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User Experience is a multi-disciplinary specialty and that means UX practitioners must master several methods, techniques and skills. Recently — partly as a thought exercise, and partly in an attempt to tap into what might be the essence of user research and design — I wondered if just one skill or ability deserved to stand out from the rest. Here’s how five UX specialists answered that question.
I asked a number of UX experts to consider this question: “What one UX skill or ability is the most important to master?” Then, without discussing it, comparing notes or sharing ideas, to spend just 30 minutes writing about it. Here’s what they said.
There are so many UX skills to choose from, beginning with user research skills. After all, what’s the point of designing something wonderful if you aren’t clear on what you are solving for in the first place? On the other hand, you might argue that interaction design is the skill to master, since even the best research findings are for naught if you can’t create a compelling, usable solution that helps someone meet their goals. Then again, it could be tempting to argue that visual design is the most important skill, especially for those who believe design is synonymous with aesthetics.
But I’m going to ignore these obvious choices. Instead, I propose that the one UX skill to practice, develop, and master is the ability to turn your observations into insights about what is working and what is in need of attention.
Mastering the ability to turn careful observations and recognition into meaningful insights can help set you apart as a UX professional. Being able to recognize common patterns of behavior, root causes of problems, and meaningful exceptions that others overlook is truly a “super power” that the best UX pros seem to possess. It’s how they determine what problems to solve, what design concepts to pursue, and how to measure success.
That said, this ‘skill’ is not something easily taught, nor learned. One might argue that it’s innate: you either have it or you don’t. I tend to believe that it’s something that we all possess to a degree, but that you can improve upon with dedicated effort and focus. No doubt, we have all reflected on common, elegant design solutions such as velcro, luggage with wheels, and friendly dialog warnings reminding you to attach the file that you forgot to attach, and thought, “Of course, the solution is so obvious.”
Certainly, we would all like to have 20/20 hindsight vision. But improving your ability to turn observations into insights may be the next best thing.
This is a tricky question because there is not a single skill or ability that, in isolation, will make an effective user research or designer. In practice, I find that effective user experience professionals have a cluster of important attributes. For example, effective user researchers know about experimental design, which means they can run design experiments that are free of bias. And effective designers have a sense of taste that goes beyond merely understanding the principles of interaction design.
But if I had to focus on one overarching skill that is important to both user researchers and designers — indeed anyone who hopes to make it in user experience — I would say it’s the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s about empathy. Hard-nosed development teams sometimes reject this idea, mistaking empathy for sympathy. It’s not about sharing someone else’s feelings. It’s about seeing your users’ world through a different pair of eyes or to know what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
This is about avoiding egocentrism. It’s about realising that other people are different, and that those differences are not deficits but alternative world views. In other words, it’s not about bringing other people round to your way of thinking; it’s about bringing your design around to their way of thinking.
Many people find this incredibly hard to do. They can’t understand how people can see the world differently from them. Without this understanding, doing good design — or even realising that you need to do user research to discover these different world views — becomes impossible.
If we could strip UX of its paraphernalia — the methods and materials, the tools and techniques — and distill it to its purest essence, it amounts to something simple to grasp but difficult to achieve, something that seems very human but that doesn’t come naturally to us at all: The ability to see the world through the eyes of another person.
It’s an essential UX ability but the problem is we’re not very good at it. Most of us are terrible at seeing things from another’s point of view. In fact, for the first few years of our lives we completely fail to realize that other people even have a point of view! That’s why asking small children to hide so you can’t see them usually results in them closing their eyes or putting their head under a cushion. Thankfully, we soon develop what psychologists refer to as a ‘theory of mind’ - the ability to realize that other people have different beliefs, desires and perspectives to our own.
In contrast, in most design, engineering and marketing meetings the focus is primarily on the thing being developed on the product, application or system and the viewpoint is that of the designer, the engineer or the marketer.
Why is it so hard to adopt the user’s point of view? I think there are four reasons.
