Would you be a good UX designer?

9 Jul 2019

Colman Walsh. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Entrepreneur Colman Walsh outlines the key traits of a UX designer, and why it’s a viable career path for the students of today.

Colman Walsh is the founder and CEO of the UX Design Institute (UXDI).

In 2013 Walsh founded UXTraining.com, a specialist provider of classroom-based user experience training. The firm delivers courses in cities and companies across Europe and North America.

Four years later, he established the UXDI, which has a broader remit to deliver in-depth UX education and certification. Its goal is to bridge the global skills gap in UX design and to provide a career pathway for UX designers.

‘UX involves a lot of empathy and a willingness to understand human behaviour, not dictate it’

Describe your role and what you do.

As the CEO I’m responsible for defining our strategy, managing our growth, and making sure the team are motivated and happy.

Our goal is to be the global leader in UX education and certification. There’s a huge shortage of skilled UX professionals throughout the tech industry. We’re filling that gap with high-quality education, helping our students get jobs and helping employers find qualified professionals.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I don’t think there’s a magic formula. Having a clear strategy is important. It clarifies what matters most to the business, and I try and spend the majority of my time working on those things.

Monthly board meetings keep me focused. And weekly team meetings help ensure we’re all maximising our time.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The online education market is crowded and the quality variable. Establishing credibility with students amongst all the noise is a key challenge. Students aren’t just buying a product. They’re investing in their futures and making a serious time commitment, so they’re right to be cautious.

We’ve worked hard to make the decision easier for them. On the educational side, our primary course, the professional diploma in UX design, is accredited by Glasgow Caledonian University. This is a huge differentiator. It offers students a guarantee of quality and also a globally recognised qualification when they graduate.

On the industry side, we have an industry advisory council of top tech firms, such as SAP, HubSpot, Intercom and Mastercard. The council gives us a direct link to industry, and its oversight helps ensure that the skills we’re developing are the skills employers actually need.

Both the university accreditation and the industry advisory council have helped us raise the standards of our course. And they also help establish our bona fides with students. People aren’t stupid. They can tell the difference in quality.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

We’re lucky to be operating in a high-growth sector. Demand for UX skills is growing in tandem with the massive growth in the tech industry. There’s a huge skills gap. And, while it’s a problem for the industry, it’s a big opportunity for us.

At the same time, there is a surge of interest in becoming a UX designer. People rightly see it as an opportunity to have an interesting career. It’s a fantastic mix of design, technology and psychology. Despite working at the cutting edge, many people in the tech industry aren’t fulfilled in their jobs. UX offers them a chance to do meaningful work, helping to make technology easy, accessible and benign.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I lived in San Francisco in the mid to late nineties. Working in tech was an obvious (if not the only) career choice. I had basic coding skills and a portfolio of freelance journalism work. I could write. That was enough to get me in the door in the nascent UX scene.

‘UX is as much about humans as it is about technology’

15 years later, back in Ireland, I had a lot of experience under my belt. The skills gap was apparent, so I started offering classroom-based training courses, which became and remain very popular. Those classroom courses were the genesis of the UX Design Institute, which launched in 2017.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Mistakes are just a fact of life and of business. I don’t dwell on them too much. If I don’t make the same mistake twice, then I’ve learned the appropriate lesson. 

How do you get the best out of your team?

Hiring the right people who can work together well is 95pc of the challenge. Then it’s about setting a clear strategy, letting them at it (for the most part) and communicating regularly. 

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

Everybody knows there’s a diversity problem in the technology industry. But within that, UX appears to be very diverse, particularly in terms of gender. Our students are split 50:50 between male and female. We don’t track ethnicity but, anecdotally, our students appear to reflect the ethnic diversity of the countries where they live.

One possible reason for the gender balance is that UX design is seen as the ‘softer’ side of tech and more accessible. UX is as much about humans as it is about technology. It involves a lot of empathy and a willingness to understand human behaviour, not dictate it. I’m not saying that men don’t have these skills but women probably have the upper hand.

Who is your role model and why?

Felix Dennis. He was a hugely successful British magazine publisher. In his later years he wrote poetry and planted a giant deciduous forest in the UK. Despite his success, he didn’t take himself very seriously. He enjoyed life and treated his employees and suppliers well.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Dennis wrote a great book about business: How to Get Rich. The title sounds crass but it’s meant to be ironic. It’s all about the pitfalls – mostly psychological – of starting and running your own business. It’s a joy to read, full of choice quotes from literature and very funny.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Our entire business runs on SaaS tools, so there are almost too many to mention. Two stand out:

  • Google’s G Suite is almost taken for granted, but it’s an incredible product that costs little
  • Xero is an accounting package that keeps all our management accounts in order and up to date

On a personal level, I have a small jotter with my to-do list on it. I’d be lost without it.

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