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Nine Essential Characteristics of Good UX Designers

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p>Someone sent a message to the Adaptive Path Alums mailing list last fall asserting that Information Architects (IAs) need to be really great coders to do their jobs. I was aghast. I uttered many things, loudly, that are inappropriate for a profession

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al blog. The clincher for me was this line, “[IAs] need to wake up in the middle of the night and code SQL joins.” No. No, we don’t. I collected myself and wrote a response just snarky enough for me to feel I’d made my point. This discussion went back and forth for a bit, but it ended up somewhere interesting. To make my ultimate point, I thought hard about it and defined the nine essential characteristics you must possess to make a good software user experience designer.

A note about terminology: I use the term “User Experience Designer” (or UX designer) instead of “Information Architect” because IA refers to a subset of what we do. Also, that’s what Jesse says we are now.

#1: A Deep Understanding of Human Psychology & Research Methods

As Robert Fabricant says, human behavior is our medium. If you don’t understand people, you won’t be a good UX designer. You must have the capacity to hypothesize about the reasons behind the actions you observe people take. You must be able to see things from another person’s perspective. UX designers do more than think about what people do; they actively research it. You must also be familiar with psychological research methods designed to elicit and elucidate people’s perspectives. It takes talent and empathy to unearth these often well-hidden psychological constructs. This isn’t something just anyone can do.

#2: Competence in the Basics of Graphic Design

If you had to be a graphic designer to be a UX designer, I would have been fired levitra cost of sales long ago. Thankfully you don’t. But you do need to be competent in the most basic of basic graphic design principles. Graphic design breaks down into three elements: layout, color, and typography. What you need to know about layout is really Gestalt psychology. Things that appear closer together, bounded by lines, in the same 100mg of paxil color, etc. appear to be related. What you need to know about color is how to use a difference in color and its properties (hue, saturation, & brightness) to draw the user’s attention to important user interface (UI) elements. You also need to know how not to draw attention to unimportant elements. You need to know how to avoid the limitations of using color to convey information. Not everyone perceives color equally well. What you need to know about typography is how to use it to make content readable and scanable online. You also need to know not to use Comic Sans ever, apparently.

#3: An Awareness of and Interest in Technology

While I fundamentally disagree with the assertion that UX designers need to be expert coders, you do need to be fluent in technology. You should be able to understand technology well enough to communicate with developers, but you don’t need to have the skills to make it. While I absolutely cannot program my way out of a paper bag, having taken a few programming classes has helped me think like a developer when I need to communicate with them. Even if you haven’t done any programming, you can still communicate with developers if you’re interested enough in technology to learn. Ask questions if they start talking about things you don’t understand. Don’t just nod your head and say, “Mmm-hmm.” Interest is the first step toward knowledge.

#4: Verbal & Visual Communication Skills

UX design is all about abstractions until suddenly they are concrete and expensive to fix. You must be able to clearly communicate your ideas and the research findings they’re based on before that happens. You must be able to verbally describe everything from squishy user motivations to rigid, detailed sequences of events. But words can have different interpretations. You need to be able to supplement verbal communication with visuals. buy viagra online You don’t need to be an artist but you do need to be able to sketch your ideas on a whiteboard and create clean, clear prototypes and wireframes.

#5: Moderate Familiarity with Business, Deep Familiarity with Your Business

You need to understand the basics of how the business world works in order to effectively elicit and understand business goals. That doesn’t mean that you need to take an accounting class. Just think hard about value and what increases and decreases it. You do need to be very familiar with what your particular company or client finds valuable, though. On top of that, you need to be familiar with why your customers find your products or services valuable. To do that, you need to deeply understand the context in which they work.

#6: The Ability to Quickly Learn a Subject Matter Area

UX designers, whether corporate or consultants, are thrown into situations that they must understand from multiple perspectives. And quickly! Key to this is the ability to quickly master a subject matter area. This allows you to generate useful insights from user research and uncover hidden business goals by asking the right questions. This is crucial to good user experience design. This deep knowledge of context guides your design and allows you to make effective design decisions.

#7: Mediation, Facilitation, & Translation Skills

UX designers sit at the crotch of the Y. Business, technology, and users all intersect in our work.

