Assessing Your Team's UX Skills
Originally published: Dec 10, 2007
"I didn't realize it required so many different skills," the
newly-appointed user experience (UX) team manager told us. "I mean,
it seemed so straight forward when we came up with the idea, but once
we got into it, we kept realizing all the things we didn't know how
Unfortunately, this isn't the first time we'd heard this from a
manager. In fact, we hear it quite often. Managers embark on a
project, say a redesign of a critical internal application, only to
realize their team, proficient in a few skills, doesn't have the
breadth of skills necessary to develop a quality experience. The
result is an app that works, but frustrates the users because it
doesn't quite meet their needs.
Migrating Away from the Specialists Approach
Traditionally, when an organization set out to build a UX team, they
did so by recruiting and hiring individuals trained in the various
specialties. The individuals, having studied and practiced in areas,
such as information architecture, visual design, and usability
research, were hired to spend their days applying these skills to
solve the organization's design challenges.
However, most organizations couldn't afford such a team. Either they
didn't have the budget to have someone dedicated to one area or they
didn't have the workload demand to justify it. Since the specialists
weren't really trained beyond their specialty, they couldn't easily
be assigned other work. (And if they were, they often resented the
vast amounts of non-specialty work.)
Organizations that couldn't afford a team would then "wing it",
training the personnel at hand to solve the problems on an
as-needed-basis. These individuals, not having the experience and
solid work time to dive deep into a specialty became generalists who
could do many things on a satisfactory basis, but few things as well
as the specialists.
Yet, over time, the specialties have become better at explaining
what they do. Through conferences, a vast amount of well-written
books, certificate programs, and online resources, the wealth of
knowledge formerly only available to trained specialists is now
generally available. Add that to the growing sophistication of
today's projects, and today's best teams have generalists with
experience and a level of knowledge on par with the top specialists.
Assessing the Team's UX Skills
Part of the role of today's UX manager is to ensure the UX team has
all the necessary skills, at the best level possible. To do this,
they need an easy way to assess the current skills of the team. Once
they've got their assessment in hand, it's fairly straightforward to
design a coaching and training curriculum to fill in the gaps.
To help managers with the assessment, we've created a simple
130-point scoring process. They can just walk through the various
skill areas, rating their team on a 0-5 scale, based on the teams
current level of competency. When done, they'll not only have an
understanding of the team's overall effectiveness, but a clear idea
of where to improve.
The assessment is easy to complete. For each of the skill areas
listed below, a manager rates their team using the following scoring
5) Give your team a five when, for the given skill areas, every
member of the team has in-depth knowledge of the area, knows how to
perform advance functions, and readily applies the necessary skills
to every project that requires them (which, in most cases, will be
practically every project). Teams that score fives regularly send
members to conferences and have reading groups and discussion forums
for reviewing the latest advances.
4) Give your team a four when just one individual on the team has
the above-mentioned in-depth knowledge and everyone else on the team
has a basic knowledge and experience with the skill area. Teams that
score fours are often collections of specialists, with each
specialist training the other team members on the basics, so they can
function adequately when the specialist is tied up on other work.
3) Give your team a three when everyone on the team has just a
basic understanding of the skill area. They can perform rudimentary
tasks, but struggle when they run into scenarios demanding more
2) Give your team a two when there is an individual in the overall
organization with the requisite skills, but not part of your team.
This shows the organization sees the value in the skill area, but
your team hasn't made the case for having those skills locally. It's
good to have the skills within the organization, but these skills are
so critical, someone who reports outside the team can only have
1) Give your team a one when you regularly hire outside contractors
with the requisite skills. While hiring contractors is a fine
short-term solution, their experience and knowledge goes home when
the contract is up, thus forcing the team to continually seek more
outside help. Our research has shown that few of the most successful
teams hire contractors, and, when they do, it's with the intention
of learning from the contractor's work and bringing the skills into
0) Give your team a zero when there aren't any immediate resources
available to the team for this skill area. Teams with zeroes
regularly go without the areas at all or find themselves struggling
when the skills become critical to the project.
