Last year I was approached by a recruiter for a company who asked if I was interested in a senior UX design role at a mid-sized fintech company. When I declined, the recruiter seemed confused.

“You have five years of experience as a UX designer, you’ve led design teams, and you’ve worked as a creative consultant. What’s the deal?”

“I just don’t feel like I can do the actual leading.”

I remember his exasperated sigh over the phone. “Dude, you’re already doing it.”

In this industry where imposter syndrome is so prevalent, the fakers seem to outnumber the makers 25 to 1. This means that moving from a junior or mid-level design position to a senior one seems out of reach or impossible to quantify for most of us.

But what makes someone a senior designer? Looking at job board blurbs for senior designers doesn’t seem to be much help: their requirements range from “know about Figma and be able to joke about Sketch” to “Have a Ph.D in HCI, 12 years of UX design experience in FAANG, ability to program in C, own a Dilbert mug, and have a side gig in data science.”

However, over my time as a UX designer I’ve run into countless Senior and Lead UX designers and I’ve noticed they all have three qualities that run as a phenotype. While these aren’t the only qualities that a lead should or could have, they serve as a strong foundation and a preliminary checklist to measure yourself against before marching to your boss’s office to ask for a fat promotion and a private office. Here they are.

Listen closely.
The lead UX designers I’ve been privileged to work with are killer listeners. Rather than some of the juniors or mid-level designers I’ve worked with that are desperate to prove their knowledge or regurgitate every single factoid their bootcamp taught them, Lead or Senior UX designers are laser focused and brilliantly analytical when it comes to listening to problems. People don’t tell you their problems, they tell you how they feel about their problems. They have no idea what the actual scope of the issue is. If you’re looking to be a Senior UX designer, you need to be brilliantly observant and able to hear what someone is saying before you jump in with bandages and a defibrillator.

Speak clearly.
Most people waffle when they speak. They aren’t sure of what they’re trying to say and when they do know what they want to say, they’re too caught up with what other people will think of them. Sometimes, being a leader means coming off like a bit of an asshole. You are the decision maker (for the most part, AGILE, six sigma, and waterfall systems all come with their yarn ball of stakeholders and office politics) and sometimes you’ll need to close one door to walk through another. The more you try to qualify how you’re not making a decision for personal reasons, the more the person who suggested it will feel that you’re personally slighting them. Instead, when you’re speaking in meetings, leave emotion out of the discussion altogether and try to state the direction you want in the fewest words possible. This helps for two reasons: one, people remember your suggestions because you could boil it down to a single sentence; two, people think you’re brilliant because you’re able to articulate complex thoughts in simple terms.

Decide quickly.
A sprint is a sprint for a reason. If you’re a mid-level designer, chances are you’re being given decisions to make on a daily basis. From my time in esports, one of the main things I learned that separated good players from world-class players was the ability to accept that most decisions that present themselves have merit in the options, and there is no perfect choice. Pick what you believe to be the best choice as quickly as possible, accept that every decision has consequences, and move on. While we love to treat heuristics like dianetics, the fact is someone will be alienated by a decision you made. Someone will hate the way you did it, just like someone will love it. Someone will be alienated by the design or placement you’ve chosen, and others will find it intuitive and thoughtful. Agonizing over minor decisions for hours or days shows stakeholders that if you were placed in a senior position work would grind to a halt. You need the ability to assess the scope of the problems in front of you, decide, and move forward. Showing you’re decisive, even if the solutions aren’t perfect, is a strong indicator of someone ready for leadership.

Moving from mid-level to senior level positions isn’t easy, and is more black magic than career science. Regardless of what some senior designers will tell you, it’s not some Kafkaesque transformation. You won’t wake up one day as a perfect candidate for a senior or lead UX position. It takes thought, effort, and conscious self-improvement. There’s good news though. Right now is the perfect time to start.

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