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10 must have skills for UX designers

March 02, 2019
top skills for ux designers try want to climb ladders

With user experience design becoming more popular and in demand, the need to diversify skills is clear. Here are 10 must have skills for UX designers

No serious UX designer wants to be a jack of all trades, master of none. But there are a number of UI-UX designer skills that will set any budding designer up for success.

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From using a wireframing tool like Justinmind to understanding the ins and out of behavioral psychology, there’s something for everyone in user experience design. Sometimes it helps to have your fingers in all the pies.

Food analogies aside, UI-UX design is a diverse industry and it’s not uncommon to find people who have specializations in various competencies. This can lead to a little confusion, especially if you’re just getting started out in UX design and don’t know what knowledge you need to be a success.

So, if you’ve asked yourself: what skills do you need to be a good UX designer? Look no further. Here are 10 must-have skills for UX designers, in no particular order.

1. UX research

You need to step up your skills in UX research if you want to be taken seriously as a UX designer. There’s a lot that goes into creating a mobile app or website, and many of the decisions UXers make are not just plucked from thin air but are meticulously thought out, studied and researched.

UX research is always a top skill for designers

From cognitive psychology to computer science there’s always something for the budding UXer to learn and use in their research process. We could in fact consider UX research to be an umbrella term for both user research and user testing.

The former consists of identifying your target users, creating user personas and gathering data to make informed design decisions. The latter, user testing, involves creating wireframes and prototypes (which we’ll go into more detail below) to test on your users, conducting card sorting sessions, performing website heatmaps and carrying out user interviews.

2. Collaboration

No man is an island. And it’s the same for UXers. Unless you know how to code, design, manage projects, understand product and marketing, you’re going to need to collaborate with others in the design process, especially if you want to be successful.

collaboration is a top skill for ux designers that work in agencies or large departments

Research can only take you so far. But collaborating is your opportunity to work in other areas and apply what you’ve learned with different people whose skills complement your own.

If you work within a large organization, go ahead and check out our full guide on enterprise UX – it’s got plenty of useful information on collaboration in large teams.

Collaboration is an important UX designer skills as it helps you communicate more efficiently with clients and stakeholders, to ensure the resulting product meets both business goals and user expectations.

As working in close quarters with developers and content strategists is also the norm for this type of job, collaboration skills will be invaluable when the time comes for handing off your designs to other departments.

3. Wireframing and UI prototyping

If you want to convince people of your UX acumen, you need to get used to wireframing and prototyping.

employers look for wireframing and UI design as top skill for ux designers

App prototyping is a great way to understand key functionality of your design before being built by developers. Justinmind is perfect for iterating those sparks of genius that come to you in the middle of the night and just for getting an idea of the direction your app or website may be going. Using a prototyping tool can be a great way to impact investment, too. They allow you to test those assumptions you arrived at from your user research, then validate them with subsequent user testing. For this reason, this UX designer skills is a great way to get buy-in from stakeholders and managers.

Most importantly, though, wireframing and prototyping are a no-brainer when it comes to design as they help you catch mistakes before things go South and you have a lot of expensive coding to fix.

4. UX writing

Writing is the unsung hero of UX. People speak highly of coding, which is a skill that shouldn’t be dismissed, but writing is a talent that can be nurtured over less time to create brilliant user experiences. Pick up your phone and look at any of your apps and it will be filled with perfectly crafted words.

designers recognize that UX writing is a top skill

Microcopy is also a powerful tool to create a good experience for users – and it comes with it’s own tricks and hacks. On our blog post, you can find examples of microcopy with awesome UX – in case you want to see great UX writing in action.

You can read more about the increasingly important role UX writing plays in the sector in this article entitled Forget Coding: Writing is Design's 'Unicorn Skill'.

Some of the important areas that this UX designer skill covers are information architecture, which determines the order in which that content is displayed to your users. UX writing also deals with creating copy that really speaks to your users’ mental models and helps them to understand your product better.

