Becoming a Great UX Consultant, Part 1: Some Myths

By Baruch Sachs

Published: February 4, 2013

“A big part of understanding what makes a great UX consultant great is understanding what deficiencies hinder greatness.”

I have been a UX consultant, in one form or another, for about 15 years now. After 15 years of doing the same thing, I have a decent amount of experience to look back and reflect on, so it seems a good time to examine where I’ve been and where I might want to go as a UX consultant.

If I were honest with myself, I would have to say that, out of those 15 years, I’ve considered myself to be a great UX consultant in maybe only the past five years or so. Admitting that makes me realize that I would also like to explore and articulate how UX consultants go from good to great. This is a question that I get a lot from others. So, over my next few columns, I’ll explore this topic in greater depth. In Part 1 of this series, I’ll discuss some myths about what makes a UX consultant great. A big part of understanding what makes a great UX consultant great is understanding what deficiencies hinder greatness.

Myth 1: Great Design Skills Are Key to Being a Great UX Consultant

“Being able to communicate the intricacies and particulars of your designs effectively is critical to your acceptance as a trusted advisor.”

Eh…, maybe not. I know plenty of amazing designers. People who can take the most obscure vision and convoluted requirements and turn them into elegant, natural, sophisticated, yet simple designs. Yet, for all of their superiority in design, great designers are sometimes unable to communicate effectively. Some designers like to say that their designs speak for themselves; but when you’re a consultant, clients may perceive that outlook as arrogance.

Being able to communicate the intricacies and particulars of your designs effectively is critical to your acceptance as a trusted advisor. I’ll freely admit that I am not the very best at design. I have very well-educated ideas about what is good versus bad design, what represents the right design for the domain I’m working in, and so on, but when it comes time to actually create a design, I recognize that there are people who are far better than me.

However, some of those people who are great at design may need a lot of help with communication. They might not know how to sell their designs. Or perhaps they don’t know how to make people comfortable, knowing that they not only know design, but can execute a design project. It is this type of communication that is very important to winning clients’ trust, helping them to believe that you are able not only to design something, but to complete their project successfully.

There is no doubt that being a great designer is a strength. However, if you focus just on your design skills, you’ll never be a great UX consultant.

Myth 2: Great UX Consultants Are Passionate People

Someone who practices their craft passionately is different from a person who is just passionate. When you are truly passionate about your profession, you’ll do everything you can to master the intricacies of your discipline.

Passion is, indeed, a key differentiator between merely good and great UX consultants. People who are passionate about what they do exude confidence and can get in tune with clients in a way that others cannot. But being passionate will get you only so far.

Passion does not make up for a lack of experience and knowledge about your area of expertise. I have worked with UX consultants who are extremely passionate, but incorrectly assume that they can use their passion to hide their lack of knowledge about user experience. Someone who practices their craft passionately is different from a person who is just passionate. When you are truly passionate about your profession, you’ll do everything you can to master the intricacies of your discipline.

In addition to being a master of your discipline, you also need to understand that it is almost always better to listen rather than to talk. People who have great passion for, but little depth in a subject do not make the best listeners. Sometimes, it is almost as if their passion ignites an insatiable need to talk.

When I interview people for a position on my team, I almost always let them ramble. I never make judgments about people solely on the basis of what they say, but also by what they do not say. A person who does not feel the need to ramble simply because the person on the other end of a conversation is keeping silent, a person who does not talk just to fill an empty space, that is a person I want on my team. A critical component of being a great UX consultant is just knowing when to shut your mouth. Don’t let your passion for what you do make you difficult to listen to. Great consultants know that they are there to listen just as much as they are there to offer guidance.

Myth 3: Knowledge Is Key to Being a Great UX Consultant

“Having knowledge about user experience without knowing how you should use it will hinder you in this profession.”

On the other hand, you can be truly knowledgeable about user experience and its tenets and still not be a great UX consultant. Knowledge will get you only so far. Having knowledge about user experience without knowing how you should use it will hinder you in this profession. There are plenty of consultants out there who have excellent depth and breadth in the UX professions, but are still not the ones clients look to when thinking of engaging a UX consultant.

