Leveling Up Your Career in UX Design: Three Key Skills and How to Acquire Them
UX is an exciting and rapidly growing field, with lots of opportunity. Our increasingly digital environment requires people who can design with the user in mind, while keeping technical and business requirements at the fore. At the outset of a UX career, a practitioner’s focus is often on the details – learning the key tactics and principles that make for a great user experience. As a junior designer, you are flexing your muscles in skills such as wireframing, user research, and information architecture, hopefully with the support and coaching of more experienced team members.
After a while, you’ve got the tactics down, and you are ready for more. What does it look like to progress from this point? What skills do you need to level up and how do you acquire them? While there is no substitute for patience, experience, and time on the job, there are a few key skills needed to lead a team, and some ways to start acquiring them. Leveling up is often a combination of growing your abilities both directly on the job, and with supporting activities and projects outside of your main gig.
Communication: Say what you mean and mean what you say
As you move past being a production level or junior designer, being able to communicate clearly is a crucial skill. As I have progressed through my working life so far, I have frequently commented how more and more of my job is about communication. A big part of a team lead’s job is communicating ideas and expectations, demonstrating the rationale for design decisions, and gaining buy-in from senior stakeholders and clients.
There are opportunities to practice these skills on the job at any level. Start by clearly articulating the design decisions you are making when you annotate your work or when you show it to team members. Spend time crafting thoughtful rationales and putting them into words.
Outside of your day-to-day work, create opportunities to build your communication skills, for example by presenting or guest lecturing. You can start small by getting involved with organizations like Pecha Kucha or IxDA and pitching a short talk. Pick a topic you are interested in and craft a short presentation. Teaching is also a fantastic way to practice clearly expressing and explaining ideas. Anything that gets you in front of a group of people (large or small) talking about ideas and work will hone your skills at structuring and formulating your communication. Some fun alternatives could be taking a stand-up comedy or acting class. This will help you build your ability to express ideas through words and body language. Toastmasters is also a great, structured and safe environment to get over the very common fear of public speaking.
Facilitation: It’s not what you do, it’s not even what you make, it’s what you facilitate!
Facilitation comes sharply into focus when progressing from more junior design roles to more senior ones. As a junior, leading meetings, structuring workshops and guiding other team members is usually out of scope.
Being a team lead, and a leader in general, is all about facilitation. It’s not what you do, it’s not even what you make, it’s what you facilitate! Keeping meetings productive and on track, having difficult conversations with clients and stakeholders about expectations and scope, and leading workshops are all very important. You are the person creating the right environment for good design to happen, and guiding your team and clients towards successful outcomes. Facilitation is also about how you facilitate the growth and progress of your team members, supporting them to become their best designer selves.
Communication and facilitation skills are closely linked. Facilitation requires the use of active, creative listening – a skill you can learn the basics of and continually practice in your work and personal life. The other side of facilitation is running workshops and guiding people through a process. You can volunteer to run small internal workshop sessions or perhaps share a method or skill used in a recent project. Safe, low-stakes ways to practice these skills at work will flex these muscles. If facilitation is something you really want to dive deeply into, specialist training is available.
Mentoring and teaching is a fantastic way to practice supporting people in their career development. Working one on one with someone builds listening skills and gives you the opportunity to think about tailoring your advice and support to the goals of your mentee or student.
Project Management: Plan the work, work the plan
Junior designers are often focused on doing the work, with the project planning process taken care of. Depending on the context, there is even a dedicated person who project manages and keeps you on track.
As a team lead, project management skills come more and more into play. Being a lead means being responsible for the output of the team, which in turn means being able to keep things on time and on budget. Leads should be able to scope and plan a project, understand what skills are needed when, and give a best guess on how long various phases will take. At a higher level, this requires a deep knowledge of design process and how to adapt it to suit the constraints of different situations.
Project management skills for a design lead can be gained by paying attention to the project plans and scopes you are being given in a more junior role. What would you change and why? What could be improved? Gaining exposure to the project planning process is also an opportunity to learn – ask to sit in on project planning meetings or scoping conversations with clients.
Taking initiative and offering to do a first draft of a project plan or perhaps taking on the planning for a smaller internal piece of work is a great place to get started with project management skills. The next step is to find ways to lead the project management of a smaller piece of work or a discrete project. Doing freelance work is also a great way to practice these skills – seeing a piece of work through from the negotiation and planning phase right through to delivery of the final work.
What got you here won’t get you there
A long and healthy career in UX will give ample time and opportunity to evolve and develop the direction of your work. Natural progression will pique the interest and need to grow your skills not only in the direct work of being a design practitioner, but in leadership skills such as communicating, facilitating and project management. The activities you take on within your work and outside can all support this growth.