An Overemphasis on Visual Design
Paying too much attention to visual design was limiting my ability to focus on creating user experiences at a more holistic, strategic level.
Cultivating deep aesthetic sensibilities can help you design more visually pleasing experiences for users. An aesthetically pleasing experience builds users’ trust and investment in a product or experience. Possessing deep knowledge of color theory and typography are valuable skills to have. I’d learned much about them during my undergraduate education and early in my career, when I was employed as a visual designer.
However, just as I’d given too much attention to developing my knowledge of certain user-research methods and skills, paying too much attention to visual design was limiting my ability to focus on creating user experiences at a more holistic, strategic level. Plus, such aesthetic skills were less necessary since my product teams had begun to leverage user-interface and stylistic libraries, which provided templates and components that were already imbued with the correct styling and aesthetic treatments—a practice that has become more popular within many companies. I am not advocating for the commoditization of visual design, assuming that anyone could do it, assuming they have a robust user-interface library. However, I no longer needed to continually draw upon those skills, and this freed me up to focus more on my desired growth areas.
Proficiency in Coding
While I was formerly a front-end developer, my knowledge of Web technologies and libraries is now archaic. That’s okay—it should be that way. I don’t need to stay current with this skill because it is not, nor should it be crucial to my abilities as a UX designer or manager. Coding should remain on a dusty shelf in my brain. Your company might ask you to code—as small agile teams and bootstrapped startups sometimes do because they need people who can wear multiple hats. I can relate. However, if coding is not a requirement for your job, treat it like a bag of bricks and set it down.
Proficiency with All Design Tools
Going from merely being proficient to an expert level in design applications such as Adobe Illustrator and Sketch was deeply satisfying for me, and it made doing my job much easier. I could spend my precious mental capital focusing on designing the best solutions for users instead of squandering it reading Help forums and how-to guides. I was rewarded for attaining that mastery and was able to pay it forward through the design specifications and high-fidelity mockups I created. However, I also learned that trying to become an expert in every type of design application was consuming too much of my time and taxing my ability to think critically and holistically.
Don’t try to become an expert in every design application—especially if you wouldn’t need to draw upon this expertise often. Instead, treat design applications as the tools they are and learn only those you need to use in your daily work. While it’s more difficult, it’s also much more valuable to develop your ability to size up a problem, communicate effectively with stakeholders to understand the problem’s nuances, then design a solution for it—all while keeping users at the center of your process. These skills have a longer shelf-life and can serve you well—no matter what kind of role you take on.
Prioritizing Necessary Skills, Knowledge, and Activities
People with strong communication skills tend to advance more quickly. In the field of UX design, it’s crucial to hone these skills…
By choosing to focus more on higher-level skills that are more relevant to creating better user experiences, I was better able to make the leap to a Lead UX Designer role; then, eventually, into management. What were some of the skills and activities I needed to continue doing—or even bolster—or to start doing? Let’s look at some of the skills for which I chose to increase my focus and investment. Some of them might serve you as well, regardless of the path you choose.
Strong Communication Skills
It’s no secret that people with strong communication skills tend to advance more quickly. In the field of UX design, it’s crucial to hone these skills because your stakeholders, peers, and even the people who use your products experience your ability to communicate first and foremost. You might have great thoughts and ideas along with your functional skillset, but unless you can clearly articulate them, no one can benefit from them. Moreover, strong communication skills can help you convince others to invest in a high-quality user experience and serve you well as you tactfully defend your design decisions.
How can you improve your communication skills? In my experience, putting myself into uncomfortable situations has helped me most—as awkward as they sometimes felt. If you’re an introvert like me, it can be difficult to speak in front of others—or even to put your candid thoughts onto digital paper, as I’m doing right now in this UXmatters column. However, your fears of potential rejection are not reality. If you speak to a group of people and feel as if you’re tripping over your words, you’re not alone. Just about anyone who has ever spoken publicly has experienced self-doubt and anxiety. It’s normal. It’s also normal to feel that the words you put into a technical paper, a slide deck, or even an email message lack polish and precision. That’s okay. You’ll become a better writer over time.
Give yourself permission to have a growth mindset. Instead of believing that you don’t communicate well, believe that you don’t communicate well yet. Nothing is fixed, and I’ve watched people grow tremendously simply because they’ve allowed themselves to have a growth mindset. Moreover, as you work to improve your communication skills, your peers, superiors, and subordinates will respect you for your courage and willingness to reveal your imperfections. Growth is never perfect.
The most successful people—regardless of their role or discipline—understand the problems their companies face and tailor their areas of knowledge and actions to help solve them. While you may possess outstanding functional skills as a user researcher, visual designer, or interaction designer, you won’t be able to fully utilize those skills unless you can apply them to the challenges and opportunities your company faces on a daily, monthly, annual, or even a longer-term basis.
Before Rockwell Automation hired me, I worked at Progressive Insurance and, before that, at another financial-services company. The problem spaces for which I’d designed solutions at my previous companies were vastly different from those I’ve encountered at my current employer—a business-to-business software company that focuses on creating solutions for manufacturers, working in a domain about which most people possess little knowledge.
The skills I’d learned at my previous employers did not automatically make me a standout contributor at Rockwell. So I needed to set aside my previous achievements—designing business-to-consumer, ecommerce Web sites—and focus on learning to design sovereign-posture applications for specialized users who work in industrial environments. There were many times I was tempted to use solutions that I knew had worked well within the context of purchasing or shopping for insurance and apply those solutions to tools for the specialized users working in my new domain and their unique scenarios. But, as I immediately learned, making assumptions about the applicability of those old solutions to this new domain was indicative of my overconfidence.
