The UX Design Paradox

As the recent debacle surrounding has shown, user experience (UX) design, in all its shapes and forms, is critical to the success of your web initiatives. And, as people access the web from an increasingly broad range of devices with divergent screen sizes and varying screen resolutions, the challenge of designing a consistent and effective user experience will only become more complex.

These developments point to a growing need for good UX designers. At Aquent, we’ve seen close to a 200 percent increase in demand for UX designers over the last two years alone. Given these changes, which critical skills separate the best UX designers from the rest? To find out, we conducted a focus group involving leaders of UX groups at large companies, as well as UX designers working in an agency context. What we discovered is something we like to call “The UX Design Paradox.”

UX Design

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Wherein Lies this Paradox?

UX designers today and in the future will need a solid grounding in the basic methodologies including “contextual inquiry, user interviews, user testing, wire framing, card sorting, heuristics, flow diagrams, personas, customer journey mapping, accessibility, form design, etc.,” as one participant put it. They’ll also need an evolving familiarity with “how UX relates to RWD, HTML5, CSS3, content strategy, cross-channel and multi-channel design, touch and gestural interface design, micro interactions, big data and emerging devices.” In addition, some participants stressed the need for UX designers who were comfortable coding and creating working prototypes of their design recommendations.

Of course, it’s hardly paradoxical to insist that UX designers be well-versed in UX design. What was ironic to hear was that professionals who specialize in finding seamless ways to communicate intent and possibility in design struggled with communicating the intent and value of UX design.

Great Communicators Wanted

Our focus group broadly recognized that effective communication skills are paramount to a designer’s success.

The majority agreed that finding people who were both well-versed in the appropriate methodologies and great communicators, especially in a business context, was difficult.

As one participant explained, “My biggest challenge is finding designers who are comfortable at the intersection of business and design. It’s true, solid design skills, prototyping, complex application design experience and good personality fit are all hard to find, too. However, what I find is that designers struggle most with the idea of designing a product to meet a set of business needs.”

As another participant emphasized, “A designer needs to be able to understand and speak the language of the business/product team…to be able to articulate why UX is good business, without losing the audience in the overly academic jargon of the UX discipline.”

Finally, one participant put this ability to communicate in the context of exhibiting true UX leadership: “We are often in consultation mode and looking to influence the outcome with our clients. This also requires facilitating discussions or working sessions to help others come to a common conclusion. It’s these skills that exhibit a ‘lead UX consultant’ mentality that ultimately leads to respect and the ability to influence.”

Beyond the technical knowledge required of UX designers is a growing need for fluency in leadership and effective communication; today’s UX designers must be able to advocate for their designs as readily as they can create them.

How Can UX Designers Develop These Skills?

Mastering the methodologies central to UX design takes time. And it’s not just a question of reading a book or taking a course; UX designers have to spend time in the UX trenches, discovering what works and what doesn’t over a series of increasingly challenging projects.

The same is true of becoming a great communicator and an influential collaborator in the UX field.

By acknowledging how important the “soft skills” of communication, facilitation, problem solving and strategic thinking are to your future success, you have already taken the first step. With this knowledge, you can approach each new opportunity with the following question in mind: “How will this project help me to grow as a communicator and collaborator?” Take opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of business objectives, and invite regular conversations with business leaders to help bridge the divide between UX design concepts and bottom-line results.

Second, seek out a mentor, specifically, a more seasoned UX professional who exhibits the business savvy and persuasive communication style you wish to cultivate. You can start by asking for regular feedback and coaching sessions to aid in your professional development. Of course, if you are able to work side-by-side with such a person, all the better!

Finally, the insights offered by our focus group should serve as a reminder to those who teach UX design that, in addition to focusing on the distinct methodologies associated with this discipline, they also need to build curriculum around communication and business skills. For example, require students to present their portfolio at the close of a course to reinforce the importance of communicating the value of UX design concepts to stakeholders.

People often choose a career in UX based on a love for design and technology or a passion for usability and innovation. For this reason, as in many fields of design, they don’t always want to steep themselves too intensely in the business side of things.

The paradox is that, by doing so, they would actually make themselves more valuable and effective as UX designers.

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5 thoughts on “The UX Design Paradox

  1. fspohr

    I’m not surprised to see these findings that UX designers have a hard time explaining their craft to others. One of the first things I learned in the early days of running Clicked Studios is that I had to break down abstract concepts of design and technology into more easily understood concrete subjects for clients, especially those from polar opposite fields like construction and home building. I’ve also had mentors along the way that helped shine the light on the need for making sure your concrete examples make sense in the business world as well. It is easy to come up with metaphors right off the top of your head, but it is not always so easy to have a metaphor that will have a direct and hard reference to the business situation.

    1. Matthew T. Grant Post author

      Thanks for the comment!

      I like your focus on metaphor, and particularly concrete metaphors that are relevant to the experience of the audience, as the key to explaining UX concepts to people who may not be familiar with the discipline. I would love to hear from concrete examples of the concrete metaphors you’ve used!

  2. fspohr

    Off the top of my head here are two examples.

    “Not focusing on your UX is like the difference between creating a pinto and ferrari”. The metaphor is decent because it shows a striking contrast, but you still can’t really think of it in terms of the business situation.

    I think a better metaphor would be like, “Not focusing on your UX is like meeting your prospective customers in a dirty hole-in-the-wall bar that smells of booze and cigarettes instead of taking that person to a 5-star restaurant where you sit down, get kindly greeted by name, have your shoulders rubbed while you decide what to eat before delving into the business talk for the night.” Each experience is very easy to picture in ones mind and connects digital UX with more human-based concepts we can easily understand and instantly apply value.

  3. Matthew T. Grant Post author


    I used to talk about this in the following terms: Is your site a cathedral or a fork? When you are eating, for example, you want to focus on the food, not the fork. If your site is properly usable, it should disappear in the use. If the fork is getting in the way of the food, you’ve got a problem!

  4. Jasalex

    I have been a user experience designer since 2006. I have sometimes been beat out of employment from UX designers that have a “better portfolio”, better in an aesthetic design sense. So in essence they have a better artistic portfolio. I have a business background and not an art one. I have a BA and not a BFA. I have several years of business acumen experience. User experience design is still governed by the state of technology and the pain and pleasure points of its users.
    I love the sense of this article since many user experience designers are in fact visual designers or art directors. I have worked for several interactive agencies and I always indicate that I am excellent with client interactions. I just do not always find that to be true for the rest of my colleagues and peers.