Designer Level Assessment

Skill-Knowledge Matrix

The tool shows the level of hard, soft, and leadership skills in a design team; it helps to systematically enhance designers’ expertise and improve their motivation and engagement.

Why It’s Important

Every designer could grow professionally at least twice if their design manager is concerned about growing their skills systematically. Some of them could become team’s stars, feeling the courage.
As a result, a designer grows professionally and is more motivated — one reason less to change jobs, so employee churn reduces. A trigger to start systematic work is often an unexpected quit of a designer — a design manager realizes skill-knowledge matrix is essential as well as regular 1:1s. It’s good for the company too, because a designer can produce more solutions; they’re better thought-out and overall quality is better.

When to Use (situations / problems / questions)

  • Develop designer’s skills
    (hard, soft, leadership).
  • Improve designer motivation
    and engagement
    into work.
  • Improve retention and reduce churn
    in a design team.
  • Provide a clear and transparent way for career and salary growth.

Method (step by step)

01
Team analysis.
02
Create a skill-knowledge matrix.
03
Levels.
04
Assess designers.
05
Personal development plan.
06
1:1s.
07
How to grow?

Team Analysis

Org structure analysis will show current roles in a team [see pattern T: Org structure]. It’ll also help to highlight strong and weak sides, as well as missing people. We already discussed hiring [see pattern O: Hiring]. Let’s focus on making existing team members stronger: designers, UX researchers, and UX writers.
Org structure and strategy will show where company’s going and what professionals you’ll need for that. I.e., there’s a solid lack of visual design or, vice versa — it’s fine already, but decisions don’t consider user needs.
We aim for T-shaped designers [see pattern O: T-shaped designers] — several multiskilled people, each of them with their own strong sides; it will give a proper combination of skills. We’ll have a linkage of designers, each of whom has several strong skills. The more designers skew toward being systems thinkers, the more likely they will create boring designs, while designers who are creatives are likely to create impractical solutions that are not scalable. Either of these types of designers will suffer their own limitations when they’re working alone, but they could make giant leaps when working together.
Brad Frost uses a nice table-legs analogy,
in which several legs make the construct work.
People participate in these professional growth processes by different reasons:
  • Professional challenge. Willingness to grow and develop.ание роста и развития.
  • It’s a predictable way to raise salary and/or position.
  • Some people just love to try new things without specific goals..

Create a Skill-Knowledge Matrix

To understand the current capabilities of an existing Design team, you must assess the skills and knowledge of every designer on the team — for example, skills like motion design or heuristic evaluation — using a classic skills/knowledge matrix.
It’s a simple format — a matrix with the list of skills that has team members as columns. Their crossing is current skill level for each specialist.

Hard skills:

  • Product thinking & analytics;
  • UX research;
  • Information architecture and interaction design;
  • Visual design;
  • Copywriting;
  • Front-end development.

Soft skills:

  • Focus on results;
  • Communication and teamwork;
  • Creative thinking;
  • Systems thinking.

Leadership skills:

  • Planning and organization;
  • Strategy;
  • Working in uncertainty;
  • Hiring;
  • Employee’s personal development;
  • Motivation;
When evaluating a Design team, I assess the level of each designer’s skills and knowledge, using the following four levels:
Awareness
Level 4
This level means having some knowledge about how a particular type of specialist works, including what tasks they perform, the tools they use, their work process, their methods and practices, and what constraints they must consider.
Ability
Level 3
At this level, UX professionals can solve basic problems in their specialty. They can complete less important tasks once a lead specialist sets them on the right track, create mockups or prototypes leveraging existing deliverables, or update documents.
Expertise
Level 2
Experts can successfully complete most tasks in their specialty from start to finish — often working solo. They can also solve atypical problems.
Leadership
Level 1
Leaders can teach their skills to other team members. They help colleagues learn, achieve professional growth, and adopt new tools and methods. They also foster design cultures.
To plan the growth of a UX team, we need to understand the company’s goals and product roadmaps. Our goal is to solve business problems through design. Considering current and future problems that a UX team must solve, look for people who have the specific skills and experience they need to solve them. Represent necessary areas for growth in a team profile.
Competence map: combined table. Show promising areas in which you need to pump skills
You may need to promote current team members, improve the necessary skills within the team or the entire company, or hire new designers to fill the gaps. In contrast, if a team possesses enough skills in certain areas, you can de-emphasize those skills requirements when making future hires. Instead, you could hire designers who have unique experience
or skills that would enrich your team.
There’s no need for a designer to have all the skills on a maximum level. There’s a set of key skills for a T-shaped designer in a product team (let’s say Interaction design and Visual design should be no less than 2.5 across the team). There are experts and novices who are here to grow. If we talk about supplementary skills, it’s not necessary to have even 2 here — at least more than 1.
A skill-knowledge matrix also helps in hiring [see pattern O: Hiring]. If you’re considering several candidates and they have a similar professional level in key skills (i.e., they can create a great design concept, which will have well thought-out interaction design and modern visual design, as well as good reasoning describing their solution). However, if a design team is strong enough here, you can look at supplementary skills of these candidates. Let’s say one of them has front-end experience or can create illustrations — then we will favor this person, because he/she will strengthen a design team overall. After all, we already have basic skills on a strong level and even if this person has a small dipping in one of them, we will improve it quickly with so many colleagues having it already, so summary skillset of a design team will improve by means of rare specializations.
You’ll need to improve current design team in these directions or hire new people with that experience. If otherwise, some of skills are already strong enough, you can lower your requirements here — they can grow these skills within the team. In return, you’ll be able to choose candidates with unusual experience that will enrich a design team.

