The Web has entered an era of user-centricity. If businesses are to attract new customers and retain existing ones, they must create websites and apps that deliver intuitive and tailored experiences. Whether you run an online retailer or a not-for-profit community website, the user experience is mission critical.
As a consequence, we have seen a real surge in the need for talented user experience (UX) designers who can help turn vision into reality. How do you attract, recruit and retain UX talent in your business?
(Image credit: openwourceway)
If you are anything like us, you’ll be keen to learn from leaders and innovators in our industry, which is why we’ve assembled some luminaries from the UX community to share their insight and experience especially with the Smashing Magazine community.
We’d like to say a big thank you to the experts who made this guide possible. They all have a unique perspective on UX, and their work intersects with it in very different ways.
- Kara Pernice, Nielsen Norman Group
- Peter Merholz, Adaptive Path
- Martin Belam, The Guardian
- Stu Collett and Odette Colyer, Super User Studio and UX Jobs Board
- Tom Wood, Foolproof
- Justin Cooke (@justincooke), Fortune Cookie and chair of BIMA
We asked each of our experts 10 questions. Their perspectives give you a 360° view of how they tackle UX recruitment in their organizations. Jump to the section that grabs your attention, or read through the complete guide for all of their insights.
- How did you learn to hire?
- Do you hire with your head or your heart?
- In a sentence, what makes for a great UX designer?
- How do you advertise UX positions in your company?
- What one question do you ask every candidate?
- Do you have a particular method of assessing candidates?
- Do you hire based on years of experience or achievements and portfolio?
- How do you retain talent?
- What kind of culture do you try to create?
- What skills would you like to see in more UX designers?
1. How Did You Learn To Hire?
Very few people would say they’ve “learned” how to hire, because this would imply that they’ve stopped learning, and of course we all continue to learn every day.
Many of the experts I spoke with continually develop and hone their hiring skills, but their advice hinges on three principles.
Find a Role Model
Tom Wood of Foolproof: “My role model is David Ogilvy. He had a really clear and public view about the qualities he looked for in the people he hired. His quote, ‘If we each hire people smaller than us, we will become a company of dwarfs, but if we each hire those larger than ourselves, we will become a company of giants,’ is a call for everyone in a position to make a point to step up and challenge themselves through the quality of people they hire.”
Martin Belam of The Guardian: “I’ve been on a lot of interview panels through the years and picked up techniques from people such as Mags Hanley, Lorna Leddon and Karen Loasby.”
Learn From the Experiences and Mistakes of Others
Justin Cooke of Fortune Cookie: “Like everything we do at Fortune Cookie, we have never stopped trying to improve our recruitment process. This was achieved by learning from mistakes, through experience and from others particularly asking recruitment agencies and candidates for feedback on how we could be better.”
Find Your Feet
Ultimately, you need to blaze your own hiring trail and go with your instinct. As Kara Pernice of the Nielsen Norman Group emphasizes, “Asking advice from other people who have successfully hired behooves you, but there is nothing like experience.”
Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path says, “I rely a lot on intuition, which has proven mostly successful.”
2. Do You Hire With Your Head Or Your Heart?
Logic and instinct both have their place in the hiring process, and the decision will nearly always be made partly with your head and partly with your heart.
You will likely use your head to determine whether the candidate has the requisite skills, experience and attributes. And then to a certain extent you need to follow your heart and your instinct in deciding whether a candidate is a good fit for your culture.
The experts I spoke with validated this idea, explaining that they initially look at hiring from a rational point of view.
Justin Cooke: “At the first stage we look for the rational, but the ultimate decision has to be based on an emotional connection.”
Peter Merholz sums this up perfectly: “I would say the head is the initial barrier — if I can’t rationalize the hiring decision, then it won’t go anywhere. But after the head makes a decision, the heart plays a part, particularly in thinking about ‘softer’ matters, like personality and cultural fit.”
Stu and Odette: “It’s a balance of finding a person with the right attitude and personality, twinned with skills needed to do the actual job.”
Kara Pernice: “Both, but you have to know you can deal well with each other. And I usually get that feeling from my gut rather than my brain.”
Ultimately, the final decision comes from your head because, as Tom Wood explains, “If you make a mistake with hiring in a small or medium-sized business, you can cause real problems for yourself.”
3. In A Sentence, What Makes For A Great UX Designer?
If you don’t know what you are looking for, you will never know when you’ve found it. Nowhere is this philosophy truer than with hiring.
A real appreciation not only of what makes a superb UX designer but of what kind of person you are looking for is essential if you are to recruit successfully.
What makes a great UX designer is, of course, a matter of opinion, but there is a consensus that a UX designer must, in the words of Martin Belam, “make good stuff and make stuff good.” They must have an ability to interpret and empathize with the user, to simplify the process and to execute a design solution.
Peter Merholz: “An ability to take an empathetic view of the user, and to interpret that into a systematic design solution.”
Justin Cooke: “Someone who can make the complex simple, beautiful and ever so slightly fun.”
Stu and Odette: “Someone with the passion and curiosity to constantly learn more about how people interact with digital products.”
Kara Pernice: “Great UX designers have a desire to innovate and gather knowledge about potential users and customers, and the humility to know that their first design iterations will rarely be great.”
Tom Wood: “The willingness to collaborate with both the end user and the business client during the design process.”
4. How Do You Advertise UX Positions In Your Company?
There is a clear shift in the way UX roles are being advertised, in line with the increasingly social nature of the Web. Interestingly, Stu and Odette still succeed in finding candidates through specialist recruitment agencies, despite the perceived decrease in their popularity.
Here’s how our panelists fill their UX vacancies.
Tom Wood: “Our site, amplified by Twitter and LinkedIn activity.”
Kara Pernice: “We have the luxury of having our boss write a newsletter that reaches many UX professionals, so that is our biggest marketing tool when hiring. It works for us because people who read the newsletter have a sense of what we are about.”
Peter Merholz: “We have our ‘Work with us’ page on adaptivepath.com, and then we reach out through various channels to spread the word: Twitter, our blog, LinkedIn, UX industry mailing lists.”
Martin Belam: “We have our own recruitment portal site, and I usually tweet and blog in a personal capacity to help drum up candidates.”
Justin Cooke: “On the Fortune Cookie website, on LinkedIn, on totaljobs.com, on industry websites like Econsultancy and BIMA, at events and conferences, and through our employees, who receive a bounty to anyone they recommend who we hire.”
Stu and Odette: “UX Jobs Board and specialist recruitment consultancies.”
5. What One Question Do You Ask Every Candidate?
One thing that is universally agreed on is that there is no “right” way to interview someone, so I asked this question of our experts to see if we could at least draw out common themes.
Martin Belam asks of candidates, “Can you describe to me a project that when badly wrong. Why did it go wrong, and what did you personally learn from it?”
Failure is a topic that is all too often avoided in interviews, but a question like this helps the interviewer understand how a candidate copes with failure — failure being inevitable in any career. It helps you determine whether they are capable of humility and also to see how they have professionally developed as a result of failure. This seemingly innocent question can tell the interviewer a great deal about the candidate.
Justin Cooke: “What is the most amazing thing you have seen on the Internet this month?”
Justin’s is a great question to ask because it helps you understand if the candidate is as passionate as they say they are. (Do they keep up with the latest trends, or do they just say they do?) It also helps you to see the kinds of things that they get excited about; the question might just reveal whether the individual is a good cultural fit for your team and the kinds of projects you do.
Peter Merholz: “What is the thing that gets you out of bed every day and wanting to do this kind of work?”
As an interviewer, you undoubtedly want to understand the motivations of the person you are speaking with. After all, motivation is the key to a happy, productive workforce.
That being said, if you flat out ask a person what motivates them, they’ll probably lie to you with the usual interview spiel about their satisfaction in doing a good job.
Asking someone what gets them out of bed every morning is a roundabout way of asking the same thing, but you’ll catch the individual on the hop, and they’ll probably give you a more honest answer than had you asked what motivates them.
Finally, Tom Wood always asks people about their ambitions, “to see if they will push themselves — and us.” This is a superb question and allows you to determine whether the person has planned their professional life in the near and long term or are just plodding.
6. Do You Have A Particular Method Of Assessing Candidates?
Assessing a candidate’s suitability for a job is certainly one of the most, if not the most, challenging aspects of hiring, so understanding how the best in the business do it is helpful.
Some clearly like to go the practical route and judge a candidate by assigning them a task during or following the interview. Justin Cooke says, “Nothing beats setting a task. The output is always fascinating.”
Kara Pernice allows candidates to do most of the talking and gives them simulations to perform, “such as, give a short presentation and send us the video. This can’t truly demonstrate how they would do, but it’s a start. Sometimes we agree with a candidate to first test the waters by hiring them on a contract basis or as an intern. If we are all happy and still interested in the end, we hire them.”
Peter Merholz, Martin Belam and Stu and Odette feel that the process is fairly simple and that a candidate can be assessed based on their credentials and personality. Peter Merholz says, “It’s pretty straightforward: do they have the practitioner chops (across strategy, research and design), and do they have the right personality and cultural fit?”
Martin Belam adds, “I expect anyone in UX to have a significant online presence, and I’m always surprised if they don’t.”
To anyone reading this who is seeking a career in UX, a strong online presence is definitely a prerequisite.
7. Do You Hire Based On Years Of Experience Or Achievements And Portfolio?
I was surprised by the responses to this question. I assumed the quality of the portfolio would weigh more heavily every time, but that wasn’t the case.
Tom Wood responds, “Of the two, experience is probably the one I favor most, simply because anyone can catch a break on the projects they work on and the results they get (success has a thousand fathers, after all). Because of the emphasis we place on working directly with clients and end users, there’s often no substitute for the life experience that makes you comfortable in the company of these groups.”
However, Stu and Odette says, “The latter. You can get people who have been in the industry 10+ years and still haven’t produced good design work.”
Peter Merholz adds that his company generally favors the portfolio, but “if we’re hiring for a more senior role, where things like client-management skills are crucial (and perhaps even more crucial than super-awesome design chops), then experience definitely is a factor.”
Martin Belam supports this by saying, “I think in any team you need a mix of skills and experience. I enjoy mentoring people and bringing younger people into the profession, so I look more at what I think people will be capable of achieving and how they will go about it, rather than years of experience and qualifications.”
Justin Cooke adopts a completely different approach, saying “Years of experience and portfolios are useful inputs and metrics, but we are more interested in a candidate’s answers to our questions and their response to the task that we set.”
8. How Do You Retain Talent?
To someone outside of the UX community, talent retention might not seem like a critical issue, given the state of the economy and how many people are looking for work. But UX is a fiercely competitive market, with agencies and consultancies vying for the attention of the right UX folks.
The level of attention given to talent retention by the people I spoke with is fascinating. Here are what seem to be the key factors in retaining the best UX designers.
Kara Pernice: “We try to give people opportunities they are interested in.”
Tom Wood does it “by thinking every day about what motivates our people and making sure we do everything we can to help them realize their personal goals and ambitions. Beer also helps.”
Peter Merholz: “There is no UX consulting firm that allows the autonomy and freedom that Adaptive Path provides. Also, our commitment to sharing ideas, through writing, speaking and teaching, is unparalleled and attractive to our team.”
Professional Development and World-Class Training
Justin Cooke swears by “never saying no to a training request; employing brilliant leaders; listening to everyone’s ideas and auctioning them to make us a better agency; continually communicating how we are doing; starting at 10:00 am; tracking the market to ensure that our salary and benefits packages are among the best in the industry; and ensuring that we understand everyone’s career goal and mapping out a plan to make it a reality.”
Stu and Odette: “We’re a pleasure to work with, and we only focus on a set number of projects, so as not to stretch people too far. The quality goes down if you do.”
9. What Kind Of Culture Do You Try To Create?
This question follows on the last one, because culture is obviously central to talent retention, and there are clear crossovers between the answers to the previous question and how this filters down through the culture that these leaders are trying to promote.
“Constellations are more interesting than individual stars.” This is the eloquent way in which Tom Wood describes the team culture he is trying to foster.
Justin Cooke supports the notion of a team culture by adding, “We are aiming to create a passionate team that cares for each other and is 100% committed to improving the digital world to make the real world a better place.”
Kara Pernice focuses more on the individual, describing the culture that she is trying to foster as being more autonomous, with “professionals producing high-quality, rigorous work that improves design for clients and UX professionals.”
10. What Skills Would You Like To See In More UX Designers?
I was most looking forward to hearing the responses to this question, not only for the insight, but also because they will help job seekers hone their skills in the most sought after areas.
The thing many of the experts seem to be looking for is holistic in nature — a well-roundedness more than particular design skills.
Tom Wood describes the need for more charming UX designers, who are “comfortable thinking in the same room as clients.”
Justin Cooke looks for “a stronger understanding and awareness of the entire customer journey; a desire to improve the entire service rather than just the experience, and brilliant good storytelling.”
Stu and Odette add, “The ability to pragmatically design for digital products, rather than being able to talk solely about UX in general. Our industry is suffering from too many talkers and not enough walkers.”
Martin Belam says, “I wish people would read more widely, and more about some of the traditional design skills.”
According to Peter Merholz (and I tend to agree here), “Facilitation skills are becoming increasingly crucial in our work; being able to coordinate cross-functional teams and get the most and best out of them.”
UX is a hard skill to teach; no formal credentials are required, and no two career paths or job descriptions are the same. In fact, pinning down exactly what UX is can be difficult. It can mean different things to different people. Some UX design positions require only graphic design skills, others mainly planning and wireframing. Most, however, require a combination of design, planning, negotiation, conflict management, objectivity, leadership and openness. Above all, a good UX professional must have a natural appreciation of the human mind and be open to new attitudes and approaches and to exploring the impact of real people on the commercial environment around them.
Recruiting and hiring great UX professionals can be both challenging and fun. Quite often, the “right” person will be wildly different from the person you initially expected, and skill, judgement and intuition are required to pick them out.
One thing is for sure, though: UX skills are in high demand and short supply. It’s a candidate’s market, and companies need to try now more than ever to attract and retain the best minds in the field if they are to succeed online.
© Matthew Ogston for Smashing Magazine, 2012.