The other day, Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering (whom, I must mention, I admire and read often) posted an article entitled “Five Indispensable Skills for UX Mastery”. The five skills he named were sketching, storytelling, facilitating, critiquing, presenting and facilitating. While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Spool’s list, I was slightly disappointed by the lack of concrete “now go out and learn’em, here’s how” advice in the article. His urgings of practice at every skill are absolutely valid, but it would have been nice to have called out a couple of resources for each. Still, Spool’s article is Spool’s article, so instead of whining idly, I decided to put together a small set of such resources that I’ve encountered and made use of myself. Here it is, categorized by skill and ordered in the same way as the original article:

1) Learning the Indispensable Skill of Sketching

  1. “Sketching User Experiences” by Bill Buxton: having finally made my way through 60% of the book, I can say with conviction – this ain’t no easy readin’. Also, most of it isn’t actually techniques for doing the sketching; it’s mostly talking about doing the sketching. (Warning: tangent! In a way this book exemplifies Microsoft to me as an outsider observing the company –Buxton is so incredibly smart and chock-full of deep knowledge on the subject that, in an effort to good-naturedly share everything he possibly can, he loses the audience that cannot read diagonally. This is analogous to the large amount of features that are surfaced to the user immediately in most Microsoft products, because, obviously, they’re all extremely useful – neither “creator” really seems to care much for the 80/20 rule.) Still, this book does a fantastic job of level-setting and defining sketching and its importance, and provides good techniques for incorporating sketching into your workflow.
  2. Get a good set of tools: a few good kits have already been proposed by folks like Jason Robb over at UX Booth and Leah Buley at Adaptive Path. The only thing I’d add is that I’ve found myself wanting to expand the colour choices, so I got a set of pastel Tombow dual brush-pens, like the ones Jason recommends in his article. Actually, one other thing: I’m noticing that I’m not appreciating the warm yellowish tint of the Moleskines as it tends to distort the colours I’m trying to put on, so I may need to find a different notebook with the same quality of paper and binding – recommendations welcome.
  3. Take some classes: sometimes, I get really intimidated by that blank sheet staring back at me. Taking classes (in my case, Fashion Sketching and, currently, a 4-day “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” workshop) has really helped me overcome that barrier – if I’m instructed to draw, I feel much more encouraged and prolific than I would without any kind of guidance. Of course, the critique of a professional artist is also crucial to get you out of a corner you’ve drawn yourself into. I’ve often found myself giving up when an aspect of a sketch wasn’t working out and I couldn’t figure out why – that’s where the pro can help you get unstuck.

2) Learning the Indispensable Skill of Storytelling

  1. “Jokes for All Occasions”: this free eBook has recently showed up on my radar, so I’ve downloaded it into iBooks on my iPhone and haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet. Allegedly, it’s a good guide to having a punch line and getting there properly. Which, coincidentally…
  2. … is my only other piece of advice here: when telling a UX story, for Pete’s sake, have a point. It’s very easy for me to dissolve into details of a persona or get stuck on minutiae and completely forget where I was taking my stakeholders – so try to have at least a bullet point list of concrete points that you definitely have to make for your story to make any sense. This is also probably the best way to come back from a tangent (note to self: use it!).

3) Learning the Indispensable Skill of Critiquing

  1. “Sketching User Experiences” (again): in the bits that I have finished reading, Buxton spends a bit of time talking about the Design Critique. His main points, paraphrased:
    1. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition: the critique is not a tribal council where the designer whose ideas aren’t chosen is voted off the island. The point is to skim off the cream, dump the rest and iterate.
    2. Do it often, with different people: make the design critique a weekly or bi-weekly practice, involving as many stakeholders as you can find. Don’t worry about fostering design by committee, but rather think of it as growing acceptance and shared ownership of the designs. Besides, if your stakeholders trust you to do your job, they are unlikely to make asinine requests just to make sure they had some say (but, if all signs point to that, do the duck).
    3. Make sure that everyone understands what this exercise is for: a lot of disciplines (software development, for one) simply don’t have a particularly widely-spread practice of such critiques – people tend to code-hero a lot of things, so level-set the review with expectations for participants.
    4. Lastly, it’s always “better to have your preliminary work critiqued by your colleagues […] than to have the finished project torn apart by strangers in public” (“Sketching User Experiences” , p. 202). So, swallow that ego and do the crit!

4) Learning the Indispensable Skill of Presenting

  1. Do a workshop: I had the pleasure of taking a 2-day course with Neil Grammer of Dialogue Strategies back in my Extreme Blue days, and, I must say, it’s made presenting a lot easier. The aforementioned “bulleted list of main points” was one of the key concepts I took away from this training, plus, of course, the ever-popular “tell’em what you’re gonna tell’em, tell’em, then tell’em what you told them” strategy (in slide titles, “Outline/Agenda”, content slides following the proposed outline, then “Summary”).
  2. Practice: yeah, Jared’s got me there. There’s nothing that’s going to make you better at presenting than actually presenting. If you’re struggling to find opportunities at work, join a Toastmasters club in your area, practice in front of loved ones (don’t worry, they’ll still love you) or present to your own lovely reflection.
  3. Go with it: the other thing to note is that the nervousness I (as well as some others that I’ve shared this observation with) feel before doing a presentation usually lasts a minute or two into the actual talking part. If you just ride out the “fight or flight” instinct, it gets much easier immediately after.

5) Learning the Indispensable Skill of Facilitating

  1. Shut up and listen: as an extrovert, I have a lot of trouble leaving the air clear long enough for people to voice their opinions. Seriously, silence is golden – some folks just need a bit more time to process things that you’ve said, so let them get to it. Who knows, they may be the most insightful of the bunch since they’ve actually taken a bit of time to think.
  2. Call’em out: if you know you have a few more timid or, worse, distracted stakeholders in a meeting, don’t hesitate to ask them for their opinions directly. Sometimes, it’s hard for people to get a word in edgewise when a stakeholder gathering is dominated by A-type personalities – take the time to make sure everyone’s opinion has been heard.
  3. Stay impartial: it’s hard when you’re an internal UXer, since you clearly have your own opinions on particular designs, but it’s best when facilitating to try to remain objective. This removes the possibility of people feeling like their opinions are irrelevant and will be promptly ignored afterward.

As I already said, I think that these skills are spot-on and truly indispensable for UX professionals. I wonder only if Jared meant the numbers as a simple enumeration to convey that there were indeed five or as an order of some sort – for example, from most important to least. I would struggle to prioritize these skills one over another because it seems to me like each one would become important in specific phases of a project with UX involvement. Overall, all five are important, so all five need to be continuously improved on as we proceed towards mastery. I hope my list can help you do just that – and, of course, if you have other suggestions, they’re always welcome!