The Unicorn Skill in User Experience Design: Three Perspectives
There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the User Experience (UX) Design profession. This confusion arises due to the multitude of activities UX designers are involved in which span a vast spectrum of people, skills and situations and is seen (especially) in the kind of job descriptions which are advertised for UX opportunities.
It is universally accepted though, that UX design requires a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to succeed. UX Designers end up wearing multiple hats during the design process to give the end-users an experience which they will relish.
In the UX community, it is believed that a UX Designer who has a vast range of skills honed over several years is considered a Unicorn. Conor Ward in his article ‘Ten Skills you need to be a UX Unicorn’ lists them out as seen below.
In a real-world scenario, not only it is difficult for a designer to gain all these different skills to a certain level of expertise, but it is also an arduous task to find individuals who have gained enough expertise across such a wide set of skills. It would be ideal though, if a UX team is formed with people who have more than one or several of these different UX skills, each complementing one another and even learning from each other.
Coding as the UX Unicorn Skill
Among the several different skills which Ward has listed, there are many who believe that a UX Designer cannot be considered a Unicorn unless he has expertise in coding. Renowned designer and technologist, John Maeda in his 2017 ‘Design in Tech’ report, argues that designers need to code to survive. Nick Fredman in his article ‘Becoming a Designer who Codes: The Making of a Unicorn’ goes a step ahead and defines a Unicorn as a Designer who also writes code.
Another set of UX practitioners believe that a UX Designer should not code and that his primary focus should be on translating end user needs (both obvious and latent) to designs so that developers can go about their job with enough clarity on what needs to be done. The central tenet of Alan Cooper’s classic — ‘The Inmates are Running the Asylum’ — is that software should be designed before it is coded, by people other than the people coding it.
Writing as the UX Unicorn Skill
Kristina Bjoran in her article ‘What is UX Writing?’ defines it as ‘… at its simplest, UX writing is the act of writing copy for user-facing touchpoints’.
Google at its I/O keynote (2018) showcased the Google Assistant having a full-fledged conversation with humans. During the keynote, Google demonstrated the Assistant making a call on behalf of the user for fixing an appointment — the Assistant fixed the appointment without even the slightest hint that it was a machine the listener was having a conversation with.
In the new form of UX which is driven by AI, Chatbots, Conversational UI, Personal Assistants and Voice Activated/Enabled gadgets, people who can think about how specific words or combination of words can make sense and be made sense of would be valued in organizations.
Conversation Design is a design language based on human conversation to enable interaction with devices. Conversation Design is about teaching computers/ devices to be fluent in human conversation and its conventions. Conversation Designers work at different user-facing touchpoints enabling these interactions. A Conversation Designer would have to be someone with a technical understanding of writing copy to use the basic elements of Conversation Design such as, turn-taking/ switching, threading, use of abbreviations, ability to repair broken conversations, validate user input and manage expectations, to structure a meaningful dialog.
In line with this constant shift of design’s role in this world, Fatimah Kabba is one among many recent voices who have called ‘Writing’ as the UX Unicorn skill. John Maeda, in the same 2017 ‘Design in tech’ report writes that coding is not the only unicorn skill and that words can be just as powerful as graphics in design. Kah Chan, head of product design at Flick Electric, in his insightful talk about ‘The Importance of Crafting Language in UX’ reminded us that words do our job for us when we’re not there to interact directly with our end users.
The significance of writing copy for user-facing touchpoints in design is not new. Alphonse Chapanis of The John Hopkins University is considered one of the fathers of the Human Factors domain. His paper ‘Words, Words, Words’ (published way back in 1965) highlights the importance of semantics that are attached to machines and technical systems. It was Alphonse who first put forth the argument that — ‘the language and words of machines is the concern of the human factors engineer, and not of the grammarian, linguist, or the communication theorist’. It is worth noting that without words in the form of labels, an application cannot be operated upon. Labeling an application using appropriate words is also critical for easy navigation and findability. Coming up with and deciding on the right label for a function in an application can be the difference between a set of users using that feature or overlooking it. All that hard work that went in to conceptualizing the feature and building it could be of no use if labels enabling its use are not worded right.
Communication + Writing as the UX Unicorn Skill
A critical aspect of a UX Designer is his expertise in the broad area of communication. A UX designer would be expected to communicate the rationale of his designs to multiple stakeholders, communicate with end users during research, with test participants, among others. The idea of UX writing by itself as a Unicorn Skill might not gain wide acceptance, but a combination of writing along with expertise in communication (which writing is an integral part of) as a UX Unicorn skill is bound to get more heads nodding in agreement.
Apart from the growing importance of writing UX copy and the need of UX Designers to take responsibility as Conversation Designers of semantics attached to machines and technical systems, there are several areas where expertise in writing and skills in communication would go a long way in enabling the role of the UX Designer.
The writing expertise and communication skills of a UX designer would impact his ability to-
- Understand requirements: Quite a number of times, a UX designer is not part of the core requirements gathering exercise with end users and gets his design requirements from a stakeholder verbally over a call or in the form of a (lengthy) document. These requirements are open to interpretation leading to a lot of confusion on what is needed to be done and delivered. The onus falls on the UX designer to grasp the core of these requirements, communicate clearly with the stakeholders about his understanding of the requirements and intended deliverables thereby eliminating any rework due to unclear objectives and confusion on the requirements right up front.
