Essential and Desirable Skills for a UX Designer

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A column by Janet M. Six
December 20, 2010

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss what skills are essential and desirable for a UX Designer.

Each month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your question to us at: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to Ask UXmatters this month:

  • Leo Frishberg—Principal User Experience Architect at Tektronix Inc.
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at Spirit Softworks; Founding Director, Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); UXmatters columnist
  • Robert Reimann—Lead Interaction Designer at Sonos, Inc; Past-President, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Q: What skills should one look for in a UX Designer and why?—from a UXmatters reader

Defining UX Design

“Let’s start by defining UX design,” suggests Pabini. “In our UXmatters Glossary, I defined user experience design as follows:

‘A holistic, multidisciplinary approach to the design of user interfaces for digital products, defining their form, behavior, and content. User experience design integrates interaction design, industrial design, information architecture, information design, visual interface design, user assistance design, and user-centered design, ensuring coherence and consistency across all of these design dimensions.’

“Depending on the type of product or service you’re designing, UX design encompasses most or even all of these different aspects of design,” continues Pabini. “For example, the design of application software requires all of these skills except industrial design. For specific types of products or services, the emphasis on particular aspects of UX design varies. For example, for most applications, interaction design is the primary skill a UX designer must have; while, for information-rich Web sites, information architecture is key. In some companies, a UX team accomplishes the work of UX design; in others, UX Designers do. These UX Designers typically play an integral role on a product team.

“In my opinion, to earn the title UX Designer, one must have strong skills in most, if not all, aspects of UX design. UX Designers aren’t specialists; nor are they generalists. (For more about this, see my UXmatters article ‘Specialists Versus Generalists: A False Dichotomy?’) UX Designers should have deep expertise in several aspects of UX design and fairly comprehensive knowledge of the other aspects of UX design that are relevant to the domain in which they’re working. Yes, I know this is a high bar for UX Designers to attain, but to autonomously devise great, holistic UX design solutions, one must have all of the requisite skills.”

Looking Beyond UX Design

“I’m not sure how to take this question,” muses Whitney, “so perhaps I’d better expand the question to show what I’m really answering: What skills should one look for in a designer—of any kind—to show that their focus is on user experience, not just having expertise in their discipline or skills? Because the question I’m not answering is: Does a UX Designer have to be a graphic artist?—or any similar reductions. There are some obvious answers that show up in discussions of this topic, covering the soft skills of listening, collaboration, and teamwork. But I thought I’d take a different approach and look at how some of the disciplines within user experience define themselves.”

To help us understand what plain language experts bring to a UX team, Whitney recommends our taking a look at Ginny Redish’s “What Is a Plain Language Expert? on the Web site of the Center for Plain Language. Ginny’s article outlines the main points you should consider when assessing whether someone is a plain language expert:

“How to Recognize a Plain Language Expert”

  • “Ask to see a portfolio.”
  • “Ask the plain language expert to explain some of the examples.”
  • “Expect the plain language expert to focus on the users of the document.”
  • “Expect the plain Language expert to talk about the context in which the document is used.”
  • ”Plain Language experts focus on more than sentences and words.”
  • “Plain Language experts help users skim, skip, and find quick pathways through a document.”
  • “Plain Language experts write clearly.”
  • “Plain Language experts are also information designers.”
  • “Ask the plain language expert how they know they have succeeded in creating a useful and usable document.”
  • ”Review the expert’s work yourself.”

From “What Is a Plain Language Expert? by Ginny Redish

“Ginny Redish wrote this document, so it is no surprise that it sounds a lot like a description of a UX expert,” remarks Whitney. “In fact, the only points that are specific to the writing part of a plain language expert’s work are #5 and #7. I especially like #6 and #8, which remind us that—especially in any digital medium—none of the design skills stand alone. All depend on each other. If you can’t find it, you can’t read it, if you can’t read it, you can’t use it.”

