UIEtips: 5 Indispensable Skills of UX Mastery

Jared Spool

August 3rd, 2010

A few weeks back, I watched a conversation on the Interaction Design Association’s (IxDA) discussion list that tried to assess whether one can call themselves a designer if they can’t draw. I’m not worried about what people call themselves, but the discussion about whether drawing is an essential skill captured my attention.

I find it an interesting discussion because it shows that, as a professional discipline, we’re not good at understanding what makes us good at what we do. User experience design is a learned and practiced craft—the more you learn and practice, the better you get. But exactly what is it we’re supposed to learn and practice?

In our ongoing research on what makes great teams, we’ve been meeting some seriously awesome user experience professionals. While these folks are from all over the UX spectrum, they share the common trait of being excellent at their jobs and responsible for producing great designs. They are perfect targets of our research.

In today’s UIEtips, I share five skills that were highly developed across all of these “UX masters” as we’ve come to call them. These aren’t your normal UX skills, like wireframing, prototyping, or controlled-vocabulary information architecture. You’ll want to read the article, 5 Indispensable Skills for UX Mastery, to see what these skills are and how you too can master your craft. I’m sure you’ll find it fascinating.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that our next UIE Virtual Seminar on August 5 is Whitney Quesenbery talking about Storytelling in UX? Whether it is or isn’t, you definitely want to sign up for her seminar. She’ll rock your world with her fabulous approach that makes telling engaging, enlightening stories seem so simple, yet effective. Get the details.

Do you know folks who have mastered these skills? What are you doing to improve your own skills? We’d love to hear your stories and experiences below.

10 Responses to “UIEtips: 5 Indispensable Skills of UX Mastery”

  1. stan schwartz Says:

    I have a couple of suggestions for a substitute for the term facilitating.
    One is simply based on “guide.” Guiding is a good exchange for facilitating. “Sherpa” is another bit of advertising jargon for a guide using your description of a facilitator.
    The second of my suggestion for a replacement for “facilitating” is, “enabling.”
    Either of these would be better than the rather sterile/machine-like term facilitator/facilitating.
    One term that is used here in French Canada which might translate well is “animator.”
    Traditionally, the animator is non-judgemental and always a positive force in any group. Animating a group is to add energy at the proper time to ‘nudge’ the group into action and direction.

  2. Steve Portigal Says:

    I explored similar territory (although I netted out on a different list for my 45 minutes) in last month’s CHIFOO presentation “Skill Building for Design Innovators” You can check out the slides and the audio at http://www.portigal.com/blog/skill-building-for-design-innovators-from-chifoo/

  3. Paul Daly Says:

    I read the IxDA discussion regarding being an artist/drawer as pretty elitist, and immediately thought: how about being a good “storyteller” instead of a drawer? Though I agree sketching skills are important–more like being a good Pictionary player (get the idea across fast) than accomplished artist.
    I think any hiring manager would agree these are essential, and also they are the ‘soft skills’ not taught in any degree program (same could be said for most professions). I would say however that I learned the most about ‘facilitating’ in the narrow usability test sense in an undergrad psychology Counseling course (“Tell me what *you* think it means…”). If you want to teach a workshop on presentation skills, start with the example of Don Draper (Mad Men) pitching the Kodak Carousel (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suRDUFpsHus). Storytelling, engaging the listener, effective use of visuals–make your coworkers cry!

  4. Ken Wells Says:

    I suggest a sixth skill that is too obvious to notice but also indispensible; Interviewing. It sometimes goes with ‘facilitating’ but it’s larger than those moments. It’s finding out again and again, what the user wants, what the biz folks want, what the production crew wants and how to align these efforts in the same direction. The first effort in modern negotiation techniques (and marketing since the dawn of marketing) is find out what the customer wants.

    As a designer with a 30 year career, I’m ultimatley the ambassador of all the stakeholders in a project. In my journey to UX mastery, I already know the puzzle, find out what everybody wants, and give it to them.

    Too many times I’ve been hired by folks telling me how to execute what they want instead of telling me what they want.

    If you tell me how to cut grass I can do that. However, if you tell me you want a beautiful landscape around your house, I can do that to.

  5. Masha Krol Says:

    Fantastic article! If I think back, these skills have been present in every truly great UXer that I’ve met. Upon reading, I’d actually started thinking about how I currently am and could potentially be furthering these skills, so I put together a post discussing that and pointing at some resources: http://mashakrol.com/?p=82. Would be great to get your thoughts.

    Also, as I was wondering in the aforementioned blog post: the skills were numbered in the article, but were they listed in any order of importance? I found myself thinking whether you had intentionally ordered them to indicate priority, or just to enumerate.

  6. Keith Ford Says:

    I would question whether sketching is a skill to itself or a sub-skill of storytelling. Perhaps “sketching” is too formal of a term, having an artistic connotation that can be intimidating. I see it more like taking notes (is there a good single word term for note-taking?). We write down ideas into informal notes that are documentation for ourselves and shared with colleagues to communicate the story of the experience.

  7. Jared Spool Says:

    Keith, Sketching is the term of art that everyone is using these days. Often, it involves simple images with stick figures, so it quickly moves beyond an artistic activity into something practical. The reason I wouldn’t use “note taking” is that sketching is key for items, such as ideation and illustration. Note-taking implies that it’s a secondary activity, versus a centerpiece of collaboration.

  8. Sketchnoting 101: How To Create Awesome Visual Notes | UX Mastery Says:

    […] them. While it isn’t strictly related to UX Design, Jared Spool counts sketching as one of 5 indispensable skills that user experience designers should focus on, so it’s certainly a skill you should […]

  9. The Four Pillars of UX Mastery | UX Mastery Says:

    […] four pillars of UX Mastery. Jared Spool has written previously that his research shows there are 5 indispensable skills. To complement that list here are the four pillars that I consider crucial for UX […]

  10. Xandre Lima Says:

    I don’t think that a designer or artist must know how to draw or have a creative background. I agree with all 5 skills Spool suggested, but I would add one more. An UX master must be a nerd, a geek. Let me explain. The best designers, UX professionals and other creative people I met during my 13 years working in the business, all of them had an obsession with something from their childhood, and by that I mean, something that pop culture gave to them at an early age.

    Maybe this obsession are toys, maybe superheroes, movies, books, a passion for history, an obsession for colorful mugs, anything, you name it, but they are deeply in love about a subject and they are part of a community that talk about this obsession (Henry Jenkins can explain this theme better than I can). If I have to hire a new member of my team, I’ll always ask wich thing they like the most in pop culture. will ask them to talk a little bit about that and see how they use words to explain their obsession, how much love they have for it. That way I’ll try to figure out if they take their personal goals and “social business” seriously, or if they are just another lousy spectator of professional culture and information.

    We are surrounded by creative people that love self-help books of design or marketing but are too lousy to go deep into the information they read or to critize what professors and famous professionals say (sometimes because they don’t have a good background to support their questioning). Some of them are even stubborn when someone writes the opposite of what they believe. We need ux professionals that are thirsty for new information, professionals that are curious about how famous scientists and leaders reached their conclusions (real science) and that take the information they learn and apply in their own life, home, family, community, not just at work.

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