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Five Indispensable Skills for UX Mastery

by Jared M. Spool
on August 3, 2010

For practicing User Experience Designers, one of the most important
laws isn’t Fitts’s Law, which helps us understand how to design
interactive elements. Nor is it Hick’s Law, which describes how long
people take to make decisions.

It’s Sturgeon’s Law, which tells us that 99% of everything is crap.
It’s easy to produce a poor quality result—anyone without the
critical skills is capable of it and there are a ton of those people
floating around.

Yet if we want to be really excellent at what we do, what are those
essential skills? What should we be practicing to become a master?

This is exactly the question we set out to answer as we studied the
work of the master UX professional. These masters were folks from all
different disciplines within the UX world—interaction design,
information architecture, user research, copywriting, and visual
design. While they produced different deliverables and end products,
it was clear that each of the masters we talked to had built their
mastery upon some common skills — skills that turn out to be
indispensable when they’re trying to produce excellent results.

Indispensable Skill #1: Sketching

Someone once said that talking about design is like performing
interpretive dance about architecture. Words, while critical, often
don’t do our ideas justice.

A quick sketch about a design—what it will look like, how
information flows from one place to another, how the users move
between activities—often is the best way to get our ideas across.

The masters we talked to gravitate to sketching easily. They aren’t
embarrassed by how ugly their sketches are (and, by the way, they
can be quite ugly) or how silly they might look (quite silly too).
They focus on the ideas behind those sketches.

We’re talking back-of-the-napkin quality stuff. Thick pens, broad
strokes, simple stick figures. It’s not the Mona Lisa or the best
work of the Impressionists.

We asked each master how they obtained their sketching skills. Their
answer? They practiced—in meetings, at their desk, waiting for
their kid to finish soccer practice. They just kept drawing and
doodling and sketching thoughts that came into their mind. They
would write the same phrases over again, to improve their
handwriting’s readability.

Sketching isn’t hard, but it’s a learned skill. Once learned, it
becomes an effective part of the communication mix.

Indispensable Skill #2: Storytelling

One of the things that separates humans from all other species is
our ability to enjoy a good story. (You don’t find mice sitting
around a campfire recounting their recent life-threatening encounter
with the farmer’s wife.) We love to hear stories and we worship
those among us who can tell the best ones.

In the sterile, fact-filled workplace, we don’t think of stories as
being a critical skill. Yet stories can inspire. They can
illuminate. They can help us empathize with those we’re designing
for.

Telling a great story was another common trait of all the masters we
talked to. When we asked them to describe something they had
accomplished, they didn’t just describe the result, they told how
they’d accomplished it. They told us what problems it solved, who
they talked to in the research, and how they convinced their team
members to focus on the best parts. They did it in a totally
fascinating way. Our attention was riveted.

Storytelling, like sketching, is a skill they regularly practiced.
They told the same story over and over, watching how their audiences
responded. When the audience responded with the right ideas, they
knew they’d succeeded. When they didn’t, they changed their story
until they got the effect they were seeking.

There are elements of good stories that the masters understood:
characters, plot lines, the journey the protagonist takes, the
challenges they face. These things make the story interesting and
entertaining. But they also make them informative.

Like sketching, telling a story is an essential skill to becoming a
master. Keep it fresh. Keep it interesting. Most importantly, keep
it relevant and information-packed.

Indispensable Skill #3: Critiquing

It’s rare to find a UX master who works completely by themselves.
Instead, they are part of a team, collaborating on the designs they
create.

Part of the collaboration is delivering and receiving feedback.
Great design succeeds through iteration. Each round of changes is
best when it’s informed by the experience and knowledge of the
others around us.

We don’t hear much about critique. The folks who are best at it can
deliver constructive feedback that helps us better understand what
we’re trying to do and how we can do it. Those folks are also great
at receiving the feedback by empowering our thinking process and
helping us understand how to be better problem solvers.

Critique goes beyond criticism. It explores what the design’s
objectives are. It looks into how the users will solve their problem
and move through the design. It’s a discussion, where nobody is
right or wrong, instead we fully explore the landscape of the
problem.

A great critique is an engaging, energizing, and empowering session.
Everyone feels they’ve learned something new and grown professionally. Mastering this skill enhances our teamwork, while
enriching our designs.

Indispensable Skill #4: Presenting

Presentations are a UX master’s staple. They are always presenting
ideas to their teams, their work to their management and others
inside their organization, and their methods and results to their
peers at professional gatherings.

At the core of a great presentation is storytelling. It’s boring to
just list the facts, so embedding it into a memorable and engaging
story is key.

But great presentations go beyond the storytelling component. They
are multimedia events, involving live action, sound, and visuals.
Presenting involves writing, orchestrating, choreographing, and
producing.

Great presentations also involve a new level of attention on the
part of the presenter. A great presentation, in itself, is an
exercise in designing an experience. Understanding how to listen to
your attendees is an essential component of crafting the experience
you’re creating for them.

It’s easy to stand in front of a crowd and walk through a slide
deck. It’s much harder to create a meaningful presentation that
persuades, engages, and rocks the world of the audience.

Some, those who have mastered presenting, make it look easy.
However, the great presenters put tremendous effort into their
craft. They practice frequently, editing their presentation with
fine precision, making sure every moment has the audience right
where they intend.

It’s a performance-based skill that looks easy, but is hard to pull
off well. Improving this skill will make you an indispensable voice
of your team and organization.

Indispensable Skill #5: Facilitating

Frankly, when I started working on this article, I wasn’t thrilled
with the name of this skill: facilitating. It sounded so
administrative, so boring. And this skill is anything but boring.
It’s essential to great, collaborative design.

In our work, we regularly have to lead teams through critical
activities, whether it’s analyzing the results of a user study,
brainstorming ideas for a new feature, critiquing a design, or
dividing up the work for the next iteration. (I had thought of
leading or leadership as an alternative to facilitating, but that
sounded too grandiose.)

The facilitator is a momentary leader. They step in and take over,
with everyone’s support and respect, to push through the group’s
next activity. Team members often take turns facilitating, spreading
the effort around, giving everyone a chance to guide the team for
that moment.

The best facilitators have a full toolbox of tricks. They know when
the whiteboard works and when it constrains the conversation. They
understand how to use sticky notes or index cards. They know how to
separate valuable explorations from wasteful digressions, as the
team works through the session. They know when to assert their own
point of view and when to play a neutral role.

Folks who master facilitating are always looking for new tools and
tricks. They are in search of new ways to get the team to consensus,
to agreement, to assigning and delegating. A great facilitator is
indispensable to their team, helping them move closer to success
with every get together.

Five Indispensable Skills

So, there we have five skills for UX mastery. These skills aren’t
unique to the user experience profession, but it’s clear from our
research, the best professionals work hard to master them.

These skills—sketching, storytelling, critiquing, presenting, and
facilitating—are all communication skills. They are all
collaboration skills. They are skills that help us make every design
better.

What’s great is that we can use these skills as a way to better
ourselves and our teams. We can constantly look to improving—
scouting out friends, colleagues, and mentors who have reached a
higher level and learning from their practice. Managers can add
these skills to the performance review process, asking each period,
“Have you improved on these?”

These are indispensable skills to have, which, in turn, make us more
valuable (and more indispensable) to our teams.

Looking to Improve Your Storytelling and Sketching Skills?

Do you think it’s a coincidence that our UIE Virtual Seminar 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.

Share Your Thoughts With Us

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. Share them at the UIE Brain Sparks blog.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.