If you’re going to graduate from your university or design school this year, or if you’re in your first UX design job, you’ll be wondering what you can do to improve your chances of progressing on to or up the career ladder. So, what skills do you need? And is the job all about your design skills? Read on to see what’s really involved, and how an important part of being a UX designer chimes in with what is needed in practically all professions.
A UX designer isn’t just a person with a certificate. While training and education play an important role in taking your first steps towards a UX career, what’s most important is that you develop your attitude towards learning (and practicing) UX design. To become a mature, hireable UX designer, you will need to develop professionally on three key aspects:
UX design skills
Attitude towards problems
All three aspects are equally important, and most employers look for a well-rounded individual who can demonstrate competence across all. It goes without saying that you cannot be a UX design professional without honing your skills in UX design tools and methodologies. However, here, we are going to focus first on why developing your communication skills and problem-solving attitude is so important for a successful career in UX design. Then, we will offer some practical advice on how you should approach your UX career path, from a perspective of developing all three skillset areas.
Finding the balance in your professional development
Technical UX design skills are important…
A UX designer certainly needs to demonstrate skill. Your knowledge of the various tools and methods in the UX design process is what allows you to produce the UX deliverables (e.g., wireframes, customer journey maps, usability reports) that your employer and team need so as to progress through a project.
… But communication skills are crucial, too…
As skilled or talented a designer you might be, you must never forget that you will be producing these UX deliverables not for your own sole benefit, but as an aid to other members of the team, so they can play their role in the project’s development. Developers, for example, need to know how they must build an interface or how the interactions will work. Managers need to know how successful a particular design or product is. Clients will need to understand how you plan to bring a solution to their needs and what it will look like.
What this all means is that communication is a critical part of your work. You need to be able to communicate the meaning of your UX deliverables to a variety of audiences, which means that you need to be able to understand their language, listen to their concerns, respond to and address questions in a clear way, and explain your ideas and views in the same manner. Communication skills are also very important when undertaking user research. It’s next to impossible to build empathy and understand your users if you can’t communicate with them. Remember, communication is a two-way street. So, not only must you be a good listener, but you also have to fine-tune what you have to say in a way that shows your audience you are on the same page with zero ambiguity.
… And so is having the right attitude towards UX design problems
The third aspect of a professional UX designer is the right attitude towards problem solving. Each design solution is unique and tailored to the individual needs of a certain client, or project specification and scope. In a sense, many of the design problems you will face in your career as a UX designer can be classified not merely as “complex” but as “wicked”. Horst Rittel and Mervin Webber, professors at Berkeley, described design problems as inherently wicked, stating that they belong to a:
“class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing”
– Horst Rittel & Mervin Webber, 1973
Researchers Zimmermann et al. (2007) discuss the nature of these wicked problems in human computer interaction and in design, stating that UX problems are inherently complex because of conflicting requirements. Let’s take a look at an example of conflicting requirements with something probably close to your own experience while using Facebook: As a user, you often need the peace and tranquility required to carry out work, undistracted. At the same time, Facebook needs you to engage as much as possible with their platform (because that’s how they generate revenue!). Have you noticed how Facebook often alerts you with notifications like “take a look at these unread saved items”, when you have no real notifications (e.g., from likes or comments)? It’s a desperate attempt to keep you on the platform and get you to engage with it. Facebook designers, when faced with the conflicting requirements—of increasing engagement with Facebook’s users while at the same time allowing users to be conducive at work and life—chose a trade-off in favor of keeping engagement high. Would you have done the same? Regardless of your answer, it is clear that your job as a UX designer will be marked by conflicting requirements and goals.
To face such wicked problems and navigate through conflicting requirements, you will need a courage of heart and a certain mentality towards solving problems. As a UX designer, you will need to exhibit passion, the ability to take initiative, natural curiosity and a commitment to thorough and methodical approaches by trial and error. This includes an innate desire to learn and improve, which, in turn, assumes a level of humility and admission that you can’t be perfect at—or knowledgeable—in everything.
So, how do you find the right balance between your UX knowledge, communication skills, and right attitude towards problem solving in your professional development? In the next sections, we will offer some practical advice on how you should approach your overall career path, in a way that will help you develop all three skillset areas.
How to approach your career path in UX design
Become a problem solver
UX designers should know this by now, but many other design professionals will be surprised to learn that this is your most important skill. Employers aren’t hiring you because you look like a nice person. They’re hiring you to fix their problems. When you hit those interviews, you need to demonstrate that your solutions, your skills, etc. are focused on solving someone’s problem.
Copyright holder: Riley Kaminer. Copyright terms and license: CC BY 2.0
Difficult problems are a delight for UX designers. They are an opportunity to learn and develop, rather than a hindrance and a pain.
