My Answer to the Question: What one UX skill or ability is the most important to master?

The ability to apply critical thinking based on thorough knowledge of human psychology

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 potential for 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:

  • The person with his or her personality, dispositions, moods, needs, and so on.
  • The situation or context of use.
  • The product or service in question.

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.

Excerpt from UserFocus newsletter, originally published on Nov 1, 2016

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