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

Most organizations who rank at the highest levels of design maturity can connect the efforts of their design team’s effort to revenue, according to the Invision 2019 Product Design Hiring Report. Further, 70% of managers increased the headcount of their design team in the past year.

So with the demand high, you might be asking yourself, do I have what it takes to be a user experience (UX) designer? We asked experts about what it takes to be successful. It certainly requires a unique set of skills. Consider that not only do you have to be adept with technology, communication and writing, business acumen, prototyping and wireframing, but it also requires flavors of psychology, empathy and curiosity.

Recognition of Implied Needs and Pain Points

Cisco Guzman, director of product management for Adobe XD, said his first reaction when thinking about UX designer skills is the ability to collaborate. After all, he said, it’s such a critical part of what it means to be a designer today.

Yet so is the ability to empathize and stay curious, translate feedback, reason, remain data-driven … the list goes on, Guzman said. Even if you did all of those things, would that make you a great designer?

“This had me thinking about all the great designers and experiences that resonate with me and I asked myself: what do those all have in common?” Guzman said. “And then it was sitting right in front of me. A great UX designer has the ability to recognize implied needs and pain points. By using this skill, UX designers can create experiences that both delight and improve quality of life.”

The era of the consumer is giving way to the age of the subscriber, and it has become paramount for designers to understand how to spot and address the pain points and needs with which individuals come to an experience. “This ability to discern underlying needs is what gives designers the ability to approach age old problems with fresh perspectives,” said Guzman.

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

Tying Design to True Business Outcomes

Business acumen continues to be a highly critical skill, with a renewed focus on tying any design to a true business outcome, according to Baruch Sachs, vice president of client innovation of Pega. If it doesn’t, he said, your design for services, products or applications will fail to get funded or really radiate with consumers.

“Designers also need to think of what they do in the frame of business innovation,” Sachs said. “No one can deny the legitimate business need for innovation, but very few can properly verbalize what innovation means for their organization.”

Design done well provides clarity and uncovers what true innovation can mean for an organization, he added. That can mean the creation of something new or just a reformulation of existing processes, and/or functionality that provide value to both the organization you are designing for as well as your customers.

Empathy for the Customer

Roger Neel, chief technology officer and co-founder of Mavenlink, said being able to think about problems from a customer or user's point of view, being empathetic to their needs and determining what job needs to be done is critical for UX designers.

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 Guzman.

Curiosity a Must

Mike Gibson, senior UX strategist at digital tech consultancy SPR, said designers can learn most of the skills they need to be successful through lessons, practice, collaboration and repetition. However, he said, without curiosity, they’ll continue to be confined by the status quo. “Cultivate a desire to find out more,” he said. “The more questions asked, and answers found, will give designers of all disciplines the confidence to make unbiased decisions backed by what they’ve added to the teams understanding of the challenge they're facing."

Neel added a real curiosity and eye for trends is super helpful in building lasting solutions. “As our workforce becomes more global,” he said, “what user experiences are required to be inclusive of the total workforce when different cultures have different interaction expectations?”

Curiosity is a quality that drives inquisitive thinking, exploration, investigation and learning through observation,” Guzman said, citing Wikipedia. “UX design is not about designing screens,” he added. “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.”

Related Article: Balancing User Experience and Creativity in Design

Coding and Technical Skills

Nick Babich, editor-in-chief of UX Planet, said that while not expected to be master coders, having some skills in this area can definitely 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.

Having a good understanding of the underlying technology and its limitations is very important in order to work efficiently, Neel added. “UX designers need to be able to take possibilities and constraints into consideration, and also push back where appropriate, when thinking about solutions,” Neel said.

Appetite for Knowledge

Emily Schmittler, director of UX at Nerdery, said the career path of a UX designer requires more than hard skills in information architecture, interaction design, data visualization and visual design.

“It takes,” she said, “the desire to truly understand the core of challenges people face and how humans relate to the world and an experience. Natural curiosity is what creates the problem-solving mentality needed to get to the root of an issue and find a solution – which is a vital skill for anyone in technology.”

Designers who can look beyond the product they are making into the broader picture of the impact to end users, their communities and beyond, are the ones who will make projects that shape the future, according to Schmittler. “Having an appetite for knowledge and learning through observation is what makes a successful UX designer, even more so than the hard skills taught in school,” she said.

Related Article: Design Thinking Isn’t User Experience

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].”

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: User Experience Design Shouldn’t Happen in Isolation

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 Neel. “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.

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.”

Analytics and Research Skills

Scott Smith, CloudApp CEO, 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 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... 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

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.”