Ten skills you need to be a UX unicorn

Conor Ward
9 min readJun 2, 2016

“Hold the phone Jack… What the heck is a UX Unicorn?!” — you might find yourself exclaiming at this point. Especially if Jack’s on the phone.

Don’t worry, incredulous friend of Jack, let’s quickly jump back a few steps and explain the ‘UX Unicorn’ concept first before breaking down the skills needed to be one. (If you’re thinking that Unicorns can’t or even shouldn’t exist, thats fine too — stick with me…)

- What the Unicorn?

In case you’re not au-fait with Unicorn mythology, etymology and modern day usage, then this Wall Street Journal quote should bring you up to speed:

“The myth of the unicorn, the pure steed with the single spiralling horn, goes back to antiquity, with legends of unicorn hunts memorialised in medieval tapestries… now a “unicorn” often refers to someone or something exceedingly special and worth seeking.”
— Ben Zimmer, Wall Street Journal

- From T-Shaped to Square-Shaped!

So, it appears we are talking about experience design, but of course the term unicorn is also à la mode in the venture capitalist world of unstable silicone valley startups, meaning confusion thus ensues; so let’s be clear that The UX Unicorn we seek is that elusive Square-Shaped User Experience Designer that has multiple skills and expertise in the main areas required for innovative digital product design. This square shaped person goes a few large strides beyond a previously equally elusive T-shaped individuals as discussed in Agile & Scrum.

“What’s better than knowing a little about a lot and a lot about a little? …
Knowing a lot about a lot.” — Mike Arauz

- The Birth of a Unicorn

It’s a Great Time to Be A UX Designer by Jared M. Spool

So what are these important multiple areas of expertise?
Well, first lets start by explaining that the idea of a UX Unicorn certainly isn’t a creation of my own, however I have been a very strong advocate of it ever since I heard my UX Guru Mr Jared M. Spool talk about it at “An Event Apart” in Austin, USA in 2013 where he detailed why “It’s a Great Time To Be A UX Designer.”

Jared spoke about all of the layers that it takes to really call yourself a designer for experience (not a designer of experiences, which of course is pretty impossible). He even opened a school called the Unicorn Institute to teach UX Designers these broad skill sets. (He later changed the name to Center Centre a play on words from UCD land). Basically, what Jared doesn’t know about UX Unicorns could fit on the back of a postage stamp.

The basic principle of a UX Unicorn is that the old world of working in a silo of specialism within a single area and then passing work over to another specialist has so many pitfalls and inherent complexity that why wouldn’t we all (if we could) just do all of the steps involved in creating a digital product ourselves using our holistic skill sets.

- UX is not UI (or usability, etc..)

As I have heard first hand recently, both from Peter Merholz (Adaptive Path, Jawbone, Groupon) and also Louise Downe (Head of Design at the inspirational GDS): All Design is Service Design.
So if the discipline of UX is not about improving how things LOOK, but instead how they WORK, then of course UX Design includes a multitude of varied deep specialisms and expertise. How could it not?

Well, thats where the mythical part of this discussion comes in, many UX designers out there still believe very strongly (and for good reason) that this multi skilled ‘specialist-generalist’ cannot exist.
They could well be correct in their current circumstances. For example if their company does not work like this, then how could they? Especially if their company is an agency, and their access to users is limited or non-existent.

- My own ‘Blessing’ of Unicorns

My own experience is that we must strive towards unicorn-ism.
I have created and curated a fantastic team of UX Unicorns (yes a group of unicorns is called a blessing, Google says so) and more importantly together with my colleagues and bosses we have created the environment for them to survive and thrive.

Ideally this environment is a Lean, Agile, User Centric, Product-led one where speedy failure is actively encouraged and celebrated in the pursuit of constant experimentation and learning. This of course needs buy in from everyone else that you will be working with too. Which is no small thing.

There are two key specifics about my UX Unicorns compared to other UX Unicorn definitions:

Firstly, they are not expected to be active developers. This is a common mistake I think people make when talking about UX Unicorns. I believe that in a large business environment, they should not code, but instead actively collaborate with their co-located developers on a daily basis and understand in good detail how things are made.
Secondly, they are expected to excel in visual design while at the same time being a top notch researcher, testing moderator, data analyst, information architect and interaction designer all while actively driving hypothesis-led Product Management towards providing measurable business value through true User Centred Design. Sounds easy right?

This is my working definition of a UX Unicorn.
And I have to say it’s working a treat for us.

Also, creating an “everyone is a designer” environment of Design Thinking through design studios, design sprints, full product-team user testing involvement, transparency of data, information radiators and true open collaboration are all basic expectations of the unicorn role.

Up-skilling of UX related skills (like usability testing moderation) for other non-UX product team members is a great added benefit from this too.

Clearly these unique and talented people are notoriously difficult to find, however not impossible. It is also possible to grow them in-house, as long as you find the right people with a genuinely open mind, a thirst for learning, a passion for innovation, a desire for balancing science with art and a stubbornness for always doing the right thing for our users. I have somehow been lucky enough to do both with my team.

