Computer Science

What Skills Does a UX Designer Need to Have?

What Skills Does a UX Designer Need to Have?
If you want to transition into leadership roles, you might become UX manager, vice president of user experience design, design ops manager, or Chief Experience Officer (CXO). Image from Death to the Stock Photo
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry February 24, 2020

Every UX design project is a little different, but all user experience designers leverage technical and creative skills (plus a smattering of psychology) every time they map out a product.

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The user experience, or UX, can make or break an app, game, software suite, or website. If a program is confusing to navigate, frustrating to use, or hard to read, people won’t use it. On the other hand, good UX design can inspire people to take specific actions, like subscribing to an email list, reading more articles, completing a purchase, spending more time on an app, or playing the next level of a game.

UX optimization involves visual design—no one likes using an ugly app—but that’s not all there is to it. In fact, looks may just be the least important part of UX design. A program can look super sexy, but if it the mechanics of using it make people feel stupid or annoyed, chances are it won’t be very successful.

The best UX design incorporates concepts from behavioral psychology, information architecture, flow theory, and interaction design. And contrary to the name of this discipline, the focus of UX design isn’t always making products that are easier or more fun to use. So-called dark UX design can be used to make apps that are harder to put down, shopping experiences that encourage overspending, and navigation pathways that make it almost impossible to cancel a subscription.

“UX descended from Ergonomics, User Centered Design, and Usability/Information Architecture until in the wake of the success of the iPhone it morphed into the current 46 subspecialties and flavors du jour,” usability consultant Steve Krug told User Testing Blog. “From its noble heritage of advocacy for the user (“improving the user’s experience”), it has displayed an alarming tendency to lean towards advocacy for the producer (maximizing usage/sales/addiction).”

Whether it’s used for the user’s benefit or to benefit brands, UX design is a fascinating discipline and can form the basis of a fascinating career. In this article about the skills a user experience designer needs to have, we’ll cover:

  • What does a user experience designer do?
  • What education do UX designers need?
  • What technical skills do you need to be a user experience designer?
  • What tools and programs do UX designers need to know how to use?
  • What soft skills do you need to be a user experience designer?
  • How much do UX designers get paid for what they do?
  • How do I know if I have the skills to make a good UX designer?
  • Where else can UX design skills take me?

What does a user experience designer do?

A UX designer’s job can vary from company to company and even from project to project. That’s because an important element of UX design involves determining what kinds of experiences users should have when interacting with a product. Designing the user experience for a productivity app will be different from designing the UX for a major fashion house’s shopping portal.

Most UX design projects, however, involve:

  • Conducting user research
  • Building user personas
  • Creating user stories
  • Developing scenario maps
  • Creating user flows
  • Building a sitemap or mapping out an app
  • Sketching out content blocks and interactive elements
  • Creating wireframes and interaction prototypes
  • Validating and testing with users

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What education do UX designers need?

UX professionals come from varied educational backgrounds, and many pick up the skills they use daily not in college, but via online courses, books, and learning by doing. While 90 percent have university degrees according to a survey of user experience professionals conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group, only a tiny fraction majored in UX-specific topics like interaction design or human-computer interaction (HCI). The top five bachelor’s degree majors that user experience designers hold are:

  • Design (11 percent)
  • Psychology (9 percent)
  • Communications (9 percent)
  • English (9 percent)
  • Computer Science (7 percent)

When UX designers go back to school for master’s degrees, however, they’re more likely to specialize. At that level, they’re more likely to opt for degree programs that are likely to teach the specific skills a user experience designer needs to have. The top five master’s degree majors that user experience designers hold are:

  • Human-computer interaction (11 percent)
  • MBA (8 percent)
  • Psychology (5 percent)
  • Library and Information Science (5 percent)
  • Information Design (5 percent)

The results of the Nielsen Norman Group survey suggest that employers want to see that applicants for UX designer positions have degrees, but don’t necessarily care what subject designers studied. That’s because there are really no UX-specific degree programs other than Kent State University at Kent‘s Master of Science in User Experience Design (UXD) and Thomas Jefferson University‘s MS in User Experience and Interaction Design. Aspiring user experience designers should choose majors that align with their interests, but also take classes in communications, design, business, psychology, technology, and information. User experience design is an interdisciplinary field, and so skills that aren’t directly related to UX design can be useful in this career.

Some colleges and universities with related degree programs offer a UX concentration, like:

Are there UX designers out there working without degrees? Yes, but just because it’s possible to become a user experience designer without a degree doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to get one. Experience and an impressive UX portfolio are valuable, but it’s clear from the numbers that employers prefer to hire college graduates. And UX designers with undergraduate and graduate degrees have access to alumni networks and professional networks that self-taught UX designers may not have.

