Originally published: Jul 18, 2013
Right now, it’s difficult to hire a great UX professional. The demand is very high for both generalist UX designers and for specialists, like information architects or user researchers.
The most talented folks are hard to locate and bring in for interviews. Many of the folks who end up applying for openings lack the skills necessary to do the job.
This puts added pressure on an already stressful hiring process. In research we’ve conducted over the last couple of years, we’re seeing many teams turning away great candidates and hiring people who aren’t qualified to do the work.
Hiring is not a natural process. It needs to be designed, just like any experience. In our research, we learned that most teams amble into the hiring process by copying actions from others or by inventing wacky steps.
Getting great results when you’re inventing what you’re doing on the fly is very difficult. (And HR departments, we’re sad to say, don’t really know much more about hiring in general, let alone hiring great UX folks.)
Yet, we discovered several teams with a great hiring record. They are identifying ideal candidates and building teams that produce great results. Here are four techniques we learned from them that help ensure a successful hiring process:
As one manager put it, “You wouldn’t go shopping if you didn’t know what your pantry and fridge already had or were missing.” We met several managers who started their hiring process with a team skill assessment.
The technique is straight forward. You make a list of the necessary skills needed from the team to complete the work over the next year. These skills might include information architecture, visual design, jQuery prototyping, user research, or copywriting. Whatever skills the work will demand to create great experience design.
In a spreadsheet, with each skill as a row, the hiring manager creates columns for each current team member. In each intersecting cell, the senior UX folks on the team rate the skills of each team member. (A few years back, we walked through a similar process in Assessing Your Team’s UX Skills.)
When done, the senior members of the team will have a great 30,000 foot view of the team’s strengths and weaknesses. Several teams we met keep these charts up to date in between hiring rounds, identifying where the team could use some training, when they might want to bring in consultants, and how to decide who to hire next.
When a team starts the hiring process without assessing their current skills, they end up duplicating skills they already have and leaving out important skills they truly need. The team ends up producing inferior designs even though they’ve just hired new talent.
We found the successful teams based their hiring on two areas - work they already know how to do and work they’ve never done before. The way they recruit, interview, and qualify the candidates changes dramatically, once they’ve decided which way they are heading.
We call these two directions hiring for hands and hiring for brains. Hiring for hands is when the team sees their future work filled with stuff they already know how to do well. They need to hire because they just don’t have enough people to handle the workload.
When a team hires for hands, they look for people with existing work practices that are close to how the team currently works. They want to hire people who quickly learn how their team works and adapt to their ways.
A team wants to hire for brains when the work ahead is unchartered territory. They want to bring in expertise to tackle problems and avoid obstacles they can’t yet see. The team needs an extra brain to figure this new stuff out, hopefully stocked with the knowledge and experience of solving similar challenges.
Unlike hiring for hands, the work isn’t defined yet, so the team will need people who are inclined to study the problem and puzzle out the challenges, instead of being told what to do. They need to look for folks who have comparable experience in the areas of the new work. And they need people who love a challenge, and have a history of bringing their teams along with them as they figure it out.
The personalities of great ‘hands’ candidates are quite different from those who will make great ‘brains’ candidates. If the team doesn’t know which they are hiring for, they are likely to choose the wrong person for the job, even though that individual is a very talented designer. This will yield frustration down the road when the new hire is itchy because they’re being asked to do things they aren’t interested in or can’t handle.
Several of the hiring managers we met were disciples of the recruiter Lou Adler, who’s book Hire with Your Head is the bible of performance-based hiring. In performance-based hiring, you don’t rely on previous experience, such as “5 years building e-commerce designs.” Instead, you declare intentions for the new hire’s work and let the candidate prove they can handle it.
One of the core tools in Mr. Adler’s method is the performance profile. This document describes the objectives the team needs the new hire to achieve in their first year.
We saw teams take this document very seriously. Before they wrote the job ad, reviewed resumes, or conducted interviews, they focused on creating a performance profile that accurately described the work ahead. Each objective was time based (“In the first two months”) and measurable (you could easily tell when it would be completed). The objectives were ordered, with the most important ones first.
Often, the entire team was involved in creating and discussing the objectives. These deliberations helped everyone understand why the position was needed. Often, team members who aren’t typically involved in the hiring process contributed details about the work that managers weren’t aware of.
By using a performance-based model, the team directly compares every candidates’ previous experience against what they’ll need them to do. This creates a more objective method to explore a candidate’s competence and potential.
Teams who launch into hiring without having a sense of the new hire’s first year objectives end up with a scattered approach to qualifying candidates. It’s harder to communicate which experience and traits to identify to the screening and interviewing team. Great candidates end up being eliminated prematurely and not-so-great candidates are given stronger consideration.
One surprise we found was how much effort the successful teams’ managers put into designing the entire interview experience. And they didn’t look at it from only the candidate’s experience; they also took a look at what it was like to be an interviewer.
Every member of the interview team was briefed and coached in advance. They went beyond proper interview techniques to how to qualify each candidate.
They held discussions on what would make a great new hire. They assigned each interviewer their own specific objective from the performance profile, so the interviewer would look at their candidates with a comparative lens specific to what the job entails.
The managers had assessment forms that looked at critical qualities like technical skills, project management skills, team skills, problem solving skills, and cultural fit. Before the first interviews, they went over the various ratings for each quality, establish a common vocabulary on what made a candidate great.
Teams that didn’t design the experience discovered their interview process to be slipshod. At the end of a round of interviews, they’d evaluate based on emotion instead of a thoughtful consideration of the candidate’s real capabilities. They’d miss important details. It was very likely they would dismiss someone on first impressions instead on whether that person was really suited for the job.
We’ve learned hiring the right individual is the most important factor to a UX team’s success. If a team brings on the wrong person, it drags everyone down. If they bring on the right person, the team can do more than ever before.
Yet hiring is not something we usually talk about professionally. It’s the most important thing we can do, yet we treat it like an after thought.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With techniques like the ones we’ve uncovered, teams can give thoughtful consideration to their interview process. In essence, they can design their interview process, just like everything else they work on. And when they do, they’ll see improvements to everything they do.
Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems.
How do you get the most out of your UX hiring process? Share your techniques with us on our blog.
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