Design

Your skills aren’t enough anymore

4 min read
Patrick Stafford  •  Oct 16, 2018
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I once worked with a designer who didn’t want to see our client’s product.

It was such a strange thing to say that I didn’t quite understand him at first. We were in the middle of a strategy session deciding how to approach an online marketing flow when we suggested he jump in the product to see how it worked.

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“No,” he said. “I try not to use my client’s products. I want to stay fresh and give an objective perspective.”

Huh. OK?

It was a weird moment, but emblematic of a certain belief within the design and creative communities: The idea that because you have a certain set of skills, you’re insulated from learning unrelated disciplines that could enhance your output.

That’s just not the world we live in anymore. If you’re a creative, a producer—or anyone, really—you can’t get away with avoiding the realities of 21st-century work. Your skills are simply not enough on their own.

Does that mean I need to know everything?

No.

Let’s put this in context.

“Lifelong learning is now a strategy you need to employ if you hope to be successful in your career.”
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There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about lifelong learning: the idea that in the 21st-century economy, technology and the way we work changes so quickly that you’re never going to catch up. As a result, you constantly need to learn new things.

The ubiquity of tech in our lives means those skills are going to be STEM-related. It’s projected that demand for data scientists will increase 28% by 2020. Digital transformation projects at smaller businesses have increased demand for UX and other disciplines and will continue to do so.

In order to deliver value, you need to have a basic understanding of it all: data visualization, coding, the different platforms your tech sits on. At a recent education summit, Tim Cook said that the idea of going to college and then doing a job no longer exists. Lifelong learning is now a strategy you need to employ if you hope to be successful in your career.

But that doesn’t mean you need to be an expert at everything. Ever heard of the T-shaped skills model?

The idea is that your skills should resemble a capital T shape. Long and deep in one narrow area—that’s your speciality—but broad enough at the top so you can recognize and participate in dynamic conversations about things you don’t necessarily work on each day.

So if you’re a UX designer, that means you go deep on visuals, UI, and the like; but you also know a little bit of coding and a little bit of data visualization. You can have a conversation with ecommerce heads about key metrics.

Are you a producer? Great. Then alongside your product strategy skills, you should really get to know your company’s CMS and the production elements that come with pushing your tech or web experience live. (Some data wouldn’t hurt, either.)

Your new career is being a problem-solver

Let’s go back to Tim Cook.

He mentioned that everyone should learn to code. When pressed, he explained that “it is a language and it is everywhere in our life. It is problem-solving. You need critical thinking to know what is fake and what is real.”

Problem-solving. That’s the real truth of the matter. Learning to code is great, but it’s a means to an end. It’s a way to solve a problem, and that’s really what broadening your skill set should be about. How are you going to solve problems within your organization and for your clients?

The more tech we have, the more complicated business becomes, and the more problems we face. Skills like UX design and product strategy are now interconnected with a number of different “problems.” And the more ways you know how to solve problems, the better.

There’s another issue here: ubiquity.

Twenty years ago, the ability to code a web page meant you needed to know HTML and CSS pretty intimately; today, drag-and-drop platforms mean anyone can do it. There will always be a need for specialized skill sets, but the barrier to entry is lower, which means skills that were once groundbreaking are now expected.

This will happen with everything, by the way. Even creative pursuits like copy. Just look at what Alibaba is doing with its eCommerce AI function, or Google’s recent voice assistant feature.

The bottom line is that UX design and coding are still specialized pursuits, but the lower bar for entry means it’s going to take more to set yourself apart.Twitter Logo

“Skills like UX design and product strategy are now interconnected with a number of different “problems”.”
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What do you need to know to survive and thrive?

I get it. It seems overwhelming. But it’s really not, and for two reasons:

  1. You don’t need to become an expert in every single one of these disciplines. Even some basic-level practitioner knowledge will do.
  2. The number of available online resources is overwhelming.

Best of all, the resources are free. You don’t need to look far to find great courses provided by organizations like EdX, Coursera, General Assembly, and more. You could even shadow a colleague for a day. See what they do. Learn the ropes.

These skills are like languages. You don’t need to be fluent in all of them, but even knowing a few phrases can help get you around more efficiently.

Coding, but not in the way you think

Yes, sure, it’s helpful to learn some coding languages. But the real benefit of learning code if you’re not a coder is to understand what these languages can do—and what they can’t.

If you aren’t able to understand what SQL is and what it can do, then you may not know that product telemetry data can be fetched and displayed on your website as a marketing tactic. You might not know it takes three sprints to do what you think can be done in one. You might not adjust business expectations accordingly.

The real value of Javascript and CSS isn’t so you can take over a coder’s job; it’s so you can understand what they’re talking about, participate in the conversation, offer value, and act as a mediator between those dedicated developers and the rest of the business. That’s how you become valuable.

The ability to understand and visualize data

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat with an educated, intelligent analyst only to not understand a single word they say. And I wasn’t the only one.

Data is great and useful. What’s even more useful is being able to craft that data into a story and showcase the right information, at the right time, to the right people. Data visualization tools like Tableau are a fantastic way to do that, but unfortunately, not many people know how to use them.

Data offers a great way for creatives to show the rest of the business why certain decisions are being made, the impact those decisions will have, and the importance of acting quickly (or slowly) in specific situations. Data is a tool, and being able to translate that into narratives people understand is just as valuable.

Statistical analysis

With all that data, you’re going to have to understand what to do with it. The ability to look at figures, parse them, and make decisions means you need to understand at least basic probability and statistical analysis.

Imagine you’re a copywriter, and your producer is tackling these topics on their own. Wouldn’t you be seen as more valuable if you were able to contribute, even if you’re only offering a tidbit here and there? It’s better than nothing, and it’ll increase your appeal over other copywriters who can’t bring that same insight.

The ability to understand (and map) bots

Whether it’s a text bot or a complex web of AI-powered tools that create a voice assistant call, your ability to understand these types of tools is crucial to success. Just look at the statistics: IBM thinks 85% of customer service interactions will be with non-human agents by 2020.

These tools aren’t just going to impact how you buy shoes online. They’re going to play a major part in the future of business. Understanding what works, what doesn’t, and how to maximize customer satisfaction within these systems is paramount.

“It’s simply not enough to be a good creative. You need to understand how the work you do translates to your business goals.”
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This is complex problem solving and logic mapping. The more you know, the better.

Detailed knowledge of how your business works

It’s simply not enough to be a good creative. You need to understand how the work you do translates to your business goals.

Think beyond your KPIs. Think about your producers, your department heads, and even your CEO. What do they owe the board, shareholders, or others? Where is the company going as a whole?

Connect with product owners and developers in other parts of the business. See what’s coming down the runway. Think carefully about how the work you do fits into the larger strategy of the business, and start suggesting projects that will facilitate that. Work closely with others to bring those projects to reality, and convince your producers to help you (persuasion is another must-have skill).

You’re better than good enough

Look: If you’re really good at your job, you’re going to have a good career. In many ways, your work does really still speak for itself.

But if you want to really thrive—and make a name for yourself in the industry—learning as many relevant skills as you can will put you a cut above the rest.