The Key to Unlocking Design Skills
What is the most important skill you can hire for when bringing on a designer to your team?
I’m going to guess that many of you value skills like visual design, prototyping, or sketching, and you wouldn’t be wrong. There are certainly some core design skills that are basic table stakes for each role, and since we’re talking generally here — not looking at just product design or game design or marketing design — any core skill could be a reasonable answer for someone to be able to not only perform, but excel with skills that are specific to a role.
Some of you may have been thinking a little differently in response to my question and may have landed upon a soft skill like communication, teamwork, or leadership. Soft skills are much broader and span well beyond design roles into nearly any job or role, and are definitely a complementary grouping of skills to core design skills.
I think we could all agree that we’d probably need a few in each bucket to really hire the best candidate. As far as the set of skills that is right for your company or your team, that’s something I really can’t decide for you, because it’s really dependent on your company and your team and your respective mission and vision and values.
Here is what I can offer you. There is one skill that may be more important than you think. What I’d like to propose is that self-awareness is the most important design skill, not because it fundamentally is a design skill, but because it unlocks the traits that lead to great teams and great design.
Let’s take a dive into how self-awareness unlocks other skills, and how to identify self-awareness in hiring and within teams.
What is self-awareness? It’s the old Socrates saying: “know thyself.” It’s the ability to see who we are clearly, to know our strengths and weaknesses and understand how we fit into the world.
How would one evaluate self-awareness? Let’s dive deeper into what self-awareness means. The phrase “know thyself” doesn’t actually come from Socrates; it’s an inscription among many others at the Temple of Apollo. What Socrates built on top of this was linked to Plato’s theory of reminiscence, in that he believed that everyone has knowledge—it’s just about the ability to recollect that knowledge. This is where we get the Socratic method, from one’s own conversation with her own soul.
In theory then, self-reflection and internal questioning should lend an excellent path to self-awareness, right, if it’s about me knowing me?
I’d like you to put Socrates in the back of your head as we dig deeper.
Tasha Eurich is a organizational psychologist and researcher who’s done a lot of work in the business world around self-awareness and professional development. She’s an accomplished author and has a TEDx talk on self-awareness that’s really eye-opening.
What Tasha proposes is that people who are self-aware not only believe that they are through self-assessment, but also people who know them assess them in the same way.
What that means is that if I think I’m self-aware, I need someone: my boss, a colleague, a friend, my husband… someone to corroborate with me.
In the study that Dr. Eurich and her team ran, the data showed that while 95% of folks surveyed thought they were self-aware, but only 10–15% actually were. That’s pretty shocking, especially if we’re wondering if we’d be one of those ten.
I would highly recommend watching her talk, but I’ll summarize for you. The reason we’re assessing ourselves incorrectly is that we’re relying on introspection to evaluate ourselves, and the way we introspect is faulty.
“Thinking about ourselves is not related to knowing ourselves.”
The problem with introspection is that as we’re asking “why” to understand ourselves and the world around us, and in doing so it’s incredibly easy to invent answers that feel true but are often very wrong. Things are hidden from our view, or often our consciousness. We can’t self-evaluate accurately without adding our own bias, our own worldview, and our own “truth.” And these things aren’t facts.
People who are self-aware ask what instead of why.
Let’s put this in a really practical example. Let’s say I got in a fight with my husband — and this is sheerly hypothetical, because obviously we never fight — and I’m reflecting on what went wrong. I can choose one of two routes.
One route is I can ask why. Why did I respond in that way? Why is he being like this? Why do we keep getting in the same argument?
The other route involves asking what. What happened that caused the argument? What did I do to escalate it? What could either of us do differently next time?
You can see the difference to the two. In all of the whys, I can frankly make stuff up. Why is he being like this? Because he doesn’t care about me. Because he’s mad at me for loading the dishwasher wrong. Because he’s inflexible.
What I’m doing here is I’m fabricating. I’m making up things that I’m not confident in, but they make up reasonable-to-me answers to my why question, and they make me feel better to have an answer than not to have any.
But in the whats, I can objectively and practically evaluate what happened, with facts.
