The 5 Qualities of A Successful UX Designer
Early on in my professional life, I got some great advice about how to move one’s career forward. A mentor told me to find someone who is already where I want to be, then call them and ask for directions. In other words, reach out to people who are successfully doing what you want to do and ask them for advice; learn from their wisdom and experience.
A couple of years back I took a position heading up the UX design for a large, technology-driven healthcare company in Nashville, TN. I’m working on a custom, multi-portal platform that serves 13+ discrete user groups who need to interface at various levels with the 90 million cases we manage. Because my position is a bit more visible, I get asked fairly often for advice on how to get into the field of UX Design.
I still consider myself a work-in-progress; I’m learning new things every day. But it occurred to me I might be far enough along to be able to offer some thoughts and insights to those considering a career in user experience design. I’ve benefitted from a lot of great advice and help along the way and I hope this article is one way I can “pay it forward”.
I’ve written elsewhere about how my career has been built more on serendipity than on strategy. (I’ve actually been doing UX design since before the term “UX design” was coined.) Along the way, I’ve learned a lot from working with people across a wide range of disciplines—programmers, web designers, data architects, business analysts, entrepreneurs, graphic designers, developers, other UX designers. My observations and experiences over the past 20 years have led me to conclude that there is a particular personality quality or natural aptitude that seems to separate successful, happy UX designers from struggling, frustrated UX designers. This is what I’ve come to refer to as the “UX State of Mind”.
Obviously, anyone can do the work of UX design. In fact, I believe everyone in the product development lifecycle is a UX designer in a sense and should be empowered to speak into that process. But I’ve come to believe if you don’t possess the right natural aptitudes you’re at a distinct disadvantage in terms of being successful, and more importantly, being happy as a UX designer.
What attributes constitute a UX State of Mind? Here are five I have identified:
1. Insatiable Curiosity
It seems those who thrive the most in the UX design world are the people who are always learning, asking questions, and challenging the status quo. Their favorite questions are “why?” and “what if?”
This trait runs through every area of their lives, not just the day job. They wonder why the grocery store puts the fresh produce section first, why the car rental agency didn’t program its own location in the GPS, why the appliance manufacturer used separate On and Off buttons, rather than one button that toggles?
They are as curious about human nature as they are about technology and processes. They like to people-watch at airports and shopping malls, taking note of things like foot traffic patterns, usage of revolving doors vs. swinging doors, and the efficacy of different types of signage. This is why, as much as they enjoy diving into data and analytics, great UX designers love spending time with their users even more; watching, asking questions, having conversations. A great UX designer knows and loves the users he or she is designing for.
I believe its because of this inquisitive nature that many successful UX designers are polymathematic tendencies, people whose expertise spans a number of different subject areas. This allows them to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.
2. Abstract Reasoning
One of the biggest intangibles for a UX designer is their lateral thinking skills; their ability to quickly identify patterns, logical rules and trends in data, integrate this information and apply it to solve problems. UX designers often have a high aptitude in this area of abstract reasoning; they naturally see systems and processes as a whole and identify connections and relationships between various parts and groups of users.
For example, while designing a particular workflow, a UX-minded person would think things like, “If I put this feature on Screen A for User #1, it means I’ll need to add an extra button to Screen C for User #3, and I’ll also need to add a way for User #4 to view the information entered by User #1.” So rather than focusing exclusively on designing a solution for the specific workflow at hand, their minds are naturally “connecting the dots”; their design solution for the workflow at hand is created in the context of the system as a whole.
This trait helps bring clarity and consistency to the design of the user’s experience. It also helps the UX team foresee potential problems and areas of confusion and address them proactively. And, interestingly, abstract reasoning seems to play a big role in a UX designer’s ability to successfully balance needs and goals between multiple user groups and the business itself.
3. Objective Empathy
In the UX world we hear a lot about empathy and walking a mile in your user’s shoes. This is the user-centric concept that drives us to do the important work of creating user personas, customer journeys, and empathy maps. And its why we do things like focus groups, user test sessions and emotional response tests. When your job is to design a specific experience for a specific user, understanding what that user thinks is pretty important!
Its also important to be able to understand and empathize with multiple points of view about a product or process. The most successful UX designers seem to have the natural inclination to approach empathy with a high level of objectivity. They’re able to set aside their own personal biases and opinions and fully enter into the user’s mindset. During their research they actually take on the user’s biases and expectations.
4. Data-Driven Aesthetic
Amazingly talented graphic designers who are interested in expressing themselves and want to build a portfolio of amazing-looking work typically make for frustrated UX designers. Graphic design only accounts for about 25% of the work of a typical UX designer. And, while there is a lot of room for the graphics to look great, in UX the primary function of design is as a communication tool for solving problems.
This is because great UX has a data-driven aesthetic. Its about making design decisions that communicate and lead toward a desired outcome. Great UX designers have a mindset that says, “My personal design style and preferences don’t matter nearly as much as what my users prefer and respond to.” So if you consider your graphic design skills to be an important tool in your toolbox, but not a source of your professional identity, you may be in a UX State of Mind.
5. Business Sense
Having the attributes above won’t translate into a successful career in UX design on their own. The key to building a strong career is the ability to successfully apply these attributes in a business setting. At the end of the day UX design is not art or entertainment, it’s a business skill.
While the UX design process is all about the user, it does not start with the user. It starts with the business. Successful UX designers never lose sight of the business goals that drive the product or process they are working on. While they’re busy crafting an amazing user experience full of clarity, ease and delight, they’re also asking themselves questions like: How does this experience portray our brand values? How does it impact our profitability? How does it add value to our customers? Does it foster brand loyalty? Does it accurately reflect our mission and our vision? Does it help to solve our users problems?
Please consider this list just one man’s philosophy on UX design, rather than hard and fast rules that are required for success. If UX Design is a career you’re legitimately interested in and passionate about don’t let me (or anyone else) stop you from pursuing it. The world needs more great UX-minded people!
If you have a question or if I can help you, feel free to shoot me an email.