Define Your Own Toolkit – Preventing Unicorn-Hunters

UX Designers have a challenging job. Not only are they responsible for creating strategies to well-researched solutions, but they deal with the challenges of proving the value of UX within an organization, on top of demonstrating the value of a design with data. It can all-too-often feel like your job is to vehemently defend the sanctity of the UX Design practice, and be easy to be overtaken by the idea that you need to explain yourself all the time, rather than focusing on your work. If this is happening, you’re probably feeling the pressure of being the subject of Unicorn-Hunting.

The term is a joke of course, but it describes a particular person – someone who expects a UX Designer to be a magical unicorn that is everything all at once: graphic designer + visual designer + programmer + prototyper (word?) + salesperson + cognitive scientist.

If you find yourself in this situation, usually expectations for you have been set impossibly high by someone else. Or perhaps you over-promised on what you can do? Or maybe you’ve just been reading too many articles about UX Design online.

In either case, the key remedy to this problem is to DEFINE YOUR OWN TOOLKIT.

UX Design by nature has SO many different tools available. Depending on where you go to school, what books you study, what jobs you work at, what articles you read – everyone will have a different perspective. You can drive yourself crazy trying to learn everything and master everything. Instead, take tools that really resonate with you in terms of usefulness and define those as YOUR tools.

UX Designers know the pain of inconsistent terminology being applied to their skillsets and it’s no different with the different phases of the UX Design Process. In general though, you’ll follow some structure like this:

  • Research
  • Design / Concepting
  • Testing / Iteration
  • Strategy Implementation

For each of the phases, I’ll break down some of the tools that are typically used. What I want you to do is select a couple of these tools in each phase to focus on, and develop those as your core toolkit. You can (and will) learn more, but master the core tools first.


For your Research, the key is to listen to and observe your users to understand what they need and what their pain-points are. Your core tools should be:

  • Interviews
  • Ethnographic Studies

But you can also add:

  • Surveys
  • Personas
  • Mental Models
  • Task Analysis
  • Journey Mapping
  • Red Route Analysis
  • Affinity Diagramming

Again, start small. Pick a couple tools and fully understand how they work, why they are useful, and when you would want to use them.

Design / Concepting

One of the broadest categories, this is the core of the final output. Your goals here are to clearly define the structure of what you are building and get all major stakeholders on board and producing the final design. Indispensible here are:

  • Wireframes
  • Mockups (lofi and hifi)
  • Prototypes (lofi and hifi)

But you can also add:

  • Storyboards
  • Task Flows
  • Sitemapping
  • Card Sorting
  • Ecosystem Mapping
  • Use Cases / Scenarios

Testing / Iteration

This can really come before, during, or after the Design phase,

  • A/B Testing
  • Heuristic Analysis
  • Usability Testing
  • Prototyping (lofi usually for rapid iteration)

Some additional tools that have crossover with the Research phase are:

  • Interviews
  • Surveys

Strategy Implementation

This is all about how a UX Designer develops and communicates a UX Strategy not just for a product but also for the team. This is probably the most elusive category because it runs through everything a UX Designer does at all times.

  • Competitive Analysis
  • Features Roadmap
  • Quantitative Survey

Also key to success is a UX Designer’s ability to communicate and share ideas with their team. The deliverables these tools provide are invaluable:

  • Ecosystem Mapping
  • Storyboards
  • Personas

Overall, including your team in the process is key to developing a lasting understanding of UX Design.

Make It Your Own

Take the time to generally define your toolkit. The goal is to define a process that you can be confident in for any project, as a baseline. Remember though that this isn’t to the exclusion of other tools or the avoidance of change. Your process should always be fluid.

However I do find it helpful to focus on key, core tools that I can always rely on while remaining aware of and ready to use new tools or tools I am inexperienced with, should their need arise.

Understanding People

Having defined your toolkit, remember now that the foundation for being a UX Designer is understanding people.

This past year it seems a lot of attention is being paid to cognitive psychology and its connections to UX Design. Topics on designing on “intuition” vs. “learned” knowledge came up at the 2010 UX London Conference. Jeff Johnson’s “Designing With the Mind in Mind” was published earlier in 2010 and Dr. Susan Weinschenk’s book “100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People” will be coming out later this year. Both provide research-based information on how the brain works and how that translates to design processes.

User Experience Design has always had its roots in cognitive psychology, and this should be the foundation of any UX Designer’s skillset.

Johnson’s book is great and provides many high-level concepts as well as specific facts – including a chart of Time Deadlines for Human-Computer Interaction that pair up the time for specific Perceptual & Cognitive Functions and their relation to Interaction Design principles/outcomes.

With this though, make sure you’re not over-explaining yourself, because this is where you get into trouble. UX Unicorn Hunters misunderstand what User Experience Design is. User Experience Design is not THE solution, it’s the strategy and process to create a solution. Properly conducting thorough research and interviews ie. “Understanding the User” is core to identifying the real problem and developing a solution. But there can be MANY solutions. The real work is in understanding people well enough that you can re-frame the alleged problem into the true problem.

If projects have scope-creep, this would be where tool-creep would occur. Remember your core tools and allow that to protect you from hyper-focusing on the tools themselves. A successful UX project doesn’t exist because of tools, but rather the clarity of understanding WHO the people are that we’re designing for and WHAT the problem is.



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