It’s a question that I think about a lot (and hopefully, if you are in the UX field, you think about it too). Because the field of User Experience is relatively new, we spend a lot of time trying to define what a UX designer is and what we do on a daily basis.
In fact, this sometimes leaves us so drained that we rarely push the conversation further by attempting to define what makes a good UX designer. I get to meet many other UX professionals and watch them work. I also get to meet many naysayers and people who don’t understand what UX is all about. Meeting all of these different people has been an amazing experience and has encouraged me to really think about what sets apart good UX professionals from the not so good ones.
I want to be clear that I’m not interested in discussing the hard skills (coding, wire-framing, research methods, etc.) that make a good UX professional. Instead, I want to talk a bit about the soft skills that most good UX designers have. This list is not exhaustive; in fact, I’m only aiming to outline what I think are the top five characteristics. I’m sure you can think of many more.
Above all else, good UX Designers have empathy for other people. You can see this in their daily lives. They ask how they can help when you are facing a difficult problem. They let others vent and they listen. They feel bad when they have to break plans. They are constantly thinking about others.
Empathy is incredibly important when trying to design software for other people to use. You need to understand their pains in order to design a solution that addresses those pains. When you approach a design problem, you immediately want to talk to people, observe them and truly understand where they are coming from. Honestly, you never spend more than a few hours designing something without asking for input (even if it’s just from co-workers).
There is one catch with empathy. You want to listen to your users and solve their problems, but it is true that users don’t always know what they want. It’s important to listen and observe—interpreting some potential problems that users aren’t able to verbalize.
Just as you are able to listen to user’s input and understand their needs, you are also able to listen to feedback on your work and not run and hide or become argumentative. This is really hard for a lot of people, especially when you’ve spent hours creating a hi-fidelity mockup (I would argue that you shouldn’t be doing this anyway, but that’s another article). Getting feedback and using it effectively gets easier with time.
Good UX Designers are always asking for feedback - on designs, after a project ends, when they work with people in other roles. They are genuinely interested in how they can improve and become better designers. They don’t just collect that information, read it, and then lock it away in the feedback vault. They use it. They take the time to think about the feedback they receive and they act on it — you can be pretty confident that if you give them honest feedback that they can act on, you’ll see improvements from them in the future.
Adaptability is crucial in a world that is constantly changing and as we all know, the world of technology is changing by the second. Good UX designers don’t get too attached to their designs because they KNOW that things are always changing…and they are okay with that. If you aren’t okay with change, you probably shouldn’t be a UX Designer.
UX Designers also need to be adaptable in how they work — they are problem solvers who need to work with multiple groups of stakeholders to find the right solution. They need to “fit in” when they pair with developers to tackle a design issue just as they need to “fit in” when they test with users. They need to gain the trust of many people and leverage their relationships to build the best solution possible.
So this is an interesting one. I have worked with many different UX designers in my career so far and most of the really good ones I know have come from backgrounds that are not technology specific. I know many UX designers who have studied anthropology, psychology, history and other interesting liberal arts topics. They have traveled extensively, have taken pottery classes, worked in the non-profit sector, or built their own pizza oven in the backyard. They are people who never stop exploring.
This is an incredible field because of the fact that you have all of these diverse minds coming together to solve problems —almost everyone who came to this career did it by choice. It’s not something you can very easily just slide into (although it does occasionally happen). It’s also not an easy job to train for — you have to really want to do it. Good UX designers have seen people use poorly made products and it makes them cringe. It pulls at their heart strings. Their career choice is often coming from a place of compassion.
I owe #5 to Brene Brown who speaks and writes on this topic often. I love her writing and I think it applies to this career even more than some others. UX designers are always trying to prove that they are needed, valuable, important, crucial to the project at hand. They boast about their knowledge, skills, proven track record, eye tracking or screen click analytics. But talking like this can become intimidating and can even be seen as being “cold.” It can begin to alienate teammates and clients alike.
Good UX designers approach problems collaboratively and not defensively and yes, they ADMIT when they don’t know the answer or when they are wrong. In other words, they show vulnerability and they are deeply honest. They ask questions to learn more and they take other people’s thoughts and opinions into consideration before gunning ahead. They look to developers, BAs, QAs, project managers and others for inspiration and ideas. They never think that they alone own the solution or that they should get the final word. Basically, they play nice. They cooperate and they show a humbleness that the team appreciates. This is not to say that they are passive — I hope I made that clear. They still fight for what they believe in, but they fight with an arsenal of humility. They don’t make bold claims and proclamations about what WILL happen, rather, they draw others in and rally for the best possible outcome.
Okay, so these aren’t necessarily the “steps” per say, but hopefully they are things to take into consideration when you are thinking about working with, hiring, or becoming a UX professional. I don’t know much, but I know I love you (sorry, I had to) and that I am incredibly lucky to call UX my profession and my home. And that may be all there is to know.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.