Why? Because, although these people may be quite knowledgeable about user experience, clients just don’t want to work with them. Whether clients perceive them as arrogant, combative, or just plain reticent in communicating what they know, UX consultants who focus only on their knowledge will never be great consultants. Clients who hire UX consultants are more inclined to work with personable, effective communicators who not only know their discipline, but can easily convey their knowledge to others.

Conclusion

“Being a great UX consultant means a commitment to constantly improving yourself in a multitude of areas.”

What these myths reveal is that, to be the great UX consultant you strive to be, you really need to have quite a lot of depth and breadth. Yes, you need to be a very good designer. You need to be passionate about your profession. You need to be knowledgeable about user experience. But most of all, you need to be an amazing communicator who puts people at ease and makes them believe they cannot succeed without you. This ability does not come naturally to most consultants, but you must recognize that it is something you should continually work to improve. Being a great UX consultant means a commitment to constantly improving yourself in a multitude of areas.

Part 2 of this series will focus on some best practices and guidelines that will put you on the proper path to becoming a great UX consultant.

7 Comments

People in job interviews fill space because:

  1. It can be intense.
  2. They believe it’s your expectation.
  3. It generally is the expectation.
  4. It’s standard social etiquette not so stay silent, but to make conversation,

So, basically, your point here is that you attempt to make people feel ill at ease, or more accurately, you act against the standard etiquette to purposely hear ramblings from nervous people, so that you can accurately judge them?

If you wanted to accurately judge them, you’d do everything you could to present a standard situation and the exact level of etiquette they would receive on the job and judge them based on that reaction.

Maybe some people expect that you, as interviewer, to take control of the interview and the initiative.

For me, as UX Manager, the most useful question is: “Please tell me 3 reasons why I shouldn’t hire you.” Usually I ask it after asking for 3 reasons to hire him.

This question helps me to know the self-criticism level. I think it is one of the most important skills for improving as a professional.

Regards!

Thank you for your insights. I understand your position on identifying someone who would be a good fit for your UX team. If we, as UX professionals, keep talking, we will miss hearing about user’s goals, needs and desires.

If I am talking; I am storytelling. If am listening, I am learning. It is challenging to be okay with the silence of a remote usability test. Instead of adding filler conversation, allow the articulation of a problem to come from the silence of participants. Besides, it’s very good Zen practice. ;-)

I look forward to reading Part 2 of your series!

First, thanks for taking the time to read my column and to comment on it. It is very much appreciated.

So, you’re focusing on only a single piece of the column, but I do want to address your response. When you consult, you deal with tough people and tough situations. I do not stay silent, but I do stay impassive when listening to a response. Much the same way most people will do when you give them a presentation in a consulting role. You will not always have verbal and non-verbal cues. You need to be confident in what you are saying and be very confident in what you should not say. Now, you might think that makes me a tough person who is bucking social etiquette. I disagree with you. I believe that makes me someone who is realistic and is looking for the right people to succeed. I don’t want someone who flounders anymore than that person wants to flounder. I don’t conduct job interviews to identify good conversationalists. I conduct job interviews to find the right person.

That’s a great question, thanks!

Hi Baruch,

Thanks for taking this subject up.

I like the way you put your experience over 3 myths and then your conclusion. The biggest advantage of a consultant is being a key part of the overall project, but at the same time, not owning said project. This non-ownership of a consultant makes thing very easy. Of course, it requires crucial conversations when it comes to design decisions. I have been following this mantra over the past 3 years, and it is helping me a lot in this role.

~VijayK

I think this article should be titled “Becoming a Great Consultant, Part 1: Some Myths”—that is removing the UX.

Suffice it to say that your point on good communication skills is essential for all consultants in all industries. (Everyone knows this.)

Becoming a great UX consultant requires a lot more than just communication, which I think you should focus less on in your article.

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