Levels

Career paths are predictable with a unified skillset.

Designer Levels

When skills and zones of responsibilities grow, it often leads to position (or grade) upgrade. It’s a good way to motivate an employee to grow and highlight their successes. However, what’s really important is the level of challenges they solve and responsibility they take; badges are secondary.
Standard levels:
  • Intern;
  • Junior product designer;
  • Product designer;
  • Senior product designer;
  • Lead product designer.
Connect skill-knowledge matrix with levels. Then every team member will understand what every level means and how to reach it. You’ll get a designer profile for each level.
Skill-knowledge matrix: grades
Profiles allow you to:
  • how a designer how to get to the next level. What skills should they improve?
  • Specify wage forks. It gives transparency
    to current employees and new candidates while hiring.
  • Balance professional level of teams.
  • Set proper goals when hiring. Who do you look for?
  • Discuss a limited number of profiles rather than long list of skills. It’s easier in a large design team.

High level growth

Higher level designers could hardly develop by just improving hard skills. As a rule, they deal with people management more and set up processes. Their focus moves into soft and leadership skills growth. Expert side is still important and shouldn’t degrade, but it couldn’t scale their impact alone.
There are several ways to develop a higher-level designer further: 
Design manager
manages a team of designers or other design managers and continues to do designer work until some moment.
Principal (expert)
helps to implement new methods and practices, while still doing designer work. He/she’s not necessarily tied to a particular team — they could help different teams in a company.
Product owner
leaves designer duties. However, a product owner with strong design background is good for design capability anyway.
Not every professional wants to manage, and not everyone can. That’s why management way shouldn’t be the only option to have bigger salary and recognition in a company. You should define levels for both of these career paths, except of product owner — it’s about moving to another profession.
Design manager:
  • Team lead (manages designers);
  • Intermediate levels vary from company to company. There’s no standard approach, but it could be a design manager, a design director, or a vice president;
  • Head of design (manages design managers). Certain title of this role varies from company to company, but it’s mostly a head of design or Chief Design Officer / Chief Experience Officer.
Principal:
  • Principal;
  • Lead principal (the best in a company in a professional area: skill, platform, or method)
It’s important when designer positions match general approach in a company. However, if a company uses a ready-made framework like Willis Towers Watson with standard grades, you can have two layers. I.e., “lead designer” title could have “vice president” grade.
If you’re just implementing levels in a company, you would need to align current designers to it. It could happen that some titles already exist, and it could be uneasy to fit existing people to them. I.e., somebody is already a “lead designer”, but they didn’t satisfy the role. You have two options here — either leave the title and work tightly to fill the skill gap to match new level or demote them. The first option is fair and preferable, however, sometimes you couldn’t skip a hard conversation and ought to choose a second option. Title inflation is one of the reasons — sometimes you hire a strong candidate or retain an existing one and give them a nice title. Levels help you to make this more predictable.

Assess Designers

Assessment

A designer and a design manager assess current skills. We get a report on strong and weak sides. 
Optional: assessment by colleagues. Non-designers should be invited only for soft skills — they’re not experts in hard skills. Some people include other designers in a team, but it will make assessment more of an effort.

