Understanding UX Skills

Part One in a series of posts on how to recruit UX talent


User experience design is a multidisciplinary field. A well-designed product must be visually appealing and simple, and easy to understand, learn, and use. Creating a well-designed product is an endeavor that requires technical skills — an understanding of computer science, human computer interaction, and visual perception and cognition — and tremendous creativity. User experience requires analytical thinking directed toward a great user experience, and that user experience has to be grounded in a deep understanding of what people need, how they think, and why they behave the way they do.

The first draft or sketch is rarely the “right” or “best” design. Creating a well-designed product requires exploring a range of solutions, identifying promising directions, and then refining those directions through iterative cycles of design, prototype, and test. To that end, there are many different skills required to design well. Here is a guide to the different skills needed to support a robust design process, and the job titles that correspond to those skills.

User Research

You can’t design effectively for people unless you understand them: how they behave, how they think, what motivates them. Cognitive psychologists and anthropologists often have the best training for a variety of research methods for studying people, including ethnographic field studies, survey design, and usability tests. Note that usability studies and field studies are not the same as focus groups, which are often designed and facilitated by marketing professionals. In contrast to focus groups, which are often used to gauge market interest and involve explicitly asking people for their reactions, user research is about observing human behavior. What people say they will do and what they end up actually doing are not always the same. Insights from user research help us understand why people act the way they do, and when complemented with data analytics, can tell a more complete story about user behavior.

Generally, there are two types of qualitative user research: formative research and summative research. Formative research happens upfront, before a product or feature set is built. The intention behind formative user research is to understand latent user needs, behaviors, and motivations. That understanding of user needs is what inspires product definition, feature prioritization, and product design.

After an initial design or several design explorations are created, summative user research helps the team gather feedback from users to see how easy the product is to use, how well they understand the offering, and whether it not only meets their needs but also delights them. The feedback gathered from this phase of research helps the team go back and iterate on the design.

Good researchers understand what methods to apply to help get insights into different kinds of questions. They know how to use qualitative data to help explain the “why” behind “what” we observe through quantitative data like logs analysis. They understand what the strategic objectives of the team are and design a research program to help the team meet those objectives. They use sound judgment when drawing conclusions about users, even though the sample size is usually small. They can identify outliers and help provide context to the team to better understand overall needs and behaviors. They are capable of facilitating brainstorming sessions with the team and use insights about users to inspire technically feasible solutions.

Where startups have invested in hiring a user researcher to join the team, the researcher usually becomes an incredibly valuable member of the team, helping to drive design decisions, feature priorities, and overall product vision. User researchers can help the entire team feel empathy for the customer or end-user.

People who contribute to design in this capacity often have a graduate degree in cognitive psychology, anthropology, or human-computer interaction. Common job titles include User Researcher, Usability Analyst, Usability Engineer, or User Experience Researcher.

Interaction and Product Design

Design is not just about how a product looks but also how it works. A well designed product or service considers all the touchpoints a user has with the offering, from acquisition and conversion, to moving people through the experience, and making people feel good about the interaction. At the highest level, this type of design is the manifestation of the company’s core values, mission, and principles, in the form of the actual product or service offering. People who solve problems at this level may be referred to as Product Designer. Product designers help define what product is being built, and equally important, what is not being built. Tactically, deliverables may include wireframes, prototypes, functional specifications, and flowcharts; people who focus at this level often have Interaction Designer as the job title.

Good product and interaction designers know how to engage in a design process that leads to good outcomes. They are good communicators; they are knowledgeable about user interface standards and conventions, and are capable of envisioning the dynamic nature of the product and the functional flow. They know when and how to use user research. They know how to adopt the right mindset at the right stage of the design and development process: divergent thinking during brainstorming and ideation phase, and convergent thinking when it’s time to iterate and launch. They are deep thinkers: they understand interdependencies, requirements, and constraints, and take a step back, see the big picture, and clarify how everything fits together. They have high emotional intelligence: they know how to work with engineers and marketing stakeholders and how to receive feedback well. Product and service design are inevitably the outcome of a large team effort and a reflection of the company’s culture, values, and principles; a good designer knows how to guide a company and/or team through a journey of defining or understanding the vision, values, and principles, articulating that, and making it tangible.

Educational backgrounds may vary tremendously, and may include but are not limited to computer science, human-computer interaction, human factors, and library science and information architecture. UX is a very multidisciplinary field and relatively new, so don’t rule out people who come from adjacent fields like industrial design and architecture; spatial design is very complementary to interaction and product design.

Visual Design

Creating an overall aesthetic for the product or service offering is driven by someone with a visual design background. They own the color palette, grid, typography, layout, icon style, and visual and branding assets in the user interface; they create the visual expression of the brand as the company wants to see themselves.

Good visual designers can be trusted to be the final arbiter of good taste. They understand how people see and process information and use that understanding to create designs that are easy to comprehend and are comfortable to “live” in. They understand that visual adornment is meant to support the experience, and not be the experience. Hence, they avoid creating products that are “overdesigned”, where the product is so decorated that the user cannot fully enjoy the experience. Great visual designers have a regular practice of creating and exploring different design directions for every design decision. They sweat over the details; no detail is too small to mind.

