looking to jump ship.
There are two things I have found work well designers and leaders can do to increase creativity and solve
- Explore at least 3 ideas to any problem. Creating a flow chart? Create 3 variations. Wireframing? 3 ideas. Context scenarios? 3 ideas. You get the point. What this does is forces you to open your mind and explore various possibilities. Early in my career I had a boss who would force me to create multiple variations and then completely delete those files and create 3 more. While this may be a bit excessive as an ongoing policy, he made his point. What I ended up with at the end was far better than the previous attempts.
- Fall in love with the problem, NOT any particular solution. Many designers get very attached to a particular design because they spend so much time with it. Involving everyone you can find in your process will help this (especially if you show everyone you get feedback from at least 3 ideas).
- Present in progress work. There is nothing that can stifle a designer’s effectiveness and creativity as quickly as working in isolation. Showing in progress work helps you to think outside the box and constantly see things with different perspectives. Showing in-progress work also allows you to get feedback when it’s early enough to actually iterate and make changes. If the first time a product manager or developer sees your work is during sprint kickoff, you have failed — and likely so will your product. This is absolutely also true with customers.
- Practice creativity in a context outside your day-to-day work. Creativity is like any other skill — it must be practiced and trained if it is to be developed to its potential. Some examples of creative exercises you can do to practice:
a. Creative Pitch Exercise — create a deck of cards with 2 categories of pictures. One half should have famous brands everyone would know (Google, Apple, Uber, Facebook, etc) and the other half should have products that have nothing to do with the brands. Draw 1 card from each pile. Give yourself 1 minute to come up with a pitch and then 2 minutes to pitch to a teammate/manager why Google would make a hammer for example. This is best done as a team activity, but can also be practiced by yourself.
b. Whiteboard Design Exercise — give the team a problem to solve together that has nothing to do with your business (you will need 30 minutes to an hour). Choose someone to facilitate the discussion. It’s also important to frame the goal as a problem to solve not a solution to be implemented. For example, do NOT assign the problem “redesign the toothbrush”, but instead: “improve the teeth cleaning experience”. It’s good to be vague so that the team together can set the parameters and specific Jobs To Be Done they want to tackle. As you do this more often and rotate facilitators you will get to know and learn from each other’s approaches to solving problems and develop facilitation skills among young designers. This can also be achieved with a wide variety of brainstorming exercises.
c. Experience great design together. I have also found it beneficial to take the time to seek & experience great design together. Whether this is searching the app store for an app and then evaluating it together, or going on field trips to experience creativity in industries completely different from your own (i.e. offset printing, tatooing, culinary arts, screen printing, interior design, etc). Then afterward have a quick discussion of what you learned and how those principles could apply to your work. If you don’t have a team of designers, this can also be done perfectly well with a cross-functional team or by yourself.
Knowledge of Business
It never ceases to amaze me how many designers I interview who don’t understand business. It is ESSENTIAL for UXers to understand business to get their ideas out the door and evangelize UX best practices. If you don’t understand and speak business, your career will be hard.
There are a couple aspects of this that are important. First off, you need to understand what the business is trying to accomplish so you can help. Understand what strategic initiatives the business is trying to accomplish, then show what user Jobs To Be Done or pain points can be solved to help those strategic initiatives.
For example, if your company is looking to become more sticky in client organizations as a way to increase sales and improve retention, find and propose Jobs To Be Done that Marketing, Sales, or Operations employees at your clients have that currently aren’t being solved well. Use videos or audio clips from your research. Use quantitative data to reinforce the qualitative findings. If you have that understanding you are able to push back when someone assigns you a solution to implement and show them 4 other solutions that would solve the problem better.
Stephen Gates uses the example all the time of a T-shirt. If an executive asks you to design a t-shirt, find out why. Is it for a conference? Is it for employees? Why did that solution come to their mind? Is there a better way to accomplish that same goal? If you understand the problem, you can become a partner with them to solve their problem. This only happens if you understand and can communicate in the language of business.
