Why “everybody is a designer”: The UX Design Skills Ladder

I started to write an article on how non-designers can get started in interaction design, but quickly realized that Tip 2, “Know where you are on the UX design skills ladder,” is worthy of its own post.

The UX Design Skills Ladder has several constituents:

  • The ability to recognize problems
  • The ability to identify solutions
  • The scope of design knowledge
  • The method for making decisions
  • The ability to give and receive feedback
  • The ability to persuade others

Here it is:

Level 0—”Everybody”

  • Can identify general, superficial problems with a design.
  • Thinks of design in terms of technology.
  • Believes “user centered design” means designing for the one’s mother, sibling, or spouse.
  • Gives vague, often harsh feedback, usually in terms of personal opinion or preference.
  • Offers feedback that is often inappropriately detailed, focused on minor visual details.
  • Is unaware of what they don’t know.

Level 1—Beginner designers

  • Can identify basic interaction and visual design problems.
  • Thinks of design in terms of technology and features.
  • Works with a single solution, rarely considers alternatives. Often that single solution is their first idea and they have trouble seeing beyond it.
  • Makes one-off decisions based on whatever “feels right.” Often “wings” it.
  • Offers feedback in terms of personal opinion or the behavior of other programs.
  • Can convince self that a design idea is good.

Level 2—Intermediate designers

  • Can identify many interaction and visual design problems. Aware of what makes a design good.
  • Thinks of design in terms of tasks.
  • Usually works with a single solution, but occasionally works with a few.
  • Makes decisions based on data, team feedback and consensus, and the problem at hand. Still often “wings” it.
  • Offers specific, actionable feedback at the appropriate level in terms of design concepts.
  • Can convince several people that a design idea is good.

Level 3—Advanced designers

  • Can identify subtle interaction and visual design problems. Has a strong appreciation for good design.
  • Thinks of designs in term of scenarios and personas.
  • Always works with many solutions before making a choice. Proposed solutions include standard approaches, simple solutions, and innovative alternatives that others would miss.
  • Makes decisions using a decision making framework and a holistic product vision. Often uses data to make decisions, but is willing and able to go beyond the data.
  • Offers specific, constructive, actionable feedback at the appropriate level in terms of design principles, guidelines, branding.
  • Can convince a team that a design idea is good. Experts can convince a team that a radical design idea is good.
  • Is completely in tune with what they don’t know.

Some observations

  • Level 0 Everybody has at least level 0 design skills, which is why “everybody is a designer.” Unfortunately, these skills are neither rare nor particularly valuable but people at this level are blissfully unaware of this fact. They often think their vague, unactionable feedback is brilliant. For example, they’ll say things like “My mom would never do that” or “I don’t care for that color red.” Brilliant! They also tend to be managers.
  • Level 1 Most people experienced with “design thinking” are at least at level 1.
  • Level 2 A surprising number of people are at this level, even designers with many years of experience.
  • Level 3 This level of design skills is fairly rare. Many people think that they are at this level but aren’t quite there yet. For example, I’ve noticed that many who think they are doing user-centered scenario-based design are really doing feature- or task-based design. (The difference? Check Design scenarios—and how thrilled users ruin them.)

Why this helps

Knowing the ladder will help you in a variety of ways:

  • It suggests a road map on how to improve your design skills.
  • It helps you understand other people’s design skills better so that you can work with them more effectively.
  • It helps you evaluate other people’s design skills for things like job interviews.

If you do only one thing: Know your UX Design Skills level and make a plan to get to the next level.

Next week, we’ll look at how non-designers can get started in interaction design.

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