Essential skills for product designers

For designers, only good design skill doesn’t guarantee success. We need more skills to be better and succeed in your career.
Essential skills for product designers
Photo by Nelly Barquin / Unsplash

In the previous post, I shared about why every new skill you acquire will double your odds of success and listed down a list of essential skills that Scott recommended. In this post, I want to elaborate on each skill on why they are important, and how you can learn it.

Public speaking

As I mentioned in the previous post on why I create a podcast. It’s to practice my voice to be better at talking. Presenting is essential for product designers. We need to be good at it to convince stakeholders working on it.

One thing I’ve learned is that we don’t always have an accurate view of our potential. I think most people are frightened of public speaking can’t imagine they might feel different as a result of training. Don’t assume you know how much potential you have. Sometimes the only way to know what you can do is to test yourself.

Another valuable lesson I’ve found it’s useful for starting. It’s to write your speech before talking. Writing can help you organize your thought better, and a way for us to passively practice for the speech. I always do like this when I have a presentation. And this is not for an amateur. All great speakers have some way of writing to prepare for their speeches. So next time when you present something, try to write your thought first. You will see how’s useful it is.

Public Speaking ranks at the top fear, above the dead and anything else. I had some chances to speak in front of two hundred people, that’s the crowdest one I ever do. It was a difficult, but powerful skill. Anything is learnable, we just need some preparation and practice.


A real-estate salesperson might show you the worst house first, knowing it will make you appreciate the better home you see later, and it might make you reach deeper in your pockets. A car salesman knows that a high sticker price will make the eventual negotiated price look better than it would have otherwise.

You’ve heard the old saying that knowledge is power. But knowledge of psychology is the purest form of that power. There are many debates about which additional skills designers should learn. Should designers code, write, understand business? They are valuable but not essential. I’ll argue that every designer should learn the fundamentals of psychology.

As designers, we can leverage psychology to build more intuitive, human-centered products and experiences. But not only apply for work. Psychology is about humans, so understand it will help us understand why people choose one option versus the other one or how we can persuade them.

Wikipedia has a list of cognitive biases. It looks like a lot to know. It’s a good idea to make psychology your lifelong study. In design, here are the key principles that are more popular than the others.

Business writing

Business writing is about getting to the point and leaving all of the noise. You think you already do that in your writing, but you probably don’t.

Consider the previous sentence. The sentence that starts with ‘You think you already do that’ includes the unnecessary word ‘already’. Remove it and you will get the same meaning: ‘You think you do that. The ‘already’ is assumed and unnecessary.

Another example is “They boy hit the ball’ is easier for your brain to processes than ‘The ball was hit by the boy’. It’s a tiny difference, but throughout an entire document, passive writing adds up and causes reader fatigue.

Clean writing makes a writer seem smarter and it makes the writer’s arguments more persuasive.

Business writing is also the foundation for UX writing. Unnecessary words and passive writing add noise to the experience and make it complicated.

I’ve shared many times in this blog about the importance of writing. The day I become a better designer is the day I start writing. It helps a lot during my work. It makes me think deeper about problems and comes up with ideas that have not constraints on visual. It makes me confident before each presentation.


There are many reasons to have a conversation: to entertain, to feel connected, to befriend, to seduce, to persuade, to be polite, to avoid awkward silence,…

If you are an introvert, it will be awkward for you to start a conversation. But keep in mind that the person you meet will feel the same as you do. That person wants to talk about something interesting and to sound knowledgeable. Your job is to make it easy.

‘The point of conversation is to make the other person feel good.’– Scott Adam

The technique to start a conversation is laughably simple and 100 percent effective. As Dale Carnegie teaches us in his famous book ‘How to win friend and influence people, it goes like this:

  1. What’s your name?
  2. Where do you live?
  3. Do you have a family?
  4. What do you do for a living?
  5. Do you have any hobbies/sports?
  6. Do you have any travel plans?

So, start by smiling and keeping your body language open. After that, just ask questions and listen as if you care, all the while looking for common interests. Everyone likes to talk about his or her own life, and everyone appreciates as a sympathetic listener. Eventually, if you discover some common interests, you’ll feel a connection without any effort.

Besides starting a conversation with new people, I found one more thing you make a good conversationalist. It’s storytelling. Telling good but interesting stories.

As a writer, Scott translates whatever he observes into a story form with a setup, a twist, and some sort of punch line. You can do the same thing. Try to get in the habit of asking yourself how you can turn your interesting experiences into story form.

Scott advises that the most important key to good storytelling is preparation. You don’t want to figure out your story as you tell it. If something story-worthy happens to you, spend some time developing the story structure in your head.