Whitney also suggests that we peruse “What Is Graphic Design? and “What Designers Need to Know,” from the AIGA career guide, Graphic Design: A Career Guide and Education Directory. Here is their definition of graphic design:

“Graphic design is a creative process that combines art and technology to communicate ideas. The designer works with a variety of communication tools in order to convey a message from a client to a particular audience. The main tools are image and typography.”—From “What Is Graphic Design?

“Only one of these three sentences is specific to graphic design—but the general focus of these guides is more on the designers themselves than on UX,” notes Whitney. “Okay. I’ll stop. Point probably made: similar goals met through different UX discipline skills.”

“I totally agree with Whitney’s point about the interdependency of design skills,” responds Pabini. “But graphic designers may or may not work on UX teams, creating user interfaces. In fact, the great majority don’t. I prefer to call those who have graphic design skills and do work on UX teams visual interface designers, because there are considerable differences in the skillsets of graphic designers who work in marketing communications versus those of visual interface designers who must be able to design effective user interfaces. Plus, working on a product team presents significantly different challenges. In addition to typical graphic design skills, visual interface designers should

  • know how to work collaboratively on a multidisciplinary product team
  • understand the rendering capabilities of the platform for which they’re designing
  • know how to design for accessibility, accommodating the needs of people with color-deficient vision and low vision
  • provide iconic representations of objects and actions, as well as other graphic elements
  • be able to visually express hierarchy, grouping, and workflows for applications
  • have a mastery of information design and be able to clearly express complex information
  • design for consistency with standards rather than creative expression
  • and I know Whitney would agree with this… They must take a user-centered approach to visual design, knowing who a product’s users are and understanding their wants and needs, so they can create an optimal design for them.

“Visual interface designers can play an important role on a UX team and make significant contributions to a team UX design effort, but they are not UX Designers. Being a UX Designer comprehends all of this and so much more.

“For more information about the competencies of specialists in various aspects of UX design, I suggest you read ‘The Five Competencies of User Experience Design’ by Steve Psomas. (It’s #2 in our ‘UXmatters All-Time Top 25.’)”

What Specific Skills and Attributes to Look for in UX Designers

Robert has contributed a comprehensive list of UX skills, knowledge and attributes, about which he says, “These are not meant to represent the skills each individual should have, but rather to represent a broad set of skills that are useful to UX professionals in general. UX Designers need not only be masters of design tools, but must also have a strong understanding of and ability to perceive human nature and human behavior. They need to be excellent communicators and facilitators, as they often help bridge gaps in communication between other organizations. This also means they need to be able to speak the language of development, marketing, manufacturing, sales, and, of course, users.”

The Skills of UX Professionals

By Robert Reimann

Core Skills

  • research techniques
  • ethnography and discovery—user goals, motivations, and work patterns
  • user modeling—persona and scenario creation; role-playing
  • product design—product-level interaction principles and concepts
  • interaction design—function-level interaction principles and concepts
  • interface design—component-level interaction principles and concepts
  • information architecture and information design—content structure and presentation principles

Business Skills

  • project management
  • time management
  • stakeholder or client management
  • basic business writing—letters, email messages, meeting notes, and summaries

Communications Skills

  • rhetoric and persuasive writing
  • expository writing and composition
  • technical writing
  • public speaking and presenting
  • visual communication

Interpersonal Skills

  • mediation and facilitation
  • active listening
  • interviewing and observation
  • team-building
  • collaboration

Usability Skills

  • knowledge of usability testing principles and methods
  • knowledge of principles of cognitive psychology

Media Skills

  • understanding of bit-depth, pixel-density, and resolution issues
  • managing color palettes
  • icon design and pixel-level design
  • graphic user interface (GUI) screen layout and composition
  • page layout and composition
  • animation
  • sound design
  • prototyping—paper, Visual Basic, HTML/CSS, Director, Flash, or other methods
  • knowledge of file formats and tradeoffs

