Improving Your Soft Skills: A Design Problem to Solve

Design Leader Laura Martin shares 6 soft skills for navigating one of the most important design problems you may face: your development.

Laura Martin spent the past 16 years of her design career leading UX design teams across all phases of the UX design process. She has unlocked a great way to improve your life. One way Laura has done this is by prioritizing growing soft skills in tandem with hard skills. Laura explains that it’s the “soft skills that elevate the quality of your work and pave out opportunities for your future”. She specifically mentions 6 soft skills below you can work on that can help you develop your design skills.

1. Seek Mentorship

Even if you already have an idea for success as a designer, what’s your plan for how you’re going to get there? There are so many brilliant minds in the design industry who are living dreams similar to what you aspire for yourself. Laura has benefitted from establishing mentors in various design disciplines; including design, writing, and research. “You can find them at in-person and online events, by asking your colleagues to introduce you, asking peers you admire, or joining in-person or virtual communities,” she explains. The best part is that mentors can last as long as you need to; perhaps as long as your career, if the partnership is right. Mentorship can also be a great “inside take” on the real talk that happens in the industry.

2. Think Future Tense

If you wrote out your future like it was a grand debut press release that you would read in a newspaper or magazine; what would it look like not just tomorrow, but in 6 months, a year? Several years?

Laura’s challenge is to “write your goals for yourself like you’ve already achieved them”. Amazon has a process called ‘Working backwards’, which is where the vision of a customer experience manifests in a written document in the form of a press release where product teams describe the experience they want to create for customers and understand what that experience can be in the future.

Take this strategy into your own plans for your journey as a designer; imagining what you want to achieve with your skills and success. Laura explains that whether it's a designer at a tech company, a researcher at a sustainability nonprofit, or perhaps even a design strategist at an early stage startup; “working backwards from where you want to be allows you to determine the milestones that you need to complete in order to get there”. Laura's press release has changed over the years, but she continues to adapt and refine it based on new discoveries she learns and curiosities she has.

3. Embrace the Business Side

Designers have a goal of creating the best user experience for their customers. Laura explained that sometimes in the UX industry, “the stakeholders we engage with don't really know what we do, so they don't make the strong connection between what they want to achieve as a business and what we do as designers”. When this happens, sometimes we try to communicate with stakeholders through the design artifacts and languages we use; but this doesn't always effectively compel them. We can be much more persuasive when we learn how to speak their language. For example, when you show that the design flow you’ve created helps others meet their goal; that clarifies to the business what value design provides, and future partnerships can emerge.

4. Raise Your Emotional Intelligence

Your level of emotional intelligence correlates with your ability to communicate with others and manage your emotions effectively. Laura has observed that leaders with high emotional intelligence can motivate their teams and communicate compellingly with leadership to get projects over the business line. One leader from her past who excelled in EQ had a knack for diffusing conflicts; often sharing nicely timed jokes to defuse tension in the room. She said that many designers are naturally empathetic, especially because that’s an important characteristic of quality design. When you empathize with others, you're naturally more open-minded, so they want to be more open-minded with you in return and that gives you the opportunity to share your ideas. The more time you put into developing your EQ, the easier it is to communicate effectively, empathize with others, and recognize your own strengths and areas you can improve.

5. Leverage Your Skills and Interests

The design industry encompasses people with unique backgrounds. Laura recalls friends who started their design journeys coming from psychology, illustration, and music backgrounds. One designer had a research background with children and he shared that it surprised him that he landed a role within the tech design space. This made perfect sense to Laura, however; she believes it was his niche background that made him stand out from researchers who had a background in interviewing adults and helped him land the job. His unique skills applied to the UX industry and gave him an edge in the interview process. Laura advises designers to consider “your own abilities that you have in areas outside of UX and how you can apply those into the UX discipline as you continue on your career.” Find a domain that you enjoy and learn about it - there are so many abstract skills you can take from your personal interests and apply to your design work.

6. Reflect and Refine

Just as design constantly iterates, so should the way develop ourselves as we gain experience. Remember the press release we referenced above? Take the time to review that press release on a regular bases and see if it still resonates. Laura has pivoted multiple times throughout her design journey from individual contributor design roles, into program management leadership positions, and then back into a leadership role in the UX space. She recommends circling back to your personal PR a couple times a year and considering taking time to review it with the mentors you’ve gained along the way to see how you’ve grown and how your interests have changed.

To Sum It All Up...

Explore as much about design as possible to understand the problem space. Use that research to guide you toward what you want to focus on. Focus on developing the hard skills that are required to become a brilliant designer, but also take time to develop the soft skills above as well! Think about how you want to grow yourself, who you want to learn from along the way, and learn how to connect with other business goals throughout your journey.