Are You Going Soft?

Posted by

When was the last time you read your resume?

Go ahead and give it a look. Read your last job description. It’s impressive, right? Chances are, you emphasize your accomplishments, your ability to create stunning deliverables, and your extensive knowledge of the user experience practice.

Now, think back to your last project. But, ignore the deliverables and design ideas. Forget the budgets and timelines. What are you left with? Aside from a handful of sharpies and post-its, you’re left with the daily conversations and experiences you had with your team. What were they? Did you have to persuade somebody to see your point of view? Was there frustration, misunderstanding, or even a heated argument? Or, did things just “click” and everybody worked in harmony right from the start?

Most of us never stop to wonder why certain projects flow effortlessly while others feel like we’ve entered into a cage match. The truth is that most of us ignore the very stuff that determines if our human interactions are a success or a failure. Most of us ignore soft skills.

What are soft skills?

Everybody has his or her own definition. Some people call them “social skills”; a popular movie scene shows a man humorously screaming, “I’ve got people skills!” at his interviewer, and there are countless books on the subject. I define soft skills as the interpersonal abilities and sensibilities we gain during our journey from children into social adults.

Whatever label you prefer, taking a look at what soft skills are and how you apply them can have a huge impact on your work performance. This holds especially true for us in the UX field where we constantly strive to redefine boundaries, achieve consensus, and persuade others to see our point of view. The road isn’t always smooth, or even paved, and it’s our soft skills that will get us to our destination.

Soft skills applied

Let’s look at three scenarios where soft skills are put to the test. Whether these scenarios are familiar to you or not, ask yourself what you would do in each situation. Ask yourself how you would apply your soft skills and what result they might achieve.

Scenario 1: You say tomato, I say UX.

It’s 12:10PM, and the rumble in your stomach confirms that it is indeed lunchtime. Instead of waiting for your favorite noodle dish to be served, you are waiting in the conference room wishing your pencil were an appetizer.

Finally, the door bursts open and Don, the marketing manager, enters the room. “Hey sorry to keep you waiting! I was chatting with Susan about my landing page, and she was saying how busy you guys are! Thanks for taking the time to meet with me about this UI stuff.”

Did he really say “UI”? Okay, it’s an honest mistake. You decide to return the smile and politely respond, “It’s actually user experience, or UX. There’s a separate group handling UI design.”

He pauses a beat and shrugs his shoulders, “Hey – UX, UI, it’s all the same, right? Now, I was thinking about my landing page design last night and I made some sketches. I know you are probably a wizard at Photoshop, so try not to laugh…”

What would you do?

Option 1: Put him in his place.

You respond, “First of all, UX is not the same as UI. I design experiences, not just interfaces. Secondly, there’s a lot of thinking that goes into it that you are unaware of. I start with something called discovery…”

Outcome: You may have succeeded in educating him on what you do, but you did it in such a way as to leave him few options but to be offended or embarrassed. Regardless of what he says next, Don won’t be coming back to you with the same openness and enthusiasm as he did today. Chances are, he might be asking your boss for somebody else who is “easier to work with.”

Option 2: Respect and be respected.

You smile and say, “Don, you know how your job as the marketing manager involves creating these great strategy plans for the year and outlining each campaign to make sure it aligns with a goal? Well, user experience is similar in that we look at the objectives for a project and strategize on how best to design the system to match those needs. UX…”

Outcome: You’ve avoided bruising Don’s ego by sidestepping the fact he doesn’t know what UX is. You show respect by stating the value of his role and you speak his language by drawing parallels with your own. By pivoting from a head-on posture to side-by-side, you have a much better chance of him accepting what you have to say and forming a new partnership.

Scenario 2: I don’t buy it.

It’s Wednesday morning and you’re ready to present your wireframes. You flip through your presentation even though you know it like the back of your hand. Your diagrams are polished, but not too high fidelity. Your annotations are thorough but concise enough to be digestible. You’ve memorized the talking points and are anxious to present the design to the entire team.

You begin smoothly enough by thanking people for their time and quickly settle into your regular cadence. The butterflies in your stomach perk up as you talk about the ever-contentious homepage redesign. People begin to nod in agreement with your strategy and you sigh in relief since the hard part is nearly over. You pick up the pace and mention the new slider design and how it can handle multiple business priorities. Suddenly, you notice a frown on the CEO’s face and your throat dries like a towel. Here it comes.

“I don’t like sliders. Get rid of them,” says the CEO.

Just like that, your presentation grinds to a halt and all eyes are on you. Even the butterflies want to know what you’ll say next.

Option 1: Dig in.

You fold your arms and say, “Well, I think the slider is the best way to go.”

Outcome: Besides the soundtrack from a spaghetti western, this head-to-head approach yields both a winner and loser. And since it’s the CEO you’re facing, the end credits will reveal you were the latter. You want to avoid win-lose scenarios as much as possible because not only will they undermine somebody’s credibility, they promote a culture that values strength over merit.

Option 2: Just the facts.

You adjust your glasses and respond, “Well, I did try different options but this one seems to be the best fit for our users. People are accustomed to using sliders in our other app and analytics shows they actually look at all of the messages before exploring.”

Outcome: The best way to deal with emotional arguments is by sidestepping the emotion. You can’t rationalize somebody out of a personal design preference. So, defer to the facts of the design. Make it about the users and business goals, not you. You are not your design.

Option 3: Turn the critic into the collaborator.

You nod and reply, “Yeah, the slider is a tricky element on this page. I explored a lot of other options but I’m open to new ideas. Let me walk you through my thinking and maybe you will see something I didn’t.”