5. Visual communication

No UX designer will get very far without being fully versed in visual communication. It’s at the heart of UX. On top of that, 65% of the population are visually-oriented learners!

among top skills for ux designers is visual design

So brushing up your UI design skills will help you when you need to create interactive prototypes and mockups that will have a real impact on users.

Note: Check out this great post on the science behind the human brain and its relationship with sight: Humans are Visual Creatures.

In design, visual communication covers everything from white space visual hierarchy, to making elements look clickable and minimizing the need for written instructions.

6. User empathy

Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes means understanding their problems. When you understand someone’s problems better, you’re more equipped when it comes to finding a solution to their problem.

top skills for ux design: user empathy

That’s why empathy is such a vital skill within UX design. When you’re detached from your end users, you fail to design for their needs and feelings which can create a terrible user experience.

A good way of developing UX designer skill is to practice those important research skills we mentioned above. Garnering qualitative data through user interviews and quantitative data through user testing methods like card sorting and heatmaps helps put us in the users’ shoes.

7. Interaction design

It’s one thing to create an aesthetically pleasing design but it’s another thing to understand how users will interact with that design. There’s a lot of crossover between UX and interaction design.

interaction design is a top skill in the UX field

Interaction design is more concerned with how a user interacts with a product or service, which is why interactive prototypes are a great tool to combine when iterating interactions.

Note: Here's a helpful post from the Interaction Design Foundation What is interaction design?

A great way of gaining an understanding of how users interact with your product is, again, by gaining insights into their mental models. You can do this by observing how they use your product or prototype or even through analysing how they use competitor’s products (competitor analysis).

Interaction design is a UI-UX designer skill which means more than being able to add in fancy animations. It means knowing things like whether your users expect to have to scroll, rather than swipe through a list.

8. Coding

Most UX designers are multidisciplinary, and in a world that’s starving for tech designers maybe design-developers are the answer to this need.

Side note: That's what Ken Yeung wondered. In his blog post, Yeung points towards a new type of design that derives from this merger of UX design and coding: computational design.

The Design in Tech report 2017 notes that one third of designers had engineering training, so the lines are blurring between designer and developer anyway – so brushing up on your rusty coding skills might not be a bad idea. Plus no one said you had to be a full stack developer!

Learning some of the coding languages necessary for front-end development may be all you need. Languages such as HTML, CSS, Javascript and jQuery can help you understand what’s possible from a technological perspective and help ease the transition between design-developer handoff.

9. Analytics

When you create an app or website, you want to test it. You want to know how well your design will perform. Analytics are the road to better understand your design and the user. Perhaps even more importantly, with analytics you can understand the relationship between product and user.

interpreting analytics is a crucial top skill for UX designers

So, understanding numbers, percentages and ratios is a real must when you want to get your head around the performance of your design. Many UXers fear numbers but there’s nothing to fear – they’re there to help you.

Applying analytical information to your design can help you iterate better designs, backed up by real numbers. After all, knowing how to perfect your product ain’t easy, and requires a real foundation of data.

10. Communication skills

Having core skills like research or design is really important – so are business skills like project and time management. But aside from these, UXers can really stand based on their communication skills.

communication is a top skill for ux designers everywhere

Think public speaking and presentations. Trying to convey design ideas to non-design people is already tough – this escalates even more when you add investors and financing into the equation. Grasping design concepts can be tricky, and as a consequence, communication is an important UX designer skill.

Note: Here's a really helpful blog post to check out. It's entitled Common Mistakes When Presenting Design Ideas to Clients, and How to Avoid Them.

But knowing how to present and speak confidently to audiences can really help you avoid communication pitfalls and make a positive impact. Being articulate and descriptive doesn’t come naturally to many of us, but luckily is a skill that you can build on over time.

Books to get started in UX design

To get a feel for the type of thinking involved in UX design, there are a few starter books you can read. These books will act as an introduction to user experience design and give you a better idea of what it all entails.

