In the era of cross-functional agile teams, it’s also critical for individual contributors to develop a solid cross-functional skillset. Cross-functional UX designers are often referred to as T-shaped product designers.
Let’s look at who they are and how to become one.
- Who’s a T-Shaped UX designer?
- Why is it important for UX designers to be T-shaped?
- Examples of wing skills to become a T-shaped UX designer
- Focusing on depth vs. breadth
Who’s a T-shaped UX designer?
A T-shaped product designer is someone who, apart from their core UX expertise, also develops a solid grasp of other adjacent areas. We often call these areas wing skills or wing disciplines.
As a UX designer, your core skills and expertise constitutes skills such as:
- UX research
- UI design
The wing skills are ones that, although not part of your core specialty, are worth developing to help you deliver more value to the product and grow your career even further. It can range from technical expertise to excellent presentation skills.
Why is it essential for UX designers to be T-shaped?
First of all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being an I-shaped specialist. There are very successful UX designers out there who specialize in a small niche, such as UX writing or typography.
However, there are great benefits to working on your wing skills:
Helps you apply your core skills more effectively
The more you understand various areas adjacent to your core expertise, the easier it becomes to understand the bigger context of things and, as a result, apply your in-depth knowledge to create optimal solutions.
Makes you a more versatile contributor
The biggest risk of specializing in one area is fluctuating demand. There might be a period when markets are saturated with people with similar skill sets, or the demand might drop (for example, due to the AI revolution).
Also, many companies simply can’t afford to have specialized individuals. Instead, they expect people to contribute to a few areas simultaneously.
Having a more comprehensive skillset helps you both become more hireable by smaller companies and stay valuable even if demand for your core skills drops.
Allows you to explore interests
If you focus purely on your area of expertise, you make the bet that it’s the best thing for you out there. But who knows, maybe other areas are even a better fit for your personality and style of work?
Exploring different wing skills increases the chance for a career breakthrough and adds a dose of novelty to your professional growth rather than repetitively honing the same skills.
Examples of wing skills to become a T-shaped UX designer
Let’s look at a few examples of wing skills that can help you become a T-shaped UX designer.
By developing a broader understanding of your product, that is, which use cases it is solving; how it fulfills these use cases compared to alternatives; and what the long-term vision is for the product, you’ll be able to design solutions that are not only pretty and user-friendly but also business-focused. This will greatly impact the upper management’s perceived value of your work.
It’ll also allow you to recommend better solutions and have a greater impact on the company’s success, further accelerating your career success.
Making data-informed decisions will never hurt.
You don’t necessarily have to master SQL or complex data analysis formulas. Learning self-serve tools such as LogRocket or Amplitude is more than enough.
By understanding the quantitative side of things, you’ll be able to recommend solutions that are backed by data and not only intuition. You’ll also be able to qualitatively validate your hypotheses rather than relying on qualitative signals only.
Moreover, quantitative analysis can often yield insights that would be hard to capture otherwise.
Positioning is all about how you market, brand, and communicate your product and solutions.
Understand how users perceive your product:
- How do they refer to your product?
- What do they consider as an alternative to your product?
- To which bucket do they put it? (Is it an email? Collaboration app? To-do list?)
If you understand user perception, you’ll be able to improve product communication to reinforce the positioning that best fits the product.
It’ll also bring your understanding of your users and competitive marketplace to the next level.
After all, to win your users, you need to not only perfect UX but also nail the market category you play in.
Design operations (DesignOps)
The effectiveness of your design relies strongly on the efficiency of your process.
Design operation is a discipline that aims to improve that efficiency, by, among others:
- Implementing right processes
- Automating tedious task
- Building knowledge-exchange culture
- Cultivating a healthy in-house design community
With a solid understanding of DesignOps, you can improve your workflows and efficiency and then scale it to the whole team and company. Everyone appreciates people that help others around them work more efficiently.
Communication and collaboration
Although communication and collaboration are already on everyone’s CV, there’s more to it than just being capable of working in a team.
Strong communication and collaboration skills include your ability to efficiently work with various stakeholders; the effectiveness of your pitches; your conflict-solving abilities; and the way you escalate and solve challenging issues.
Mastering skills such as pitching, negotiation, communication frameworks, and conflict resolution will make you a great asset to any team. They will also allow you to push your ideas through your company’s political landscape.
You don’t have to have a managerial title to become a great leader. Team leadership is about helping others grow and ensuring the whole team stays on track during turbulent times.
By improving your charisma and people skills, you can become an informal leader even without a promotion.
That leads to greater influence, better collaboration, and even more growth for you — the more you help the team grow, the more you reinforce your one learnings.
Focusing on depth vs. breadth
Now that we explored who a T-shaped UX designer is and which wing skills might be worth exploring, one question remains: when to focus on depth, and when to focus on breadth?
While there’s no perfect answer to that question, and it heavily depends on your current circumstances and context, I recommend focusing your efforts on your current UX design seniority.
0–2 years of experience
If you are fairly early in your UX design career, focus on depth.
You need to have strong baseline expertise for wing skills to make sense. Also, early in your career, most people won’t expect you to be a jack of all trades just yet. Focus on the job you were specifically hired for and develop solid skills that’ll be the base of your career growth.
2–4 years of experience
After roughly two years, you probably have developed a solid skillset in core UX design work. You are no longer a newly hired “junior.” You can work independently without supervision, and people start expecting more from you than delivering well-scoped deliverables.
At this point, focus on breadth. Wing skills will be essential on your journey to seniority, and some novelty will be refreshing after two years of mastering your core discipline.
If all goes well, you should have a solid, T-shaped skillset after four years in the industry. There’s even a chance you are wearing a senior title already.
The next step would be to move into a so-called M-shaped specialist. It’s a person that’s not only T-shaped but also possesses a solid specialty in multiple areas.
While progressing toward a T-shaped UX designer, you’ve probably figured out which wing skills were the most valuable and fun for you to learn. Consider doubling down on them and becoming an expert. The most skilled and valuable UX designers both have a wide area of wing skills and can showcase more than one area of expertise.
Developing wing skills — that is, skills that are adjacent but not directly related to your core area of expertise — is in the interest of every UX designer.
By giving you a better understanding of the broader context, they help you deliver more value from your core expertise, and the ability to contribute to more than one area of business makes you a more valuable asset both for the team and the job marketplace.
At some point, developing skills like business acumen, data analysis, positioning, or team leadership will make a more significant difference in your professional growth than over-optimizing for one particular skill.
It’s okay to focus on your specialization if you are early in your career, but as you grow towards seniority, that broader skill set will be invaluable. Once you become a genuinely T-shaped UX designer, you should consider developing new areas of expertise to increase your value as a designer even more.
Header image source: IconScout
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