DevelopmentTop 10 Skills That Separate Real UX Designers from Wannabes

Top 10 Skills That Separate Real UX Designers from Wannabes

With the flood of ill-trained people claiming to be user experience (UX) designers, how do you know if you are hiring a UX snake oil salesman or a true UX expert? The best UX experts in the world all share these characteristics and abilities.

Snake Oil SalesmanWith the flood of ill-trained people claiming to be user experience (UX) designers, how do you know if you are hiring a UX snake oil salesman or a true UX expert?

UX design was largely unappreciated for many years, but the rash of recent successes attributed to good UX design has helped UX become a desirable part of any website design effort. Unfortunately, opportunists quick to add UX to their repertoire of services are hoping that you won’t know how to differentiate their offerings from real UX expertise.

I’m not going to pull any punches with this post. Far too many companies are unknowingly hiring wannabe UX designers and not getting the results they expect. The lackluster results produced by these UX snake oil salesmen not only hurt the specific company, but also diminish the perceived value of good UX design, in general.

So, what makes a good UX designer? While not every UX designer possesses all of the following skills, the more that they have, the better they are.

Here are 10 questions to help you separate the wheat from the chaff:

  1. Do they have a background that includes cognitive psychology?
  2. Do they demand to conduct user research before starting any design effort?
  3. Do they describe their process in terms of a two-part process: redefine the problem, create the solutions?
  4. Can they describe or have examples of their task-analysis process?
  5. Do they have examples that describe how they identified user characteristics that drove the resulting design approach?
  6. Can they describe previous UX design strategies beyond just to “delight the user”?
  7. Can they walk through your current design and point out why specific aspects of it are limiting your success?
  8. Can they give data-driven or experiential justification for specific design approaches?
  9. Can they describe how their designs differ from everyone else’s and why those differences were so successful?
  10. Are they published?

1. The Right Background

Good UX designers have backgrounds in many disciplines, and though most wannabe UX designers do come from graphic design and Web development, that’s not to say that designers from those disciplines can’t become good UX designers. Anyone can be a good UX designer, with the right training.

What is the right training? UX design is not just about pretty graphics or button placement. It’s more about understanding the cognitive perspectives of the intended users.

Any UX designer worth their salt must have some cognitive psychology in their background. Someone with a cognitive psychology background and something else is a real plus.

2. Know Thy User, First

A true UX expert demands to conduct real user research prior to creating any designs. User research takes many forms, but it always means getting out of the office and meeting with actual users.

By the way, usability testing is not user research. It’s getting user reaction to a design.

If your UX candidate wants to start with usability testing, then you should look for another candidate. User research is a proactive process; usability testing is reactive.

Once you’ve heard an expert describe how they have derived specific strategies from user research, it become’s easy to tell when your candidate has never done it, nor likely ever will.

3. One Part Problem, Equal Part Solution

If you don’t know what problem you need to solve, the best you can hope for is to solve the wrong problem, very well. Most companies do a poor job of accurately understanding the problem their users need solving.

More often than not, companies come up with a solution then try to find a problem to wedge it into. Once this solution has been defined, the company becomes married to it and further propagates it by merely pushing it out.

UX is a two-part process beginning with a scientific, disciplined approach to understanding the users’ problems, from their perspective. Clearly articulating the problem produces much more successful solutions. A critical output of this initial user research and problem definition phase is a well-articulated UX strategy.

Once you have a UX strategy, designing the right solution is actually quite easy, if you know how. Task analysis is a key function of the problem definition phase and results in an optimized task analysis that depicts the task flow for the key users and their key tasks. Design creation follows this task flow.

If your candidate can’t describe how they derive a strategy from user research or even describe what strategies they have identified, previously, you don’t want their brand of snake oil. Moreover, if they can’t describe how to use the research and analysis to drive design, then you’re talking to the wrong person.

4. Automating Current Frustrations

Computer FrustrationWhile task analysis is a key component to any successful design effort, it’s only the first step. The next step is to refine or optimize those tasks.

Task optimization’s primary objective is to avoid automating current frustrations. A seasoned UX expert is adept at reengineering the users’ task flow to produce a more efficient flow.

For instance, most ecommerce sites that offer order shipping typically provide a simple shipping selection UI that presents the choices, and mentions the typical duration of each choice, such as:

  • Ground: 6-10 business days
  • Air: 2-3 business days
  • Overnight: 1 day

These shipping UIs suck! Users lack the knowledge regarding how long it takes to prepare the product for shipping, when the shipper will pick up the product, if the shipper’s “business days” include Saturdays, etc.

Typically the user needs a product by a certain date. A more optimized solution avoids relying on the users to calculate which shipping choice best serves their needs and instead merely asks the user when they need it and offer only those choices that meet that user requirement. Seasoned UX veterans have plenty of examples of how they have optimized common processes.