The ability to empathize with users may be difficult to master but it’s an ability that can be improved. We know this because certain other professions depend on it for their success. Counselors, doctors, teachers and even actors are all very good at seeing the world from the viewpoint of someone else, and UX designers could learn much from these professions. For example taking a leaf from the handbook of the method actor we can experience the world our users live in by actually working alongside them in their everyday environment and carrying out the kinds of tasks and activities that they have to do.
Let’s start by deconstructing the term “User Experience”. If my younger, less experienced, professional self were answering this question, I would have discussed user needs, behaviors, expectations, jobs to be done, etc., and a related key “UX skill” would have been Usability Testing. However, I would argue that a much more important and foundational UX skill is a deeper understanding of the academic subject of psychology and, more specifically, the areas of personality, social psychology, emotion, cognition and perception. A solid knowledge of these areas, based on familiarity with the primary research, equips one with the tools to examine and question seemingly clear and straightforward concepts such as “User” and “Experience.”
For example, conducting “user” research for the purposes of innovation limits one, by definition, to observing the person in the context of using the product or service being researched. Usability research is a great example of such a limiting scope. By observing participants use a particular interface, one can see if that interface is easy or difficult to use. This method, however, cannot reveal the existence of a qualitatively better interface. To discover opportunities for leapfrog innovation of the kind Professor Roberto Verganti writes about, we need to study and understand the “person” and not the “user.” Solid knowledge of psychological principles and research provides the perfect foundation for that.
In terms of understanding the “Experience” part of “UX”, Psychology teaches us that we cannot “create experiences.” It can be argued that no one can actually design a human “experience.” Experience is an emergent property of the interaction of people with products. “Experience” is a subjective state, the result of several conditions:
Companies can only control their products. The really consumer-centric companies also have gained knowledge about and empathy for their users (their personality, dispositions, moods, needs, and so on).
In conclusion, to answer the question about mastering one UX skill, I would say: critical thinking based, not necessarily on user needs, but on a thorough knowledge of human psychology.
A strong foundation ensures stability and strength for all else built on it. For UX, this foundation is how well the UX team understands and represents the problem.
When a team skips or skimps on this step, all downstream activities suffer. This may seem obvious, yet it happens all too frequently for several reasons:
When you think solution creation needs more time than understanding and framing the problem, you’re feeding a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you spend less time in the upfront discovery, definition, and framing phase of the project, you will waste time at the solution phase on incomplete and off-target solutions and re-doing everything as you uncover information that should have been discovered earlier. Consequently, the solution phase will take longer.
The upfront phase is where you find user empathy, pain points, opportunities, and information to help prioritize; requirements to define success criteria; seeds of innovation, and more.
But working to collect data and understand the problem is not enough. Teams need to improve their ability to frame and represent the problem. Reports and presentations are sorely insufficient. UX teams need to find better and more creative ways to visually show their upfront work to combat the perception of slow progress or movement. Visually compelling and clear diagrams, charts, infographics, models, frameworks, and maps, etc., used as tools are the creative and fun design challenges of this phase. Creating representations of the problem space and its opportunities in ways that are useful throughout the course of the project is essential.
As others have said before, “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution!” A problem well understood and represented is mostly solved. Trust in this and become better at it. Spend more time and energy upfront, knowing it will pay off with better on-target, innovative solutions created in less time. As Einstein said, “Give me an hour to save the world and I’ll spend 55 minutes understanding the problem and five minutes on the solution”.
Do you agree or disagree with our UX experts? Are these the most important UX skills or abilities? Or did we miss something? Is there another skill that you think is paramount?
Join the discussion by adding a comment below.
Dr. Philip Hodgson (@bpusability on Twitter) has been a UX researcher for over 25 years. His work has influenced design for the US, European and Asian markets, for everything from banking software and medical devices to store displays, packaging and even baby care products. His book, Think Like a UX Researcher, was published in January 2019.
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