What caused the argument? I took over the nightly cooking, and told him he was doing it wrong.
What did I do to escalate it? Well, I said he never does anything around the house.
What could I do differently next time?
Now you can see the difference between a why and a what in introspection. Whats move us forward. Whys move us backward. And please note, I’m not saying we should never ask why; why is an excellent way to probe deeper and learn about thoughts and behaviors. What I’m suggesting is that when we’re evaluating ourselves and those around us and the things close to us, take the opportunities that could be whys, and see if you can translate them into whats. Today, we’ll call this “what-over-why.”
We’ve now got two key pieces to self-awareness. Those people who are self-aware first assess themselves in the same way as someone who knows them well, and they ask what over why.
Using these two things, let’s go over about how self-awareness affects design skills, and then we’ll address how we evaluate self-awareness.
How self-awareness is interlocked with design skills
Let’s first talk through the skills that self-awareness can unlock. There are many, but I’d like to focus on three that immediately build upon each other from self-awareness practices: curiosity, authenticity, and flexibility. To get at these skills, we’ll want to pair dual assessment with what-over-why.
If we agree that self-awareness requires a complementary assessment from someone who knows us, think of what that process looked like. We had to be curious if we were self-aware. We had to ask someone to assess us, and we had to come to understand and believe what that assessment means. We had to be curious to check our evaluations against the other person’s.
Why is curiosity important in design?
When we desire to learn new things or new ways of doing things, we’re better problem solvers. We lay out and explore problems before offering solutions. We talk to people instead of answering questions ourselves. We use evidence over conjecture.
Take for example my friend and former colleague Evan. Evan is a UX designer, and one of the most curious people I know. He’s always digging in to learn more and compare perspectives. He seeks knowledge and understanding through inquiry to inform his design decision-making.
To do this, he asks things like what happened or what could I do differently rather than why did this happen or why isn’t this good enough. He brings others in to compare perspectives rather than going it alone.
Because of his what-over-why and dual assessment habits — combined with his curiosity — he’s an excellent researcher, product strategist, and generative designer.
What about authenticity? Authentic people are confident; they know themselves. They are who they are, to themselves and to others. This stems from self-awareness.
Why is authenticity important in design?
When a designer is able to really be themselves and show themselves truthfully and honestly to teammates and leaders, it leads to great culture, where people feel safe to be themselves and to project their work.
Let’s go back to Evan. He’s someone who used to really keep to himself. He’s introverted, and leads a very private life. He is a warm, caring, and kind human being, and a superb designer.
The challenge was, when he started on the team, his teammates couldn’t see this. What they saw was a standoffish, egotistical teammate. They saw his curiosity as accusatory.
Evan knew something wasn’t right and made a decisive move to change this. He started by using his curiosity. He asked for feedback from his manager and from his peers. He asked things like: what are your impressions of me? and what could I be doing differently?
From this, he learned that his teammates needed to know more about his strategic thinking, and that he had a tendency to cut people off. He had to leverage the tools that lead to self-awareness — what-over-why and dual assessment habits — and combine it with curiosity to find out how to be more authentic.
His move towards self-awareness significantly changed the dynamic of the team. He began to see himself how others saw him and made a few behavior modifications, which encouraged others to follow the same pursuit. His authenticity built the foundation for a psychologically safe team environment, where feedback is given honestly and received openly. And that team is thriving now.
If we’re self-aware like Evan, we’ve asked for feedback. We also are keenly aware of how others see us, since it’s now the way we see ourselves. We likely had to flex our behavior or understanding based on the results.
Why is flexibility important in design?
Design process and critique points to all of this. Flexible designers adapt as necessary based on new information, feedback, or perspective. They take feedback well—think about design critique, or stakeholder feedback or user interviews—and respond to it. They’re iterative, and are always looking for improvements.
Take for example, Julie. Julie is a product designer on my team who’s self-aware, curious, and authentic, which has allowed her to be incredibly flexible.
She asks for feedback, and incorporates it into her design work. Her last launch went through twelve painstaking pivots and iterations because she valued the feedback that allowed her to modify.
