Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to lead a UX workshop at NYU Stern, my alma mater, where I graduated with an MBA in 2008. For many in the field of UX, it may seem curious as to why I’d be interested in exposing business school students to UX practices. As a UX designer and former business student myself, I’ve found that not only has my background in business given me an edge as I’ve advanced in my career–and I think the field in general can benefit from students with a background in business–but I also believe that understanding and applying the principles of UX to one’s own career can benefit all future leaders, in business and UX.
How can a business background benefit UX designers?
Strong UX designers are able to deliver great designs, conduct lean, thorough research, and are great at organizing information. But to be a successful UX leader requires more. Successful UX leaders are apt managers of people, strong presenters, talented storytellers, insightful users of data, and know how to sell their ideas. These skills are traditionally the domain of business schools and when in training, UX designers are seldom coached on any of them. As in most technical fields, UX designers are encouraged to be be heads down in their work and dedicated to their craft, but this mentality can only take them so far career-wise. UX designers seeking to advance to leadership roles must know how to lead people, with both direct and indirect authority, and must be gifted at selling their ideas.
What if I don’t have a background in business?
No matter where you are in your career as a UX designer, it’s never too late to try and grow your aptitude in these business-related skills. Though it’s true that some people are naturally stronger leaders and storytellers than others, I have personally witnessed talented designers work to improve their ability in these areas to become UX leaders. You can actually apply some of the same principles we use in UX to become a more business savvy designer with amazing leadership potential.
In doing so, I’d suggest following a lean UX methodology of a cycle of synthesis, prototyping and validating. What does this look like in practice? Let me run you through a scenario.
Identify the problem you want to solve and develop a hypothesis
Let’s say the problem that I want to solve is that when I’m in meetings with executive leaders–VPs, CEOs, investors, industry leaders, etc.–I become quiet and timid, unable to express my ideas and opinions with authority. My goal is to be better at holding my own in these situations. Figuring out how to do this on your own can be super daunting, so much so that for many of us we don’t even know where to start.
For me, I like to start by educating myself; I read books and articles, I watch movies and internet videos, and I start to observe and take note of the kinds of behaviors that I want to emulate. Once I have identified a few behaviors–making eye contact, smiling, stating my ideas succinctly–I start practicing them. While you might have opportunities in your job or in life to interact with these sorts of executives, it could be your one and only chance to prove yourself so best to not go into that kind of situation unprepared. I recommend keeping things low-stakes at first. Start by practicing in front of the mirror, or with your dog, or even with a trusted colleague or friend. Imagine yourself in different scenarios, and practice making the point you want to make out loud while testing out different techniques and behaviors. Practice until you get comfortable and hone your approach by anticipating different scenarios or reactions.
Once you have a clear hypothesis going, create a prototype of what you are trying to model
Now that you are comfortable explaining your ideas to your dog or colleague, you are ready for a prototype. I find that industry MeetUps can be a perfect fit for this. In NYC you can find tons of different kinds of MeetUps and events, from those where Start Up CEOs pitch to VCs and investors, to networking events where you can meet and talk with others in your industry without the pressure you might feel in an actual work situation. Think of these kinds of events as your sandbox. They are places where you can meet a variety of people similar to those you might encounter at work, but whom you can just practice speaking with without all the pressure.
Test and validate your prototype. Figure out what’s working and propose changes for the next iteration
Once you have identified your prototype, it’s time to start testing. I suggest going to different events and trying on different personas. Test out a slightly different approach with everyone in the room. Put the tactics you have been practicing in your kitchen to the test–making eye contact, smiling, maintaining good posture. These events provide a great, low-stakes proving ground where you can interact with the kinds of people you are targeting without any real implications on your career. Sometimes it’s helpful to bring a friend with you who can give you feedback, or make a point to evaluate yourself at the end of the event. Whatever you do, make time to figure out what is working, and what is not, so you can iterate and bring what you learn into real-life situations. What’s nice about MeetUps is you can run your prototypes as often as you like and get the feedback and practice you need to make future interactions count.
When working on your skills remember that you have all the resources that you need in your UX toolkit. You can tackle any problem like you do a design problem: by interviewing others for insight and then creating a hypothesis and a prototype and validating it.
Look for coming articles as I dive deeper into how to grow this other side of your skill set and take your UX career to the next level.