Many people trained in graphic design often apply for visual designer roles. When screening candidates for such a role, the designer must understand what it means to design for interactive use. It is not enough to hire someone for a visual designer role whose experience is limited to creating print design, brand identities, icons, banner ads, or posters because an interactive product is not a set of static screens. Your visual designer must be capable of envisioning the dynamic, user-driven nature of the product.

Prototyper / Web Developer / Front End Developer

The process of design requires prototyping in order to have something to test and iterate. People with strong front end development skills bring design ideas to life for interactive products, while preserving the integrity of the design by paying close attention to design details during implementation. Such people may come from job titles that include Web Developer, Front End Developer, or Prototyper, but they are all different in nuanced ways.

People with any of these three job titles may be equipped with the skills to build prototypes of designs and implement the front end. People who make strong prototypers or consider themselves prototypers are often used to writing throwaway code, and have developed strategies for quickly bringing an idea to life. They are optimizing for development speed and iteration. Web developers and front end developers are more focused on writing production code that is durable, cross-platform and cross-browser compatible, with graceful degradation or responsive to various screen sizes and devices. Good front end developers sweat over getting the implementation details of the front end just right, inasmuch as good designers sweat over getting the details of the interaction and visual design just right.

Many prototypers and web developers are self-taught. They may have strong design sensibilities and straddle the role of designer and front end engineer. Front end engineers may also be self taught, and more often have degrees in computer science.

UX Skills FAQ

Q: I don’t have the resources to hire four different people. Should I hire a jack of all trades or specialists?

A: If you are lucky enough to find a really great candidate who has all the skills described above, creates excellent work, and is willing to do that range of work, hire this person ASAP. The reality is that most UX professionals are trained mainly in 1 or at most 2 of the subject areas described here, and are strong in those areas but not necessarily the others. Holding out for that one UX hire to do all these tasks (user research, product design, interaction design, visual design, prototyping and front end development) may take a long time, if ever. Meanwhile, your product is being developed and needs to go out the door.

The decision to hire specialists is often a practical one to help grow a team and get the right skills in the company. Instead of hiring jack of all trades people, look for “T-shaped” people: people who specialize in a particular skillset described above, with interests and work that are broad and span other UX disciplines. For example, look for a strong visual designer who understands interaction design principles and is willing to grow and learn in that area. Or hire an interaction designer who can also code and build prototypes or is willing to run user studies. Perhaps your interaction designer or visual designer can serve as a less rigorous prototyper, using tools such as InVision, Axure, or Keynote. For some products, that type of throwaway prototyping may be sufficient to move design along productively. You may have the opportunity to find a front end engineer who is passionate about design and learns everything he/she can about design — this is the only path toward being a “unicorn” I’ve ever seen that works but it is extremely rare. Furthermore, since design benefits from batting around ideas, even two people is perhaps a better configuration than one unicorn-esque employee.

Q: If I can only hire 1–2 people, what skills should I hire?

A: The answer to this question varies, depending on the skillset of the existing people on your team. Hiring UX people that complement existing team members is a strategic way to round out your team. If you have a great candidate in the pipeline who has outstanding skills in one dimension and a terrific attitude that makes him/her the person everyone would want to work with, hire that person and then hire another person that has complementary skills.

Consider expanding the range of specialty UX skills at your disposal by hiring freelancers, contractors, or consultants. For example, maybe you don’t need a full time researcher but you have access to an outstanding researcher that you can hire on a contract basis. Or maybe you can hire a visual designer on a freelance basis who can create the look and feel of the site, deliver a style guide, and work with your front end engineering team to build the visual assets (e.g. grid, typography, color palette, icons, button styles, etc) into a front end library that then makes it easy for developers to create UI that is consistent.

While it’s tempting to hold out for a jack-of-all-trades designer who can “do it all”, usually the people who most fit this profile are too early in their careers to have any wealth of experience in any specialty. Rather than hiring a junior person to do it all, consider hiring a consulting firm or studio to collaborate with you on product definition and design. Excellent firms will have senior people who will be able to quickly assess what needs to be done and help develop a direction and foundation for the product during its most formative stages. With a solid product foundation, a junior hire can then build off the foundation as new features are added.

Q: Should I hire an interaction designer or a visual designer?

A: Both skill sets are important for building great products, and any design candidate you interview will be more inclined toward one or the other. If you only have headcount for one kind of designer, consider what you are building and determine what skills you need most for your product, and find ways to get the other needs covered.

If the interaction model is simple, and you need your product to be more delightful than your competitors, focus on visual design. A visual designer paired with a user researcher can sometimes help fill in the gaps created by not having an interaction designer.

If your product is functionally complex and has many features but needs to feel simple, then focus on hiring an interaction designer. An interaction designer will methodically understand user needs, define tasks and goals, and structure the experience of the product to support complex tasks and flows for frequent use.

Q: What’s a reasonable ratio of UX : Engineering to hire?

A: The answer varies depending on what is being built, but in general, a ratio of 1 designer for 10 engineers (including front end and back end) is a reasonable guidepost.

Q: What’s the right mix of junior and senior people?

A: I recommend reading (former Yahoo web developer manager) Mike Lee’s essay on “How to Recruit and Build and Effective Team of Developers” which really applies to any kind of team, not just developers. Mike gives great guidance on how to think about the breakdown between senior / junior people and the differences in what to look for when interviewing them.


Next: “Part Two: Writing a Job Description for UX People

(originally authored July 2014 for Khosla Ventures)