Outcome: It’s far easier to criticize a design than it is to create a solution. Engaging people in the design process will let you be seen as a person who wants to make the work great, not someone who craves credit for every decision. Plus, by drafting critics into becoming problem solvers, you minimize on the amount of unconstructive noise without risking confrontation.

Scenario 3: There’s a storm brewing and it’s going to be a doozy.

“I don’t care about rational arguments and I don’t want to talk analytics. I don’t care what you say. I want it designed this way and that’s the way it’s going to be!”

I couldn’t believe I heard these very words during an internal design review. What started out as a simple discussion quickly escalated into a heated debate. Well, only one of us was heated, but we were clearly both debating. Unfortunately for me, he was the project owner.

Conflict is inevitable. People go to war, they fight in court, and there are small disagreements between people all the time. When faced with conflict, think about your options. There’s more than the fight-or-flight response.

Here are your options when dealing with conflict:

  1. Flight. Someone might be having a bad day and are looking for a confrontation. If you think it’s best to avoid it altogether, do so. There is no shame in knowing when to pick your battles.
  2. Fight. If you think you are in the right and don’t mind making it clear that you are to be the winner and they are to be the loser of an argument, fighting for your position is what you want to do. Just be mindful of the potential repercussions.
  3. Give in. When push comes to shove and you don’t have a solid position, you will falter. Giving in is one way to quickly end a conflict and please the other party.
  4. Ask for help. Some situations are too difficult to face ourselves, so we call in somebody bigger and stronger to do it for us. That’s how it works on the playground anyway. In the office, we can call on our boss to handle things beyond our capability.
  5. Compromise. While it sounds like a good thing that a mutual agreement has been reached, compromise is never satisfying. Neither party gets what they truly want. And, the compromise looks a bit like design-by-committee, which always looks ugly to everybody not on the committee.
  6. Consensus. This is the holy grail of conflict resolution. You work through the material and everybody agrees the solution is a “win.”

Reading these scenarios and carefully choosing your option is a bit like living with telepathic abilities. Many times, we make choices in the heat of the moment based on our emotions, our instincts, or honestly the need to be “right.” I suggest we take a page from our own design playbook and first begin with exercising empathy. Even when you don’t know the “right” answer, thinking about what the other person is experiencing will make it far easier for you to decide how to react and have the best outcome.

What about you?

As your resume grows and you travel further down your career path, your may find yourself relying on your soft skills more and more. I’m of the mind that one’s work is never finished. In practice, there is no perfect. And, even the smoothest and most charismatic of us can use a little work. Here are three steps to getting on the path to improving your soft skills.

Step 1: List your work activities that require soft skills. For example, let’s say your list includes “Give presentations.”

Now, imagine the best presentation you’ve ever seen. Maybe it was watching a Ted Talk, your CEO, or even a colleague who works in the next office. We’ll define that performance a “10.” Now, list what skill level you think you need in order to do your job well and be satisfied.

Soft Skill Activities Required Skill Level (1-10)
Give presentations 8

Step 2: Write down your current skill level in another column. This takes some honest self-reflection. And remember, cheating only hurts the cheater. Unless you are delusional, in which case, I say go for it.

In this example, maybe you feel nervous and freeze up during presentations. Or maybe you lack the ability to go “off script” and exude the confidence and charisma you saw in your CEO. But, you still get your point across and nobody really complains. So, you think you’re about a “5.”

Soft Skill Activities Required Skill Level (1-10) Current Skill Level
Give presentations 8 5

Step 3: You knew the gap analysis was coming up next, right? Well, calculate the gap between what you need to be at and your current skill level.

Soft Skill Activities Required Skill Level (1-10) Current Skill Level Gap
Give presentations 8 5 3

What do we do when we see a gap? No, we don’t go shopping. We bridge it. Here are the bricks:

Make a Plan to Better Presentations

  • Brainstorm and talk to colleagues on how they honed their skills.
  • Look for speaking opportunities and practice religiously.
  • Join Toastmasters and refine your speeches along with your listening skills.
  • Try an improv class to boost charisma and trust in yourself.

Whatever the soft skill you are looking to improve, don’t forget it takes both learning and practice. Be creative and most important, approach soft skill development with the same tenacity you do with the hard skills we hone everyday.

Level up

Developing your soft skills will yield improvements both in yourself and your relationships with others. Contentious meetings will run smoother, your opinions will be heard (and valued) more often, and you will win the employee of the month award. Okay, the award might be a stretch, but others will recognize you for your ability to handle difficult situations and influence outcomes. And best of all, you will be doing it in a way that feels natural.

Take a look at your resume again. What is the next job description you will be writing? For many of us, the UX path can wind from practitioner to leader. The transition can happen slowly, but as your responsibilities and leadership duties grow, so will your reliance on the soft skills you have developed.

Soft skills are the leader’s hard skills.


  1. Thanks for the great article, Kevin! I have very much noticed these interactions you describe, and especially appreciate the way you break out the different reactions and scenarios.

  2. UX is not for the submissive, the coward or the meek. If you have a solid point and you know it. The Marketing Manager, the CEO or whoever will have to take the hit. If they don’t know better what UX is or their “taste” is contrary to some decision you have pondered and taken with years of knowledge and experience in mind, it is THEIR fault to be ignorant or arrogant, not yours, and they should not be in their respective positions.
    If you keep your integrity and end up at the wrong end of the bargain so be it. Dumb and ignorant organizations don’t deserve you anyway. Let them rot in their ignorance and move to somewhere where you can be appreciated without having to kiss some undeserving backside.

    Whoever advise you to do the contrary don’t have enough confidence in their talent to stand up for their work.

Comments are closed.