Improvise Your Experience

How to Strengthen Your UX Soft Skills

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A few months ago, I learned the importance of investing in my soft skills. One improv class later, I’m excited to share invaluable lessons that have forever changed how I view User Experience Design.

Each year, Salesforce employees are required to to create a V2MOM (Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, Measures). This goal-setting exercise ensures alignment and transparency throughout the organization. When it came time to draft my V2MOM this year, I realized that up to this point in my career, I have focused on strengthening my craft. Most of my time and energy have been devoted to refining my process and cultivating my problem solving skills. Having a solid foundation of hard or technical skills is crucial, but I have learned that it becomes increasingly important to strengthen your soft skills as you progress in your career.

Open communication, in tandem with quickly fixing the problem, is the only way to build and retain trust.
Marc Benioff, Behind the Cloud

As a result, my V2MOM this year targeted improving my soft skills, specifically communication, self awareness, and collaboration. After doing a bit of research, I discovered that improv classes can teach communication and collaboration skills that can be directly applied to the role of UX. Starting in early May, I began a 6 week foundational improv course which met every Thursday night for 3 hours. Our class was an eclectic bunch of around a dozen students. Each class included playing various improv games, forcing many of us out of our comfort zone and to ultimately get comfortable with the idea of playing.

While painfully awkward at first, it turned into being the highlight of my week by the time the class ended. With an open mind and great coaching, I steadily developed a greater sense of self awareness and learned how to authentically contribute to group dynamics.

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Present v. Processing Time

On the first day of class, we learned about the difference between present and processing time. Present time is what you notice about your surroundings as well as how you react and engage in the current moment. Processing time is when you think through or try to make sense of past or future events. As designers, our minds are programmed to make sense of given constraints. We spend our time empathizing, understanding, creating, and iterating to ultimately craft the best possible solution to a problem. While it’s incredibly valuable to dive deep into a processing mindset, we should not lose connection with present time, as it can help us become more empathetic and innovative.

When completely present, you become more aware of your surroundings. At first, this concept can feel extremely uncomfortable because our brains are wired to keep us in a safe space. Our immediate reaction to many situations is to try make sense of it by reverting to processing mode which tends to put our minds at ease.

As designers, it can be scary and intimidating to allow ourselves to be completely in present time since we spend much of our time meticulously crafting a solution.

One improv tool, called space object work, can help you become more comfortable in present time by allowing you to use your hands to help drive thought. Commonly seen in miming, space object work helps create something out of nothing by requiring you to over emphasize mundane movements, notice normalcy, and stay aware of simple actions. From a tactical lens, space object work can even help you craft more intuitive gestures.

Towards the end of the course, I was still challenged with transitioning between present and processing time. At work, if I spent hours in deep processing mode followed by a group meeting, my mind remained in that problem solving or processing mindset even though I was in a completely different setting. Because I was not fully present, I was unable to effectively share and contribute my perspective. After chatting with my instructor, he suggested utilizing mindfulness techniques to help bridge these two mindsets. Trying any of these techniques prior to a new present time engagement can help you notice more inputs allowing you to more easily develop, share, and engage with new perspectives.

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Add Your Piece to the Story

During our last improv class, we participated in a storytelling exercise. The game started with two people standing on opposite sides of the room stating normal details of a story. A third person stood in the middle stating a detail to give the story tension. The key constraint regarding the initial setup was that each foundational detail could not be related to each other. As for the rest of the class, we were tasked with connecting the story by choosing to stand randomly in line each weaving together details of the story. At the beginning of this game, many people, including myself, felt intimidated by what single detail they could add to the story to help stitch it together.

Whenever you’re experiencing this feeling, first, notice you’re not focused on the present, then take action. Direct your energy on creating a new perspective you can add to the story by focusing on a single or cluster of key dimensions. Make sure this new addition can help unify and weave together a system and thus create more continuity. For example, let’s say, you’re in a meeting with a large group. It’s helpful to define a clear goal. This provides each person with a streamlined framework for how to best to contribute, and consequently keeping the core goal at the center.

A foundational element of improv that can help connect these building blocks is the idea of yes and. At its core, yes and is a simple way to build off of what other people say. Yes and is broken down into two parts. First, start by saying yes. This tells the person who just spoke that you acknowledge what he or she said. Follow the yes with and. The and serves as a transition allowing you to seamlessly build off the previous person and create momentum for you to add your own contribution. In context of collaborating, make sure to be aware of what you’re receiving and projecting. A strong collaborator will utilize skills of interdependence to identify moments of when to be both an active communicator and listener. Cultivating this type of environment fosters a safe working space allowing your team to contribute their most authentic and creative ideas.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, is no but. No but often times comes from a place of fear or shame and breaks down collaboration or a conversation. While creating friction is often healthy to help grow ideas, be aware of your delivery to notice the affects of how your contribution to a conversation is received. One way to notice the effect of your delivery is through body language. Nonverbal communication can help gauge if your team is interested and enthusiastic. For instance, when people are engaged and portraying positive body language, they often times lean in, maintain eye contact, and display a relaxed posture. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if your contribution to a conversation isn’t as well received, you may often see people cross their arms, touch their face, or look down at the ground.

To illustrate, pretend you’re in team critique. You shared a prototype, and now, folks are providing feedback. One person says, “yes, great job with the prototype, and what if you tried playing with different gestures?” A second person says, “no, I’m not sure if that will help, but what if you tried adjusting the flow?” What exactly happened here? While it’s important to not develop a culture of only yes and, if you have negative or constructive feedback, try being direct, open, and honest. Pair this response with an actionable suggestion to keep the momentum of the conversation. Utilizing yes and and being aware of no but provides a structure to effectively value and elevate each person’s perspective.

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Evolve and Grow

Improv taught me a greater sense of self awareness and understanding of group dynamics which has allowed me to more openly share my perspective. If you want to improve these types of soft skills, I highly recommend enrolling in an improv course, reading Improv Wisdom, or listening to the podcast Monster Baby.

No matter how your year is progressing, take time to reflect and evolve your goals. I encourage you to seek out nontraditional ways to acquire new skills. By leveraging transferable skills from various career fields when approaching professional growth, you can arrive at a place you’d never expect. Who knows, you may even find yourself up on stage.

Any thoughts or questions? Feel free to comment below!

Thank you Raymon Sutedjo-The and Adrian Rapp for your feedback!

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