The Core UX Skills
Now that we know how to rate the team, what do we rate them on? For
the last few years, we've been studying the most effective teams,
isolating those skills that make the most difference.
In our research, we've identified eight Core UX Skills. Teams
directly apply these skills during the planning, design, and
development phases to ensure the best possible user experience. The
Core UX Skills are:
Information Architecture - Almost every design today involves
organizing information, whether it's an online
policies-and-procedures library, product information, or
user-generated videos. Information architecture helps us organize
that content in a way that makes it easy for users to hone in to the
specific content they're seeking. Skills include understanding
methods for organizing information, such as taxonomies, folksonomies,
facets, and ontologies; techniques for deriving user hierarchies,
such as card sorting; and creating design deliverables, such as site
User Research - As we create designs, we need to ensure they meet
the needs of the user. User research helps us collect information
about who our users are, what they are trying to accomplish, what
frustrates them, and what will delight them. Skills include
identifying user population; techniques for evaluating design ideas,
such as usability testing; and passing that information on to rest of
the team members, so they can be making informed decisions.
Visual Design - One hallmark of good design is having a strong
visual appearance. This is more than just aesthetic goodness,
stretching into ensuring the priority of information is communicated
visually -- the most important information jumps off the screen while
more subtle details are visible, yet not demanding unwarranted
attention. Visual design skills include page layout, form design,
color selection, and icon design. (While not directly "visual", we
consider designing for accessibility to fall into this skillset, as
it focuses on much the same issues.)
Information Design - Presenting complex information for easy
interpretation is key for a successful user interface. Knowing when
to use specific table or graph types and using novel approaches for
exploring detailed data sets, whether it's pricing information,
product comparison tables, or trend charts, makes solid information
design a core component of the design process. Skills include
knowing when to apply the variety of chart and table formats, such as
pie charts, hi-low diagrams, and cluster treemaps; how to create
interactive data explorers, such as star fields and drill-down pivot
tables; and working with combining multiple data sources, such as
Interaction Design - Modern applications have moved past filling out
a one-page form and pressing the submit button. Instead, they are now
complex interactions, combining business requirements with a
easy-to-follow user flow. Interaction design skills include knowing
when to utilize different application structures, such as
hub-and-spoke designs versus interview flows; which design elements
are best for certain types of information, such as when to use radio
buttons versus drop-down menus; and creating design deliverables
such as wireframes and design priority descriptions.
Fast Iteration Management - Today's best organizations are
constantly learning from their designs. Instead of projects taking
months or years, they now go from concept to implementation in weeks.
Fast iteration management helps us learn to break designs into small,
bite-sized implementations and to collect data from each deployment
to inform the decisions in the next iteration. Skills include
schedule planning, change management, and usage-data collection, to
help the team move quickly.
Copywriting - Nobody likes using a design whose on-screen text reads
like a 1950's Army instruction manual. The best user experiences
have copy that excites and compels, making the user feel comfortable
and secure about the design. Copywriting skills include identifying
the style of voice and tone that matches the organization's brand,
creating persuasive copy that motivates users to explore the design,
and clearly stating benefit statements, to help the user understand
the value of using new capabilities and functions.
Editing - What's not in a design is as important as what's included.
Editing is not just about correcting bad grammar, but about creating
a cohesive experience that doesn't have extraneous distractions.
Skills include using techniques such as alignment maps to match the
users' needs to the available functionality.
Because these skills are critical to the user experience, we double
the rating we give them when we're combining the scores to determine
a team's overall rating. For example, if a team warrants a 4 in
Information Design, we'd count it as 8 in the final assessment. If a
team scored 5 points in each of the Core UX Skills, they'd get a
total of 80 points.
The Enterprise UX Skills
Along with the Core UX Skills, teams now need skills to enhance
their value across the enterprise. User experience extends beyond the
on-screen interactions to all touch points with the user. Special
skills are needed to ensure the team interacts with the rest of the
organization in a productive manner. While the teams don't need to
know how to do the jobs of others in the organizations, they need to
know how those other roles will influence the design. These
Enterprise UX skills include:
Development Methods - Organizations are using a wide variety of
development methods these days. Team members need to understand how
to integrate their work with development approaches, such as Agile
Design-To-Development Documentation - Communicating the design and
its rationale effectively is critical to successful projects.