If you understand business, and particularly your company’s business, your ability to get your innovative ideas out the door will be dramatically increased. Which means you will be able to better improve users’ lives. Sounds good, right?
Case in point, there was recently a shift in the organizational structure at my current company. That meant that the main Product leader who I had been working with and who understood UX very well had moved on and the new leadership was less familiar with UX best practices. Because I had already taken the time to understand the strategic initiatives of the company, I was able to explain how delivering problems to solve instead of solutions to implement was so vital and ended up resulting in higher morale and a better product. I also was able to show how an Outcome-focused mentality actually helps us get to the desired results quicker than the output-driven mentality most companies have. As a result, the entire company is seriously considering moving to OKRs. Something that will help us deliver even better products for our customers in the future and will for sure result in a more fun, innovative culture.
Some advice to get started
- Interview the CEO and other key leaders at your company. Ask them what the strategic initiatives of the company are. As them why they love their job. Ask them what keeps them up at night. Ask them what the greatest threat to the company’s success is.
- Read business books
- Take a business class.
- Ask to be involved in vision or strategy meetings as a fly on the wall.
- Prepare a presentation on a ux topic to an audience of business leaders. See how well it is received. Rinse, repeat.
- Start trying to “talk” like a business leader.
- Try to quantify the user experience your users are having.
The more you do it, the easier it will get.
Good designers can do stellar design work themselves. Excellent designers bring other people with them and facilitate great design among a group. Yet far too few designers (even “senior” level) are skilled facilitators.
Facilitation is the art of helping to guide stakeholders and cross-functional team members through the design process. It is vital to move fast and be most effective in our design work to have a shared-understanding of what it is that we’re building and why. You also will arrive at the “multiple idea exploration” requirement above much quicker. Diversity of not only culture but also functional background adds so much to the completeness and innovation of any design.
Facilitation doesn’t require a higher position or a condescending tone to be effective. Quite the opposite. The main key to being an effective facilitator is an overriding passion for bringing people with you in your design process. It’s basically user research for coworkers. In the same way you don’t want to “lead the witness” in a usability test or interview and want to explore ideas fully, when facilitating you want to set the stage and help guide the team through solving problems we’ve been assigned to.
If you find yourself lacking in this area, just start by changing your mentality from doer to facilitator. Recognize that you aren’t responsible for every great idea. You are just responsible for the environment where great ideas can flourish. There is nothing that can prepare you for leadership opportunities in the future like facilitating.
Start small. Facilitate a brainstorming session with cross-functional participants. Use non-verbal decision making exercises like Affinity Mapping to normalize the loud and silent personality types. There are many ways to do it, just start. If you can get good at facilitation, though, you will be viewed as a strategic partner and influencer in your company and finding that dream ux job will get much easier.
Ability to Balance Innovation with Practicality
If there is any 1 thing that you can do today to start having better success in job searching, it is to realize — genuinely internalize — that UX in the real world is not the utopian dreamworld many designers live in where we have infinite time and resources to do research and build the ideal product that we reveal in some glorious marketing campaign and users jump up and down with excitement because of how AMAZING you made their lives.
No company is perfect. No project has enough time. No user research initiative is going to feel like enough. No product you work on will ever have the ideal user experience. No product manager or developer will ever understand user experience fully…and that’s ok!
There is a healthy tension that exists between UX, PM, and Dev that helps us all get better products out the door. I can’t tell you how often when I was a young designer that I usability tested a design that I thought needed TONS more improvement, and every single user easily completed all the tasks we gave them. Even more, they had a great time doing it. At those times, I was forced to swallow my pride and realize the product was good enough. We had accomplished our goal. The sooner you realize that “sometimes the most perfect anything needs to be is…done” (Joe Natoli) the easier your life as a designer will be.
Not every project is trying to win a spot on the Apple Keynote stage. Sometimes we do things because it’s a checkbox the business needs us to check before we can move on to something more innovative. That too is ok. Where I’ve found the problem to be is when everyone on the team/company is not on the same page when those situations arise.
Something that has helped me is to clearly identify certain key characteristics of a project at the beginning and get everyone to sign off on them. (There’s that term “shared understanding” again). Some of those characteristics are:
- Vision statement
- Priorities (where are we on the “check the checkbox” vs “pure innovation” continuum.
- Business objectives
- User needs (Jobs To Be Done)
- Target users
- Success criteria
If you get clear on all of those with the entire team, projects tend to go far smoother. Yet I seem to constantly meet designers who can’t seem to balance priorities on projects. Who can’t accept the fact that we can’t do onsite user research visits or usability testing on this project when there is a perfectly viable business reason. In their mind, the full X step process has to ALWAYS be followed.
To use a cooking metaphor, the best chefs aren’t those who can follow a recipe to a T every single time. The best practitioners are those who can cook up something amazing with the ingredients, goals, and constraints they are given time after time no matter what they are.
Empathy for Stakeholders
Most UXers are passionate about developing empathy for users. Yet most complain about “politics”. Business and other stakeholders are our users too. Great designers view it as their job to understand what is important to their stakeholders and then help them achieve THEIR goals as well. At its base level, Politics is nothing more than empathy. Yet precious few designers are good at it.
The first thing an excellent designer will do at a new job or on a new project is get to know the stakeholders and business leaders in the organization. Find allies. Understand constraints. Understand what it is each stakeholder is trying to accomplish.
Case in point. I once worked for a company that we were having major problems getting time and resources for any kind of user research. The PM wasn’t wanting to allow time in the sprint for it. Our client advisors (who controlled the relationship with customers) didn’t want to let us anywhere near their customers. It was a mess.
So I started having one on one conversations with some of them. I found out that many of them had bad experience with designers showing brand new designs and promising the new features by a specific date. This caused major problems for the Client Advisor team (understandably). Also, there were some major retention issues going on with some of the customers I wanted to speak with.
I explained what we were trying to accomplish with the user research and how it could also help them solve some of their retention problems. I asked if they would be willing to help us plan and conduct the research so we could be sure to not say anything that would hurt the relationship.
Not only did I get access to users, but I had an ally in helping to schedule more user research visits in the future and someone who knew these users well to help me plan what to learn and how to do it. As a completely unanticipated side bonus, pretty soon these same client advisors (and the sales people as well) were using the fact that we involved our customers in our design process as a mechanism/key differentiator in saving many customers and generating loyalty.
None of that would have happened if I had not taken the time to get to know the stakeholders.
- Get to know your stakeholders. Interview them. Imagine they were target users of the next product you were designing.
- Propose an idea of how something in your background could help them in their job.
- The next time you’re frustrated with someone in your company, make an effort to see them as a person with needs/desires instead of an object preventing you from getting what you want.
Curiosity and Drive to Constantly Learn
An insatiable curiosity and drive to always be learning and never be comfortable is the main secret of any success I might have had so far in my career. I’m mostly self taught and I’ve never worked for any world renowned companies, but I have an intense drive to learn and grow and progress. Two of the principles in my creative ethos that I emphasize constantly with my team are related: “yearn to learn” and “comfort is the enemy of greatness”.
I’ve discovered that having an “insatiable curiosity” is rarer than many people might think. To anyone who is struggling with Imposter Syndrome at the moment: if you are already on the right track. Keep it up! Develop an “insatiable curiosity” and you will progress much faster than you thought possible.
Research how other people have handled things. Listen to podcasts on your way to work. Organize book clubs on your team or design community. Experiment with new methodologies. See what works and what doesn’t. Never be satisfied with the way you are working today.
I once had a boss who when I presented a design to him for feedback would always ask me: “is this the best you can do?”. At first it was off-putting, but soon I learned the wisdom in what he was teaching me. He wasn’t criticizing me, he was challenging me to reach a little deeper to see if I could do better. That boss changed my whole outlook as a designer.
