The Unicorn Skill in User Experience Design: Three Perspectives

Asad Ali Junaid
May 22, 2018 · 11 min read

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.

Author/ Copyright Holder Conor Ward. Referenced from his article Ten Skills you need to be a UX Unicorn

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-

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

Primary References

Author Bio

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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NYC Design

A publication for designers of New York & design lovers from all around the world.

NYC Design

A publication for designers of New York & design lovers from all around the world. Design thinking is what makes us share with the whole world.

Asad Ali Junaid

Written by

Designer@Adobe, startup co-founder, fiction novelist and a design educator.

NYC Design

A publication for designers of New York & design lovers from all around the world. Design thinking is what makes us share with the whole world.