Critical skills new UX designers need to have in order to be successful

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to General Assembly’s Austin January 2016 portfolio review – 10 up-and-coming UX designers spent the last 10 weeks in an intensive course learning the basics about user experience design. 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Each designer had done a mock project for GA. They also had partnerships with Austin startups to help them get real-world experience and design applications that would be used in the wild.

During the portfolio review, I spoke with someone from GA about teaching. It got me thinking, and I started imagining a course syllabus in my head. I asked myself what I’ve learned over the last 10 years that could be useful to new graduates. What would I want to talk with these designers about after having seen the results of the course? After having conversations with them about how they approached both products and companies, I had a few ideas about what could be useful as they make their way into companies and start-ups.

I talked with each designer about the companies and startups they partnered with. Mostly I asked about the company’s funding, history and reason to be. I do this after years of experience – I’ve learned that personalities, money in the bank and reason they exist are much, much more important than the product they are currently working on. A good team can turn a mediocre product into something grand.  A company with a short runway can fold even if their future seems bright.  Designers need to get in the habit of evaluating everything in front of them, particularly the company they’re going to work for.

Why work for a big company?
Big companies are typically great at organization and process. They are lower stress than startups. They can achieve huge results but it takes them time. They can be maddeningly slow-moving. As a designer, it can be possible to be quite removed from the actual business – the whole ‘money-for-value’ thing. And given a huge portfolio of products, your impact can be small for a long time as you work your way through the corporate ladder. Big companies are great instructors for learning politics and how to get people working together towards a common goal.

Why work for a start-up?
At a smaller start-up, your impact as a designer can be huge. If you’re ready for this challenge, this can be hugely beneficial. If you’re not, it can be painful as you washout on the other side. The upside is that you’re mainlined into the business, since it’s such a small company, you can’t help but be connected to the financial, legal and product sides of the business. You also learn about venture capital investment strategies, financing and stock options.  You’ll also learn the why an ‘action bias’ is so critical ( hires people with an ‘action bias,’ FYI).

What it takes to be in the top 1% of UX designers
It was truly inspiring to see what the General Assembly grads accomplished in such a compressed timeline. It reminded me that great designers are a combination of skills. They have ‘hard skills’ that are in essence ‘table stakes’ – the minimum required to do the job at hand. They also have skills that don’t make it onto job listings. These are skills that no one knows to look for. Mastery of these skills is essential to being in the top of the design field, of any field.

  • Respect the contributions of others – this is not nearly as easy as it sounds. You need to learn at least the basics of code, marketing, business skills, sales and more. Understand and respect contributions from every part of the business. You will gain credibility and build relationships that will be invaluable to getting a product from idea into the user’s hands.
  • Connect disparate business silos – you need to understand that a user traverses the disparate silos of the business. Not only do you need to learn this journey, you need to understand that building a great experience means getting all these people to work together. Keep in mind, some of these silos will not give respect and will feel that their work is the most important. We all feel like our contributions are king. How, then, do you combine these fiefdoms into a unified kingdom? This is an entire article (and class) of its own.
  • Share – As leaders, we need to share – share the byline, share your hard-won knowledge, share the spotlight. Be a part of a community, contribute to the conversation and be generous with praise and criticism alike.
  • Usher the product through development – No one else will see this project through idea, design, development, Quality Engineering and release – if you don’t, no one will. Product Managers are rightly concerned with business objectives and timelines, engineers with the details of the code, and marketers with building awareness. If you don’t follow ideas through to their completion, things will get missed – in fact, details will be missing regardless. It’s a human enterprise. But this follow-through is something that the top designers do without thinking. No one will implement your vision without your explicit and continuing involvement in development, quality assurance and release.
  • Persist across time – Everyone wants to build a great product that has a good experience for the end user. But deadlines, but oversight and human error, but everyone has lives and families and good and bad days. Bureaucracy and email — the grind — will sap your energy. You just need to persist day in and day out, and do the best you can across time. Not just the highlights, but the day-to-day you need to bring the best across disappointments, failures and successes.
  • Keep up with the conversation around UX and design – you need to look at what everyone else is doing. Keep up with the best of the best. You’ll feel inadequate – we all do. That pit-of-the-stomach feeling that  you’re falling behind will keep you running to catch up. That means you’re pushing yourself. Discomfort usually means you’re learning.
  • When you go home, turn off your computer, turn off Slack on your phone and for god’s sake don’t check email – The best of the best know that to produce great work across time, you need downtime to recharge your creative mojo. If you’re learning and giving your best at work then you owe it to yourself to build that back up through hobbies that re-charge you, time with people you love and sleep. Be clear about this boundary, you’ve earned it.
  • Solve your boss’s problems – Your boss has problems. Top people balance working towards their own goals, their daily work and the goals of their superiors. They’ve hired you for a real, and it’s to solve their problems. This shouldn’t be your sole focus, but you should keep in mind as you do your weekly and monthly planning.
  • Plan – Speaking of planning, the top people don’t just react to whatever work comes up. They learn the business, identify problems and work towards solving those problems in a methodical way. They keep up with their day-to-day work but work towards the big projects that aren’t part of the official roadmap. These are the projects that will ultimately have a lasting impact on the business.

How to stand out to potential employers
Here are a few ideas. These have worked for me and for people I know. They are also markers I look for when I’m involved in the hiring process.

  • Have a UX / tech / design / anything blog.
  • Be interesting (ie have hobbies that relate to your job, like writing, design, penmanship, speaking, mentoring – anything that shows you’re part of a wider community and are looking to contribute to others).
  • Find a specific company, find a problem they are having and propose/present a solution. Yes, it’s work on top of work. It will help you stand out. They will get to see the results of your work, and what it’s like to work with them.
  • Know the industry you want to work for – tech companies are not just tech companies, they are embedded in a certain industry. The more you know, the more you’ll stand out.

I know it can be tough starting out on any new career path. Find your tribe and keep at it!

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