Developing personas, design pattern libraries, and use cases are a
regular practice to ensure what is imagined becomes reality.
Web Analytics - Gleaning important information from the mounds of
data collected by today's web servers can dramatically enhance the
design process. Team members need to know how to integrate the
available analytics to inform their design process, by seeing what
designs are working for the users and where design iterations fall
Ethnography - Techniques like ethnography, contextual inquiry, and
field research can help teams gain tremendous insights into the
users' environment and goals, leading to radical improvements to the
experience. Understanding how to facilitate ethnographic projects
and how to report the results, using tools such as contextual
modeling and personas, is important for today's teams.
Social Networks - Computer applications are no longer just a person
interacting with a computer. Many are now computer-mediated
experiences of people interacting with other people. Teams need to
understand the different models for social interaction, from ratings
and recommendation systems to full-blown social network
capabilities, to know when these techniques can enhance the
interaction and to avoid places where the social components take away
from the core functionality.
Marketing - Previously relegated to an isolated function of the
enterprise, marketing skills have become a core component in the
user experience. Teams need to successfully communicate the design's
value to users and need to ensure it blends seamlessly into the rest
of the experience with the organization and the brand.
Technology - It is no longer acceptable for designers to propose
interactions that can't be implemented because team member don't
understand how the technology works. From front-end technology, such
as CSS, Ajax, and Flash, to back-end components, such as server
technology and legacy servers, designers need to be keenly aware of
what is possible and where they will bump into constraints.
ROI - A successful UX team has the skills to explain the business
value of their work. Whether it's a specific enhancement or a
complete rethinking of the way things are done, team members need to
concisely describe the benefits and risks associated with new design.
Business Knowledge - Today's business environment is full of
complexity and hard-to-navigate constraints. Designers need to be
fully aware of how the business works, how it makes money, and what
the internal constraints are, so they can ensure the design services
the business as well as the users.
Domain Knowledge - The industries we service are themselves very
complex, whether they be about financial services, travel, or a
university. Team members need to be fully versed in the domain, so
they can understand the terminology, processes, and objectives of
the people using their designs.
Of course, you may find there are other skills critically necessary
to succeed in your organization or environment. You can add them into
your assessment formula alongside the skills listed above.
Arriving at the Team's Rating
The formula we use for calculating a team's rating is (Core UX
Skills x 2) + Enterprise UX Skills. With 8 Core UX skills and 10
Enterprise UX Skills, the top score is (40 x 2) + 50 or 130.
How well did your team do? Here's some guidance we give the teams we
104 to 130: The team has all the right skills and is well on the way
to mastering them. The next step would be expanding the knowledge by
spreading it to other design agents in the organization.
78 to 103: The team has basic coverage of the core and enterprise
skills, but needs to start enhancing the capabilities of the
individual members. These teams need to focus on exploring outside
educational opportunities, such as summits and conferences dedicated
to these particular skillsets.
36 to 77: Many of the skills are found in the organization, but not
all of them are found in the team itself. The team manager should
actively search out training opportunities for team members, whether
it's tapping into the experts found elsewhere in the organization or
outside seminars and workshops.
0 to 35: The team has few internal skills and is probably too
reliant on outside contractors for many key skills. Working
side-by-side with the contractors can help bring the skills in-house
for future projects.
With the assessment in hand, team managers can now look for ways to
enhance their team's capability and improve the team's productivity
More on UX teams
Continuing on the theme of evaluating team skills is Dan Brown's UIE
Virtual Seminar, Plays Well With Others:
Survival Skills for Design Teams. Dan will show you how to
assess talent and skills available to team leaders for more efficient and effective projects. And designers
will understand what they need to best fit on an effective team.
Learn more about this webinar.
Share your thoughts with us
How are you ranking your teams' skills? Share your thoughts with us on our blog.
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