Sharpening Up Your Soft Skills

May 6, 2013

At some stage in your UX career, the focus of your professional improvement will likely switch from what you can produce as a UX strategist, designer, or researcher to how you produce it. Not only do you need to master hard skills such as how to articulate a UX vision, run a card sort, or wireframe for mobile rather than the desktop, you also need to negotiate with developers, facilitate prioritization workshops for teams, and sell design concepts to stakeholders. Soft skills, the interpersonal and behavioral skills that impact how you manage yourself and work with others, can make or break UX professionals and distinguish the brilliant from the respectable among us.

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Hard Skills

The hard skills that it is important for UX professionals to possess

  • include the ability to perform various tasks—for example, conduct a content audit, wireframe in OmniGraffle, or prepare a Keynote presentation
  • relate to our IQ
  • are left brain
  • are necessary to accomplish specific work
  • require you to accumulate technical knowledge through training, books, observation, and practice, and you can learn them from scratch

Soft Skills

The soft skills that every great UX professional must possess

  • include the ability to work with others and manage ourselves—for example, to give constructive design feedback, solve problems creatively, and delegate tasks
  • relate to our EQ (emotional intelligence)
  • are right brain
  • are necessary for everyday life
  • become established when we are children and our brain gets wired for certain behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs based on our experiences and relationships

What makes soft skills challenging is that you acquire them as soon as you start learning and interacting with others as a child. For example, how your parents negotiated and managed the way your family members did household chores directly informs your communication style and your ability to delegate, persuade others, and get yourself organized, among other things.

These pathways become physically imprinted in your brain. It takes a persistent, consistent change in behavior as well as adopting new attitudes and beliefs to remap those pathways. Only then can you manage yourself and your relations with others differently. To improve your soft skills, you have to unlearn your default behavior and mindset, which requires great self-awareness and self-control.

There are many soft skills that you must master to be successful in work and life. However a survey that I ran in 2012 identified a subset of soft skills that UX professionals should consider as the areas of greatest importance. I conducted the online survey with several UX industry groups and forums and attracted just over 100 respondents working in the digital space.

Overall, UX designers considered the following soft skills to be the top-10 most important skills that they needed to master:

  1. creative thinking
  2. communication
  3. problem solving
  4. analytical thinking
  5. active listening
  6. collaboration
  7. interviewing and observation
  8. persuasion and influence
  9. planning and organization
  10. teamwork

Who Values What?

People in different roles within the digital-design space give slightly different rankings to particular skills in the UX skillset:

  • UX designers themselves emphasize the importance of facilitation skills—bringing multiple people and parts together and getting them to go in the same direction, similar to conducting an orchestra.
  • Managers and senior staff value critiquing and consensus building—in seeking the best-quality ideas and nurturing the relationships and dynamics between stakeholders.
  • Visual designers and user researchers value planning, organization, and presenting skills—acknowledging the interdependence among roles and working methodically, completing tasks in a timely manner. They also appreciate UX designers’ representing their ideas faithfully—often on their behalf—and presenting them persuasively.
  • Developers value change management—appreciating that individuals and teams need an illuminated path to smoothly transition from a current state to a desired future state.
  • Product managers emphasize building trust, client management, and dealing with difficult people—pursuing their need to feel heard, valued, understood, and respected—as well as distinguishing when it’s time for a UX designer to be the expert rather than a trusted advisor.

The trend that emerges from these stakeholder expectations is that UX professionals need to put more effort into the skills that support design acceptance rather than those that support idea generation and refinement.

The Sector Perspective

Analyzing the survey data by workplace reveals what soft skills people working in particular environments consider most important:

  • Consultancy and agency staff members emphasize problem solving, creative thinking, and collaboration—perhaps reflecting their role in helping clients solve business problems, not just design problems, as well as the pressure for external UX designers to supply fresh thinking, while cooperating with other staff members, the client, and other vendors.
  • Government employees value communication, teamwork, and decision making, hinting at the need to work in a transparent and inclusive way within the structure of formal responsibility and accountability.
  • Employees of product, service, and application development companies cite persuasion, influence, and building trust as key skills, which aligns with meeting the expectations of product managers and the need to manage stakeholders intensely.
  • Education institution staff include interviewing, observation, goal setting, and managing emotions, indicating the presence of a unique set of challenges in a complex, decentralized, often bureaucratic environment, with myriad user types, regulatory restrictions, and compliance requirements.

As you move from one sector to another and between in-house and agency work, consider this extra dimension of soft skills that will help you to keep your job, as well as how they complement the hard UX skills that help you get the job in the first place.

When in Rome…

Fascinating nuances emerge when comparing the most-prized soft skills across specific locations:

  • In Australia, UX professionals consider active listening to be the most important skill and value facilitation, while planning and organization didn’t make the top ten.
  • In Canada, UX professionals appreciate decision making and change management more than collaboration, persuasion, and influence.
  • In India, dealing with difficult people, building trust, time management, stakeholder management, and conflict resolution all made the top ten rather than skills like problem solving, communication, and teamwork.
  • In Scandinavia, UX professionals favor presenting, building trust, and stakeholder management rather than interviewing, observation, persuasion, influence, planning, and organization.
  • In the United Kingdom, UX professionals value presenting and decision making rather than communication and teamwork.
  • In the United States, UX professionals place the greatest value on planning, organization, persuasion, influence, and presenting instead of teamwork.

Note that sample sizes were not equivalent across these locations, so I must acknowledge the limits of these statistics. Nevertheless, UX designers with international job opportunities and global clients must factor cultural sensitivity and the realities of the digital sectors in different countries into their professional development.

Do these differences among stakeholders, workplaces, and countries resonate with you? What soft skills have you had to nurture in your various UX jobs?

Improving Your Soft Skills

Develop your soft skills keeping your stakeholders and teammates in mind, knowing that they expect and value different strengths in UX professionals. Recognize and prioritize the skills that your particular workplace and location appreciate most, too.

The best way to progress in developing your soft skills is through availing yourself of coaching and mentoring that heighten your self-awareness regarding your own conduct. Your coach or mentor can reflect your behavior, attitudes, and beliefs back to you and work with you to find new ways of relating to others and managing yourself.

To enrich both your everyday work life and your career in user experience, balance your professional development in soft skills with a solid set of hard skills—that is, the technical UX skills that everyone expects UX professionals to possess. 

Freelance UX Design Consultant at MM Communications

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Mia NorthropMia has over 10 years of experience designing digital user experiences. She applies her passion for finding the sweet spot between user needs and business objectives, working for clients as diverse as Medibank, NAB, RMIT, eBay, Telstra, Ford, Merrill Lynch, Coles Group, EMC, and ANZ. Formerly, Mia worked for a who’s who of Australian Internet companies, including Fairfax Digital, Sensis, and SEEK, as well as the interactive agency Razorfish and the consultancy Symplicit. Her favorite part of UX projects is conducting UX research that illuminates the ideas that make the biggest impact on design.  Read More

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