She leads with question like what could be improved upon rather than why is this not working, and she’s brought in multiple designers to hash out directions and evaluate them together.
Because of her what-over-why and dual assessment habits—combined with her curiosity, authenticity, and flexibility—she’s a favorite of not only teammates, but cross-functional leaders and stakeholders. She effectively negotiates by seeking to understand multiples needs and values, and she flexes deliverables to maximize results for all parties.
It probably goes with out saying, but both Evan and Julie are best in class and have some solid skills under their belts. Their work is exceptional, their teammates like them—they’re going places. The common thread? A path towards self-awareness.
How we evaluate self-awareness
We want self-aware people on our teams. As we’re hiring folks, mentoring and developing them, how do we gauge self-awareness?
Bringing candidates in
As we’re building teams, it would be awesome if every person we hired started off with self-awareness, right? How might we evaluate self awareness in the interviewing process?
Evaluating self-awareness isn’t about looking just at self-awareness as a singular skill check box (are you self-aware or not); it’s about evaluating other facets and skills and comparing notes. From that we extract self-awareness.
Let’s say I’m hiring for a junior product designer.
I know I want baseline end-to-end skills, and I’ve established that we have six skills valuable to my team, one of them being self-awareness.
Over the course of the interview process, I want to collect evidence of these skills. I don’t want the process to be too draining or redundant, because I care deeply about candidate experience. So I want to arrange a panel with an agenda that covers all of these skills effectively.
For example, I might have one teammate or multiple teammates conduct a portfolio review where we gauge all of the core skills and soft skills, and I may have another conduct a background interview where they specifically look at soft skills through behavioral questions.
In the interview, each interviewer will be equipped with both a guide and a rubric that they’ve familiarized themselves with. The rubric will have our skills, the skill descriptions, and a simple scale assessment. After their sessions, each interviewer will step back and write targeted feedback against that rubric, very simply, with the examples they have — what did they just see and hear?
We also want to zero in on how the candidate answered questions. Do they do so with evidence, referring to whats? Do they hypothesize frequently where evidence could have been found, instead relying on whys? Are they using what-over-why whenever possible?
When we as interviewers come together, we’ll lay down our observations against each others and look for themes and patterns. For those of you who conduct user research, this is pretty easy for you; first we observe, and then we synthesize.
That synthesis is super important in interviewing, where we can see patterns that point to a lack of or strength in self-awareness:
- They says their strongest skill is visual design, but it’s actually probably their weakest skill based on what we saw. Based on a dual assessment, this person probably isn’t self-aware.
- They say they prefer a drama-free environment, and they gave examples of leading a team to resolve conflict. Self-aware? Probably!
- They say they have a flexible process, but every case study follows the same student-like template with missing steps in interaction. Their self-awareness might need some work.
A solid interviewing process takes time, but is an effective way to evaluate self-awareness among other skills, and a necessary way to implement fair, inclusive, and equitable hiring practices.
There’s something to note here when we’re looking at self-awareness in specific in hiring: our interviewers are generally not people who know the candidate well. They shouldn’t be; that would introduce potential conflict and bias in interviewing. We’re still introducing the concept of dual evaluation and combining that with our idea of what-over-why.
Evaluating our team
In that ideal world where we’ve hired a completely self-aware team, we’re golden. But often as design leaders, we inherit teams that have individuals that may not be self-aware. How might we evaluate self-awareness within the members of our teams?
I care deeply about each member of my team. To be a great manager and leader, you really have to. Great teammates make great teams, great teams do great work, and great work makes companies thrive. So the smallest atom or lever I can work with is the individual.
Let’s say hypothetically I’m taking over a new team, and I’m noticing some issues. Our output is of low quality, morale seems low, and I’m already starting to observe bickering between teammates. I need to understand what the root cause of these different problems might be.
I want to learn about the skill strengths and weaknesses of each of my teammates. I want to understand where each person’s areas of opportunities are that might contribute to solving these problems, either by improving on a weakness or highlighting a strength. I’m suspecting that self-awareness will probably point me to areas we need to work on
I’m going to want to get essentially the same assessment that I did in our interviews, but these folks are already hired. They might be old-school employees. They might be worried about a new leader coming in and changing things. The tone is different here than in an interview, so I’m going to approach it in a different way.