- The Ten UX Unicorn Skills

So, now that you’re down with the lingo of what the heck a UX Unicorn is, lets get back to the meat of this article: I believe there are ten prime cuts that make up a UX Unicorn… (I know, this metaphor is already starting to stretch…and I’m not sure if they allow poor puns like this on Medium either).

These ten skill areas should be all be exercised by the UX Designer during every month’s work as a basic expectation. There are of course many moments of crossover within these ten skill areas:

1. Evidence: (What)

[Data analytics, Behavioural Insights]
This area of expertise focuses on discovering what is happening with your product on a regular and granular basis yourself, through analysing usage facts and turning this into meaningful insight and hypothesis to experiment around.

2. Empathy: (Why)

[User Research, Usability Testing]
This area focuses on trying to understand the attitudinal reasons behind users behavioural actions. Crafting new conceptual models from observed cognitive models and mental models. Understanding cognitive load and emotional response while also measuring behavioural response and effect. Qualitative research and testing is essential and invaluable in the UX toolbox. If you’re not regularly talking to your users, you ain’t UX-ing. Simples.

3. Exploration: (Who, When, Where)

[User Journey Mapping, Experience Mapping, Task & Process Analysis]
Before Moving into any UI discussions, these skills should be applied. Mapping out the current ‘as-is’ journeys and then crafting proposed abstract ‘to-be’ experiences. Visualising these as conversation provoking assets hugely help with Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of understanding and agreeing before building. Having these artefacts (not deliverable assets) on walls as ever-changing discussion guides to constantly point at with your team is an invaluable part of the design process.

“You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledge hammer on the construction site”. — FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT

4. Psychology

[Conversion Optimisation, UCD Strategy, Persuasive Design]
“Psychology-the science of the mind or of mental states and processes”.
This is where we match the business return with human behavioural understanding, running A/B tests, coming up with specific behaviour analysis assumptions and experiments to prove/disprove bold hypotheses.

5. Experimentation (How)

[Interactive Prototyping, Development Collaboration]
The meat of what used to be an Interaction Designer’s job, we keep these prototypes as lean as possible. Sometimes they need to be created to do user testing, but if a conversation will suffice with a developer, then a deliverable is not needed. Outcomes over output, conversations over deliverables. And many other similar things listed in the Agile Manifesto..

6. Creativity

[Sketching, Wireframing, Interaction Design, Micro-Interaction Design]
Sketching, sketching, sketching. The three S’s of rapid creativity. Throw away ideas are much easier to actually throw away if you spend less time on them. Micro-interaction design is growing more and more important, especially in the areas of UI delight and Motion Choreography as detailed by Rebecca Ussai.

7. Finesse

[Visual Design, Creativity, UI Detail & Delight]
As previously mentioned, the UI finesse is not to be farmed out to a “UI” designer. Thats why I don’t like seeing job ads for “UX/UI designers”. To me thats like hiring a “Secretary/Typist”. UI Design is just one of the skills of a modern UX Designer. And creativity isn’t a talent for the artistic few. Creativity can be learned and practiced. You may never be Leonardo Da Vinci, but anyone can certainly learn design principles and continue to practice them and over the years that will be more than enough to create beautiful digital products. (If you don’t believe me, read this book and then we’ll talk: http://austinkleon.com/steal/).

8. Philosophy

[Information Architecture, Accessibility, Security]
“Philosophy — the rational investigation of the truths and principles”.
Yes the role of an IA (Information Architect) is certainly alive and well, it is just another skill of the UX Unicorn. Understanding, findability, clarity of information, labeling, taxonomy and content strategy are clearly super important and ensuring this information is both usable and accessible to all while still being secured correctly is not something to be palmed off to another person either.

9. Collaboration

[Workshop Facilitation, Design Collaboration, Concept Presentation & Justification]
Pretty self explanatory here. Agile Co-located Product Team setups are the best place for this type of activity to thrive.

10. Execution

[Enough Coding & Technical Knowledge To Design For Feasibility]
As mentioned, knowledge is needed but not daily practice. Understanding how an engine works is essential to being able to craft a car and premium driving experience. Building that engine is best left to the expert engineers.

Great Medium post by Dan Nessler.

These skills are not in any particular order because we have found that the old waterfall style method of Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver (that would encourage you to move step by step) has been replaced by short Diverge & Converge Double Diamond cycles towards Valuable MVP’s within a team setup to excel working in a Design Thinking framework.

These rapid cycles can take any of these 10 stages into account at any time depending on the purpose of the upcoming sprints, with research and testing running in series or parallel.
I’m not saying this way is the only way to do things, however if the set up is right, I can tell you that in my own experience it can be amazing to watch…

Well, that was my 2 cents on UX Unicorns. I hope it was interesting.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject if you want to share?
Drop me a line on twitter.
Or follow me for more like this: Conor Ward — UX Much?™



Conor Ward

Director of Design — BT Consumer (BT, EE & Plusnet). Continually striving to find frictionless, empowered ways to create frictionless empowering experiences.