We all know about the power of storytelling. And it’s a learnable skill.

‘Smile, ask questions, avoid complaining and sad topics, and have some entertaining stories ready to go. It’s all you need to be in the top 10% of all conversationalists.’– Scott Adam

Overcoming shyness & being confident

This is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in the past 2 years. When I first moved to Singapore and joined Carousell. I was nervous. I couldn’t introduce myself during a meeting. I thought the cause is my language problem. But my manager said that my language is fine because I got the offer to move to Singapore, I can write, I can speak, people can understand me. The problem is my shyness. I have a fear of judgment from other people. The fear of a designer with bad English and communication.

It took 2 years for me to learn. But if you are reading this, you should avoid my mistake. Most designers are introverts or ambivert (both introvert and extrovert), we tend to keep quiet. It might works if we’re in a team of people that understand us to know how we are. But it’s not realistic. We need to raise our voice, to speak louder, to speak more.

I worked with many people that they are very good at speaking and very confident. I asked them the secret and they said that the secret of overcoming shyness is imagining you are acting instead of interacting. Another thing to keep in mind is that most people feel awkward in social situations too. Changes are the person you are talking to is feeling just as shy. The other person is only pretending to be socially talented, just as I am.

If you can’t control your shyness directly, wait until you’re rich and successful. Success building confidence and confidence suppress shyness ( :D ).

Second language

A second language can qualify you for a large range of jobs and opportunities compared with your monolingual peers. As a Vietnamese, it’s crystal clear that knowing English is a huge competitive advantage. In Vietnam, if you are influent English, you are probably the boss. In the tech and design industries, English is a must if you want to work in this domain.

Your situation will differ, but it always makes sense to know an extra language. It’s a huge competitive advantage.

I spent five years learning French and ignored English during my university. But now, while English helps me got good jobs in Singapore, French faded away and became useless. So maybe not French as the first second language. Even though it’s fun and sexy.


No matter your calling in life, you’ll spend a great deal of time trying to persuade people to do one thing or another. You might be a salesperson trying to close deals, a designer trying to convince others with your solution, or anyone with a boss, a family, or friends. Nearly every interaction with others involves some form of persuasion, even if it’s subtle.

A good starting point in learning the art of persuasion is to go you your preferred online book store and search for ‘persuasion. You’ll see several books on the topic. One of the best books I recommend to you is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Keep reading them until they seem to be repeating the same tricks. And when you use them, you’ll be amazed about their magic for the rest of your life.

I’ve learned many things about persuasion from the book by Scott Adam and other books. Let me summarize them here.

There are some words and phrases that are more persuasive than others.

‘Because…’ is a powerful word. Research showed that if we ask for favor with a reason that starts with ‘because’, even the reason is nonsense, people will be more cooperative.

‘This is just between you and me’. Research also shows that people will automatically label you a friend if you share s secret. Sharing confidence is a fast-track way to make people like and trust you.

On decisiveness. Life is messy and you’re going to be right only sometimes. You’ll do everyone a favor by acting decisively, though, even if you have doubts on the inside. Keep in mind that most normal people are at least a little bit uncertain when facing unfamiliar and complicated situations. If you can deliver an image of decisiveness, others will see it as leadership.

On insanity/craziness In most groups, the craziest person is in control. Because crazy people also take more risks and act more confidently. In contrast, reasonable people generally cave into irrational people because it seems like the path of least resistance. In negotiation, the worst thing you can do is act reasonably.

A little bit of irrationality is a powerful thing.

Proper voice technique

I don’t know much about the voice technique. This is new to me and I’ve learned it from the book. But I found it’s very interesting and useful and I want to practice.

There’s a pattern I see in leaders and higher-level managers: they have attractive, distinctive voices. Studies also show that a commanding voice is highly correlated with success.

The idea of proper voice technique is that it’s helpful to have different vocal strategies for different situations. Your fun voice might be higher pitched and more rapid, whereas your serious voice might be deeper and more measured. And it’s important to keep a lot of distance between your fun voice and your persuasive voice.

Some tricks that I learn from the book. When we’re in ‘professional’ mode, we should use a serious-sounding tone of voice. When we manage people, we should speak in a way that sounds authoritarian and reasonable. In meeting with higher-ups, we could lower our tone and speak with the sort of self-assurance that only the insane come by honestly.

The list of combinable skills isn’t meant to be comprehensive. And every person is in a unique situation. For you, the right skill may be photography. You’ll recognize them when you see them. Now, your mind is tuned to think in that way.