UX design professionals working together.
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Which soft skills can make or break a UX consultant?

26 Nov 2019

Curious about the world of UX consulting? We visited Each&Other to explore the ins and outs of pursuing a career in this field.

While the number of UX design jobs has jumped in Ireland in recent years, many people have been working hard in this growing field for some time.  

Among those is the team at Each&Other, a design firm founded five years ago that has since grown into a self-described ‘UX centre of excellence’. There are currently about 25 people working at the company – including two in its graduate programme – but it is on the lookout for new talent.  

We took a trip to the agency’s office on John Street West in Dublin and met one of its principal designers and directors, Ciarán Harris, and Emma McGrath, who joined the company just six months ago. 

Though they’re now working beneath the same roof, Harris and McGrath took very different paths to arrive in their roles. Harris initially studied engineering because “UX design wasn’t a thing” when he was in college, while McGrath felt she simply didn’t hold “the technical skills or enough knowledge to start applying for things” after earning her degree. 

Challenges and joys

So, now that they’re both embedded in the world of UX consulting, how do their days typically play out? 

It’s difficult to pin down an exact answer to that, given the evolving nature of project-dependent work in the world of consulting. “It’s totally varied. And that’s one of the challenges, but also one of the joys, of consulting,” Harris said.

‘You need to be almost like the three-year-old who keeps asking but why?

“Like, I never thought I’d be working with tyres, with financial regulation software, with food brands, with arenas and concerts, with the Government, with educators, publishers, all sorts of media, and lots of different software and hardware companies.” 

Ingredients for a successful UX team 

Working with such a colourful catalogue of industries isn’t without its challenges, so it’s crucial that a UX consulting team has the right mix of tools, team dynamics and ‘T-shaped people’ to get by. 

Those are people with, according to Harris, “a very broad set of skills, like the top of the T”, who hold deep knowledge in one particular field.  

“And when you work in our field for a few years, you almost end up being like a V-shaped person, because your T starts filling out,” he added. 

No matter which letter of the alphabet their skillset mirrors, Harris said it’s important for UX professionals to remember that their support for each other is what drives them to succeed in the face of “tight deadlines and pressure from clients”. It helps, he added, that Each&Other has “a really lovely, enjoyable atmosphere”.  

Teamwork is a big part of McGrath’s job satisfaction as well. “I like working with people and working as part of a team,” she said. “It’s not solitary work – you bounce off each other and get better ideas when working with others.” 

Who is UX consulting suited to? 

UX consultants certainly need technical aptitude, but Harris let us in on some of the other attributes that can really make someone stand out.  

“I think you need to be curious, for a start, almost like ‘annoying curious’. You need to be almost like the three-year-old who keeps asking ‘but why?’ 

“You need to be open-minded and have good problem-solving skills. That’s not just about finding a solution to the challenge, but actually understanding what the challenge is.  

“Quite often, people come to us with what they think is a problem, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. And when you dig deeper and you dig the right way, you uncover lots more interesting problems.” 

Creativity was also on his list, which is something fundamental for “designing around constraints and finding creative ways around what other people would consider roadblocks”. 

Additionally, something prioritised by Each&Other is transparency with clients, and so people skills are a must across the team.  

“We’re very much against the idea of going away and coming back two weeks later – we like to keep the clients really involved,” Harris explained.  

To make that transparency possible, “being empathetic” is a necessity. “You need to be able to understand people – you need to be a good listener, but you also need to be able to put a halt to conversations when they’re not going a constructive way,” he added.

The critical skills

As a newer recruit to this industry, McGrath took us through the most important technical skills for working in the field, which “mainly include Sketch” and “UXPin, which is an interesting tool for more interactive projects”. 

“I would have a little bit of knowledge about dev, which is quite useful, particularly when you’re giving recommendations – like I’d know if it’s going to be something that’s actually easy to do, and I’m not just throwing out suggestions for things that are actually really complicated. 

‘The last thing you want to do is go into a role that’s not what you thought it was’

But, like Harris, McGrath also reiterated the need for soft skills. People skills – interview skills – I think, are really important,” she said.  

Someone here did a workshop on interview skills in user testing  it’s about the way you ask questions, so that you don’t get a yes or no answer. It’s phrasing things to get people to tell you a little bit more, even if it’s just a feeling or a sentiment that they’re a little put off by something.” 

Harris noted that those interpersonal skills are what “makes or breaks a consultant”. 

“In consulting, you have to talk without fear to a CEO and to be able to present things that they do not want to hear – things they’ve been ignoring,” he added.

“You need the ability to be able to communicate effectively, you need the ability to align people. So yeah, communication skills are critical for what we do.” 

A man and woman are speaking in a casual modern office at UX consulting agency Each&Other.

Emma McGrath and Ciarán Harris at Each&Other in Dublin. Image: Each&Other

Asking for advice 

McGrath admitted that when she was taking her first steps into the professional UX world, it wasn’t always easy. She explained how she “struggled a bit” when looking for employment. “I felt like everything being advertised was for senior roles and there was a gap there – like, how did people get into it?” 

It was reaching out to people and asking for advice that helped her through and led her to look into agency work. 

“They said agencies would see much better the value in your work and the thinking behind it, whereas in bigger companies, they were maybe just looking for more senior people to come in and fix everything.  

“But that’s not really the role you’re looking for if you want to learn.” 

Words of wisdom 

For anyone hoping to break into a UX career, McGrath offered some insights based on her own experiences.  

She emphasised the value in doing your research on who does the best work and who they’re working with. “The last thing you want to do is go into a role that’s not what you thought it was  especially in UX design, which can be a broad term for different things.” 

McGrath also described the range of industry events that she invites her friends to. “They’re free and open to anyone, and they mean you can network. It’s an interesting and fun way to learn.” 

So, is UX consulting the right career path for you? Harris believes that “if you get a buzz out of the interaction between technology and people and business”, it just might be. 

“The more technical stuff, you can always learn,” he added. “It’s the attitude, the problem-solving and the mindset that you need to have. So, if you have that and you’re interested in UX design, then go for it.” 

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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