The unicorn is dead: Soft skills trump coding skills

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Paul Sherman, principal consultant at ShermanUX, shares his thoughts on soft skills before his presentation at UX New Zealand 2016. 

Good news everyone! UX salaries are up! Hiring is strong around the world! So...why are so many UXers still feeling like they have to fight for a seat at the grown-up table? Many UX practitioners and managers I’ve spoken to still feel like user experience has to elbow its way into existing processes, and the product and development cultures still don’t fully accept us as equal partners in the effort to create compelling products and services.

Is it because we’re not unicorns? That is, we’re not all UX researchers, designers AND front-end developers? I don’t believe that’s the reason. I think it has more to do with the fact that UXers love to explore design and solution spaces. It’s what we do. Some of us even like (or at least don’t hate) to code. It’s never been easier, with frameworks, libraries and so many proven patterns for web and mobile.

But as a community of practice, we’re not so good at critical competencies that would help us be on an equal footing with our neighboring disciplines. I’m thinking of critical competencies such as:

  • Articulating an experience vision, aligning it with the business’s product vision, and also subtly influencing the product vision through user research dissemination.
  • Keeping up the slow, steady, often frustrating work of organizational change and alignment around user needs.

In short, we UX practitioners and leaders need to learn to play better with our neighboring disciplines, learn to “manage up” as well as borrow some techniques from our partners in product management. That is, we need to develop our organizational influence skills, aka soft skills. Specifically, we need to...

  • Learn how to develop strategic vision and implementable tactical action plans that align with our organization’s goals.
  • Internalize the fact that at least half of our job is to be change agents, and act accordingly.

Adding these requirements to our job descriptions is no trivial task. Many of us feel overwhelmed just delivering on our research and design responsibilities, much less keep up with the latest interaction models and platform conventions. But if we truly want to stand as equals with our partners in product and development, we must recognize the need to develop our soft skills and function as change agents.

There’s an implication to becoming change agents, however: it means that we must actually change their organization’s culture. While difficult, it is definitely achievable. The commercial aviation domain is a great example of how dedicated change agents were able to effect industry-wide changes that led to improved safety and operational efficiency. The story of how change agents were able to shift the organizational culture at individual airlines and regulatory agencies around the world is fascinating, and it offers a model for how UX’ers can accomplish a culture shift of similar magnitude in the technology world. I’m looking forward to sharing this story at UX New Zealand. I hope to see you in person in Wellington this October!

Want to hear more? Come to UX New Zealand!

If you’d like to hear more about what Paul has to say on soft skills, plus a bunch of other cool UX-related talks, head along to UX New Zealand 2016 hosted by Optimal Workshop. The conference runs from 12-14 October, 2016, including a day of fantastic workshops, and you can get your tickets here. Got a question you'd like to ask Paul before the conference? You can Tweet him here: @pjsherman

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