- Communicate UX value to stakeholders from different backgrounds: A key challenge for the UX designer is to be able to understand the background of his stakeholders and then communicate the value which UX brings, in a way which they can understand. This communication needs to be done not just at the project level, but at the organization level as well. Most of the time, the challenges in communicating the value of UX to stakeholders would be in understanding what direct or indirect benefit they get out of it. Evangelizing UX is a continuous and never-ending process where the UX value needs to be driven at every opportunity one gets. Communicating the UX value proposition is often disregarded, and quite a few times, it is because the UX Designer not having the skill or expertise to communicate effectively.
- Communicate design rationale to a cross functional team: In a lot of ways, communicating a design rationale is much harder than creating a design itself. A UX Designer in the course of his UX career would have faced multiple situations where the cross functional team just does not buy into the design rationale put forth by the designer, though the designer has done his due diligence of following the UX processes and related activities like user research, persona creation, analyzing and documenting work flows, etc. Convincing a cross-functional team gets more difficult if the team is dispersed across several locations — both locally and globally and across time zones — while the design is evaluated virtually. Such situations would again call for the UX Designer’s expertise in effectively communicating his design logic whetted by the findings from the UX groundwork already done.
- Word and ask appropriate questions in a user interview or a survey: Badly scripted interviews or survey questions would not only nullify the benefits of user research but also lead product development down the wrong path. To obtain the best user insights, an important characteristic of user interviews is that they need to be structured, but conversational. The onus of planning for and bringing the user into a zone of trust where the user is able to converse easily is in the ability of the UX Designer to be able to communicate to the user with a degree of flair. Similarly, the survey questions and response options should be framed so that there is no confusion or bias, which would again call upon the writing and communication skills of a UX Designer.
- Create well rounded personas: Personas are a great way to obtain reliable and realistic representations of key audience segments for reference. Most view personas as a distraction from the real work at hand, but a persona aids designers to create tangible designs for a specific somebody, rather than a generic everybody. Creating such personas would require the UX Designer to be adept at writing, without which the persona would fail at communicating the intended characteristics of end users.
- Script and Conduct Usability Tests: Once the UX Designer is well-versed with the key tasks in the application, he should plan the Usability Test in such a way to comprehensively test the application being reviewed. This requires skillful framing of Usability Test questions and moderating the test in a way such that the test subject doesn’t feel that it is his abilities that are being tested. If the test subject gets the impression that he is being judged, it would lead to biased responses not reflective of the application’s true merits or its shortcomings. The test script should focus on key goals as identified from persona inputs. Care should also be taken that the questions or tasks are not leading — leading questions are those which prompt or encourage the answers wanted — which would also lead to biased responses from the test subject. Scripting and conducting a good Usability Test would therefore require the UX Designer to have expertise in UX writing and communication to ensure that the responses are unbiased and that useful and valid insights from the Usability Test are obtained to refine the application’s design. The UX writing expertise and communication skills of a UX Designer should be at a higher level if the Usability Test is being conducted remotely.
- Document end-user requirements: The toughest task in building any application is to identify the core set of requirements. In simple terms, it is to identify what needs to be done. Once the core requirements are frozen — generally after several meetings and discussions at various stakeholder levels — they need to be documented in a way which accurately captures and communicates these requirements circumventing any confusion. Every member of the team then needs to be on-boarded and sold on the core idea, so that a great application could be built. Documenting technical requirements is something which a Business Analyst would be able to take up, but documenting end user requirements and features is again the responsibility of the UX Designer. It takes a fair degree of skill and expertise to document end user requirements and again, if the UX Designer does not have the right language proficiency, then he would not be able to do a great job at entirely grasping and documenting such user requirements.
- Document reports: It is part of the UX Designer’s job to document a set of reports, like the user research findings report, Formative and Summative Usability Test report, among others. These reports would be absorbed by a cross functional team who invariably come from diverse backgrounds. If the UX Designer does not have a palette for writing, then documenting findings through such reports would be an arduous task for him to undertake. UX Design, therefore, in a lot of ways is as much about design as it is about documentation. A UX designer is judged not just for his design and research expertise but for his documentation skills too. Poorly done documentation and half-baked reports may often becloud great designs, would undermine the value of UX on a project and show the UX Designer and his importance in a team in poor light.
- Facilitate Design Sprints and Workshops: Jesse Anton (comments section) suggested that facilitating Design Sprints and Workshops would be a key unicorn skill as well. A design sprint or a workshop would require a facilitator to leading a group of diverse people to a common objective in a design sprint — either to gather new ideas for a product or to re-engineer a process. Unless the facilitator has excellent communication and facilitation skills, running and getting the most of such co-creation exercises would be extremely challenging and the objectives of the exercise won’t be achieved.
Russel Wilson, Principal and Co-founder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd., defines UX Design as a communication-intensive craft. Out of the multitude of skills a UX Designer is expected to have, without skills and expertise in UX writing and communication, a UX Designer would not be able to excel at the UX Design profession while facing continuous obstacles in executing his responsibilities.
Language, Communication, User Experience Design, UX Design, UX Designer, Conversation Design, Usability Test Scripts, Talk, Test Questions, Requirements, Persona, Labels, Script, Reports, Evangelize UX, Survey
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Author is a designer, startup co-founder, fiction novelist and a design educator. He can be reached at asadjunaid(at)gmail(dot)com
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