Technical Skills

  • understanding of basic computer programming principles, tools, and technologies
  • GUI development principles, tools, and technologies
  • database principles, tools, and technologies
  • understanding of software and hardware development processes—specification, coding, and testing
  • knowledge of existing and new technologies and constraints
  • knowledge of mechanical engineering and manufacturing—for hardware devices

Tools Skills

  • PowerPoint or Keynote
  • Visio or OmniGraffle
  • Adobe Creative Suite

Personal Attributes

  • empathy
  • passion
  • humor
  • skepticism
  • analytical thinking
  • ability to synthesize information and identify salient points
  • ability to visualize solutions—before they are built

“A UX designer has to have all the skills of any designer, but also needs to focus on people—the users—not just on business goals, skills, or techniques,” explains Whitney. “That’s what puts the U in UX. To show all of the different vectors of user experience and usability, I created the ‘vectors’ diagram on the UPA Web site,” which you can see in Figure 1. “Its original goal was to show that many different disciplines have arrived at a similar perspective,” Whitney continues. “But, if you look at the labels on the arrows rather than those at their starting points, you’ll see many of the different kinds of skills that go into user experience.”

Figure 1—The vectors of user experience and usability
The vectors of user experience and usability

The Attributes of a UX Designer

By Leo Frishberg

  • critical thinking with an open mind
  • abductive, or design, thinking (See Bill Buxton’s great book, Sketching User Experience for the core elements of design thinking.)
  • ability to pretend the future is now and consider the results
  • strong design skills
  • ability to rapidly sketch ideas in various media—in words, through graphics, on a whiteboard, or programmatically
  • strong articulation skills—both verbal and visual
  • strong team orientation
  • open to critique
  • ability to step up to synthesize when the time is right
  • empathy—for users, management, and teammates

“Some skills work in concert to help a business create better UX designs for people,” answers Daniel. “So, a UX Designer should be and do the following:

  • a clear communicator at all levels—not just speaking about the design itself, but communicating with the people who have a voice in the design—See my UXmatters article ‘Walking Through Your Product Design With Stakeholders.’
  • a people person and leader who knows how to get people involved and motivate them to collaborate in design discussions—See my article from the UPA Voice,UX Leadership.’
  • a good listener and facilitator who knows how to facilitate constructive design discussions—See ‘Achieving Design Focus: An Approach to Design Workshops,’ which I wrote for UXmatters, with Josephine Wong.
  • a designer with a holistic approach to design, who is able to draw on key insights from different parts of an organization—See Steve Baty’s ‘Patterns in UX Research’ on UXmatters.
  • a designer who can scope and scope again—and knows how to say yes and no—in seeking a product’s meaning—See my UXmatters article ‘Getting to Value.’”

“Another way of looking at what competencies UX Designers should have is through the lens of the value they provide—both to their product teams and their larger organization—as I’ve discussed in my UXmatters article ‘Why UX Should Matter to Software Companies.’”

Key Questions to Ask When Hiring a Usability Professional

”Read the UK-UPA guide ‘Key Questions to Ask Your Usability Testing Supplier,’PDF suggests Whitney. “The questions focus on whether the usability supplier or consultant knows the full range of methodologies and can connect them to business needs. For example:

  • What usability techniques are appropriate for this project?
  • What standards will you follow and what measurements will you take?
  • What users will you test?
  • Will I get helpful and accurate answers?
  • How usable will your deliverables be?

“From this,”Whitney concludes, “we learn that it’s important to know how best to apply your own skills and when to employ specific techniques. A good designer has a toolbox with many techniques and understands what each tool is good for.” To help you understand how to choose the right tool for a job, Whitney recommends her User Friendly 2008 workshop with Daniel Szuc, “Choosing the Right Usability Techniques: Getting the Answers You Need.”PDF  


Buxton, Bill. Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann. 2007.

Poggenpohl, Sharon Helmer, ed. Graphic Design: A Career Guide and Education Directory. New York: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1993.

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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