UXDs lie at the intersection between business, users, & technology

Mediation, facilitation, & translation skills are necessary to ensure that everyone’s perspective is accounted for. While user goals can be uncovered through empathetic, open-minded research, business goals are often much harder. Different departments or business units often have different or even conflicting goals. I

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cannot overstate the importance of keeping these groups on the same page. On top of that, then you have to make it work in whatever technological context is required. Our jobs are not easy.

#8: Creativity & Vision

You need creativity and vision to take all of the above and mold it into a system that helps a business achieve its goals by making it easy and enjoyable for its users and customers to achieve theirs. You need the ability to both envision the big picture and craft the details. You need the creativity to innovate consciously and the drive to

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encourage innovation in others.

If you have all the characteristics I described above, you’re probably a good UX designer. But there is one single characteristic that makes the difference between a good designer and an excellent one…

#9: Passion

In some ways, UX design is a worldview, something you just can’t turn off. Passionate UX designers constantly watch people

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do what they do and analyze why. They can’t help but redesign self-checkout machines in their heads after suffering through them. They create taxonomies for their kitchens and do interaction design on their living rooms. There is no interaction they have with technology or any other type of system that goes un-thought about.

Passion is the most important of all these characteristics. If a passion for UX is all you have, that’s a good place to start. That passion will drive you to cultivate the rest and success will soon follow.

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30 Responses to “Nine Essential Characteristics of Good UX Designers”

  1. Great list, Fred. I would add something to your first one: A familiarity with the body of existing and ongoing academic research into UX and human-computer interaction.

  2. Chris Gielow says:

    Nice job & thanks to @ebuie for tweeting this link!

    I was a bit worried by your definition of UX (and Jesse’s) which seems biased towards software design, but I was pleased to see that your list is actually quite applicable to those of us who design experiences regardless of the medium.

    To that end, I might suggest that “#2: Competence in Graphic Design” be broadened to simply “Fundamentals of Design”… The stuff we all learned in foundations year of Design School before specializing (in my case with Industrial Design.)

  3. Fred Beecher says:

    Elizabeth: You’ve opened up a whole other discussion here, I think. : ) While I’m not familiar with current academic research, I am familiar with some of the foundational research about human perception, reading on the web, etc. I completely agree with you there. But a big gap currently exists in our community between academic research and practice. I am not aware of any current research that will be useful to me as a practitioner. In fact, I stopped getting ASIS&Ts journal because there was so rarely anything that was relevant. I’ve talked with a couple others about this, and I think it’s in the process of changing… Bridging this gap represents a real opportunity for UX design.

  4. Fred Beecher says:

    Chris: Yes, this list is definitely software UX centric, as there are additional characteristics required for those who design physical devices, services, etc. I feel like most of these characteristics apply in those situations as well but others, like technology, might need to be swapped out for something else.

    Regarding the fundamentals of design in general, do you feel like that applies to software UX design? I feel like it could but maybe isn’t as crucial to software UX as graphic design. If you broaden the scope then yes I definitely agree with your suggestion. I don’t have a design background myself; My degree is actually in technical communication. What’s interesting is that a lot of UXDs don’t have a formal design background, but I think as a profession we’re starting to become more conscious about integrating that into UX training.

  5. Fred Beecher says:

    Dave Malouf had some additional suggestions via Twitter I want to add here:

    daveixd @fred_beecher I would throw in that list #10 pattern recognition, & like u said w/ Tech, I would say familiarity & passion about design/arch

    I’ve interpreted Dave’s first point as being the ability to recognize patterns in behavior to gain insights that lead to design solutions. Dave, please correct me if I’ve put words in your mouth. : )

    I think Dave’s second point is similar to Chris’s. We definitely have to have a passion for design, and depending on what area of design we’re working in, a familiarity with the basic principles of design for that medium.

  6. Great list, though I do tend to call #6 “Professional BS-ing”. The ability to reverse engineer a process with very little information in order to explain it to others is certainly a good trait – even though my mother would call my bluff ;)

    I would also add something about having drive and, for lack of a better phrase, “balls” (apologies for the sexist terminology!). Passion, Creativity and Vision – these only get so far, especially within a big, lumbering organization, without the gall to actually stick one’s neck out.


  7. Fred Beecher says:

    Felix: #6 refers to the ability to quickly gain real knowledge, not just BSing your way through something. It’s one thing if you just want to talk with people in that area, but if you want to design something from them you actually need to understand it.

