How to Spot Good UX Designers

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A column by Janet M. Six
April 21, 2014

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss how to discern good UX designers from the rest.

Every month in Ask UXmatters, our UX experts provide answers to 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 questions to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Drew Davidson—VP of Design at ÄKTA
  • Nathaniel Davis—Founder and Curator of DSIA Research Initiative and DSIA Portal of Information Architecture; UXmatters columnist
  • Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile; coauthor of Designing Mobile Interfaces; UXmatters columnist
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Tobias Komischke—Director of User Experience at Infragistics
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Jo Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Q: How do you discern whether a UX designer is any good? And how do you teach others to spot good UX designers?—from a UXmatters reader

“I’ve stopped trying to spot good UX designers,” replies Jordan. “It’s like trying to spot a hungry cat. You can’t see hunger. So you have to understand that, when a cat gets hungry, she starts meowing, rubbing around your legs, and pawing at her food bag. Similarly, you can’t see talent. This goes for finding good talent in general—not just good UX people. Talent is contextual to the team and the environment in which it operates. The best UX professional for one team could be the worst UX professional for a different team.

“I wouldn’t use something as obvious as past work to evaluate whether a person is good at something. It’s hard to know the role that anyone’s had in the creation of a thing. It’s better to ask about approaches to team integration and collaboration, the processes and tools that they use, team environments with which they’re familiar, the ambitions they have, how well they know themselves, and other things like that.

“The goal should be to find out whether a specific individual would be a good UX designer for a specific team or teams. We shouldn’t generalize. I’d never teach anyone to spot a good UX designer or a bad UX designer. Instead, just identify whether an individual has the traits, qualities, experiences, and mindset that you need to create the best team possible. And, remember, sometimes a different approach is exactly what a team needs.”

Looking for a User-Centered Approach to Design

“You need to do design work with a designer to assess his or her ability,” recommend Dan and Jo. “Good designers exhibit a set of skills that enable them to leverage stories that come from learning from the people for whom they’re designing a product. They convert these stories into opportunities to create value for both those people and the business. In other words, good UX designers understand that the work they do is not meant to meet their own needs, but the needs of the people for whom they’re designing. They also understand when to introduce their opinions and how to back up their opinions with relevant experience or good design rationale.”

“The most important criterion that ÄKTA looks for in a UX designer is the ability to be extremely unbiased and, based on evidence, truly see things from someone else’s perspective,” says Drew. “Our research-driven process often produces findings that are not what the clients—or even perhaps what we, as designers—had expected or would like, but they’re valid findings. And, it’s fairly easy to spot people with this ability by showing them a mockup during an interview and asking them how they’d approach a project to improve it. If their response is a thoughtful series of questions about the user rather than a laundry list of specific changes, they’re much more likely to be a true user-centered designer.”

Evaluating UX Designers’ Soft Skills

“When hiring UX designers, don’t look so much at the final design in a designer’s portfolio,” answers Steven, “but ask them about how they interacted with others on the team, how they collaborated with the rest of the team, and how they sought to improve the overall product. It is important to give credit where it is due. Soft skills are critical; a UX designer who cannot work with others will not be able to bring his or her user empathy to solving the difficult, technical solutions for a product.

“Ideally, good design is not felt in the gut, but proven. Usability research can validate a design, but other metrics such as seeing improvement in your organizational goals—for example, increased numbers of sales or users—can be indicators, if you control for all other changes. User experience is about more than just user-interface design, so UX designers need to be able to influence parts of a system that are not under their direct control.”

“The skills of good UX designers,” advise Dan and Jo, “include, but are not limited to the following:

  • listeningactively listening to the people for whom they are designing a product to understand their needs and goals
  • bridging—taking users’ stories and bridging from them to observations that they can group and refine further
  • iterating—looking at observations from users’ stories and iteratively analyzing them to see whether there is additional goodness within them to help identify new insights
  • changing perspectives—zooming in to see the details and also zooming out to see the implications on the whole system—that is, moving from the tactical to the strategic
  • adapting—being open to new stories and variables that require tweaking the current direction of a product or service
  • aggregating—analyzing stories, observations, and insights and knowing how to group them in tangible artifacts, so they can reuse the learnings to meet future business needs
  • communicating—clearly communicating to the people on a project and in a business, independent of their role

“These soft skills reside within a practice framework that enables good UX designers to understand the elements at play holistically.” If you’re interested in learning more about practice frameworks, Dan and Jo recommend that you read their UXmatters article “Holistic Thinking on Transitioning to a New Practice Framework.”

