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The 5 critical UX designer skills you need to advance.


The 5 critical UX designer skills you need to advance. The 5 critical UX designer skills you need to advance.

Key Takeaways

  • The field of UX is growing and evolving rapidly, and all companies have to focus on delivering exemplary user experiences.
  • Successful design thinking includes developing a range of skills, such as business acumen, storytelling, user research, prototyping, and technical skills.
  • The skills needed to advance in UX are similar to those in other fields: understanding users, behaviors, and goals and advocating for the best user experience.

This post is about 5 critical UX designer skills you need to advance. Here are a few other helpful UX guides: Advice For Planning Your Next Career Move in UX and Using Your UX Skills To Architect Your Career. and How To Create A UX Profile That Will Help You Land Your Dream Job. Visit these resources to learn more.

The field of UX is growing and evolving with blazing speed. Customer expectations for digital products are continuing to grow, which means ALL companies have to focus on delivering exemplary user experiences. And that has drastically increased the need for great UX designers. In a nutshell, skilling up UX designer skills is more critical now than ever.

As Director of Learning at Aquent Gymnasium, I'm here to simplify adding to your UX skill set, based on my years of experience working with top UX practitioners. I'll lay out the five critical skills areas for seasoned professionals, and provide learning opportunities including some of the free skills training we offer through Gymnasium.

There's More to UX Than Technology

First up, the good news: If you're a seasoned UX designer, you're in a good place. With a median salary of $95,000, UX remains a fantastic career choice.

Thanks to successful design-forward companies like Apple and the disruptive startup culture of the last three to four years, good design, prototyping, user research, and UX are now considered necessary for competitive advantage.

Having said that—don't get too comfortable. The field is changing fast and you'll need to keep pace. There are entirely new design disciplines developing and evolving, such as AR, VR, and Conversation Design. These new technologies demand the type of creative problem solving that high-level UX designers bring to the table.

Talking to junior designers fresh out of UX bootcamp, you'd think UX is all about mastering a slew of technologies to create cool apps for consumers. Because that's what they've been taught. Seasoned UX professionals, however, need other skills that help them see the big picture and advocate for the user at every turn. Things like business acumen, user research, storytelling, and prototyping skills. And yes, a bit of technical know-how.

UX Designer Skills #1 Business Acumen

Not so many years ago, UX designers involved in building an app or website would create wireframes, and perhaps a mockup in Photoshop, that were essentially just pretty pictures. Then they'd throw that over the wall to a developer to make the thing.

But that solo silo is disappearing. Due largely to the recognition of the value of design in business and the expectation that the design teams can, and will, sit at the table.

That shift has increased the need for business acumen skills.

UX business acumen includes understanding business goals, how these goals affect all levels of an organization, the right people to involve in the project, and the office politics in play.

Let's look at an example scenario breakdown: You work for a utility company and your project is to help design an interface that can manage inventory of 10,000+ pieces of machine supplies.

Audience: Engineers and salespeople. These two groups need inventory management, but have different user needs.

Pain point: User research identified the length of time it takes to close support tickets as a shared problem.

Estimated savings: By reducing the time to close tickets to under 24 hours, a savings of $500k a year was estimated.

Company politics: Corporate inertia. You'll need to meet with the very busy sales and engineering teams, and they don't want to have their valuable time wasted.

You have to convince engineering and sales leads to support the project, which you can do by tying the $100k to their own goals. And making it clear the project will result in substantial time savings for their busy teams.

This doesn't take technical or tactical skills. It takes critical thinking and communication skills.

Build Your Business Acumen

To improve your business acumen, practice looking at UX projects through these lenses:

  • The big picture and how you fit into it
    What are the main business goals for the company? Big hint: it's usually revenue. So tie what you're doing to that goal.
  • What's important to stakeholders
    As a senior UX person, you'll need to persuade people to support your project. So understanding stakeholder needs is a necessity.
  • Real user need
    Your most important contribution to the success of a project is relentlessly advocating for the user. The only way to do that is by spending time with and interviewing the key product users to understand what's important to them and how your product will help them.

The Role of Soft Skills in Conveying Strategy to Executives by UXmatters

UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products that People Want, a book by Jaime Levy

A UX Career is a Business Career by Kiley Meehan

#2 Storytelling

In the business world, effective storytelling creates a compelling narrative about yourself and your project so the work is understood and valued. It's the art of persuasion. You'll need to perfect your storytelling skills for verbal presentations, presentation decks, and UX writing.

The story you tell about your project ties together the business context and the user needs and how your solution addresses both. To tell a compelling story you need to present evidence and data, and not in a 17-bullet point slide. Build your story toward a clear, logical conclusion that the project you're working on is providing business and user value.

In her course Storytelling for Designers, Gymnasium instructor Lee Andrese uses the example of a senior UX Designer who, despite his extensive experience, was not getting the sorts of interesting projects (and by extension Compensation,) he wanted.

It wasn't until he sat down and a) gathered data about the impact his work had on the bottom line, b) worked that data into a narrative, and c) practiced telling this story with a trusted advisor, that he was able to gain traction with his career. As a result of these steps his hourly rate jumped from $60/hr to $90/hr within a few short months.