I’m going to schedule three different kinds of 1:1s for each teammate. In doing so, I’m going to be softly assessing their skills based on how they speak about themselves and what I’m given to observe (a dual assessment). I’m also going to be looking for what-over-whys. Note that these are 1:1s I can run even if this isn’t a new team.
In the first 1:1, I’m going to get to know them. I’m going to ask about their story: how they got into design and what it took to get here. I’m going to organically learn the names of their partners, children, and dogs. I’m going to learn not about their work, but about them. I’m going to build trust. I’m going to use what-over-why myself.
In the second 1:1, I’m going to talk about their career path. I’m going to ask them what their strengths are, and what are their growth opportunities. I’m going to ask where they want to be in five years, and find out if they know what to do to get there. I’m going to ask what they need from me to develop.
In the third 1:1, I’m going to dive deep into their product work. I’m going to have them walk me through a project and talk me through their product thinking, interaction design, and visual design: the core skills that we value. I’m going to ask them to evaluate their work against those skills.
Simultaneously, I’m going to evaluate the team as a whole. I’m going to host a team reflection where we spend some quiet time jotting down what’s going well and what could be improved upon. Whether we share these out conversationally or anonymously, I’m going to collect and synthesize themes.
As I synthesize and lay down the information I have, I’m going to again discover areas of opportunity and areas of strength around self-awareness. For example:
- One of my product designers might think they’re ready for a promotion and agonize over why it isn’t happening, but their core skills falls below that of their peers. This points to a lack of self-awareness.
- A systems designer might say they need to develop leadership skills, but from what I’ve seen, they already have them: strategies they’ve implemented including things like soliciting feedback, testing frameworks, and training and mentoring sessions. This person actually isn’t self-aware enough to see their strengths.
- Another product designer might believe they’re highly collaborative, but other teammates have mentioned that this person rarely shares progress, and it’s an overall theme in our reflection that some teammates don’t work together well. Again, not super self-aware.
When evaluating the teammates on your team, it’s not as simple as a hire or no hire decision. As a leader, we’re responsible for not only the output of our team, but also the career pathways. We are obligated to give clear and direct feedback — using radical candor — to give teammates a clear assessment of where they are, and tools and strategies to get where they want to be (and where we want them to be).
Knowing the skill shape of our team and the shape of each team member helps us know where to push on for improvements. Then, we can use the following tools as strategies for development:
- Baked-in processes like performance reviews and standing 1:1s are great opportunities to continue to learn, but also give real and honest feedback.
- Collecting ad hoc peer feedback collects additional information and gives clear themes.
- Giving resources: books, articles, people to talk to gives individuals avenues to pursue improvement.
- Giving challenges allows them to track progress.
- Building partnerships allows people to learn from each other.
It’s easier to hire than fire. This is why you need to take the time to really pay attention to self-awareness. If the people we bring on and develop are—or become—self-aware, they’ll respond well to nudges for development, because they’ll likely be curious, authentic, and flexible.
Now, I’ve been mostly speaking to design leaders, because it’s your job to have not only impactful teams, but also to have happy and developing teammates.
But zooming out a little, a design leader doesn’t necessarily have to be in a manager role. Not all of you will have teams. And it’s not really up to those we report to to move us along on our self-awareness journey anyways. And we all have a self-awareness journey. How do we get started?
We need to have people who know us well who are able to give us feedback. We need to know objectively know who we are and understand what we must do to better ourselves. We must practices our what-over-whys.
Self-awareness isn’t something that most people just have. It’s something that we all need to work on. We need to to have a growth mindset and believe that we can and will be more self-aware. We can get started with the following steps.
- Rally your team around an agreed-upon set of skills, and make sure self-awareness is front and center.
- Find you and your teammates assessment partners.
- Start taking notes of the whats and the whys. Find the whys that can be transformed.
The rest, with intentionality and focus, will follow.