Ask The Experts: What defines a Senior UX Designer?

21 Dec 2020 9:49 AM | Audrey Bryson (Administrator)

Ask The Experts is a series in which we ask design leaders from our community common questions from UX professionals or those seeking a career in UX. This month we're covering distinctions between design roles. 

In your opinion, what qualities distinguish senior designers from junior or lower-ranking designers? What would you recommend to designers looking to move into a senior role?  

 The core ability of a senior designer is to solve complex problems with usable and elegant designs. Key qualities of a senior user experience designer include: 

  1. In-depth understanding of the target users and key use cases
    We expect a senior designer to have excellent research skills. They should be able to partner with the right stakeholders, customers and users to get to this understanding and to verify design proposals. For technology companies, the users and use cases can be very technical. A senior designer has typically experiences with multiple complex products, which allows them to get up to speed to a new product quickly and contribute soon after they join the team.
  2. Command of design patterns and best practices
    A senior designer needs to be able to match users’ needs to relevant design patterns to figure out the best ones for each use case. In an enterprise setting where users work with several products from the same company, it is important for a senior designer to be aware of the different use cases of these design patterns across products so that the design they create for one product is not only usable, compelling but also cohesive with other products in the same system.
  3. Ability to design at different levels and recognize when to use which level
    In order to create a solid design solution, many design decisions need to be made at different levels. For example, if it is in the early stage of the product cycle, a concept design may be needed to get the team on the same page about a design direction or vision. During a specific feature design phase, detailed interaction behaviors, UI controls, wordings, accessibility features, etc. may need to be specified. A senior designer is expected to know how to work at different levels of designs and guide the team towards a solution, figuring out the right amount of detail at the right time.
  4. Capability to influence others
    Without the ability to inspire and call team members into action, a great design may only remain on paper. In order to get great designs into products, and into the hands of the users, a senior designer needs to be seen by the product team as a trusted advisor. They must be able to collaborate and motivate team members to implement the envisioned design.
  5. A big tool box, with a strategic mind
    A senior designer possesses key skills spanning across many areas, such as user research, illustrating user journeys, designing user flows and screen layouts, creating interactive prototypes, and communicating designs in a manner to inform, motivate and inspire the team. They typically have a large toolbox of skills that they can draw on to get a job done. In addition, a senior designer has the ability to transfer knowledge from one team to another. They can build on previous successes to influence at a higher level across the organization so that good design processes, methods and thinking are adopted by teams beyond the immediate ones they work with. Finally, we expect a senior designer to be able to mentor junior designers to help grow a team with key skills in research, design and collaboration.

For someone looking to move into a senior role, we recommend developing the core skills of design and user research. Reflect and accumulate working knowledge with each project. Find opportunities to hone your soft skills—communication, collaboration and even negotiation. See if you can tie your specific work to larger missions at the division, organization or company level. Connect and work with people with different job titles and personalities. Seek opportunities to be a buddy or mentor for someone who is just starting their career in design. You do not have to be successful in all the challenges you take on, but you will go far if you treat each as an opportunity to learn and add to your toolbox, network and circle of influence."

Huifang Wang, Senior Manager of User Experience Design 

 The best designers are the best collaborators. Senior designers have developed skills that are hard to teach - they know how to articulate decisions, listen, collaborate, and iterate based on feedback. Above all, they know that they are not the most important person in the room. The best design is not the most aesthetically pleasing one; instead, it's a design that meets both business and user needs. There is no way to come up with the perfect design without working closely with a cross-discipline team.

Any designer looking to move into a senior role should understand that promotions can take time. Be patient. The most important thing for you to focus on is your career growth. What are you interested in learning? What experience or skills could help you be a better designer? Once you identify your focus areas, you can seek mentors to help guide your career path. Mentors could be in your local community (like the Triangle UXPA) or at your workplace. For more on mentorship, check out my 2017 article in User Experience Magazine."

Andrew Wirtanen, Senior Product Designer

 Band level or formal rank certainly involves comfort and established success of wielding design skill.  In a more senior rank, one needs to independently and more effectively know how to design.  But, a senior team member also understands how to interface with other functions, manage stakeholders, and confidently operate within the larger context of the work.   I’d recommend early career designers study how to balance affecting the details (design output) while also affecting the bigger picture (project outcome)."     

Aaron Stewart, Director Next UX & UX Research 

 To me, what makes someone a senior designer is the ability to handle uncertainty. Even if a designer is very skilled, if they need specific instructions or well-defined problems in order to make progress, it's hard to see them in a senior role because of the additional management or direction they require. For designers looking to move into a senior role, try to take a more active role during the initial phases of a project. Learning how to break a problem into manageable chunks and how to do meaningful work outside of standard design deliverables is key to being able to take on more responsibility."

Erik Johnson, Co-Founder 
Purpose UX

 To me, the difference is between working with an artist versus a communicator. While aesthetics are an important aspect of graphic design, the ability to communicate through visuals is critical for a successful designer. Understanding User Experience principles and practices is essential to successful communication and unfortunately lacking in many student and junior designers I encounter. At the most basic level we provide services to solve business problems. Pretty pictures alone don’t help the bottom line, effective communication does.”

David Minton, Managing Partner 

 I would say that in my opinion, the qualities that distinguish senior designers from junior or lower-ranking designers is that a senior designer is expected to have years of experience and to have a larger toolkit of foundational understanding that should come standard with solutioning UX problems.  Also a senior designer should be able to see a problem and numerous solutions faster and clearer than a designer with not so much experience.  Senior designers should be adept in numerous digital and analog tools  and be more well-rounded across multiple UX disciplines such as Interaction Design, UI / Graphic arts design, Front-End knowledge, Information Architecture and have a good understanding of color theory.  A senior designer will likely be more empathetic to the user and have a greater understanding of personas and know to keep things in mind such as device usage, world usage, use-cases in workflows and accessibility concerns." 

Anonymous Design Leader 

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