Calibration

A dedicated meeting. A designer, a design manager, and, probably, product manager with lead engineer go through skill assessment. They give feedback to each other — why marks are that way, what’s great, and what should be improved. Divergence happens either when a skill is vaguely described, or if a design manager doesn’t know much about designer’s past experience. It’s useful to discuss it to sync understanding of designer’s real level — how strong they are professionally and do they satisfy their grade.

General picture of a team

You’ll get a team overview after assessing all designers. What skills are presented enough, what should you improve, and where you don’t have enough qualification.
It’s important to have high average level for key skills to execute design strategy. Secondly, you need experts with maximum level that’ll raise the bar and help to develop others. As a last resort it could be a person within a company, not your team. It’s worse if you have to go to outsourcers.
You can strengthen skills via education or skill-transfer within a team, so you need strong people for that.

Format

There are two popular visual representations of a skill-knowledge matrix — a matrix and visually showy radar chart. The latter works great as a poster on the wall, but it’s too perfunctory and breaks down if you want a good skill drilldown (i.e., it’s hard to improve abstract “visual design”, while enhancing typography is a good goal). I recommend a simple table — it gives a detailed overview of a team.
Radar chart is good for job interviews [see pattern O: Hiring] or team overview.

Tools

For a long time, there weren’t any specialized tools to run skill-knowledge matrices for designers. So, companies tried two ways:
  • Excel or Google Sheets. It’s the easiest way to start — list all skills and designers, then assess designers. It will give a quick overview of strong and weak sides of a team, which is just enough knowledge to start professional development.
  • Adapt an already existing feedback or performance review tool (like reviews 360). They have necessary mechanics; you only need to add skills and their levels.
Now we have tools like Vectorly and Progression  focused on designers. They have readymade skill-knowledge matrices that you can use as a boilerplate. Mine is available too Skill matrix template.

Personal Development Plan

You’ll see strong and weak sides of each designer after assessment and calibration. You can plan development in a year (or other period to re-assess designers) with this report.
1 step
We pick 3-5 skills that a designer wants to improve — it’s a voluntary choice, depending on what this designer likes the most. What to improve — to raise weak sides or to improve already strong ones? Balance it. Solve vivid problems and improve skills where a designer could make a leap and become unique team member. Be sure to focus on long-term strategy — what skills would you need in a year or later [see Implementation tools].
2 step
Discuss willingness and possibility to grow to the next level. What should a designer improve him/herself? Is there a possibility in a team at all? The list of skills to improve is expanded with the gap between current and next level. Revision could be tied to standard employee assessment process, but it’s not necessary — you should have flexibility.
3 step
A skill becomes one of the personal development goals for the year; it has a clear to-do that consists of theory (books, courses, etc.) and practice (real tasks from a product roadmap). If at the moment of this meeting a roadmap is not formed, then we wait for real tasks (or initiate them). It’s important when tasks are real, otherwise you can hardly trial a skill and find time for it in sprint plan at all [see pattern O: Task management].

Example: Designer’s goal

Creating microcopy.
Theory:
  • training;
  • read the «Writing is Designing» book;
  • meet with chief editor.
Practice:
  • mentorship from a copywriter;
  • create a checklist for microcopy;
  • refactor microcopy for the “settings” section.
Setting and testing hypotheses.
Evaluating design solutions.
Animation and motion design.
In a skill-knowledge matrix, you should define a list of articles, books, courses, and other theoretical things for each level of each skill. What is necessary theory preparation to be great at practice?

Example 2: Modeling screen layouts
and creating interactive prototypes

1. Awareness
Books
Steve Krug — Don’t Make me Think
Articles
Complete Beginner’s Guide to Interaction Design
2. Ability
Books
Jesse James Garrett — The Elements of User Experience
Articles
Bruce Tognazzini — Tog on Interface
3. Expertise
Books
Alan Cooper — About Face
Articles
Dan Saffer —
Microinteractions
4. Leadership
1. Awareness
2. Ability
3. Expertise
4. Leadership
Books
Steve Krug — Don’t Make me Think
Jesse James Garrett — The Elements of User Experience
Alan Cooper — About Face
Bruce Tognazzini — Tog on Interface
Dan Saffer — Microinteractions
Articles
Complete Beginner’s Guide to Interaction Design
You should record goals in a shared tool. It could be skill-knowledge map service, wiki, or task management tool.