  1. The Design of Everyday Things – Don Norman
  2. Prioritizing Web Usability – Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger
  3. About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design – Alan Cooper
  4. Communicating Design – Dan M. Brown
  5. A Project Guide to UX Design – Russ Unger

What’s the difference between UX and UI designer?

There is sometimes, depending on the company or project, a very thin line that separates a UX and a UI designer. So thin, in fact, that many find themselves assuming both roles.

UX designers are focused on creating the best user experience possible for their product, usually an app or website. On the other hand, UI designers are also focused on bringing the best experience possible to the user and making it captivating. Sounds similar, right? That’s because they are.

Hard field work of UX design vs beautiful UI design

Technologies vs people” by Oleksii

However, when we get into the technical differences between the two roles, that’s where the similarities end. In short, UX designers tend to be more focused on gathering, quantifying and understanding data gathered from user research. They’re more focused on the analytical side and the psychological side. A UI designer’s work lies more with the look and feel.

UI designer skills

UI designers tend to be less analytical and scientific, focusing more on the creative side of designing an appealing interface for users.

UI designers are the ones responsible for implementing graphic design strategies like typography, color palettes and button design. They toil endlessly with tools like Sketch and Photoshop and make sure that the look and feel of a product encapsulates its brand.

A UI designer will take a UXer’s design instructions and implement them into a UI design that makes sense for the user and provides them with an awesome experience.

If you’re interested in becoming proficient in both areas, why not check out these top free and paid UI-UX design courses?

Let’s assume you also want to step into the role of UI designer. The specific skill set you should bring to the table would look something like the following:

1. Design tools: Sketch and Photoshop

A proficient UI designer without expertise in either Photoshop or Sketch simply doesn’t exist – it’s physically impossible!

If you’re serious about UI design, it’s definitely worth your while practicing with these tools and maybe taking some advanced courses. After all, you’ll be designing many assets and elements that you’ll be implementing in your wireframes and prototypes with these tools.

2. Knowledge of typography

With its origins deeply rooted in graphic and print design, the importance of typography in UI design cannot be overstated.

If you’re stuck for a bit of typographic inspiration, why not check out post on the best Google fonts to use for your website?

This design element has the ability to enhance a UI, focus a users attention, as well as define and distinguish the key elements on the screen. Knowing whether to choose Open Sans or Montserrat font, and knowing when, where and whether to make it bold or light is a crucial skill in any designer’s arsenal.

3. Graphic/print design skills

We can apply modern day graphic design to just about anything: UI design, pamphlet design – even the signs at the side of the road! Taking a few courses in graphic design is definitely a must if you want to specialize in UI design.

On the other hand, print design – a subcategory of graphic design – is another area you should consider brushing up your knowledge in. A technique deployed heavily for billboard advertising, it has many applicable uses to grab people’s attention, from magazines and banners, to books and packaging.

And no, print design is not dead! In fact, it’s seeing somewhat of a revival in the tech world as VR design becomes more important in UI design.

4. Knowledge of design principles

To design a brilliant UI, you should be familiar with the fundamental principles of design.

Knowing things like balance, proximity and alignment is a must for when it comes to deciding to establish hierarchy between elements. It’s also important to understand the effects that repetition, contrast and space have on a user’s general comprehension of the UI in front of them.

5. Knowledge of design elements

Just as multiplication tables are a tool of arithmetics, so too are design elements a tool of the modern UI designer. Being familiar with how shapes, lines and spacing can create a certain atmosphere is essential, as is knowing the impact that the size, texture and color of elements can have on the user.

The takeaway

It’s certain that UX is on the rise and becomes more and more important with every year that passes. Pursuing a career in UX design can be challenging but rewarding and highly possible with relevant upskilling.

Likewise, learning the fundamental skills of a UI designer and combining them with the essentials of UX design is a match made in heaven, as the two professionals are inseparable. At least when it comes to software design.

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Rebeca Costa
In-house writer, usability enthusiast and patron of all sleep-deprived designers