A sketch on paper of two types of iPad designs.
PHOTO: Luca Mascaro

With customer experience top of mind with forward thinking organizations, it's no surprise that user experience designers are in demand. In fact, survey data from Adobe on demand for user experience designers in February 2017 revealed that, "Eighty-seven percent of managers said hiring more UX designers is the top priority for their organization: higher than graphic designers (76 percent) and product managers (74 percent), and tied with software engineers for top spot." 

So with demand high, you might be asking yourself, do I have what it takes to be a UX designer? We asked experts about what it takes to be successful. And while it does require a unique set of skills, that is part of what makes it an interesting role to many. Consider that not only do you have to be adept with technology, communication and writing, prototyping and wireframing, but it also requires flavors of psychology and empathy.

Communication Skills

Nick Babich, editor-in-chief of UX Planet, said communication is crucial because design is a "team sport." It’s hard, or even impossible, he said, to solve a problem when you work alone. 

“Thus, designers should be able to communicate and collaborate effectively with other team members — other designers, developers and stakeholders,” Babich said.

Related Article: What is User Experience (UX) Design?

Negotiation Skills

In the vein of strong communication, Babich added, UX designers should have strong negotiation skills. Designers should be able to convince a team member to follow a particular approach even when a team thinks differently. “They should,” Babich added, “be able to persuade other people that their design decision is correct [or not].”

Empathy and Curiosity

Empathy is often cited as one of the most important skills or qualities for a UX designer, but empathy is simply the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference, according to Adobe’s Cisco Guzman, director of product management at Adobe XD. “Curiosity is a quality that drives inquisitive thinking, exploration, investigation and learning through observation,” he said, citing Wikipedia. “UX design is not about designing screens. It’s about defining the ways in which humans relate to and interact with the world, how they navigate space and how they’re able to get their needs met in an increasingly cumbersome and productized world. Curiosity helps you understand how to change and improve the world.”

Empathy without curiosity can lead you to simply giving people what they are asking for, according to Guzman. Curiosity helps you dig a little deeper. “In order to build sophisticated experiences,” Guzman said, “UX designers must dig deep, looking for implicit needs and barriers that keep people from moving through the world in a way that serves them.”

Collaboration Skills

Michelle Bolander, UX practice advisor and senior strategist at SPR, said good UX designers empathize with users, but a great UX designer takes it a step further. “UXers that collaborate well with their team, stakeholders and difficult people in general do so because they genuinely want to understand how others are feeling,” she said. “A strong UX designer can clearly express their point of view and keep open lines of communication in order to continue to build this shared understanding. Layer in the ability to easily adapt to change, and you have an individual who can effortlessly pivot to creatively solve any problem that comes their way while fortifying the rest of the team.”

Logic and Reasoning Skills

UX design methods and design thinking are modern applications of dialectical reasoning, or the process of arriving at a truth, solution or synthesis by logically comparing and contrasting various solutions, Guzman said. It’s the basis on which we ideate, design, prototype, test, fail and iterate, Guzman said. “Reason is the difference between going around in circles and an upward, forward dialectic in which failures lead to learning, synthesis and better experiences,” he added. “You don’t get there by dreaming up a brilliant solution. You don’t even get there by testing. You get there by using your rational powers to discern what is happening and what needs to happen. Your ability to discern why a designed approach is not working and, by contrast, why another one might be.”

Related Article: 4 Tips to Apply Design Thinking to the Digital Workplace

Ability to Hear and Accept Feedback

Getting feedback early and often will help provide early validation points to a design, thus creating a more efficient design process and a better product, according to Roger Neel, Mavenlink co-founder and CTO. “Hearing deeply critical and passionate customer feedback will only broaden your lens when you're designing with empathy Feedback is a gift,” he said.

Storytelling and Presentation Skills

Good UX designers are also good storytellers, Neel said. “Everything we do is about crafting a narrative,” he added. “Personas, scenarios, customer journeys and design presentation are more obvious examples of this, but through storytelling we also get persuasion, problem framing, strategy and vision. The story is a culmination of many inputs that turns into the right approach to the problem.”