1:1s

Regular meetings of a design manager with
a designer — it’s a small retrospective. They solve many problems:
  • Help in professional growth. Coaching and mentorship in improving hard, soft, and leadership skills;
  • Solve problems. Everything that stands in the way of product tasks, relationships, or professional growth;
  • Exchange new information. ЧWhat interesting and important happened. Including the chance to share changes
    in a strategy or connected tasks;
  • Psychological comfort zone. You can speak out and leave no understatement.
1
Schedule a regular meeting. There’s always a window when they can bring a question or a problem; they don’t have to carve out time or explain why they need that meeting. Frequency depends on design team structure — in embedded or distributed teams they need to happen more often, once a week; in centralized teams they can be less often, once in 2 or 3 weeks (designers already sit together and talk often). If it’s not a direct report — it could be even less often (once a month, month and a half, or two months). Length — 15 minutes, half an hour, or an hour. You shouldn’t skip them, no matter how overloaded you are; even if it looks that there are little changes and nothing to discuss. Even in that way it’s better to postpone it, rather than skip. It builds your window of trust.
2
On every meeting we take several to-do items from personal development plan. A designer tries to solve them during the next period. We see if there’s progress on the next meeting.
A design manager could help with advice or solve emerging problems if they block completing this to-do item.
3
It’s good if both a design manager and a designer prepare for a meeting and go to it with specific questions. To-do items from personal development plan is a good start. Elaborate a custom format for both of you that’ll also show synchronization success — designers are on different professional levels and solve different tasks, so a unified template wouldn’t always work. You can store them in a wiki, task management tool, or skill-knowledge matrix tool. Capital One и Miro.
4
As the time goes, a question to raise designer level and salary arises. If employee expectations doesn’t contradict with salary fork and available positions, these intentions are confirmed.
To realize them you should make a short 2-3-month plan.
It includes several key tasks that confirm that designer ambitions are justified. These tasks should be useful for both
a company and an employee.
It’s important to make 1:1s about professional development, not status reports. They’re about your report, not a design manager — you should have enough other tools [see pattern O: Task management, O: Design critique sessions, S: Design leaders club].
In sum, it’s 3 connected tools:
Skill-knowledge map
as a report — what design team knows right now, where its strong and weak sides.
An approach to set up
personal development goals to for each designer.
Regular 1:1s
where you track the progress in improving skills.

How to give feedback

We discussed feedback in detail while discussing design [see pattern O: Design critique sessions]. It’s also important when you’re discussing a designer as a professional.
A simple model:
  • What a designer already does well and needs to continue. Mark achievement and just successful solutions. It’s important to give positive reinforcement to what a person does well already.
  • What needs improvement. What decisions, judgements, and other behavior moments should change and in which way. It’s important to show how exactly — it’ll be hard to handle feedback without that..
  • What should they stop doing. Examples of behavior in work or decision making that lead to problems in a product or a team.
A good design manager not just pushes pixels and directs what to do. He/she coaches — leads a designer to come to a solution themselves. Moreover, they would think about several alternatives and choose the best. Then they would not just fix a particular situation, but also learn to solve similar situations in the future. Mentorship, when you propose solution in mode vivid way — is a good approach for younger designers. Remember about situational leadership [see pattern O: A design leader] to choose a suitable option. Somebody would need master and apprentice model when you work on a task together and a designer learns on the way. Matt Griffin из Shopifydescribes this practice in a simple way:
  • Directing: указание (Инструктирующий):
    «I decide»;
  • Coaching:
    «We talk, I decide»;
  • Supporting:
    «We talk, you decide»;
  • Delegating:
    «You decide».
Adapting teaching methodology:
  • Directing: «Here’s how you do it»;
  • Coaching:
    «Here’s how I’d do something similar, now you do it»;
  • Supporting:
    «You do it, then I’ll show you how I’d do something similar»;
  • Delegating: «You do it».
Kim Scott proposes radical candor approach in feedback. A good manager cares personally and challenges directly. Other poles of 2x2 matrix represent ruinous empathy, obnoxious aggression, and manipulative insincerity — their either cushion problems, or focus on them too much.
It’s easier said than done. That’s why your maturity as a leader is also critical — you’ll be able to find common ground with different people in different situations.

How to Grow?

