Ten skills you need to be a UX unicorn

“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?

“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!

“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..)

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

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

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)

2. Empathy: (Why)

3. Exploration: (Who, When, Where)

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

4. Psychology

5. Experimentation (How)

6. Creativity

7. Finesse

8. Philosophy

9. Collaboration

10. Execution

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?™

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

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