Developing solid business acumen means demonstrating humility and being willing to learn your employer’s unique domain. After all, the company exists because there was a unique opportunity in the marketplace. Regardless of what your company’s opportunity might be, every for-profit company exists for a reason that enables it to make money. Your company hired you to help them succeed.
So, heavily invest in understanding your company’s goals and the problems its leadership team is trying to solve. Research the company’s competition and how they’re addressing their users’ needs. Doing so can further improve your ability to propose unique solutions that specifically target your company’s audience and help bolster business growth—which can serve your growth, too. This, in turn, fuels your self-confidence, which is far different from the overconfidence that is born out of past successes.
Once you begin to see yourself in the role you desire, other people can begin to see you in it as well. Everything starts with your having the right mindset. People naturally feel comfortable at a level or two beneath the position in which they’re currently working, especially if they’ve advanced to a senior level. While impostor syndrome is real, it’s important to remember that everyone has felt like an imposer at some point in their career, including the CEO of your company. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed by the thought of what it might be like to have the title of Principal, Manager, Director, Co-founder, or Partner and question whether you have the skills and self-confidence necessary to fulfill that role.
However, it sometimes helps to trick your mind into thinking that you’re playing a part. Mentally role-play what it might be like to have the responsibilities of an individual in your desired role. What types of things do they do? What projects do they lead? With whom do they work? What relationships have they forged? Thinking about the specific actions and activities of someone in your desired role can make the idea of growing into that role feel more attainable. Then, you can begin actually doing some of these things in your current role. (I’ll get to more about that later.) Over time, as your confidence grows, you’ll begin taking on more challenging activities and responsibilities. Before you know it, you’ll have become the professional you’ve always wanted to become.
Taking Specific Actions
Now that you’ve identified which skills, activities, and knowledge you should either prioritize or deprioritize, it’s time to take specific actions based on these decisions. Your T-shaped growth could exhibit any number of permutations, depending on the types of skills on which you choose to focus, so there is no single set of actions that would apply to every UX designer. However, similar to what I described in my column “Breaking into the Field of UX Design,” there are a couple of specific actions that anyone should take. Consider the following.
Getting Buy-in from Your Manager
Several years ago, I decided that I wanted to follow a different growth path, and one of my first tactics was to share this desire with my manager. I recall that the discussion with my manager ended with his candidly telling me that my ideal position might not exist at my current company. Nevertheless, he was happy to support me in reducing my focus on coding and increasing my focus on holistic UX design—as long as I was willing to help coach some junior developers so there would be no drop-off in the tasks that I would be deprioritizing. My manager also wanted to be sure I understood that I wouldn’t be able to readjust my focus right away—especially since we weren’t actively hiring at the time.
This scenario was realistic, and it’s possible that you might encounter a similar scenario. The right position for you might not be with your current employer. You might need to make the difficult decision to move on—which I eventually did when my ideal position opened at a different company. However, my growth began well before I chose to leave my original employer. The same could happen for you, too. Do not wait for the perfect career opportunity to come along. It’s often necessary to create rather than find such opportunities. So keeping your career-growth goals locked inside your head could ensure that you’ll never achieve the growth you want.
It’s actually in your current employer’s best interest to help ensure that you feel fulfilled in your career—especially if you are a high-achieving employee. Nobody wants a top employee to become a flight risk. There are usually resources available within any organization that could help you determine the specific opportunities that are available to you within your company. Use these resources—it’s why they’re there. A key part of your manager’s role is to help you grow your career—while ensuring that you can do it within your current company.
Initiating Independent Activities
Earlier, I mentioned that mentally rehearsing working in your ideal role can help you gain self-confidence. But, to actually become the professional you want to become, you must start independently doing the types of activities a person in your ideal role would do. Otherwise, when that role becomes available, nobody else would be able to envision you in it. Even though your manager can and should invest his or her time and energy in helping you to find opportunities for achieving your desired career growth, here are some independent activities I’ve previously suggested:
- Shadow others within your company who are doing what you want to do.
- Find a mentor—who might or might not be employed by your company.
- Take training courses that relate to your ideal role.
- Define a development goal that would help you achieve your desired growth.
- Immerse yourself in communities of professionals who do what you want to do.
- Meet with managers and leaders in business segments that have people in roles that are similar to your desired role.
- Initiate personal projects relating to your ideal role, which would eventually enable you to build a portfolio of work.
Dwell in the problem space before jumping into the solution space.
It can be difficult for UX designers to figure out how to grow their career effectively within an enterprise environment where UX is immature. As I described in Part 1, it helps to first understand why you want to grow, then to dwell in the problem space before jumping into the solution space. (Jumping into the solution space prematurely could lead to your growing in the wrong way.) Once you’ve identified the driving motivations behind your desire to grow, you can decide how you want to grow and define what T-shaped growth means for you in the process. Doing this can help you discover the professional you want to become.
Armed with your why and an understanding of how you want to grow, you can then begin to prioritize which skills, activities, and knowledge areas would best support that growth, while deprioritizing those things that would hinder it. Finally, you can begin taking specific actions toward realizing your goal—such as soliciting the support of your manager, as well as initiating some independent activities relating to your desired growth area so you can become the UX professional you’re destined to become.