    And yes, in big, slow-moving corporations you do need the ability to show people the value of UX and get them to understand it. While sometimes this can be achieved with “balls,” it’s usually more effective when it’s achieved through data. Show people the effect of UX on whatever’s important to them in a graph. Show them tapes of people messing up while using the system. THEN show them people using a good system & the positive effects that creates.

    The problem with just using your balls is that it’s likely somebody else’s are bigger than yours. : )

  8. Good job – good list – thx Fred and also thx to all repliers with partly real good posts and comments.
    I just miss aspects like LIS, library and information science and interdisciplinary way of working and looking at things.

  9. Todd Toler says:

    This really sums it up. I’m writing these into a job description for a senior IA position as we speak. The most useful interaction design lesson I ever had was a professor at NYU who made us write 50 word fiction stories for a week before ever making a sketch – thus the incredible importance of #4 to our craft.

    A missing #10 strikes me as something about the Ability to Plan for Now & the Future. Great UX designers cut through the clutter and can see the essential systems and patterns at work – then design something flexible and extensible as a result.

  10. Picked this up from @merhl. Great article and list. Thank You!

  11. mega-hanu says:

    I’d also add “An Awareness of and Interest in How Organizations Work”

  12. aynne says:

    This was an excellent post! I agree wholeheartedly about understanding of human behavior, business, technology and design communications. Bravo.

  13. Fred Beecher says:

    Todd: Awesome! I’m glad to hear the post was so useful for you! I totally agree that UX designers need to be able to accommodate the now and plan for the future. In my mind, I see that as a part of #8′s Vision.

    Mega-Hanu: You bring up an interesting point. UX design is often as much about organizational change as it is making usable products. I’ve found this to be especially true as a consultant.

  14. [...] Nine Essential Characteristics of Good UX Designers [...]

  15. [...] Nine Essential Characteristics of Good UX Designers [Evantage Consulting - Jul 23, 2009] – I thought hard about it and defined the nine essential characteristics you must possess to make a good software user experience designer. [...]

  16. [...] with HCI history, which I think should be there as well. For descriptions of each characteristic read the full article Sponsor Vertical1236370 = false;ShowAdHereBanner1236370 = true;RepeatAll1236370 = [...]

  17. Fantastic post. Good job. I only miss a pinch of Human Factor… And the part of not use Comic Sant ever is realy funny. Very good job.

  18. Mary Shaw says:

    I would add team building skills to this excellent list. In addition to all of the above, effective UX designers also help build consensus among team members by encouraging healthy debate, exploration and discussion.

  19. [...] In: Design inspiration 16 Aug 2009 Go to Source [...]

  20. Thanks for useful post

  21. Thanks for your job. Educational post.

  22. Michelle says:

    This is really excellent! Does anyone know of any college programs (post-graduate) that would address most or all of these? I feel that this is a field that is calling me but I’m not sure where to start or how to get in.

  23. Fred Beecher says:

    Hi Michelle. Thanks! I’m glad it was useful to you. There are a good number of grad programs out there. But I’d start with a couple of blog articles first (which do have links to these grad programs).

    The first is Nick Finck’s excellent and recent post, Starting a Career in User Experience Design. Nick takes a narrative approach and describes three areas to work on to get you into the field. Education, experience, and most interestingly, exposure.

    The other article I’d recommend is Whitney Hess’s So You Wanna Be a User Experience Designer?. This article is the first in a series she’s still working on and focuses on resources you can use to acquire and develop user experience design skills.

  24. [...] Nine Essential Characteristics of Good UX Designers [...]

  25. JoE says:

    Thoroughly appreciated the article. I’ve been designing & building websites since I was 19 years old. At 28 now, and with a real passion for technology and web developments, I’ve always kind of wondered how to venture into the area of “user experience designer”. Currently working for an online software company and have recently been put in charge of the redesign for their mutli-million dollar software. I think I’ve got a solid foundation, but some of your recommended books can’t hurt!

    Thanks for the article, it’s appreciated.

  26. Stephan says:

    Nice writeup. I couldn’t agree more. One shouldn’t underestimate the challange of “#7: Mediation, Facilitation, & Translation Skills” … you need a company with the right mindset, to avoid user-un-centered decissions due to greater political power of people involved in the process. As a UX designer you have to be both: advocate of the user and diplomat for your business goals.

  27. [...] Nine Essential Characteristics of Good UX Designers (tags: ux) [...]

  28. I would like to add some:

    #1a Empathy – While already buried in the paragraph, I’d like to stress this more. IMHO one of the most valuable traits/soft skills any designer can possess. Also makes a solid base for mediation, passion, etc.

    #10 Access to and the ability to cooperate with professionals from adjacent disciplines (psychology, sociology, ethnography, ergonomy, information science, mechanical engineering, electronics, software development, materials science, structural design, architecture, …) – UX designers need to be good synthesizers/generalists/hybrids, but given the complexity of the subject matter will not be able to cover every aspect of their work to the same depth as specific domain experts. Hence the necessity to incorporate experience, knowledge, and creativity provided by others into the process whereever sensible or required.

    #11 Systemic thinking (probably the same as what Dave meant by ‘pattern recognition’) – the ability to relate ideas, observations, processes, properties,… to each other, to formalise them, and to build a concept/model/system on that formalisation of relationships. IMHO a strong requirement for conquering complexity (and turning it into something sensible/usable).

    #12 Personal integrity. Ethics. Leadership (i.e. for team building, championing causes, mentoring, providing support, …).

    Also, I very much second the voices above about not just requiring graphics design (just for the screen well ok, but UX ≠ screen) but also more general design basics. And about being aware of and interested in not only technology, but also design, architecture, etc. Not only the contemporary one, mind you. And please add e.g. cultural history, semiotics & communication, and the like. IMHO one should be able to get a more general grasp on human culture. There are already far more than enough single-minded nerds out there.


    @Elisabeth Buie: “A familiarity with the body of existing and ongoing academic research into UX and human-computer interaction.”

    No, definitely not, sorry. Unless you are more of a researcher or usability analyst than a designer. Design as a – hopefully reflective – practice does in my experience simply not work that way. Competence/knowledge in design is mostly acquired by _doing_ design and being reviewed/critiqued (that’s why studio work is so important in design education). Which often leads to a large body of applicable/performative knowledge gained mainly through perception and experience (and by inherently systemising this). This is a type of knowledge different from the academic one gained through research and analysis, holding up to proper scientific standards. And while an experienced designer may not always be able to vocalise all of it properly, in terms of practice(!) it is at least equally valid. Though even having an enormous lump of performative knowledge does not the least spare one from verifiying your work by prototyping, testing, etc. Academic UX research doesn’t spare you from that neither, though. Truth in design is still to be found very specifically right at hand.

    Mind you, personally I _do_ try to keep up with having at least a cursorial knowledge of what is happening in academic UX and related research. Nevertheless it’s just not this relevant for design practice as some academics might want to believe. Checking back with available UX research once in a while when during the design process knowledge gaps open up to be bridged, important assumptions have to be verified or things don’t seem to work as they should is in my experience pretty much sufficient for quite some designers. But there are domain experts and search engines for that – thus no absolute need for a designer to be familiar with much more than some rather sketchy basics of cognitive psychology, ergonomics, and the like. At least in general.

    Similarly, you neither need to academically know much about i.e. art theory to be a good artist, nutritional chemistry and olfactorial processes to be a good cook, theoretical computer science to be a good hacker, literature theory and linguistics to be a good writer etc.

    All of which, BTW, says nothing about the value of academic UX research in itself. There _is_ some good stuff to be found there. But knowing it is not a condition precedent for good design.

  29. Fred Beecher says:

    Wow, Sascha. That is an epic comment! Thanks for taking the time to share your insight! You’re right, I should definitely have emphasized systemic thinking & pattern recognition more than lumping it into Creativity & Vision. I completely agree with your definition of it.

    Regarding access to people from other disciplines, I might take issue with that. Is that absolutely necessary? Beneficial, undoubtedly, but even if you don’t have those contacts you can still be a good UX designer. You do have to be able to collaborate effectively though, which is what #7′s about.

    Regarding integrity, maybe I assumed that. Thinking a little harder about it I think I’d emphasize that more for senior UX designers. I don’t expect that of junior UX designers, who will still do a perfectly good job on the less strategic aspects of UX work. But applied to senior UXDs, I wholeheartedly agree. It is crucial for us to be team builders… to be uniters rather than dividers. Crotch of the Y and all that. : )