Key UX Roles and Core Soft Skills

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A column by Janet M. Six
December 7, 2015

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses the key UX roles on a typical project team, as well as the core soft skills that UX professionals need to succeed. Because there are many factors in a project’s success, it’s necessary to consider which of the many UX skills and roles are essential to the success of a given project.

Of course, a team needs to consider what user research methods would help a team to understand the design problem a project is addressing, the application or Web site’s design—both the user interface itself and the information it conveys—and usability testing to validate that design. On a macro level, it is also vital to consider how a project’s design strategy can ensure that a design solution fits a product line, as well as a company’s overall business and brand strategy. And, of course, business analysis considers how a project will meet business needs and connect to the bottom line. The best design solution in the world provides no business value unless a company can successfully bring the product or service to market.

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In my monthly column, 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 questions to: [email protected].

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

  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Author of UX Careers Handbook (forthcoming); Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA)
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel; Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Amanda Stockwell—VP of UX at 352 Inc.

Q: What are the primary UX roles on a project team, and what core soft skills are required for each role?—from a UXmatters reader

“Every project has unique requirements, so assembling a project team requires a unique skill set,” replies Jordan. “Every member of a project team—from project manager to QA—should evangelize User Experience. That said, there should be a UX Lead on every project who keeps the user’s perspective front of mind throughout the project. In addition to the UX Lead, there are typically four types of UX specialists I like to engage, depending on the unique needs of a project:

  1. Content strategists—These are the people who define content requirements. This group also comprehends information architects.
  2. UX researchers—These people conduct background research and develop surveys to understand users’ needs and conduct usability testing with users to ensure a product or service meets their needs.
  3. Business analysts—These people are detail oriented and have rational, analytical brains and, thus, are capable of collecting and documenting business requirements.
  4. Experience designers—This group includes interaction designers, UX designers, information designers, and all the other roles we give to people who understand how users think and can optimize their experience—thus, impacting the business value of the product or service. These people create wireframes, prototypes, business models, service models, product roadmaps, and other design artifacts that contribute to the definition of a product or service. In this category of UX specialists, you’ll often find people who have the broadest skillsets. While there are many more junior experience designers, occasionally, you can find very experienced UX Unicorns—experience designers who are capable of assuming all of the UX roles on a project.

“Back in 2009, I wrote an article for UXmatters titled ‘Specialists Versus Generalists: A False Dichotomy?’ that might interest readers in the context of this discussion,” answers Pabini. Toward the end of that article, I described my ideal team—as a leader of UX teams whose focus is doing research, strategy, and design for applications. I still think a mix of specialists and T-shaped people—whose knowledge and skills have both breadth and depth—is best. My dream team would include

  • T-shaped people:
    • UX designers—who have some combination of great interaction design, information architecture, visual design, and writing skills
    • user assistance writers—who, in addition to writing Help, can also help with UI text and usability testing
  • Specialists:
    • user researchers—who cover both up-front, generative research and usability testing. On a larger team, user research and usability testing may be two different specialties.
    • visual designers—who are responsible for designing color palettes, icons, custom widgets, and other key visual elements
    • front-end developers—who prototype or actually implement user-interface designs. In today’s world of Responsive Web Design (RWD), I view front-end development as an essential component of a UX team.”

The Necessary Roles Depend on the Project

“There is no one right set of team members for every project,” states Amanda. “It depends on the project—scope, budget, timeline, and more—where you’re at in the product-development lifecycle, and many other factors. For any project to be successful, there needs to be at least one person on the team who is considering each of these components: research, low-fidelity design, high-fidelity design, and content. Depending on the project, one person could focus on multiple or even all of these areas, or you could dedicate multiple people to a single area. Ideally, you should have at least two UX team members, so one person isn’t responsible for the entire spectrum of UX activities, and each of them can get another’s perspective. But that’s a whole separate topic.”

Focus on UX Skills, Not Roles

“I’d prefer to focus on UX skills rather than roles,” responds Cory, “It’s often necessary to mix and match the skills within roles, depending on who is on a project team and where their core competencies lie. Key overarching buckets of skills are design, research and evaluation, and strategy. But when you overlay those buckets with actual staff skills, there may be a lot of mixing and matching going on. Interaction design, user research, and information architecture include very important sets of skills. Other potential roles include content strategy, information design, visual design, service design, UX strategy, human factors, accessibility, technical communication, and customer experience.”

Essential Soft Skills

“The soft skills people need depend on your project team and its structure,” answers Jordan. “If you have a UX lead who is capable of facilitating collaboration between the UX specialists and the rest of the team, you may not need UX specialists who have all the soft skills a team typically requires. These soft skills include collaboration, communication, eliciting feedback, and providing feedback. However, in my opinion, the most important soft skills any UX role requires are imagination and the capacity for lateral thinking.

If, as a UX professional, you have a good imagination, empathy, the ability to innovate, strategic thinking, and humility, all is within your grasp. It’s tough to determine whether someone has a good imagination, but it’s possible. Eventually, people with good imaginations usually become adept at storytelling and communication. People with good imaginations are often sensitive, so are sensitive to others’ feelings when providing critiques.”

“The soft skills that UX professionals need are usually pretty consistent across UX roles,” responds Amanda. “These include presentation and persuasion skills to effectively sell solutions, communication and collaboration skills to work effectively with others across roles and levels, empathy for both users and business partners, open-mindedness to new ideas—as well as to being wrong sometimes—and the desire to learn continually. These are all key elements to success in any UX role.”

“When it comes to soft skills, being a good team player, having solid communication skills, the ability to be humble about your own creations, understanding the big picture, and having a business sense are all very important,” says Cory.

“Some of our other Ask UXmatters experts have suggested that the soft skills UX professionals need are pretty consistent across the various UX roles,” responds Pabini. “I would go further: many of the soft skills that are essential to professional success are universal—across all professions. In my UXmatters article ‘13 Human Qualities You Must Have to Succeed in Work and Life,’ I described soft skills, or human qualities, in depth. 

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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