The role of UX designer has evolved considerably over the past decade. The typical UX design job description today is quite different from how it looked in 2009, when, believe it or not, the first iPhone had only just been released.

On top of that, different companies have very different specific responsibilities and requirements for people they hire under the title of “UX designer”. So what are the core skills that someone is likely to need in any UX design job?

In this piece we’ll run through skills you should build if you want to transition to a career in UX design. They’re a mixture of soft skills, which you’re very likely to bring from previous work, and more formal design skills, which you might need to learn through a course.

Soft Skills

1. Curiosity

UX designers need an interest in the unknown.

Along with the next item in this list, you might ask, “is curiosity really a skill?” We tend to think of certain soft skills—including curiosity, empathy, and critical thinking—more as personal traits rather than acquired competencies. 

If you’re naturally curious, wonderful! But curiosity can also be cultivated through deliberate practices. If it doesn’t come to you so easily, you could try adopting everyday routines that help you explore the unknown. These could include: 

  • Taking a different route home each day;
  • Actively noticing your environment, perhaps by taking daily photographs of something unusual;
  • Practising active listening; and
  • Asking more open questions in your day-to-day interactions.

2. Empathy

UX designers need to identify with the needs and feelings of other people.

Humans are social animals, and empathy and emotional intelligence are important skills in everyday life. However, empathy has a special importance in the UX design process, because it is a user-centered discipline by definition. “Empathize” is also the first step in the design thinking methodology.

Our ability to define solutions relies on not only gathering objective research data about people’s product experiences, but also putting ourselves in their shoes on a human level. That means imagining the situations in which people will use something, and anticipating the issues they’re likely to face.

3. Critical Thinking

UX designers need to question assumptions, and analyze problems deeply.

Like curiosity, critical thinking can come to people more or less naturally, and it’s a skill we can boost through deliberate practice. Here are some things you can try:

  • Search for hidden assumptions or presuppositions in an argument or proposal;
  • Ask why something is happening, or why a change is proposed;
  • Identify errors in reasoning;
  • Sense-check ideas against known constraints;
  • Spot weaknesses in a system;
  • Analyze things that seem to be very simple or very complex;
  • Push for logical clarity in complex conversations; and
  • Make connections between ideas or positions that are far apart.

4. Collaboration and Communication

UX designers need to work with many stakeholders—including users, product managers, and developers.

There is hardly any aspect of UX designers’ work which isn’t collaborative. When doing user research and testing, we need to work closely with participants and gain their trust if we’re to create high-quality information about their needs.

Equally, when working on design solutions, we need to be able to identify relevant business needs, and understand how our work fits into an existing product. This means having effective conversations with product managers and other senior staff.

And when it comes to getting a project launched, we need to be able to efficiently communicate the details of how a design should work, empowering development teams with the information they need.

5. Continuous Learning

UX designers need to learn every day.

Design is a discipline where there is something new to learn every day, from every person, on every project. On top of this, the industry is constantly shifting and developing, with new standards, conventions, tools, platforms, and devices to keep on top of.

In just the past decade, the entire digital design industry has needed to pivot from interface designs for conventional keyboard-and-mouse computers, to user-centered designs for touch-based smartphones and smartwatches. On top of those shifts in technical constraints, user expectations have also increased dramatically. 

An important part of learning design is learning how to learn. That means treating every project and interaction as an opportunity to discover new approaches and grow your professional practice. Go back to square one for every brief, and don’t be afraid to ask the basic questions. In the words of the great architect, designer, and theorist Bucky Fuller: “dare to be naive”. 

Formal Skills

6. Research and Analysis

UX designers need to investigate user needs and competitor products through structured quantitative and qualitative research.

An answer is typically only as good as the question, and much of UX designers’ creative power comes from asking good questions.

Although there are established industry practices for conducting user research—like interviews, questionnaires, and observation—the usefulness of research is strongly dependent on the critical thinking skills discussed above.

Above all, critical thinking and other soft skills are essential in figuring out what information it is you need, and then designing questions that are going to help you get to useful answers. At the analysis stage, critical thinking can also help you understand what the data is telling you. 

7. Organizing Information (Information Architecture)

UX designers need to be able to prioritize and organize complex sets of information.

When creating digital products, UX designers need to be in control of information—both from a project management perspective, and from a product design perspective. Understanding how to organize information is what makes the difference between delightful navigation in an app, and a frustrating, bewildering product experience. 

8. Wireframing

UX designers need both high-fidelity and low-fidelity wireframing skills.

Wireframes are rough sketches or outlined versions of screen designs. They are important in UX design, because they allow us to explore possible design solutions without investing lots of time and effort in fine details.

Wireframes are used throughout digital design projects. Low-fidelity wireframes might be used in the early stages of ideation, when rough ideas are being explored and prototypes. High-fidelity wireframes (which are closer to the final design) are often used later in a project, before adding visual polish. However, they can be used at any stage to problem-solve or aid discussion. 

9. Prototyping and Testing 

UX designers need to create prototypes and lead user testing.

UX designers are often responsible for creating low-fidelity prototypes of product concepts, which are then tested with user groups. Later in the process, once the high-fidelity visual and UI design work has been done, UX designers will lead the prototyping and testing of high-fidelity designs, gathering detailed user feedback on the product experience. 

10. Visual and UI Design 

UX designers need a baseline of visual and UI design skills.

Good visual design skills, and designing the front-end of user interfaces, didn’t used to be so much a part of the UX design skillset ten years ago. But times have changed, and the majority of companies hiring into a UX design role expect candidates to have a strong baseline of visual and UI design abilities.

11. Designing for Development

UX designers need to understand how to create designs that mesh with development best practices.

UX designers don’t need to know how to code, but they do need to have a basic understanding of developers’ work. Coding is easily as creative as design—perhaps more so—and developers aim to create economical, modular, efficient code. Some design practices support the work of designers better than others.

To learn more about the relationship between design and development, check out this recent podcast by Brad Frost and Dan Mall.

And finally...

12. Saying No

UX designers need to learn when to say no.

One of the most powerful skills a UX designer has is refusal. Often, a proposed feature or product idea won’t stand up to scrutiny—whether in terms of user needs, technical constraints, or ethical principles. The very best UX designers are gatekeepers of product quality, and are capable of pushing back professionally against decisions that would ultimately compromise an experience. 

Want to build your set of UX design skills and switch to a new creative career? Check out our award-winning UX Academy program!

author avatar

Andrew Wilshere


Designer, Writer, and Mentor

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