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Soft Skills in UX Design Leadership

UX Planet — Medium | Ian Armstrong

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with one of my UX mentors, Diana Furka, about soft skills in design. Now that I’m in a position where I often interview and review UX Design candidates, I think a lot about our talks on the topic. They mattered. They pointed me in some excellent directions over time.

We all know the hard-skills involved in UX. They range from technical proficiency with design software to an ability to run a card sort or a conjoint analysis. We like to see a portfolio of work. We need to see a familiarity with lean UX and agile methodologies. In short we’ve got great lists of things that make a person technically proficient. That’s a good starting point when sorting resumes but we all know it’s just the beginning.

Those things aren’t what make a designer great. Greatness is quantified by soft skills, which many of us have a difficult time articulating.

Just last night I was lucky enough to chat with a woman who exhibited so many of the soft skills I associate with advanced UX that I spontaneously decided to take her under my wing. That’s the second time in six months I’ve convinced myself to do so, and we just hired Ranjitha Anantha at the studio as a result of the last one.

When you know, you know. But what is that mysterious quality?

In my professional experience there is a growth progression that starts with a deep curiosity about the world and eventually becomes directed empathy inside a shell of diplomatic design leadership. What follows is my articulation of that journey:

Curiosity: Curiosity is the root of intelligence, humor, and human connection. It is the starting point from which a designer launches and is axiomatic to the trade. Without curiosity we cannot create anything new.

Generosity: UX Design is inherently entrepreneurial and the entrepreneurial spirit is inherently generous. Designers are driven to leave everything they touch better than they found it.

Analytical: The ability to view a problem, opportunity, or pain point from multiple angles is a requirement for successful ideation. Our minds begin teasing apart problems and opportunities on contact, even before we have learned to re-shape them.

Articulate: To successfully design anything, we must first be able to describe it in clear, digestible, and actionable terms. To lead a team we need to be able to articulate a process. To defend a design we need to be able to articulate our strategy. Articulation is the primary vessel of effective communication.

Directed Intent: The ability to harness our talents and execute them on command, with intention. We no longer wait for inspiration but instead activate a mental process that results in creative output. We are specific in our designs. We predicate the success of our work on an ability to elicit specific behaviors from a group of users.

Process Driven: An advanced designer has developed and is able to articulate a consistent and repeatable process, which can be imprinted on multiple teams as a way to maximize their effectiveness.

Polymath: UXers have mastered a broad range of skills related to their process of creating value. The list isn’t specific. We don’t necessarily practice those skills professionally, but have achieved competence in them; often because it brought us joy too do so.

Judge of Character: Able to quickly and accurately discern authenticity and competence in people and practitioners without having to be an expert in the subject area being observed.

Empathetic Patience: The more time we spend in UX, the faster our minds move. It’s a side effect of regular practice with pattern recognition and complex systems. The ability to be patient with people who aren’t experts in our craft only becomes more important as our skills advance.

Parallel Processing: The ability to track multiple information sources in an environment and hold them all in our mind. The best designers can hold a truly daunting amount of information at the ready and offer it as insight on demand.

Synthesis: The mental manipulation of information results in an accurate synthesis vs a simple summary. Yellow and blue aren’t just green. They remind the user of spring when planning a vacation in February. Greens also create accessibility issues for people with deuteranopia so they shouldn’t be used in opposition to reds in a critical context. Incidentally yellow-blue color blindness is called tritanopia but the two types don’t generally occur together… you get what I’m saying.

Strategic Persuasion: People don’t do what we tell them to, they learn what is modeled to them. The most powerful ideas are the ones we come up with ourselves. Whether developing content or interfaces, we learn to let people close their own conceptual loops with the information we’ve provided them. It’s like drawing 90% of a circle with ideas and letting the receiver finish it.

Directed Empathy: It isn’t enough to simply be empathetic, we have to be able to focus on a specific user process and empathize with it from multiple points of view. This is really a synthesis of previously mentioned traits that appears in advanced designers.

Diplomatic Leadership: It’s one thing to see the underlying patterns in the world, and quite another to be able to manipulate them through design. Being able to bring people with us on that journey in a way that doesn’t alienate, disparage, or upset them though — that is the most noble trait of a design leader. We learn to manufacture excitement and demand in a place where intractability once held sway.

At the time of this publication, I am a Principal UX Designer at Dell EMC’s Digital Marketing Studio in San Francisco. I learned HTML in 1997 and built my first commercial web experience in 1999. Professional designers and entrepreneurs can connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter.


Soft Skills in UX Design Leadership was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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