UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 975 March 12, 2013

A Midwesterner's Guide to Recruiting UX Designers

It's damn hard to recruit and hire great user-centered design talent right now. Demand is palpably high. Supply seems depressingly low.

Midwestern organizations are competing against every Silicon Valley startup throwing cash and options at the limited talent pool. To win the recruiting battle against companies in hotspots like San Francisco and New York City, your opportunity can't be just a little bit better. It has to be remarkable, noteworthy, and significantly more interesting than the multitude of jobs in a coastal candidate's back yard.

Once you've finally piqued a candidate's interest, there's a long way to go before you land them. If you're too slow to react or you bungle your correspondence, you're toast.

There is hope. It can be done. Here's what I've learned over the last 18 months, in which I've grown an in-house product design team from two to six.

Obvious Point of Order: Yes, Great Experience Design Happens in the Midwest

Should a candidate ever assert that interesting product and experience design only happens on the coasts, politely point out any of the following counter-examples:

With that out of the way, here's what you can do to stand a chance recruiting someone from the coasts.

Play to Your Organization's Strengths

Is your company competing in an unusual industry? Sell it. Is your startup tracking legitimate, sustainable business metrics? Share some. Do designers have access to full customer databases for research? Spend a couple hours taking an inventory of what sells your company, its culture, and design process. Explain that process and the tools you use. When you describe your company to a stranger, what's the one thing that causes them to actually start listening to you?

At my company, Hudl, we make video apps and services for sports coaches. That fact alone grabs attention. Surprisingly, it's the little things we've touted that have helped tremendously with recruiting, such as:

  • We've listed openings for "Sports-Loving UI Designers," and received hundreds of great cover letters and applications from passionate fans who also happen to design. Here's a chance to build apps that help your favorite teams win.
  • Our office is in the middle of a billion dollar development project in downtown Lincoln, Neb. Lately, I've been sneaking in comments about our box seats at a brand new sports arena.
  • We offer $1,500 with no strings attached to attend a training conference each year. I often couple that with a personal conference recommendation for a candidate given their experience (or lack thereof). Past employees have taken their trip within a couple months of being hired.

Avoid dwelling on things that don't set you apart. For example, unlimited vacation was PR-worthy three years ago. Today, it's table stakes for many startup companies.

Know What You Need and Hustle When You Find It

With all of the titles and skills that fall under the UX umbrella, you can waste a lot of energy on candidates who seem great on paper but ultimately aren’t the kind of designer you need.

One helpful tactic is to explicitly state who you don't want applying at the beginning of your job description. In our search for UI and product designers at Hudl, we say right up-front: this is not a position meant for specialist visual designers. It's also not one for pure front-end developers. But, if you happen to have done a little bit of both, you're in the right place.

It's important to find someone with solid experience in that core area you need most and "flashes" in other areas. So, maybe a candidate has yet to work on any mobile projects. But you learn that at least their portfolio is responsive and mobile friendly. And they have proof of conducting serious user research and usability studies, which is what you really needed in the first place. Get them into your hiring process.

Once you've targeted a potential winner, prepare to hustle. Why? You need to make a strong connection early so that your company stays at the top of your candidate's mind throughout their job search. If you're direct, thorough, and shoulder the back-and-forth communication yourself, you can outmaneuver bigger, slower HR departments.

I'd like to write a more in-depth article on this subject but until then, here are a few obvious and a few subtle tactics, which have helped me hire great designers:

  • Use a simple screener question on your application form to test for depth of thinking in a particular area ("Tell us about your favorite product interface. Why is it your favorite?").
  • Respond to qualified applicants via email within twelve hours (sooner if they apply in the morning). Get back to top candidates as soon as humanly possible (drop what you're doing).
  • When you respond, you must show that you've done your research. Tie their experience and ambitions to your current projects. Be specific and give details.
  • If you'll be their supervisor, let them know so they can start researching you.
  • Provide clear expectations of your hiring process in the first interview. If you can provide exact timelines, do it. Top candidates will have multiple options and offers so any information you can offer makes their search easier. Plus, you'll earn a bit of trust and respect for your company.
  • Set your team apart by using a short-term project to test aptitude (5-15 hours). Pay them adequately and, if they're inexperienced, allow them to use the work in their portfolio (even if you don't give them the job).

Embrace Remote Employees

Incorporating a full-time remote employee into your process is challenging and worth its own article. Thankfully, hiring a remote designer is actually straightforward.

Few companies let designers (or anyone, for that matter) work remotely. It's an immediate way to stand out. For instance, job boards like Authentic Jobs let candidates filter listings to show only telecommuting opportunities.

It's important as a recruiter to look for past experience working with remote teams or freelancing with remote clients. Give them a contract project with loose rules and deliverables and see how they handle the communication. You could use a slightly modified version of the project you'd use for in-house candidates.

Confront Weaknesses Head-on

In the Midwest, you're wise to avoid selling the amazing weather or scenic views. (Though truthfully, it's not nearly as bad as it seems!) Instead, you should find out early what apprehensions a candidate holds about moving to the Midwest. "So, I can imagine the weather in San Diego trumps ours here in Nebraska, but is there anything more significant that would prevent you from making a move to the Midwest?"