So when you talk about your suggested approach to information architecture, for example, you need to connect to a real business problem. You may even have to ask some questions of your interviewer to find out what those problems are. Don’t worry about that: you’ll be showcasing your ability to work in a team for a business. What’s really important is that you are able to demonstrate your willingness to learn, to critically appraise new situations, to acquire new skills or adopt new methodologies and to have a desire to get to the bottom of every problem you face.
“Many candidates believe that the more things they list, the better they look to the hiring team, but that’s not the case. I prefer a focus — someone who’s good at 1 or 2 things — someone who is always evolving and learning, instead of chasing the buzzword of the moment.”
– Linda Escobar, senior researcher at AlphaUX
Open your eyes to new opportunities
There are a million (if not more) possible paths for your career. You may find, over time, that your desire to do nothing but design wanes. Like many other UX designers, you may end up project managing, training, or even doing frontend development. All of these are viable career paths, and they can all be enjoyed. When an opportunity opens up, don’t rush to say no just because it isn’t 100% related to UX design—you might end up loving your new career path as it takes you to a range of different challenges.
Copyright holder: SomeDriftwood. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC 2.0
Just because others do something one way, doesn’t mean that you should copy them. As a UX designer, be prepared to embrace change, invent new techniques, new approaches and new solutions, combining creativity and scientific knowledge.
If there’s anything that employers can’t stand, it’s those who spend their lives resisting change. Change for change’s sake is not always a good thing, but, by and large, most changes in working life are made for the good of the business. Learn to be enthusiastic about change, to understand changes fully and to promote them. This will make your working life much easier in general and start to position you for management roles where you will be proposing and implementing changes yourself.
“We don't necessarily want to design and build something one way just because we've always done it that way. Being curious is important so you can understand why something was done a certain way while also being open to try new ideas.”
– Stephanie Finken, Startup Institute instructor
You don’t need to roll the dice daily throughout your career, but you do need to step outside of your comfort zone and reach for more-challenging objectives. You won’t always succeed (unless you’re very lucky), but you will grow and develop. You can’t be promoted if you do your job and nothing more. Show how you can increase your value and the rewards will come your way.
“You want someone who sees there’s a problem and wonders why no one has come up with a hack to fix it or a tool to make it easy yet. Then they go and design that tool. Do they include that in their professional submissions? If they do, that’s a good sign.”
– Julie Zhuo, Director of Product Design, Facebook
Copyright holder: Matthew Paulson. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Think a few moves ahead in life – a job offer might be tempting because it comes with a good salary and a nice benefits package, but where will it take you 5 years down the road? Focus on your target and look at whether the job really offers you the opportunity to develop professionally as a UX designer.
It is so tempting when you’re looking for that first job to take the first opportunity you come across. While we have previously asked you to keep your eyes open to new opportunities, you should also resist the urge to compromise on your principles or values for the sake of new opportunities. For instance, if your interviewer feels like a toxic person, ask yourself: Do I want to work with people like this daily? It’s better to take a less attractive offer than it is to commit yourself to a miserable working life, surrounded by team members who won’t help you develop professionally. Landing a first role for less pay and, perhaps, less apparent “glamor” at least means you’ll be able to establish yourself. Remember, though, that every UX position you work in must take you further than where you started. An environment that doesn’t help you develop in any of our three core areas (skills, communication, problem-solving attitude) is not worth your time.
The Take Away
A UX designer is much more than a list of skills that can be put down on a résumé or CV. Two out of the three professional development areas for a UX designer are “soft skills” (i.e., communication and attitude towards problems) that cannot be listed. However, one way you can demonstrate these skills is by showcasing the process with which you tackled a particular design problem, in the case studies included with your portfolio. Using a case study as a prompt during an interview, you can discuss how you overcame communication problems, adopted problem-solving strategies and developed your soft skills. Even if you don’t have experience in UX design, starting out as a fresh graduate or inexperienced professional, take the time to look around you. The world is full of problems waiting to be solved. Pick one, and work at it. The trick is to remember to practice and show not just technical ability but also your willingness to break a problem down, address its components and use your communication skills to analyze the problem and demonstrate the results.
References & Where to Learn More
Hero Image: Copyright holder: Kokcharov. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-SA 4.0
Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design issues, 8(2), 5-21.
Farrell, R., & Hooker, C. (2013). Design, science and wicked problems. Design Studies, 34(6), 681-705.
Zimmerman, J., Forlizzi, J., & Evenson, S. (2007, April). Research through design as a method for interaction design research in HCI. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 493-502). ACM.
Zimmermann, C. (2016). Top 5 UX Design Skills Employers Want.
Ward, C. (2016). Ten skills you need to be a UX unicorn.
Maccarone, D. & Doody, S. (2016). The UX of Hiring for UX Positions.
Hadziracheva, M. (2016). Here's What it Takes to Get Hired as a Junior UX Designer.
Yu, S. (2015). Hiring UX designers: 11 qualities to look for.
Wilshere, A. (2017). Are Notifications A Dark Pattern?
An Inside Look at Facebook's Method for Hiring Designers, in People & Culture, First Round Review.