What makes a good UX designer?

Superman UX

What makes a good UX designer? It’s an important question, not just for current and aspiring UX designers, but also for those looking to hire a UX designer and for those working with UX designers. In this article I outline some of the skills, characteristics and qualities that in my opinion a good UX designer should possess and discuss what it is that I think really makes for a good UX designer.

But there’s no such thing as a typical UX designer

Before I dive in to what in my opinion makes a good UX designer I think that it’s worth pointing out that in my experience there’s really no such thing as a typical UX designer. Although UX related degree and masters courses exist there certainly isn’t a production line somewhere churning out sparkly new UX designers and at the moment there’s very little formal accreditation or certification within the industry (Human Factors International’s Certified Usability Analyst and Certified User Experience Analyst are the only UX related certifications that spring to mind). This is partly because it’s such a new discipline but also because it’s such a varied role and one that invariably requires a wide range of skills and qualities. However, although I don’t think there’s such a thing as a typical UX designer, there are certainly skills, qualities and characteristics that are common across most good UX designers. Here are what I think the most important ones are.

Being like Mr T

UX designers by nature are a varied bunch. Some come from a technical background; others come from a psychology or graphical design background and others from an industrial design or technical writing background. This means that most UX designers have quite a varied skill set, which is a good thing because to a large extent UX designers should be a jack of several trades, and a master of some. That’s not to say that they should be able to fix a leaking tap, write a best selling novel and run a 4 minute mile, just that UX designers should have excellent design and research skills, along with a good knowledge of related skills, such as graphic design, software development and project management. Such a varied role calls for a varied skill set, one which is typically T-shaped (hence the rather tenuous Mr T reference). In other words, UX designers should have a good breadth of knowledge, with a good depth of knowledge in a few integral areas, including…

Being a designer

First and foremost I think that a UX designer should be just that – a designer. This means having a deep knowledge and understanding of user-centred design techniques and principles and being able to design products, be they websites, desktop applications, kiosks or mobile apps that achieve their goals and deliver the intended user experience. It also means having a bag of design tricks up the proverbial sleeve, such as personas, scenarios, storyboards, design sketching and rapid prototyping; and of course knowing when and where to use them.

Being a researcher

UX designers obviously need to be designers, but they shouldn’t just be designers. They should also be researchers. I don’t necessarily mean the sort of rigorous scientific research that is often undertaken by men in white coats, but design focused research, such as usability testing, ethnography, user interviews, card sorting and analytics. Good designs are founded on good research and feedback, and UX designers should be skilled in gathering this sort of information. Some organisations have traditionally split out UX design and research functions into different teams but I think that this rarely works because the two are so intrinsically connected. One goes hand in hand with the other and to be a really great designer you need to be able to get involved in the research for a design, from the very beginning to hopefully the end.

Being a techie

Whilst UX design is not primarily a technical discipline I do think that it requires a good understanding of how a design might be built and what some of the technical implications for a design are. After all, it’s no good creating a fantastic design if it can’t be built, or building it would take too long and cost too much in its current form. Equally when discussing a design with engineers and developers you need to know whether, “this can’t be done” really means that something can’t be done, or that it can be done, but in a slightly different way. It also pays to know a thing or two about Accessibility (sometimes called Universal design) as it can be difficult to make some designs accessible. Technical skills, such as HTML, CSS, Javascript and basic coding can also be useful when it comes to creating prototypes, especially as developers are not always on hand to help out.

Being a creative

UX design is an inherently visual discipline (in so much as people generally take in the largest proportion of their input visually when using a website, software package or other type of interactive system)  and as such the use of colour, layout, imagery, typography and aesthetics in general play an important role in most, if not all designs. I don’t think that UX designers necessarily need to be accomplished graphic designers, but they should at least be aware of graphic design principles such as the golden ratio, visual alignment and Gesalt theory and should be able to create designs that don’t look like a dog’s dinner. It’s also worth remembering that it can usually be easier to present and sell designs that are pleasing on the eye (even if they are in their most primitive form) to a sceptical client or customer.

Being a suit

UX design nearly always takes place within a business context, whether it’s designing a marketable product, carrying out some commissioned work or setting up a new website. I think that it’s therefore important that UX designers are comfortable in the business world and that they possess a good range of business skills. UX designers need to be adept at not only dealing with users, but also colleagues and clients and should be comfortable chairing meetings, running workshops, managing stakeholders and writing business cases etc… It’s also important to remember that behind every design there’s a set of business goals and objectives, such as selling more products, or converting more customers. UX designers need to be able to understand and interpret what the ultimate goal of a design is and be able to communicate this back to the bean counters in the business.

Being a team player

UX designers are rarely lonesome beasts and can generally be found working very closely with developers, engineers, clients, project managers, fellow designers and all manor of other people. I think that it’s therefore important that they have good team working sills and are comfortable collaborating, mentoring, critiquing, assisting and generally operating within a team environment.

T-shaped skill set for a UX designer

The sort of T-shaped skill set that a good UX designer should possess

It’s more than just skills

What makes Lionel Messi the best footballer in the world at the moment? Sure he has incredible skills and unbelievable technique, but it’s also his desire, his unselfishness, his work rate and his creativity that makes him a truly great player. The same is true of really good UX designers. Good UX designers, don’t just have the right skills, they also have the sort of personal qualities and characteristics that are so important for the role. Along with possessing an appropriate T-shaped skill set I think that good UX designers should also be:

  • Assertive – UX designers needs to be able to lead and direct a discussion and assert themselves when necessary.
  • Co-operative – UX designers needs to be able to work very closely with their colleagues.
  • Creative – UX designers should be able to create compelling and original designs.
  • Diplomatic – UX designers needs to know when to compromise and how to play politics when required to do so.
  • Enthusiastic – UX designers should be infecting team mates with their enthusiasm for UX design.
  • Humble – UX designers should be able to accept that sometimes their design sucks.
  • Intellectual – UX designers should be able to argue the case for their design, or indeed for taking a user-centred design approach in the first place.
  • Observant – UX designers should be able to spot easily missed user insights and nuances.
  • Open – UX designers needs to be open to ideas, suggestions and feedback; and be willing to share their expertise with others.
  • Patient – UX designers need to be able to accept that good design and good user research often takes a little time and perseverance.
  • Personable – UX designers doesn’t need to be everyone’s friend but should be able to easily get along with others.
  • Persuasive – UX designers needs to be able to sell a design and bring the intended user experience to life.
  • Pragmatic – UX designers should be able to design within constraints.
  • Resilient – UX designers should be able to take a knock back.
  • Tenacious – UX designers needs to be able to defend their corner when necessary.
  • Thorough – UX designers needs to get the nitty gritty details right.

Being dedicated

It’s not just record breaking that requires dedication, being a good UX designer does as well. If there is one quality that I think is common across all good UX designers it’s dedication to the discipline and dedication to being a good UX designer. Dedication means continually seeking out interesting new design examples and ideas. Its means sharing your own expertise and know how with others. It means learning from other design disciplines, such as architecture, industrial design and software design. It means attending UX design talks, conferences and get togethers in order to learn from other UX designers. Above all it means continually building and refining the skills and characteristics that make a really good UX designer and putting these into practice as much as possible. It’s often said that it takes 10 thousand hours of practice to truly master a discipline (sometimes called the 10,000 hour rule). Whilst I don’t think that you need to put in this many hours before you can call yourself a good UX designer, there’s no denying that the more hours you put in, the better designer you will be.

More about what makes a good UX designer

Recommended books