Learn what skills companies look for when hiring product designers.
One of the most challenging aspects of moving into a new career field is knowing what skills you have to master before you can land your first job, versus what skills are nice-to-haves.
We recently worked with 64 professional designers—all of whom mentor UX/UI design students through Designlab courses—to gain more first-hand information on current hiring trends.
Specifically, we asked mentors to reflect on their experience and knowledge of the industry and indicate which “soft” and “hard” skills are the most important to decision-makers when hiring product designers.
In this article, we'll share their answers alongside some additional thoughts and resources, to give a more holistic view of what it takes to land a job as a UX designer.
There are a number of specialized roles that contribute to the design process. Product Designers work alongside Product Managers, UX Designers, UI Designers, Interaction Designers, and others to form an elite team that can take ideas and combine them with data, strategy, and testing to create powerful product solutions.
While there is some crossover for both hard and soft skills, it's always important to be aware of the distinction between role responsibilities, as well as the fact that different companies and roles might not follow this clear delineation—regardless of job title.
Hard skills are teachable and measurable. They include abilities like wireframing, prototyping, product design strategy, and other technical skills that you might learn on the job, or through a design course.
Soft skills can be a little harder to define, and are often a combination of personality traits and learned behaviors. They include things like empathy, active listening, problem solving, self-management, and the ability to maintain a collaborative atmosphere.
Top 5 Most Important Soft Skills for Product Designers
In our survey, design mentors shared their insights into the top most important soft skills that tend to be focused on during the product designer hiring process. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list: there are many other relevant soft skills that will help you achieve more success in your career.
Just how important are these soft skills?
Design mentor Chris Django shares, “I would summarize it like this: What is most important for design leads when it comes to hiring a new designer is 51% team fit and 49% skills.”
In the results of our survey, 70% of mentors indicated that they believe communication is the number one soft skill for designers.
As a product designer, you're not only responsible for things like ideas, testing, and digital design, but also for working with stakeholders and developers to ensure that the designs are fully functional and accurately represent the initial project goals. And, in modern workplaces, where asynchronous and remote working has become commonplace, it’s arguably the most important soft skill in any industry.
“Skills are obviously important, but personality is always a tiny bit more important. Designing in a team requires a lot of communication and interaction between team members, therefore they simply have to get along with each other in a natural way.
“The team should be able to talk about more things than just purely work-related topics. Every team member should feel free to express their ideas without fear and take and give feedback in a positive way. Other traits that are generally great to have to foster great communication: being able to listen and being curious.” - Chris Django
UX Academy graduate, Rick Veronese, echoes that sentiment, saying: “Good communication is an essential part of our jobs as designers. Joining a product team has helped me to improve my communication skills a lot. I know how to ask for feedback now.”
2. Critical Thinking
Coming in at 62%, critical thinking was a strong second most important soft skill for product designers. Digital designers typically have to take the seed of an idea, cultivate it, and bring it to fruition. Critical thinking is crucial to this process.
As well as helping designers to understand, define, and ultimately solve design problems, critical thinking can also enhance designers’ communication by enabling them to express ideas clearly.
“We try to test 'out of box' critical thinking by putting the designers in different situations by means of behavioral questions or a white boarding assignment,” says Desiglab mentor Ajay Mittal. “This helps us in identifying how a designer approaches or responds to given situations and problems.”
On the face of it, working as a designer might seem like a solo role, where you sit at your desk and dream up creative solutions. However, that's rarely the case. Designers often need to collaborate, both within a team and across teams, and find a way to balance multiple (often conflicting) viewpoints and schedules to arrive at an appropriate solution.
“For senior level positions especially, we try to look for leadership skills, articulation skills, decision-making skills, and collaboration skills,” Mittal says.
4. Problem Solving
Problem-solvers are always highly valuable employees, and that’s especially true for designers, since design is essentially a process that moves both users and businesses from problem to solution.
“Companies love to understand a designer's process—how they approach a problem, develop a plan, and execute the solution,” says Designlab mentor Veronica Swords.