5. User-Driven Design

Many so-called designers are familiar with personas and can create rather useless ones, but a seasoned UX designer can describe how specific user characteristics influenced their designs.

A key aspect of good user personas is a description of expected user knowledge. Your UX candidate should be able to describe how their designs leveraged expected user knowledge and provided required knowledge users were not expected to have.

Experienced UXers describe personas in terms of cognitive and behavioral specifics, such as motivations, desired outcomes, and knowledge base, all which influence designs. They avoid describing users in terms of marketing demographics, such as marital status, income, and employment status, which provide no information to aid in the design process.

6. Delighting Users

User DelightAsk your UX candidate what an appropriate UX objective should be for your project. If they say “to delight the users,” run Forrest, run!

“To delight the user” has become a rather ubiquitous mantra with UX neophytes.

How will that overly obvious statement actually guide design decisions during your project? It can’t and won’t.

While delighting the user is a desirable outcome, the real question is howwill the design “delight the user”? If your UX design candidate can’t describe how, then they aren’t likely to be able to achieve that result.

If “delighting the user” is a useless UX design objective, what is a useful one? Users come to a site with a problem to solve and a desired outcome.

You know more about your domain than any of your users. The accurate UX objective describes how to impart that knowledge to help the users succeed beyond their own level of competence.

7. Walk-Throughs

A brief UI walk-through analysis is the real litmus test of a UX pro.

Any UXer can walk through a UI and immediately identify a few superficial design errors, but a seasoned UX pro starts by asking questions about your users and their tasks to determine whyyour design will not achieve the desired results. Their walk-through analysis will identify more strategic issues (interrupted flow, cognitive loading, required knowledge) rather than just highlighting minor superficial issues (button color, navigation arrangement, visual clutter).

The good UX designer can walk through your current design (or any similar design, for that matter) and point out limitations with the design, describing why they are limiting factors.

The good candidate will also avoid single, simple answers to every question. Most design problems can be solved with a few different design approaches. The good candidate can describe why certain approaches may or may not work for your particular users and domain.

8. Data-Driven Design

Many commonplace design approaches actually contradict well-known usability standards. For instance, cascading drop-down menus are a common site navigation method, but plenty of usability research proves that users typically perform quite poorly with them.

Every design approach has its pros and cons. An expert UX designer can provide data-driven and experiential justification for every design decision instead of merely following the crowd.

9. Different by Design

The better your UX expert is, the more unique your new site will look and act. If their design approach simply copies everyone else’s site, then you have the wrong designer. Most websites make many classic mistakes that have become de facto standards simply by virtue of everybody making the same mistakes.

A real UX pro will eschews the assumption that everyone else is doing it right and avoids following those bad designs. In reality, most websites solve the wrong problem, sometimes, very well.

Your UX candidate should be able to describe how they would apply the user research to better understand the motivations, triggers, perceived problems, and desired outcomes of the intended users. These are the true drivers of good UX design, not a herd mentality.

The good UX designers can describe how they identified these design drivers on previous projects and how it led to a more accurate and successful design approach.

10. Are They Published?

Have you read their blog posts or LinkedIn discussion entries?

Do you learn something new from them or do they simply regurgitate basic knowledge?

Do they merely agree with everything everyone else writes, or do they provide thoughtful contrarian perspectives?

Do they always say “it depends” or do they give examples of the pros and cons of specific design approaches?


More than denigrating wannabe UX designers, my intent is to help you hire a more qualified UX professional and achieve real UX successes. I’m sure to get some hate mail for this, but I stand by my statements and challenge anyone to prove me wrong.

I have met or worked with some of the most experienced UX experts in the world and they all share the characteristics and abilities I’ve mentioned above. I’ve also seen plenty of wannabe UX designers, and they all lacked many of these same characteristics. You do the math.

I truly believe that most new UX designers are not intentionally trying to deceive, that they truly want to become successful UX experts, and may well use this checklist as a roadmap to improve their skills. The haters will always hate, but the true novice UX designers are welcome to connect with me and ask for help in improving their skills.

As they say, a rising tide lifts all ships, so anything I can do to help improve the UX community, helps us all.


The 2023 B2B Superpowers Index
whitepaper | Analytics

The 2023 B2B Superpowers Index

Data Analytics in Marketing
whitepaper | Analytics

Data Analytics in Marketing

The Third-Party Data Deprecation Playbook
whitepaper | Digital Marketing

The Third-Party Data Deprecation Playbook

Utilizing Email To Stop Fraud-eCommerce Client Fraud Case Study
whitepaper | Digital Marketing

Utilizing Email To Stop Fraud-eCommerce Client Fraud Case Study