I am often asked by client team members: “…how did you get started in UX design, coming from a background in development?”

There’s a story I tell about early commercial development projects, coding user interfaces to embedded systems in machine vision, networking and storage. Along the way, there was a pivotal project that evolved into a decade of mentorship from a visionary pioneer in the field of user interface design: Virginia Howlett.

Experience has taught me that maybe a better question is: “…how are you a UX practitioner without a background in sales?”

So, here is my list of five traits shared by effective UX designers and sales people:

1. Good Listener

Every account executive I’ve spent time with mentions this one, with some variation of: “… you can’t connect, emotionally, with a customer and understand their needs if you are babbling on about yourself and your product!”

A UX Leader is expected be a digital Renaissance Man, excusing the gender normative term. But the bookends of any UX process is human interaction – often starting with a customer study and ending with user testing. Interviewing customers and observing test subjects, and doing it well, requires exceptional perception.

2. Observant

A corollary to being a good listener is understanding what the speaker may be thinking or feeling, but is having difficulty expressing. In other words, reading body language or facial expressions that may be indicators of discomfort, confusion or disinterest.

It also means observing the local environment – the place in which you are having the conversation. Sometimes an interview subject will describe an interaction or provide feedback that is better understood within the context of their own environment.

In general, I prefer conducting user research “in the field”; it’s far better than bringing people into a lab environment. I will expand on the topic of “in the field” in an upcoming post with entertaining anecdotes.

3. Persistent

Sales people are nothing if not persistent. It takes several “touches” to generate a qualified lead and earn a meeting with a decision maker. A sales person that takes ‘No’ personally doesn’t last long.

UX Leaders can hear a lot of ‘No’ throughout the research, design and verification process. See if this sounds familiar:

“I think that the user won’t like that… I wouldn’t want it that way, so why would anyone else?”

A fascinating trait of UX design is that skilled practitioners can make it look easy. It’s an art and a soft science, so a more quantitative perspective (read: coders) can view UX as straightforward and, correspondingly, that one opinion is as good as any other.

I’m generalizing but the above quote is not wrong, when the team is using phrases like: “I think” and “the user”.

I think” states an opinion; when the team is driven by a well-conducted user study, “I think” becomes “we’ve observed”. When the team empirically discovers the real-world breadth and depth of their customers, the single, faceless entity - “the user” - is replaced with a persona catalog.

In a follow-up post, I will share what I’ve learned over the years, with respect to conducting customer research and user testing.

4. Subtle

I can’t say this any better than Mark Stevens, CEO, MSCO:

Great salespeople never look like they are selling anything. They are educating, instilling faith and confidence. They are quietly and invisibly demonstrating why customers should believe in them and, in turn, buy from them.

Yes. This is applicable to the UX Leader that is striving to bring cohesiveness to the project and to the team. The UX Leader in many ways is the linchpin for the project, acting as a seasoned advocate for the customer’s experience while ensuring that the team’s vision comes to life efficiently and accurately.

5. Likeable

Being likeable doesn’t mean being a push-over, it is the culmination of all the above traits.

People who are good listeners, who are observant and who can be persistent, yet subtle, are likeable because they are authentic. They are people you enjoy being around, regardless of whether it’s for work or for a social occasion. Likeable people’s opinions carry weight because they’ve listened to and considered the viewpoint of others and provide their input or guidance, seasoned by experience and tempered with empathy.

UX Leaders can be lightning rods for tension within a project – disagreement on vision, missteps on execution, unexpected changes in technology or the product’s market. Being likeable encourages the team to give the UX Leader the benefit of the doubt, when the going gets rough. Conversely, the UX Leader shares in the team’s success, showing a mindset of collaboration.

OK, that’s my list. Comment below and share what “you’ve observed” with UX Leaders in your world.


Ken Krutsch is Managing Principal of KRUTSCH Associates, a commercial design firm, specializing in product vision and realization, including customer research, roadmap development and full-stack user experience design.

Follow KRUTSCH on LinkedIn and on Twitter to see more posts on being a UX Leader.

1 Comment