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The Softer Side of UX Consulting

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
November 23, 2015

Recently, I gave a presentation to a group of User Experience graduate students. (I had graduated from the same program a dozen years ago.) While I found doing this professionally and personally satisfying, it was also refreshing to look at what has changed in UX education and consider what still needs to change. During the Q&A session after my presentation, a student commented, as follows:

“I was really interested in hearing about the soft skills of UX consulting, but to hear you tell the stories of sitting in a room for hours with the business and IT folks and hashing out project issues… well, that just sounds horrifying to me.”

Understandably, this statement was met with numerous nods and smiles of agreement. The focus of my presentation was not entirely on the so-called soft skills that are part of consulting. My presentation was really about the challenges around enterprise user experience. It highlighted the path I had taken in an attempt to help others entering the field to understand that this type of consulting exists in the world of User Experience. But, even though my presentation did not focus primarily on the soft side of UX consulting, soft skills are an important part of what any successful consultant must do.

Yet, many in our field do not actually seem to be interested in this aspect of User Experience. Or UX professionals may think they already have these skills when, in fact, they do not. While I have written a bit about the importance of soft skills in my previous columns, I’d like to look at this topic in greater depth in this column because I am seeing more and more that these types of skills are critical to career success. Your design, usability, and technical skills get you in the door for sure, but its usually the soft skills that expand your ability to grow as a leader.

What Are Soft Skills?

Ten years ago, I moved an hour away from my dentist. In the ten years since, I have traveled back and forth to see him at least twice a year. Why would I do that? Surely there must be other talented tooth cleaners and cavity fillers out there, right? The reason comes down to soft skills. He is an extremely friendly and gentle dentist. He spends time with me each visit and answers all my questions. I trust him, and that inspires loyalty. Yes, there are other dentists who do an amazing job, but for me, driving an hour is a small price to pay for what I receive in return. This is an example of soft skills at work.

Similarly, in UX consulting, soft skills are those interpersonal skills that most people assume to be talents. This is why soft skills are rarely taught in any profession—and they are not really taught in the UX world either. However, it is critical that we teach these skills to both seasoned and novice UX professionals. As UX professionals, we discuss having empathy and putting ourselves in the user’s shoes constantly, but we fail to attack the issue of soft skills with as much vigor. Why is this a mistake? Because, these days, there are interpersonal interactions happening in our workplaces that we simply cannot ignore—at least, not if we’re looking to master our soft skills.

Overlooked and underappreciated acts—such as presenting ideas to audiences, really listening to people to understand them instead of listening to respond with our own ideas, resolving conflicts in a way that does not alienate others, and creating a collaborative, open environment—relate to how we not only build, but can also sustain relationships. These are not relationships with a design or a tool. These are relationships with people. Our ability to leverage and rely on these relationships, while also contributing to them, enables us to get the support we need for our work as UX professionals.

Soft Skills Can Make a Huge Difference

For the past year, I have been consulting with a large healthcare insurer. When I started working with this client, it was a relatively hostile environment. Mistakes had been made in the past, and I was brought in to fix something that no one on the business side really thought was broken. In the words of the IT sponsor, I was supposed to make the user experience “sexy.” Anyone who has been on the receiving end of such a request knows what a challenge it is to even begin to capture exactly what that subjective term sexy might mean.

I started this task by finding out what had been done before. It soon came out that other designers had previously worked with the business, but those designers had just produced their designs and defended them without listening to the business. After hearing about the project’s history, I said something akin to the following:

“I don't know your business as well as you do. Not by a long shot. I have been here an hour, and most of you have been living this business for years. It would be arrogant of me to come in and design at you instead of with you. I have seen what you have built so far and, honestly, it can use some work. But it is much easier to tear things down, than it is to build them. So help me, and work with me to design and build something great. I cannot do it without you. My role is to guide you, to help you realize the vision you have, to take it out of your heads and your everyday process and create a solution that’s as great as you want it to be. To do that, I need you to guide me.”

I generally need to have this type of dialogue with people on a daily basis. While that statement did not provide an instantaneous solution to their problems, and I had to reinforce it over and over again, it did allow a beleaguered IT and business group to have some hope that this time things might be different.

Your Soft Skills Make Your Hard Skills Shine

My hard skills got me that client. My design expertise, my technical expertise, and my role within my company contributed to that client’s even entertaining the idea of having another UX professional help them. Those hard skills got me a seat at the table, and they are completely necessary for me to be able to be effective there. However, it is my soft skills that have enabled me to develop into a trusted advisor for my client—someone that people want to work with rather than their feeling like they’re forced to work with me.

This does not mean that everything is all smiles and warm fuzzies. There are still arguments and frustrations that both sides feel. But, again, soft skills can come to the rescue. Being able to relate to people prevents our professional differences from getting in the way of the fact that we are a team of people trying to do a very hard job together.

At the end of the day, you have to produce something—for example, a design, an implementation, a persona, or a wireframe. The hard skills of a UX professional remain a core value, if not the core value. However, your soft skills—how you interact with people to produce those deliverables and meet your goals—make the difference between your work with a client being a one time thing or something for which they consistently seek out your help. 

Vice President, Client Innovation, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsAt Pegasystems, Baruch helps global clients develop new ways of streamlining their operations, improving their customer experience, and creating real transformations—digital or otherwise. Previously, during his 12 years at Pegasystems, Baruch led their global User Experience team and served as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in their delivery of user-interface design and user experience to customers and partners. He has led and participated in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries. Baruch earned his Bachelor of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing and Philosophy at the University of Hartford and his Master’s of Science in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University’s McCallum Graduate School of Business.  Read More

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