Re-posted from an article I wrote for 100 Shapes

User Experience Designer, Interaction Designer, Digital Product Designer – whatever you choose to call it – is the job that every digital designer seems to want right now. And yet, as anyone who is trying to recruit UX designers will tell you, there is a serious shortage of good candidates. Is it simply a skills gap? Or, are there other reasons for this?

The buoyant freelance market, which lures many designers away from permanent roles with enviable day rates and the pick of clients, is often blamed for the difficulty in recruiting permanent staff, but that’s a symptom, not a cause. Nor is it simply a lack of training. While UX is a newly recognised discipline that higher education has been slow to nurture, agencies and corporations offer superb on-the-job training but find it even harder to fill junior and trainee roles than their seniors.

I think the perceived skills gap masks an entirely different issue. Skills can be learnt by anyone with the will, opportunity and aptitude. The first two are present, so I think we’re failing to seek candidates with the right qualities.

There isn’t a set path to a successful career in UX; when I think about the best designers I’ve worked with, I can’t identify a common academic background, job history or previously acquired skills set. But there are three qualities they all demonstrate, that make them great user experience designers.

1. Creativity

I’m not talking about being artistic in the traditional sense of being good at making things look pretty – although it’s a useful skill, it’s not essential for a UX professional. I’m definitely not talking about those designers whose prima donna attitude is indulged because they’re “a creative” – there is no place for egos in user experience.

I’m talking about the creative thinkers, the problem-solvers, the serial makers who are driven to create and bring new ideas into the world. They come up with many alternatives, they think beyond the obvious, they’ve sketched five ideas to solve your problem before you’ve finished briefing them.

Without creativity, there is no innovation.

2. Analytical thinking

Analytical thinkers like to verify, validate, understand and evaluate. They ask awkward questions. They are able to take an objective view – always seeking the best solution, no matter whose idea it is. They can keep a number of objectives in mind and focus their efforts on meeting them. When they have questions, they design their own tests and are not afraid of wading through data to get the answers they need.

Analytical thinkers can be found in a variety of fields; sciences, social sciences, psychology, business analysis, programming…anything that requires an organised, enquiring mind.

This quality isn’t normally associated with designers but the best ones all have it – they assess work objectively and guide others. After all, creative output that’s not fit for purpose is not design.

3. Empathy

Empathy in the context of UX is the ability to accept that one’s own perspective is different from that of the users one is designing for (in fact, a designer’s view of a system is inherently unusual). It is the ability to put oneself in the mind of the user and be their representative, predicting their  thoughts and responses. It’s closely related to cognitive empathy or theory of mind in psychology, a set of abilities (almost) all of us have, but might apply in varying degrees.

The UX movement has developed an extensive toolkit to help us understand users’ goals, needs and behaviours, including audience research, personas, usability testing and analytics. These tools are useless however if the designer can’t put aside their own preferences and accept that the user’s perspective – whatever that might be – is valid.

An empathetic mentality is not indicated by a particular academic background or career path but is evident in the approach a person takes to their work; they can predict how their decisions might affect others. Empathetic designers design for users, not their portfolio.

Looking beyond the usual suspects

This combination of qualities is unusual. But I think the industry is struggling to recruit because we’re only looking in one place, not because we’re looking for unicorns.

Design graduates are attractive candidates for a number of reasons – they’re wizards with Create Suite, they’re fluent in design speak and they have glossy portfolios. Although design degrees are great at fostering a creative process, they rarely develop practices associated with the other qualities I’ve described. Many design graduates are drawn to pursue a career in UX only to feel frustration when they discover that it is as much about research and documentation as being creative or ‘cutting edge’. I think we need to cast the net beyond the latest degree show superstars to find the next generation of UX professionals.

UX hiring do’s and don’ts

Don’t base your hiring decision on the visual presentation of a portfolio – your best candidate might not even have a portfolio.

  • Do ask to see sketch work and development of ideas, not just finished pieces.
  • Do look for evidence of logical decision making, research and awareness of the target audience.
  • Don’t list a design BA as a requirement on the job ad – you’ll discourage applications from those brilliant developers, psychologists, business strategists and statisticians who are looking for a creative challenge.
  • Do use the job ad to emphasise the diversity of the role – you’ll attract a much more interesting set of candidates.
  • Don’t look for clones of your existing team – if you already have a strong creative thinker, maybe you need to bring in more user focus?
  • Do be willing to train recruits who lack software skills or research experience

When demand outstrips supply, be open minded. Using experienced contractors to patch the immediate skills gap is a short-term and expensive solution. Instead, seek out and invest in those who will grow to bring new ideas and real design innovation. After all, skills can be learned, qualities cannot.

About the author

I am a UX Consultant and Creative Technologist interested in interaction, mobile, e-commerce, UX strategy and many other design-related things

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