Identifying Good UX Designers

“Here’s how I spot good UX designers and what I recommend that others look for,” replies Tobias:

  • Ask what conferences they go to, if any.
  • Have them do a test exercise to see whether they can (1) analyze a problem, (2) come up with a good design, and (3) communicate and defend that design.
  • Look at their background. Do they have a degree in a field such as psychology, human-computer interaction, engineering, or graphic design?
  • What job experience do they have? It doesn’t matter whether they’ve worked for small firms or large firms, but job experience is critical.
  • Look at their portfolio. What kinds of projects have they done? A good mix of UX methods is great. Working throughout many stages of UX design is great, too—analysis, design, and testing. How divergent are the products they’ve worked on? A mix of things is good here—mobile, Web, desktop; business and consumer applications; information systems.
  • Google them and see how prolific they’ve been in communicating about user experience. Have they blogged a lot? Conducted Webinars, published articles and books, spoken at conferences? Being part of a LinkedIn UX group is not enough.”

An Approach to Assessing UX Designers

Nate recommends that you, “Follow these steps to evaluate UX designers:

  1. Know what you want.
  2. Evaluate hard skills.
  3. Explore soft skills.
  4. Test

“First, you have to know what you want in a UX designer. I use the ‘DSIA UX Design Practice Verticals as a baseline for the competencies that I’m looking for. What is good depends on a candidate’s matching the competencies that you’ve chosen, at the levels of proficiency that you need. I rate each competency based on three levels of proficiency:

  • knowledgeable—The candidate is well-versed in a competency, but has limited hands-on experience
  • moderate—The candidate can demonstrate experience through work samples.
  • high—The candidate can produce work samples that demonstrate discipline and command of the subject matter and is well versed in the use of formal methods, models, and frameworks that help promote consistent results.

“The DSIA Verticals chart reflects only hard skills. But you’ll have to evaluate a candidate’s soft skills, as well. What soft skills a candidate should have depends on the type of UX professional you’re looking for. When considering people for a UX Designer role, I would exclude the UX Lead, UX Strategist, and UX Architect. Here are some soft skills for which you can probe when hiring UX designers:

  • Expect good UX designers to have a strong desire to empathize with users and their experiences.
  • While UX designers do not need to be business professionals, they should at least be business aware—and comfortable in discussing a business’s goals and balancing them with strategies to meet the needs of the user.
  • Good UX design candidates have a strong grasp of the value of UX design to the overall product or software development lifecycle.
  • Working collaboratively comes naturally to good UX professionals.
  • Good UX professionals love to learn.
  • Good UX design candidates get excited when talking about all of these things, because UX design is their passion.

“Once you think you’ve narrowed down potential candidates to your ideal UX designer, test his or her skills by assigning a small design challenge to solve in a 24- to 48-hour period. Here are a few criteria you can use to judge a UX designer’s work product:

  • presentation—Did the candidate’s presentation have a solid flow?
  • fidelity—Rate the candidate’s attention to detail.
  • style—Rate the candidate’s use of a visual vocabulary.
  • solution—Rate the design solution.
  • breadth—What range of disciplines did the candidate cover in creating the work product?
  • expectations—Did the candidate meet or exceed your expectations?

“Finally, effective communication skills are very important in a UX designer. Have discussions with candidates to observe their ability to verbally articulate their recommendations. Use the conversation to determine whether candidates’ ability to explain their work meets your approval. Your assessment of a UX designer’s skills should be exhaustive. In the end, you’ll find that the time you’ve spent clearly defining what you need in a UX designer; exploring UX designers’ hard skills, soft skills, and personalities; and conducting design tests is a worthwhile investment.” 

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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