Jeff Davidson, UX/UI consultant and behavioral strategist, seconded the notion of storytelling. Design, he said, is about selling. “You have to sell a concept in order for it to get approved for development,” Davidson said. Good communication skills and telling a story around the product only helps. “People think with logic, but they act with emotion,” Davidson said. “The ability to put together a sound argument with supporting facts and an emotional story with compelling images will make you a more dominant UX designer. Also, learning how to imagine the sequences in a particular event will ensure you're not missing out on critical features.”

Babich agreed adding that UX designers should have solid presentation skills. Designers should be able not only to create solutions but also demonstrate them effectively. 

Related Article: Why Design Today Hinges on Deleting Experiences and Reading Minds

Visualization Skills

UX designers need to learn how to visualize real data and real information in a way that is functional and easy on the eye, Davidson said. He feels that UX design has been “over-complicated” by the industry. After all, much of the job is about choosing what information is technically needed for an app to function (users email address and password) and the information that is valuable to the user in question. “Every single digital application on the market is about empowering the user with information so that they can either complete a 'real life' task more efficiently or giving the users information they can browse which is inherently more enjoyable,” Davidson said. “We're not in the business of extracting and manipulating raw material. At the end of the day, it's all information.”

Related Article: Poor User Experience Drains Productivity and Your Bottom Line

Analytics and Research Skills

Scott Smith, chief revenue officer at CloudApp, said UX designers should acquire a deep analytic focus. They can't be crunching numbers all day, but, Smith said, “they definitely must be able to think through their designs’ impact on business, either positively or negatively.”

Focus on user research, Smith said, because it what allows you to improve an initial concept before finalizing it. User research can be gleaned from in-person and video interviews, surveys and other methods of capturing data. Define and build a process in advance so you know what you’re trying to understand and the conclusions you want to find at the end of your testing.

Wireframing and Prototyping

Wireframing is the stage where you take a concept or design and shape it into something tangible, according to Smith. “Wireframes can take many different shapes and sizes, but what you’re really looking for is a simple way to visually express an idea,” Smith added. “A good UX designer can effectively do this in a way that makes sense. This could be accomplished through pen and paper, apps like Balsamiq, etc., but the idea is to get something down so you can thoroughly review your work and ensure it makes sense.”

Babich said the skill of prototyping is important for a UX designer. It includes both low-fidelity (sketching or paper prototyping) and high-fidelity prototyping (creating a prototype using a special tool such as InVision or Adobe XD). 

Related Article: 5 User Interface Mistakes That Drive Customers Away

Coding Skills

While not expected to me master coders, having some skills in this area can defintiely help differentiate you from the pack of UX designers submitting their resumes. “It’s always great when designers can write code. Having solid coding skills makes it much easier to understand the natural limitations of a platform you create a solution for," said Babich. 

Staying Current Psychology and Behavioral Science Trends

Designers can benefit immensely by developing their reading skills, particularly in the domain of psychology and behavioral science, according to Davidson. UX design, he said, is highly driven by research in a “design thinking” setting, but this research isn't really scientifically rigorous. “The sample sizes are too small and true 'experience' is hard to articulate,” Davidson said. “This makes insight given from 'user feedback' somewhat volatile to innovation. UX designers should learn about actual principles in behavioral science such as conditioning, learning, motivation and the seeking system.” 

Business Acumen 

Baruch Sachs, senior director, technical solutions and global design of Pegasystems, called impeccable design skills and some technical knowledge around user interface technology and capabilities table stakes these days for a successful UX designer. That said, business acumen is a critical skill: being able to tie a design to a strategic initiative or business outcome within their or their client’s organization will elevate UX designers professionally, Sachs said. “Doing so brings them to a level where they become core members of any team and not just ‘specialists,’” he added.