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Ian Armstrong Follow

Principal UX Designer, Dell EMC, San Francisco
Jul 27 5 min read

Soft Skills Development in UX Design

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with one of my UX mentors,
Diana Furka, about soft skills in design. Now that Im in a position
where I often interview and review UX Design candidates, I think a lot
about our talks on the topic. They mattered. They pointed me in some
excellent directions over time.

We all know the hard-skills involved in UX. They range from technical
proficiency with design software to an ability to run a card sort or a
conjoint analysis. We like to see a portfolio of work. We need to see a
familiarity with lean UX and agile methodologies. In short weve got
great lists of things that make a person technically proficient. Thats a
good starting point when sorting resumes but we all know its just the

Those things arent what make a designer great. Greatness is quantified

by soft skills, which many of us have a dicult time articulating.

Just last night I was lucky enough to chat with a woman who exhibited
so many of the soft skills I associate with advanced UX that I sponta-
neously decided to take her under my wing. Thats the second time in
six months Ive convinced myself to do so, and we just hired Ranjitha
Anantha at the studio as a result of the last one.

When you know, you know. But what is that mysterious quality?

In my professional experience there is a growth progression that starts

with a deep curiosity about the world and eventually becomes directed
empathy inside a shell of diplomatic design leadership. What follows is
my articulation of that journey:

Curiosity: Curiosity is the root of intelligence, humor, and human con-

nection. It is the starting point from which a designer launches and is
axiomatic to the trade. Without curiosity we cannot create anything

Generosity: UX Design is inherently entrepreneurial and the en-

trepreneurial spirit is inherently generous. Designers are driven to leave
everything they touch better than they found it.

Analytical: The ability to view a problem, opportunity, or pain point

from multiple angles is a requirement for successful ideation. Our
minds begin teasing apart problems and opportunities on contact, even
before we have learned to re-shape them.

Articulate: To successfully design anything, we must first be able to de-

scribe it in clear, digestible, and actionable terms. To lead a team we
need to be able to articulate a process. To defend a design we need to
be able to articulate our strategy. Articulation is the primary vessel of
eective communication.

Directed Intent: The ability to harness our talents and execute them
on command, with intention. We no longer wait for inspiration but in-
stead activate a mental process that results in creative output. We are
specific in our designs. We predicate the success of our work on an abil-
ity to elicit specific behaviors from a group of users.

Process Driven: An advanced designer has developed and is able to ar-

ticulate a consistent and repeatable process, which can be imprinted on
multiple teams as a way to maximize their eectiveness.

Polymath: UXers have mastered a broad range of skills related to their

process of creating value. The list isnt specific. We dont necessarily
practice those skills professionally, but have achieved competence in
them; often because it brought us joy too do so.

Judge of Character: Able to quickly and accurately discern authentic-

ity and competence in people and practitioners without having to be an
expert in the subject area being observed.

Empathetic Patience: The more time we spend in UX, the faster our
minds move. Its a side eect of regular practice with pattern recogni-
tion and complex systems. The ability to be patient with people who
arent experts in our craft only becomes more important as our skills

Parallel Processing: The ability to track multiple information sources

in an environment and hold them all in our mind. The best designers
can hold a truly daunting amount of information at the ready and oer
it as insight on demand.

Synthesis: The mental manipulation of information results in an accu-

rate synthesis vs a simple summary. Yellow and blue arent just green.
They remind the user of spring when planning a vacation in February.
Greens also create accessibility issues for people with deuteranopia so
they shouldnt be used in opposition to reds in a critical context. Inci-
dentally yellow-blue color blindness is called tritanopia but the two
types dont generally occur together you get what Im saying.

Strategic Persuasion: People dont do what we tell them to, they learn
what is modeled to them. The most powerful ideas are the ones we
come up with ourselves. Whether developing content or interfaces, we
learn to let people close their own conceptual loops with the informa-
tion weve provided them. Its like drawing 90% of a circle with ideas
and letting the receiver finish it.
Directed Empathy: It isnt enough to simply be empathetic, we have to
be able to focus on a specific user process and empathize with it from
multiple points of view. This is really a synthesis of previously men-
tioned traits that appears in advanced designers.

Diplomatic Leadership: Its one thing to see the underlying patterns in

the world, and quite another to be able to manipulate them through de-
sign. Being able to bring people with us on that journey in a way that
doesnt alienate, disparage, or upset them thoughthat is the most no-
ble trait of a design leader. We learn to manufacture excitement and
demand in a place where intractability once held sway.

At the time of this publication, I am a Principal UX Designer at Dell EMCs

Digital Marketing Studio in San Francisco. I learned HTML in 1997 and
built my first commercial web experience in 1999. Professional designers
and entrepreneurs can connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter.