What makes UXers tick? How are they different from other people? What do they have in common among themselves?
We surveyed a group of UXers to see. First, we surveyed them using the Five Factor Model, a standard typology widely recognized in personality research
(Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are by Daniel Nettle is a good introduction). We followed that up with a survey using the Holland Codes, or the RIASEC model, another standard that relates personality specifically to occupation (try John Holland’s Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Careers).
Everyone is different. At the same time, people can definitely be grouped by specific attributes. We all implicitly recognize this and make use of it every day. It is behind common utterances like the following:
- “He’s so shy.” / “She’s a real go-getter.”
- “She’s a bit on the cold side.” / “He’s such a warm person.”
- “I’m a little obsessive-compulsive.” / “I’m afraid I’m a little disorganized.”
- “She’s very detail-oriented.” / “I’m a big-picture type.”
- “You’re so laid back.” / “He’s a little up-tight.”
- “She’s so close-minded.” / “I’m open to anything.”
Different cultures and thinkers have recognized this over the years and have tried to come up with their own typologies. A very popular one was based on “humors.” Dating back to the ancient Greeks and lasting to modern times, it posited four basic personality types: sanguine (extroverted and energetic), choleric (dominant and decisive), melancholic (introverted and anxious), and phlegmatic (easy-going and uninvolved).
More modern typologies date from the early 20th Century, from the advent of psychoanalysis in particular and from an increased interest in psychology in general. Some influential typologies developed during the 20th Century include the following:
- Alfred Adler’s
- Carl Jung’s
- Hans Eysenck’s
Five Factor Model
Only one model, however, was genuinely research-based. This model, the Five Factor Model (also known as the Big Five, OCEAN, and CANOE), identified five basic factors. These factors represent a continuum, as shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Five Factor Model and Values
|Factor||High Values||Low Values|
|Rebellious, non-conforming||Disliking complexity|
|Productive||Engaging in fantasy, daydreams|
|Ethical||Unable to delay gratification|
|Gregarious||Avoiding close relationships|
|Agreeableness||Sympathetic, considerate||Critical, skeptical|
|Giving||Expresses hostility directly|
|Irritable||Content with self|
|Thin-skinned||Having a clear-cut personality|
Each type is further made up of several individual traits as shown in Table 2.
Table 2. Five Factor Model and Traits
|Values||Order||Excitement-seeking||Tender-mindedness||Vulnerability to stress|
Most importantly, this model has since served as the basis of most serious research into personality ever since it was developed.
Five Factor Model Survey
We first attempted to see what makes UXers tick by running a survey using the Five Factor Model (FFM).
We used a survey of 60 questions available for free at www.truity.com. We then asked respondents to report their results with a survey developed using SurveyMonkey. We elicited responses from a number of different sources:
- Facebook groups devoted to UX
- A popular listserv devoted to UX
- Lists of UX employees from companies the authors work for currently or have worked for in the past
We were able to get 49 UX practitioners to complete the survey, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The occupation breakdown for our Five Factor Model survey.
Overall FFM result scores are shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. The results for our Five Factor Model survey.
NOTE: Figure 2 shows that we used a positive value for Neuroticism—Emotional stability, making it more consistent with the other values and easier for our participants to understand.
As shown in Figure 2, UXers overweighted on Openness, Conscientiousness, and Agreeableness.
These results can be compared with previous work done looking at work success in general and success in IT.
Table 3. Comparison of the FFM Factors to IT, Work in General, and UX
|Factor||Work in general||IT in general||UX|
In particular, it seems that successful personality traits for a UXer build on those needed for both success in general and for success in IT, but with the extra addition of Agreeableness.
Conscientiousness, Openness, Agreeableness, and lack of Neuroticism are important traits for success in UX. Conscientiousness and lack of Neuroticism, though, are basic requirements for success in any professional career. Openness probably helps UXers be creative and innovative, a trait we actually share with more technical colleagues within IT. Finally, Agreeableness is somewhat unique for our profession, but is key for empathy with users as well as collaboration with teammates. Extroversion is the only trait that is lacking, though it might be useful for UXers who want to get into management or be more entrepreneurial.
We decided to follow up our previous work with a new model, one that ties personality to occupation.
Another way to look at personality and occupation is through a model called RIASEC. This model was developed by John Holland, and is, thus, often referred to as the Holland Codes (he was also a professor at John Hopkins University). Like the Five Factor Model, it is research- and data-based, and is recognized as a standard in the field.
This model, as shown in Table 4, posits six different personality types when it comes to occupational choice and success.
Table 4. RIASEC Personality Types and Typical Occupations
|Realistic (doers)||Practical, hands-on, physical, concrete, tangible, mechanical, athletic||Farmer, driver, carpenter, firefighter, electrician, police officer|
|Investigative (thinkers)||Curious, analytical, intellectual, observant, logical, unconventional||Professor, scientist, engineer, physician, psychologist, researcher|
|Artistic (creators)||Creative, imaginative, self-expressive, original, intuitive, unstructured, unconventional||Musician, actor, graphic designer, chef, writer, journalist|
|Social (helpers)||Friendly, nurturing, helpful, idealistic, insightful, outgoing, understanding, cooperative, flexible, responsive||Nurse, social worker, teacher, counselor, customer service, HR|
|Enterprising (persuaders)||Self-confident, assertive, competitive, sociable, persuasive, energetic, decisive, goal-oriented, results-driven||Business, sales, management, real estate, marketing, politician|
|Conventional (organizers)||Structured, organized, methodical, orderly, efficient, detail-oriented, precise, accurate, conscientious||Accounting, administration, actuary, office manager, paralegal|
NOTE: UX professions are highlighted in bold in the table.
Considerable research has been done on how the Five Factor Model matches up with RIASEC. A review of that literature gives us something like what is shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. The RIASEC Model and the Five Factor Model.
Note the following about Figure 3:
- The size of the FFM factor reflects how strongly it correlates with the RIASEC code.
- Factors with an asterisk are those that match up with factors we identified in our survey for success in UX.
This seems to point to several conclusions:
- Conscientiousness is a basic requirement for UX. Though it is necessary, however, it is not sufficient. Someone with only a Conventional bent would probably not be happy or successful in the field (outside, of course, a strictly conventional role like a project manager).
- Openness is probably the most important trait, useful for both Investigative types (researchers), Artistic ones (graphic designers, copywriters), and even more technical ones. A UX career might be especially difficult without at least some Openness.
- Agreeableness matches well with a Social orientation and can help explain UXers’ ability to collaborate as well as to empathize with their users and with their fellow team members.
- On the other hand, the Extroversion that goes with Social might be more of a stretch for the average UXer. It should, though, work very well for managers of UX teams. This is also reflected in the strong correlation between Extroversion and Enterprising scores.
We followed up our Five Factor Model (FFM) survey with one on RIASEC.
We used a survey of 42 questions available for free from the University of Hawaii. We then asked respondents to report their results with a survey developed using SurveyMonkey. We used the same sources as we did for the FFM survey.
We were able to get 42 UX practitioners to complete the survey, as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4. The occupation breakdown for RIASEC.
Overall scores for the RIASEC survey are shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5. The results of the RIASEC survey.
UXers seemed to have the following characteristics using the RIASEC survey:
- Overweight on Investigative and Social traits
- Overweight slightly on Artistic and Realistic
- Underweight on Conventional and Enterprising
We interpreted these findings as follows:
- Investigative and Social reflect what we found with our FFM survey (i.e., with Openness and Agreeableness).
- Artistic reflects the FFM scores as well (i.e., with Openness), with the slightly lower score possibly reflecting the sample’s overweighting on researchers.
- Realistic scored much higher than predicted based on the FFM survey. It may reflect the hands-on nature of many graphic designers as well as some interest in devices such as smartphones in general or lab hardware in particular.
- Conventional scored slightly lower than predicted. This may reflect the idea that its analog, Conscientiousness, is considered a basic requirement.
- The low score on Enterprising reflects low FFM scores on Extroversion.
Our results, using several different studies, point to the following conclusions:
- Conscientiousness (Conventional), Openness (Investigative, Artistic), Agreeableness (Social), and lack of Neuroticism are important traits for success in UX.
- Conscientiousness (Conventional) and lack of Neuroticism are basic requirements for success in any professional career.
- Openness (Investigative, Artistic) help us be creative and innovative, and work with teammates who are even more so.
- Agreeableness (Social) is key for empathy with users and collaboration with teammates.
- Improving our Extroversion (Entrepreneurship) could make us more influential and effective, and it is important for UX managers and entrepreneurs, especially when they need to sell UX with upper management.
As for implementing these findings, these final thoughts may prove helpful:
- Though we have identified some ideal traits, team diversity is very important as well. For example, team members should not all be clones, and they will have their own strengths and weaknesses. In key situations, a successful team needs to behave with more extroversion and assertiveness than many UX individuals could exhibit reliably on their own. Therefore, a successful UX team must have either a UX manager who can readily exhibit these traits, or the team must find a way to behave as a group with appropriate assertiveness to the rest of the organization.
- Individuals who are already in UX and are not “perfect matches” may be just fine as they are. At the same time, and if they are comfortable with the idea, they might be encouraged to move outside their comfort zones and “stretch” themselves.
- Management should support such efforts, creating a “safe space” where employees can grow.
- Growth efforts probably need to occur outside of the direct models of the Five Factor Model and RIASEC. However, both have seemingly very judgmental terminology—neuroticism, conventional, etc. Managers can encourage growth using different terminology and adjusting any kind of efforts with the individual in mind.
- Indeed, managers need to realize that there is often considerable sensitivity among individuals about being typed when it comes to personality. Resistance needs to be handled diplomatically and sensitively, and may indicate that the employee may not be ready. The manager can, however, rest assured that FFM and RIASEC are data- and research-based standards.
- Individuals may also benefit from identifying their strengths and weaknesses on their own and coming up with a growth plan that fits their own needs and values.
- Individuals who are interested in UX should consider how well they match what we have identified as the “perfect type.” However, they should not be discouraged from pursuing their career whatever their type. The fact that UX already appeals to them may be enough for success.
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