What technical skills do you need to be a user experience designer?

The core technical skills a user experience designer needs to have are:

  • Research: Research in UX can involve studying other websites and apps, gathering user data, creating user personas, sending out surveys, creating beta-testing groups, and building website heatmaps. UX research can get pretty technical.
  • Wireframing: Wireframes are outlined versions of designs created after an initial rough sketch. Most wireframes are built following brainstorming sessions and are quite simple, though some wireframes are more evolved and closer to the final design.
  • Prototyping: Interactive prototypes (sometimes called high-fidelity wireframes) are much more sophisticated and can simulate user interface interaction for testing purposes. They are typically very similar to the final design.
  • UX writing: Text is part of the user experience, and some UX designers prefer to write their own copy instead of relying on copywriters for some or all sections of the products they design.
  • Information architecture: User experience designers need to be able to organize complex information sets and determine the best ways to display them.
  • Coding skills: According to the 2017 Design in Tech report, a third of UX designers have some software engineering experience. The most important programming languages to know are jQuery, JavaScript, HTML, and CSS.
  • Analytics: It’s sometimes possible to learn more about the relationship between product and user by studying the numbers than by studying user feedback. For instance, what percentage of users gave up before reaching a goal action? How many people clicked a specific button?

What tools and programs do UX designers need to know how to use?

User experience designers use a variety of tools, and not every designer uses every tool on the list below. Many of the tools below can be accessed for free for a limited time on a trial basis, so aspiring UX designers can figure out which tools they prefer while they’re still learning the basics of good user experience design.

Tools for gauging sentiment:

Wireframing tools:

Tools for prototyping:

What soft skills do you need to be a user experience designer?

Soft skills are a big part of UX design because UX is about people more than products. Some of the top soft skills UX designers need are:

  • Empathy is one of the most important skills user experience designers need. They have to be able to identify with the feelings of others and understand their needs.
  • UX designers also need highly developed critical thinking skills. User experience design involves making assumptions, questioning those assumptions, testing them, and quickly throwing out what’s not working.
  • Communication skills come in handy in many parts of the design process. UX designers have to be able to work collaboratively with stakeholders, understand what test users are trying to tell them, and explain what they want when collaborating with front-end developers and graphic designers. Problem-solving skills are obviously important, because each new project is like a puzzle.
  • And finally, UX designers need discipline. As technology changes, UX design changes, and user experience designers need to be disciplined enough to pick up new tools and techniques independently.

How much do UX designers get paid for what they do?

A lot, even when they’re working in entry-level positions. According to Glassdoor data:

  • Entry-level user experience designers with less than one year of experience can make $70,171
  • Mid-career user experience designers with 7-9 years of experience can make $91,748
  • Late-career UX designers with 15+ years of experience can make $100,137

A solid portfolio, experience with in-demand platforms, graphic design skills, and UI design skills can all boost a UX designer’s earning potential. So can working in one of the cities where UX designers tend to get paid more, like New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, or San Francisco.

How do I know if I have the skills to make a good UX designer?

It’s actually pretty tough to answer the question “What skills does a user experience designer need to have?” Soft skills, hard skills, and creative skills all come into play in UX design. Business and networking skills can be equally important for freelance user experience designers. And curiosity (which is innate) may be more valuable than technical skills (which can be learned). Anyone can learn to program, but if you’re not extremely empathetic, you may not enjoy working as a UX designer—or do a very good job. To succeed, you have to enjoy imagining what it’s like to be in other people’s shoes

Where else can UX design skills take me?

There are two ways to advance when you have the skills a user experience designer needs to have. If you want to spend your entire career tackling projects, you can advance in positions that allow you to keep making things. You might become principal UX designer, senior interaction designer, UX lead, director of UX, or user experience consultant. Then there’s the managerial track, which involves a lot less wireframing and a lot more strategizing and communicating. If you want to transition into leadership roles, you might become UX manager, vice president of user experience design, design ops manager, or Chief Experience Officer (CXO).

Which path you choose may depend on where the majority of your skills fall on the hard skills/soft skills dividing line. The management track comes with a higher salary, but pay on the technical side isn’t too shabby and the work is incredibly engaging when you have a passion for user experience design. Some people have an overabundance of tech skills and don’t enjoy managing others—too much like herding cats. If you’re one of them, you’ll probably be happier spending your days heads down in UX projects, so the management track may not be for you.

On the other hand, if you get a kick out of formulating design processes and you’re a people person who loves working directly with clients, your happy place in the UX world might just be the corner office.

Questions or feedback? Email

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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