Communication of a design manager with
a designer is one of key methods to improve skills. However, there are many others.

Professional Growth

A UX team constantly needs to grow and evolve. Designers can take on new challenges and solve more complex tasks to become stronger and gain wisdom. Growing your team’s skills requires:
  • A professional environment. On a strong team, there is a healthy exchange of knowledge such as design patterns, best practices, case studies, articles, and books — including participation in book clubs. Designers should regularly discuss each other’s latest work in collective design critique sessions [see pattern O: Design critique sessions].
  • Additional education. Teams should take advantage of offline and online conferences, courses, workshops, and Webinars.
  • Challenging product work. UX professionals need new professional challenges such as solving atypical tasks, participating in new projects, improving weak skills, and taking
    on management or other specialized roles.
  • Coaching, mentorship, and feedback. Design managers should help the people on their team to choose the right direction for their professional and career growth and track their progress by looking at a retrospective of their successes and failures.

A Wide Range of Tasks

To ensure designers don’t become apathetic because of overly routine work, keep looking into different approaches and switch people off their main product tasks at intervals. There are three types of tasks:
  • Product tasks. Work on products and their features.
  • Infrastructure tasks. Work on product-portfolio unification and related tasks such as the development of icons, animations, typography, typical patterns, screen templates, and grids. It’s also about implementing new methods and practices.
  • Visionary tasks. The focus of this work is on answering questions such as: How will products look in a couple of years? What uncommon design patterns can we glean from the market that we could apply to our products? Such patterns and concepts are rarely implemented as is, but can introduce a lot of important, small changes to existing products. These play a role that is somewhat like that of concept cars, as opposed to auto brands. They let product teams try out new ideas for the future of a brand [see pattern S: Connecting a brand and user interface].
Good ratio for these three types of tasks is 70:20:10. Although team’s primary focus is on product work, but there are also a lot of new professional challenges that move my people forward professionally and help them to love their job. Visionary tasks often explore the boundaries of what we know about a problem, our current skills and knowledge, and time and resources.
It's important to find time in a product plan for infrastructure and visionary tasks [see pattern O: Task management]. At first, you could do it in guerilla way, but it’s less predictable and takes more time.

Do's & Don'ts

  • Do's. Facilitate the sharing of skills among team members. People who excel at a specific skill should mentor others on the team. Pair design and situational workgroups are two helpful methods of doing this. For example, one designer might innovate a new approach to creating application icons, which others could learn.
  • Don'ts. Skills-knowledge matrix could solve two problems: Faster professional growth (skills) and predictable career and salary growth (grades). It’s not necessary to implement them simultaneously — grades have lots of pitfalls that can demotivate designers (it requires obligatory and regular attestation or performance reviews and not everyone in the team needs it; there’s limited number of real, not fake positions and work opportunities inside the company). Build skills assessment first, then go for grades.

Maturity Evaluation

Minimum
Skillset for a design team is described.
Partial
Team assessment made based on this skillset.
Perfect:
Personal development plan is made for every designer in a team, regular 1:1s are held to make it happen.

Examples from Other Companies

In recent years, more and more companies started to develop designers systematically. There are lots of examples that simple solve the task. However, some of them do it in an interesting way.
Nate Davis has described a similar competencies model on UXmatters (and Paul Adams of Intercom has shared a similar hiring model.
Nick Daze offers an alternative approach, in which every designer has a professional profile describing his or her skillset. As designers’ skillsets grow, the model fills a larger area.
A similar model describes a product team comprising product managers, designers, and developers:
By combining the profiles of all team members, you’ll get a team profile. The white spot at the center represents a combination of all three core competencies — what everyone collectively knows and can do — and indicates the true health of a team. While I attempted to use this diagram in describing my detailed skills list, it ruined my radar chart. However, this is a great approach for defining a design culture.
Figma made one of the most informationally rich radar charts:
Jason Mesut did a lot in this area (Shapes of UX designer и Shaping Designers and Design teams). Capital One focuses on strong sides of each designer that could be hardly described by skills — it’s more about thinking and behavior models.
They list 34 qualities:
Knowing strong sides of each of them, you could set up interesting pairs of designers.

Homework

In a pattern “O: T-shaped designers” you made a basic list of product designer skills. Take it as a basis and enhance:
01
Create a matrix and add all designers from your team as columns.
02
Assess designers yourself using levels described.
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