If you ARE that passionate about learning, let it come through in your resume, portfolio, and interviews. Let it come through in hallway conversations. Let it come through on LinkedIn. If hiring managers can sense it, they often will take a chance on you if any doubts about your ability to do the job arise.
I know I would.
- Challenge yourself to learn a new software tool
- Next time you need to brainstorm or conduct user research use a method you’ve never used before.
- Read UX books
- Listen to podcasts
- Participate in meetups
Mature User Research Skills
I am constantly amazed when interviewing Senior UX Designers at how few of them have more than elementary knowledge of and skills in the area of User Research. They all have enough passion for user research to fill every football stadium in America, but very few have experience with more than interviewing and usability testing, and even fewer can tell me what a usability test plan is or what it should contain.
In one sense, it is not their fault. Precious few schools actually teach user research. Even fewer teach more than a couple methods and typically it is only a single unit in an Interaction Design course.
There IS information out there, however, if you are willing to seek for it. How a designer can get to the 5–7 years professional experience and STILL not have more than basic experience in user research is sad to me. The good news for YOU though is that if you’re willing to seek and practice user research skills, it will DRASTICALLY set you apart from the pack.
There are two main types of user research: Generative and Evaluative. Generative research is all about discovery and ensuring we’re solving the right problem (both from a user and business perspective). Evaluative research is focused on validating if we’ve made progress towards the solution to the problem we agreed to solve.
Within each type of user research there are many different user research methods. If you can become familiar with and gain experience with the most used in each category, you will be in the top 5% of candidates for any UX job at virtually any company big or small. If you can get to the point where you understand when to use each one, that will put you even higher.
Here are some of the most common user research methods broken out by type.
- Clickstream analysis
- Confidence level calculations
- Contextual inquiry
- Customer feedback
- Data mining/analysis
- Diary/camera studies
- Email surveys
- Ethnographic studies
- Focus groups
- Intercept studies
- Open card sorting
- Participatory design
- Stakeholder interviews
- True intent studies
- User interviews
- Visual analytics
- 5-second tests
- A/B testing
- Closed card sorting
- Confidence level calculations
- Eye tracking studies
- Paper prototype tests
- Usability Benchmarking
- Usability testing (in lab)
- Usability testing (moderated remote)
- Usability testing (unmoderated remote)
One other area within user research that I often find lacking in many interviewees is experience actually planning user research initiatives ahead of time. This has a few benefits:
- It helps you clearly focus on the most important things you want to learn.
- It improves the effectiveness and actionability of insights you gain
- It puts the investment required on the company’s part into clear terms a business leader can understand (which helps both get budget approval and with tracking ROI after research completion)
- It allows all employees to be on the same page going in (which can drastically help with note taking and data aggregation afterwards)
If you’ve never set out to write a formal usability test plan before, it can seem daunting. It really is quite easy, though. You just have to think through what you want to accomplish, how you plan to accomplish it, and who will be a part of the research (pro tip: it is much easier and much more effective to take a cross-functional group). My process(D.E.C.I.S.I.O.N.) is outlined below:
Decide on the main goal or objective of the research
Explore questions & assumptions (what is it you want to find out)
Choose a method (see above)
Identify participants (employees and clients)
Script or tasks
Identify schedule & budget (time, recruiting, & equipment)
Nail the schedule down
If you would like a little help, you can download this editable pdf of my research plan template. It is meant to be a 1-page overview of a research plan that can then be sent to internal stakeholders, finance (for budget approval), and anyone else who needs to get an idea what you’re doing and why.
The UX industry is becoming ever more competitive, yet there are still far too few designers that have creative maturity, knowledge of business, facilitation skills, can balance innovation with practicality, have an insatiable curiosity and desire to learn, and have mature user research skills. Hiring managers are constantly on the lookout for these skills. If you can develop and demonstrate these skills on your resume, portfolio, and in interviews you will be much more likely to land the UX job you’ve always dreamed of.