10 things they don’t teach you at design school

What are the fundamental user experience design skills? What are the most important and foundational skills that make the greatest difference to the quality of our design work?

These are questions that I had cause to ponder when I was asked to sit in on the committee for the interaction design programme at Malmö University. In preparation for the meeting I asked myself what I thought they ought to be teaching at the school. I came up with a list of what I personally believe to be ten foundational skills. These are based on my own experience as a UX designer — things that are hard, but make a real difference. These are skills that I constantly struggle to improve, and which I see many other designers struggle with.

Whether or not you agree with this list, you can view the following as an opportunity to reflect on your own skills as a designer, and to think about what direction your own personal development might take.

1. Finding the right problem to solve

As important as solving a problem well, is solving the right problem, or a fruitful version of the problem at hand. As designers, we need to learn ways of getting to the root of a problem, ways of seeing a problem (or a design opportunity) from multiple perspectives, and ways of uncovering and revealing our underlying assumptions.

2. Strategies for finding things out

If you don’t research your design topic you design from your own biases and preconceptions, miss opportunities, reinvent the wheel, and fail to capitalize on the mistakes of those who have gone before you. This is wasteful and presumptuous. What we all need are strategies and resources for quickly finding good, reliable, actionable and true information.

3. Coming up with new ideas

We are constantly called on to come up with new ideas and concepts and to find multiple solutions for a given problem. We need to quickly and fluidly come up with lots of ideas, variations and angles, but also have the acumen to sift out the useful, meaningful and innovative ideas.

4. Thinking outside your head

Interaction design can be seen as a set of practices for simulating the future. We use personas as stands-ins for people, scenarios as surrogates for situations, interface prototypes as proxies for real systems, and cognitive walkthroughs as substitutes for the mental processes of our users. We use these tools because our heads are too small to run the necessary simulations unaided. As designers, we need to have a broad repertoire of tools to augment our imaginations.

5. Seeing the bigger picture

As designers, we are easily caught up in the little details and nuances of our craft. A necessary skill is to be able to zoom out and see the larger context that the thing we are designing is a part of. Where is the user, what are they doing, how do they feel and what do they care about? What is the social context of the interaction? What is the technical framework? How will the design provide value to users and to the business? What are the potential ethical and aesthetic consequences of your work?

6. Eliciting and making use of feedback

One of the most effective skills for improving both your design work and your skills as a designer, is the capacity to elicit and make use of feedback. Becoming good at this has more to do with your attitude and frame of mind than any specific technique. Successfully exploiting the potential provided by feedback requires you to forgo your need to look good and to be right, and requires that you become fully focused on making the thing you are designing the best that it can be.

7. Learning how to learn

We often face new tasks, in new domains, with unfamiliar technologies. We are constantly having to learn new things, but few of us possess deliberate strategies for learning quickly and effectively. We need strategies for learning just enough, for course correcting, and for understanding the boundaries of our knowledge. We need to be able to let go of worry and ego as we learn and to re-label our discomfort as progress.

8. Getting things done

Too much to do, perfectionism and/or procrastination. Whatever your particular diagnosis might be, there will always be more things to do than there is time. Rather than working longer, harder and becoming more productive, a key skill as a designer is the ability to do the things that matter (that make the most difference) and to do them sufficiently well for the purpose at hand.

9. Making things happen

Your design may be beautiful, elegant and solve the problem at hand, but to become real (and not just a file on your computer), it needs supporters and advocates. A large part of a designer’s job is to explain and persuade others to work on your design, to buy into your vision, and to help midwife it into the world.

10. Finding purpose, meaning and contentment

Why do we design? Why not something else? Presumably it is something that you are good at, enjoy doing, and that you hope will have favourable impact on the world. Few of us articulate our motivations and goals, but by identifying our talents, passions, and what we find meaningful, we will increase the odds of finding a place where these overlap and where we can grow. Another part of living well as a designer is developing strategies for handling the bad stuff, like stress, tricky situations and difficult people.

Sure, I might have missed something, and overstated others. Much much more important than that is what you are going to do next.

What is the next thing you are going to do to broaden and deepen your skills as a designer?