In the current fast changing UX Design climate it may be easy to feel lost and unable to keep up with the times. I have mentored a number of young designers and over my 20 plus year career in software I’ve come to understand something. Empathy, communication, and an innate understanding of how and what it means to solve problems collaboratively, provide the foundation that all other design skills and specialties are built upon.

There are an overwhelming number of disciplines that fall under the umbrella of “UX” and it may be difficult for you as a budding designer to navigate this UX quagmire. More and more UX related job descriptions list multiple disciplines as requirements that at one time were considered specialties. Throw in coding and sausage making and it seems no one is qualified for anything. Not only are there many disciplines, but each has expectations modified to fit within each company, team, client or culture. While the fundamentals are the same, the actual practice of a discipline varies from place to place making it difficult to know where to start and whether or not the experience you’re gaining is actually good practice and solid technique. Putting time into the soft skills below will help you function better in any organization and enable you to work productively with teams across an entire project to guide and support them.  

Empathy

There is no end of debate as to whether this is a skill or a trait or whether or not it can be taught. Early on in my career, like before UX was a thing, I was asked by the CFO in a chance hallway encounter why I thought my project was valuable. I answered with an explanation of a key workflow and talked about how many hours we were putting in. He asked how the hours translated into a better product. I answered that I was working harder than anyone else and the work was getting done early so we were going to release sooner. He asked what I was working on specifically and who it was for. I answered for my boss and gave specifics of what he'd asked me to do. This went on for seven or eight minutes and I left thinking I'd knocked it out of the park because I'd conveyed that what we were building was beautiful and we were working hard.

Thinking back I can picture his impatience and agitation. I failed to account for his position in the company and to discover and address his true concerns, and I failed to read his body language. He failed to ask questions in a manner that clearly communicated his needs to a junior team member and I was incapable of helping him do so. Back then, that's just how it went. Today, as a UX professional, the onus is on me to help others form and communicate their needs and ideas. While the project was ultimately successful, that one conversation threw into question the value of design and the abilities of the design team in one very important stakeholders mind. On a positive note, it ultimately led to a senior team member mentoring me so that I had the skills that would save the team from further embarrassment. I was great at delivering stellar UI elements. What I lacked was an ability to empathize with the CFO, and work with him in that small window to help him better communicate his needs.  

I believe most people that have a desire to be in design recognize that they have some sort of empathic ability. The key is self awareness and figuring out to what extent you’re nurturing this ability. Like anything else the amount of effort you’re putting into using it well, will show. Be curious, especially about people. Listen to others, not only their words, but through tone, inflection and most importantly body language. If you haven’t read Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Jean Greaves, get on it!

Communication

Productive communication is indeed a skill that can be learned. In the context of User Experience Design it doesn’t happen without some level of empathy. If you’ve ever been in a conversation, maybe on a first date where the other person never asks you a question, you know how annoying a one sided conversation is. Chances are that your body language changed and you provided cues to that person that you were uncomfortable or agitated, and they missed or ignored them.
Great UX practitioners are attentive and engaged listeners for sure, but they also understand the balance of information and how to interact by providing information and then tailoring questions in a manner that leads to a mutually beneficial outcome. On this one I’d recommend “Conversations Worth Having” by Jackie Stravos and Cheri Torres.

Collaboration

Again collaboration does not happen without empathy and communication. Where communication is used to gather information, collaboration is really about mutual understanding. There is the doing of the tasks but as the UX pro, helping the other party (often a product owner or end user) define goals, strategies and tasks in a leading yet participatory manner is critical to success. Working with other UX pros can sometimes be the most difficult part of the job as creatives can often be driven and opinionated. Much has been written on collaboration. I’d recommend Ken Blanchard’s book “Collaboration Begins With You” While this is more general leadership, as a UX professional, you are a leader, all day, everyday.

So how do I learn more?

There are so many resources out there available to you. I’ve recommended some that have worked for me and others I know. I encourage you to meet with like minded people every chance you get and ask what they’re reading and watching. If you can swing it, the Nielsen Norman Group’s nn/g conferences are spectacular. They are a bit more pricey than other conferences and summits but the value is truly there. If you can’t make that happen, their online materials are free, extensive, and cover a wide range of topics. Jared Spool's blog is also a fantastic resource and if you can catch him speaking, even better.  I also encourage everyone, regardless of experience level, or line of work, to read or listen to “What You’re Really Meant To Do” by Robert S. Kaplan.

See the productOps careers page for open UX positions.