By using this same approach for users, Lee will have no trouble gaining allies supporting user experience best practices on his projects.

Build Your Storytelling Skills

To improve your user storytelling skills, consider these options:

The career skills section of the Gymnasium Take 5 series

Writing for Web and Mobile

Storytelling for Designers: Why Storytelling is an Essential UX Communication Tool

In addition to our courses, there are practical opportunities to practice and improve your storytelling every day on the job:

  • Talk in front of crowds, starting with presenting to your team.
  • Presentation design. This is table stakes but you need to do it well.

#3 User Research

User research lets you understand the people you're designing for. Psychologists and anthropologists can make amazing UX professionals, because their entire focus is on people's behaviors, reactions, needs, and wants.

Well-executed user research always provides more useful and valid data, but many people think it requires special equipment and a specific venue, so they stay away from it. It doesn't have to be a complex process involving two-way mirrors in a room where you record users. You can do a lot of this in five minutes or less. Sit the interviewee in front of a product prototype, give them a goal, and have them start talking about how they'd use it.

Build Your User Research Skills

To improve your user research skills, consider these options:

The User Research tutorials at Gymnasium

UX Fundamentals

Sample usability script and form from Steve Krug

A Favorite User Research Trick from Jared Spool

Designing for Real People webinar with Eric Meyer, the author of “Design for Real Life,” and Jim Webb

#4 Prototyping

Given all the benefits of prototyping, it's not surprising that one prototype doesn't fit all scenarios. No type is better or worse than another, the one you use will depend on the audience and the objective. In other words, you need to create the right type of prototype for the job at hand.

Let's say you're creating a prototype to win a client's business. Your goal is to get that client excited, so you don't want to present a black and white wireframe that looks like a sketch. The prototype you design in this scenario is going to look amazing with lots of bling.

But after you've won the gig, you need a prototype for developers that's more appropriate for actually building the thing that won you the job. Back in the day, a UX designer would take the blingy client-facing prototype and ship it off to the developers to make the real product. That's setting the project up for failure. What you want to do is start from scratch and build fast. This isn't something you'd show to a client—it's a practical prototype.

There are many levels of prototypes. The one you choose should be based on fidelity and matching the prototype to the right level of what you're doing. Levels range from low fidelity prototypes—bare-bones sketchy wireframes to high fidelity interactive prototypes—virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. The fidelity levels are a continuum, it's not one or the other. You need to use the right level of fidelity for the task at hand.

Build Your Prototyping Skills

To improve your prototyping skills, consider these options:

Prototyping for Digital Products and Websites

Prototyping Tutorials

UX Design: Prototyping As Process

3 rapid prototyping exercises to improve your UX skills by Elaine Tran

The design fidelity conundrum by Arin Bhowmick

Content-First Design by Steph Hay

#5 Technical

Technology is important, but it's typically not the first area you need to focus on for career advancement. The tools used for UX design simultaneously mirror and influence the best practices currently in vogue within the industry. For example, the design tool Figma anticipated the need for better team collaboration tools and as a result has pulled users away from the former king of the hill, Sketch. Of course, Sketch will respond and you shouldn't give up on them yet.

A key trend affecting technical skills is the use of design patterns. If you're entering an organization, they might have already done a lot of the visual design work for you: button color, logo placement, form templates, etc. With design systems and patterns, like Atomic Design, UX and product designers are working with the user flow and user experience of the apps. By keeping up with top design systems, you'll be able to iterate quickly and work more holistically with any team.

You're one of many contributors to a project. You need to understand the team contributing to the project and the technology involved to better advocate for the user. You need to know a little bit of coding, but not a lot. You also need to know web basics such as the hexadecimal color system, if you're told to use #576321 for your image placeholders, do you know what that means and how to do it? You will have a surprising amount of success just by marrying your team skills (as part of your business acumen) with basic technical knowledge.

And what about those junior UX designers who have shown up from bootcamp knowing a lot of tech? If you combine their mad tech skills with your leadership and experience, you can build an unbeatable team that will stay on the cutting edge of UX design.

UX Designer Skills

To improve your technical skills, consider these options

Working With Atomic Design and Pattern Lab

Tutorial blog by Sketch

InVision Studio's official intro course

Learning Figma

Adobe XD tutorials

Keeping the “You” in “UX”

The skills needed to advance in UX are similar to skills progressions for many other fields; with tactical and technical skills taking a backseat to more management-focused business and soft skills. It's understanding users, behaviors, and goals, then using that knowledge to advocate and persuade for the best user experience. By inventorying your level of aptitude in the top five areas discussed, and taking advantage of upskilling opportunities, you'll keep your UX skills primed for future innovation, creative, and leadership opportunities.

Jeremy Osborn

Jeremy produces the free, online courses at Aquent Gymnasium, an educational platform that helps web professionals learn new skills. In the past, he has written books and articles related to the web, hosted webinars, consulted with Fortune 500 organizations, and was the Program Director of a web and graphic design program at Boston University.


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