5. Receptiveness to Feedback
The best way to improve the effectiveness of your designs is to always be seeking quality design feedback. Accepting feedback gracefully is a daily requirement throughout every designer’s career. Many aspects of design are subjective, so it’s essential to be open to other people’s opinions.
“Design is one industry where learning never stops. You learn through experiments and feedback from your team and peers, which might come in the form of positive or negative feedback,” Mittal says. “Designers should always be open to critique.”
Top 5 Most Important Hard Skills for Product Designers
1. Design Thinking
Although it can be a bit of a buzzword in the industry, design thinking is much more than that. According to IDEO’s Tim Brown, design thinking has five core tenets: empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentation, and collaboration
Expect not only to be asked interview questions based on design thinking, but also to apply it to your work once hired.
“Design thinking is not just for designers,” says Designlab mentor Andrew Wilshere. “It’s an approach for understanding problems and developing solutions, and this is required in many jobs—whether you’re any administrator, engineer, or even a medic. Design thinking gives us a deeper description of a problem, enabling us to prototype a range of potential solutions rapidly, and identify the right solution robustly.”
UI design is focused specifically on how a user “interfaces” with a product. It’s about designing effective screen layouts and transitions between steps in the user’s journey. UI is about the fine detail of how the user will reach their goals, not the overall user experience.
If the job you’re applying for includes UI in the title, here are some of the activities you’ll be expected to complete:
Design each user touch point
Determine user interface behavior
Craft visual appearance of interface
Decide on color and typography
Design visual hierarchy
Create enjoyable interactions
Develop a consistent visual language
“As well as making you more versatile within a product team, the ability to create pixel perfect designs quickly and systematically will free up time for research and prototyping,” explains Designlab mentor Patrick Multani.
3. UX Research
UX Design isn’t just all about the look and feel of products. It’s also about usability and how a product can help users reach their goals. So without UX Research, it isn’t truly UX design.
Hiring managers want to hear about both the thought process and the research data behind your design decisions. Because UX design is concerned with every part of how a user interacts with a product, all UX designs should be rooted in research.
“UX requires empathy and user research—so a background in human psychology can be an asset,” says Designlab mentor Allegra Poschmann.
4. Information Architecture
Information architecture is the process and strategy behind the structure and organization of information in a website or app. For digital products, this often encompasses all content, from the visual hierarchy of content and onscreen elements, to the prioritization of certain pages within the user flow.
This is particularly evident when designing a navigation system that makes sense to the user, and allows them to find the functions that they need.
“UX requires excellent communication skills to convey information architecture, so a communications background can also be helpful,” says Poschmann.
5. Design Software Proficiency
This hard skill may seem like the most obvious, but companies need to know that you’re proficient in industry-relevant design tools that can support your work, from creating wireframes to prototyping a polished design for usability testing.
“It’s important to remember that, however elaborate a piece of software is, it’s still just one aspect of the creative problem-solving process that we call design,” says Wilshere. “Ultimately, any piece of software is a design tool that can be learned and used.”
Tips To Understand Job Descriptions (And Apply For the Right Ones)
As noted earlier, just because a posted job uses the title Product Designer, it's important to pay attention to detail and read through each word of the roles and responsibilities included in the posting.
For the most part, you want to be sure that you understand what the role is, and whether the requirements align with the knowledge and skills that you've developed so far in your career journey.
However, just because you don't fit every bullet point, doesn't mean that you should count yourself out before you even apply.
Regardless of gender, age, or any other demographic, it's important to be aware of the fact that hiring managers are more than aware of the fact that humans are not robots: even if you aren't the best candidate based on your competency in one of the technical skills listed on the job posting, you might very well land the job because of your passion, attention to detail, and willingness to learn.
Interested in becoming a product designer? Check out our UX Academy program, which prepares you with a full set of both UX and UI design skills, and at least four substantial projects for your portfolio. Find out more.