5 Valuable Skills for UX Professionals

Jeff Sauro, PhD

The background, education and skills of professionals in User Experience are diverse.

Regardless of whether you’re more on the research side or more on the design side of the User Experience, here are five skills that will make you more valuable and effective in your job.

1.    Coding

No you’re not a developer, you probably don’t have a degree in computer science and probably never intend to be a software engineer.

But there are at least three good reasons why knowing how to program even simple functions in some language like PHP or Visual Basic will make you a more valuable UX Pro:

  1. You can better relate to the developers you are delivering usability problems or design ideas to.
  2. You might be able to generate better solutions (within the confines of the technology).
  3. You can mock-up working prototypes of your interface and test them. It usually takes just a little HTML, CSS and some comfort with web servers and you can have a high fidelity version of your design.  The only thing better than an excellent designer is an excellent designer who can turn her Photoshop files into a few webpages with some basic interactivity (rollovers, buttons and links working).Yes there are front end developers who can whip up better code faster than you can, but they’re probably too busy working on the real website or software in the agile timelines. There are some great prototyping tools that can do most of the job but all of them come with limitations. It’s not required that you know how to code, but it will make you more valuable.

2.    Design

You might not be an artist or have a degree from a prestigious design school. But just because your title doesn’t have “Designer” in it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to work with layouts, understand something about typography, spacing, symmetry and a hierarchy of elements in an interface.

Having a better eye for design will allow you to better relate with designers and their constraints, propose better solutions when diagnosing problems and even mean your presentations, reports, mockups might look a little more professional.  If you do anything related to usability or user experience, people less familiar with the various functions assume anything created by someone in UX is usable, attractive and functional—even if that’s not “your job.”

3.    Sales

Maybe the idea of selling anything conjures up a used car salesman or Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. If you work in product development the last thing you might think would be valuable is selling. You’ve got to be able to sell your ideas and your designs.

One thing you learn quickly when selling is that it’s a lot easier to sell something when people want to buy the product than selling something that no one wants.  And knowing what the customer wants and needs has a lot in common with understanding users’ goals and problems and applying that to interface design. Even if you don’t sell to the customer, appreciating and adapting some of those selling skills will make you more valuable (and might get you a set of steak knives).

4.    Empirical Methods

You don’t need to be an experimental psychologist and shock people as part of an obedience experiment to understand the importance of having data to make better decisions. Evidence based design comes from measuring the user experience.  Understanding the importance of controlling variables, randomizing events and operationalizing fuzzy business goals like “It needs to be intuitive” into quantifiable hypotheses will allow you to identify that measurably better design.

Once you begin measuring and testing hypotheses with metrics you’ll want to make decisions using statistics. Get started with our book Quantifying the User Experience and the Companion book which walks you through how to conduct all the statistical tests in the Excel calculator or R. If you prefer learning by watching, I’ve got a 2.5 hour video tutorial which covers the 1st five chapters of the book.

5.    Communication and Empathy

These are great skills to have in any job or in life for that matter.  When designing, measuring or managing the user experience you need to understand the users’ goals and their problems. In a usability test a good facilitator can establish rapport with diverse personalities and extract those essential insights that the user can’t quite articulate without the right words and empathy.

Good communication and empathy are probably some of the hardest skills to learn and improve. Generating succinct and cogent points, understanding your colleagues, customers and competitor’s perspective will make you more valuable.

Sometimes the most valuable skills are the ones that aren’t required to do the job. There’s always time to learn a new skill or improve your existing ones.  Heck your employer might even pay for them and sites like lynda.com offer high quality training videos for a small fee.

If you can master one to two of these skills then you have a job in UX.

Master three to four of these skills and you’ve got job security, are probably speaking at conferences and should be mentoring others.

If you can master all five of these skills then you’re running a successful company, a Guru, someone famous or all of the above. What’s your secret?

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