20 June 2018
Carla Huls
Carla Huls

Five essential soft skills of the agile UX designer

Today, UX designers need more than just design knowledge, skills and tools to make innovation processes in large organizations successful. In this paper, I will sketch five essential soft skills of a successful UX designer: empathy, responsibility, flexibility, team player and guts.

The majority of large organisations have embraced the agile/scrum approach. This approach does not explicitly take into account UX design activities. In practice this means that the role of the UX designer differs per agile team. For example, the designer can be a scrum team member, act as a consultant or prepare the design prior to a sprint.

UX designers need an agile mindset in order to ensure their design expertise has the desired outcome.

At Informaat, all designers bring in their experiences from client projects and combine them into a number of practical ‘UX design & Agile tools’. One of our findings is that today’s successful UX designer has five soft skills: empathy, responsibility, flexibility, team player and guts.

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Immerse yourself in the world of the user, team members and stakeholders.

What does it mean?

The empathic agile UX designer has a strong urge to understand how the user thinks, feels, lives and works. He places himself in the user’s position to fully understand him and applies his gained insights to create excellent designs.

What makes it challenging?

When a team experiences great time pressure, empathy is often considered a luxury. ‘No time to waste’. If UX work is seen as ‘working out screens’, it may well happen that contact with users is skipped. ‘Interviews, user testing? Didn’t the business already take care of this?

It can also be difficult to convince dominant stakeholders who emphasize on other aspects than UX (‘more conversion!’) and thus fail to give attention to the underlying rationale.

What will work?

The agile UX designer organizes user research and asks in-depth questions to get a better understanding of the user. Not only: ‘Does the user easily accomplish this task with this solution? “But also: “What is the goal of the user when carrying out this task?” He applies a variety of research methods to get a clear picture of implicit dreams, desires and expectations. He will ask the user to keep a diary or carry out a creative assignment. He will create an empathy or context map.


Go for it and create UX awareness.

What does it mean?

The agile UX designer takes UX seriously. He feels responsible to create the best user experience and perseveres, even in difficult circumstances. He knows it is best to follow a user-centered design approach for the best UX and knows how to motivate people and how to motivate and involve people. He convinces the team and the stakeholders with arguments, examples and visualizations.

What makes it challenging?

It is particularly challenging when the UX maturity of the organization is low and the team and/or stakeholders see UX designers as the ones that make nice visualizations. If that is the case than there is a mismatch between the responsibility the UX designer feels for the user experience and the responsibility that the organization and/or team requires of him.

If the UX designer works for several teams, it can also be difficult to be sufficiently involved and take the responsibility for each team.

What will work?

An agile UX designer continues to pursue an increase of UX awareness, using good examples, design meetings, design wall, and presentations to demonstrate the added value of UX design. Using his powerful visualization skills he draws solutions; not only of his designs but also of processes, concepts and methods. He shares his solutions ‘on the wall’ with others and maps out the dependencies between UX design and other disciplines.

He takes responsibility to organize user input at regular intervals, for example by including user tests in the Definition of Done or organizing a fixed pool of test participants who are available for testing during each sprint.


Select the method and tools that best fit your team.

What does it mean?

The agile UX designer masters multiple methods to create a good design. He can easily switch and choose the method that suits the situation. He is result-oriented and keeps the ‘higher’ goal in mind. He fully understands what ‘agile’ work really means, knows the rituals, and is capable to implement typical design practices in an agile setting.

What makes it challenging?

Organizations with a low agile maturity are sometimes tempted to work according to the rules while forgetting the real purpose of the agile process. In such a case there is resentment towards solutions that might go against the rules but could be more effective.

What will work?

The agile UX’er can switch between different methods: Is a fully defined persona really needed in this situation, or will a more concise profile suffice for now? Is a hi-fi prototype needed for the user test or will a paper prototype do the trick? Are user insights required?

If so, the designer can choose between a light-weight, mid-weight or heavy-weight approach. If circumstances only allow for a light-weight approach, then a workshop may be the best way to jointly develop a target group description. When the time is ripe to gather or verify deeper insights the designer can schedule interviews in a subsequent sprint and draw up personas.

A flexible UX employee does not unnecessarily hold on to his own designs. He is able to discard his ideas and start all over again. He has an unwavering passion to look for improvements, but also knows when to abandon his urge for perfection.


UX cannot be designed on your own.

What does it mean?

A good user experience is obtained through effective collaboration and mutual respect. The UX designer primarily acts in the interest of the end user, but also has an eye for the common interest and respects the expertise and input of others.

What makes it challenging?

Organizations with limited knowledge and experience with respect to design thinking, may be tempted to believe that the designer can create an excellent user experience all by himself. The desire of the UX designer to improve the experience together with the entire team is not understood by the organization and the UX designer feels he is alone in his mission.

What will work?

The agile UX designer develops personal relationships inside and outside the scrum team and maintains them well. He is easily approachable, listens to the perspectives of others and always clarifies design decisions in clear language. During meetings he always pays attention to what colleagues have done well and regularly compliments them. In this way he builds trust and connects UX goals, interests of stakeholders and challenges of other members in his scrum team.

He works with his team members by joining them in the workplace, participates in scrum rituals and makes UX tasks visible on the scrum board.


Stick out your neck and dare to make mistakes.

What does it mean?

The agile UX designer dares to take ‘risky’ decisions where necessary in his designs. Think for example of design solutions that are not yet common practice, solutions that require more realization time or decisions that challenge the guiding principles.

What makes it challenging?

In politically sensitive situations with many stakeholders, with a lot of financial impact and a lot of time pressure it can be difficult to break away from the group and propose a different direction. It is more tempting to follow the familiar route.

An environment where the UX designer is held ‘accountable’ for the results of the user test, may result in a cautious designer who restrains himself from proposing new ideas.

What will work?

The agile UX designer does not always follow the familiar standards of the style guide. He dares to make mistakes, to learn and to ask for feedback. He thinks in terms of possibilities rather than problems and convinces others with his enthusiasm.

He does not see user tests as an indispensable stage gate, but as an opportunity to produce better designs.

He enthusiastically dares to use the latest trends and techniques.

To dare = To do

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So … is your team agile-minded already?

Do you want a successful UX team that is able to realize convincing user experiences faster and easier? If so, make sure your UX designers show empathy, take responsibility, are flexible and perform as team players with guts.

Reflect on the performance of your team with honesty. How can you improve? What can one learn from each other? The better UX people perform in an agile setting function, the greater the impact they have with UX design in the world around them.

Do you see more characteristic features of a successful UX designer? Let me know.

About the author

Carla Huls (/carla-huls) is a UX lead and service designer. She has over twenty years of experience in managing and guiding design teams. She works for large and small companies who have the ambition to increase the level of customer experience. Her main driver is to improve collaboration between people in order create excellent experiences of (digital) services.

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