Your local area likely has tons to offer. Be ready to make the case early in the conversation with a candidate. It might be the first thing on a forthright coastal candidate's mind. I've lost good candidates because I wasn't prepared to make a compelling case when someone asked: "Why should I move to Nebraska?" right after I introduced the company.

Everyone will save time and feel better if you tackle potential sticking points early. If a coastal candidate senses you might be hiding something, they'll move on to the next opportunity.

In Conclusion: Go Above and Beyond

There's no room for error recruiting great employees from the coasts. Consider every phase of your hiring process from a candidate's perspective and make sure every touch-point goes far beyond the basic expectation.

Since February 2012, I've hired two coastal product designers—one from New York and the other from California. Both were sports fans seeking remote positions for a product-focused company. Our openness to remote work started the conversation but the personal attention and hustle clinched the deal. Hudl's latest two designers were lucky catches from here in Nebraska.

There you have it. I just gave all of my tips away. Return me the favor with your best UX recruiting advice @uxmag @noluckmurphy #uxhiring on Twitter.

 

Image of Chicago skyline courtesy Shutterstock.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Kyle is a serial hobbyist and the VP of User Experience at Hudl. Every few months he’s knee-deep learning about something new—table tennis, photography, Magic the Gathering. Luckily, one of his recent hobbies is designing and building interfaces for software products that put people first. Hopefully he sticks with that one for a while.

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Comments

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I agree, Sean. Since I posted this article, we just hired another remote designer from New York. That brings our total remote designer count to 3 (on a team of 7).Nathan Curtis discusses some solutions to the challenges of UX collaboration with sketching on the EightShapes blog.http://www.eightshapes.com/blog/2011/08/19/sharing-sketches-remotely/

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Embracing remote working is a great idea, too few firms do this, but many say UX design is a highly collaborative effort and designers need to be co-located. I can't speak for the effectiveness of remote design, but I can speak for the increased hiring ability if provides.

Sean Pook | Director www.experiencetalent.com

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How about helping international people move over, or at least giving them information as to how do to it? A lot of us people overseas would love to try out different places—I've found it really interesting to live in the UK in somewhere that isn't London—but are horribly put off my the green card process (one colleague of mine only got to the US as he won a green card lottery!)

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@Ryan245435 - I remember you! I just sent you an email to clear things up further but also let me publicly say: sorry about that #Embarrassing.

@Courtny - You're spot on regarding trust. I don't actually care how you do it as long as you're delivering results and coordinating with the team in the way everyone needs. I trust that you'll take your Xbox breaks when you need them.

There is a flip-side to your salary point. Companies in the mid-west have to realize a competitive salary that factors in cost-of-living on the coasts can be dramatically higher. There's something weird having a candidate ask you for way more money than you make, personally :)

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@Kyle - yes, I have been burned by the bait-and-switch. In fact, it was a position at hudl.com :)

The job was listed as such on authenticjobs, so I assumed it was accurate. Not until the interview concluded did I learn that the remote aspect was inaccurate. I'm aware this comes across as bitterness, but it is a practice I see and hear from others in the industry.

For me, remote working is THE solution. You can't move the oceans and mountains any closer, the weather can't be changed and other job options (should you need them) are nearby. As pointed out by another commenter, if you move to Nebraska and lose your 'UX' job, you are hosed.

My point is this: lets be honest with ourselves. If you want the talent, then you have to be flexible. This article just struck me as fishing for remote workers whom you intend to sway into relocating.

I have since secured a job as a remote product designer and enjoy it very much. I'm hopeful employers take the remote working arrangement more seriously and give it a shot. It would bring talent to your company and job satisfaction to more designers in our industry.

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Quite honestly, this map explains why I don't want to work in the midwest or south (and I grew up there): http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/archive/7/7e/20121125085504!Samesex_marriage_in_USA.svg

When your profession is empathy, being happy living amongst social conservatives who lack it is difficult.

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I went down this very same path once. I worked at a large software engineering firm in Indianapolis and was approached by a company in San Francisco as well as one with a UX team based in Grand Rapids.

I chose Grand Rapids due to the company being based on an entirely remote structure, a history of working this way (15+ years) and their flexibility with salary. Sure, San Francisco is nice, but we have folks based in the Bahamas, Hawaii, New York, and even the Ukraine. Locking yourself into a region is not only limiting your talent pool but also limits your ability to expand with the bottom line in mind. A midwestern employee is much more attractive due to the low cost of living expense and corresponding salary that goes with that. I expect to see an increase in our recruiting from across the Midwest for this very reason.

Utilizing and managing remote employees successfully requires hiring on one key facet: Trust. Can you trust this person to hold up their end of the deal, get work done, and do their best work? Integrity of the individual is the first criteria we validate when we employ folk. In my opinion, being able to pull together an amazing, distributed team is a competitive advantage.

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@Jessica - Carolyn would be a great addition to the list. I'm intrigued to know more about how Starter League is doing. Your point about developing talent locally is dead on. I've been speaking with students at local universities letting them know that yes, in fact, legit UX jobs can be found in Nebraska!

@Tony - Excellent point. It's one reason why regional events like Midwest UX, Big Omaha, etc. that draw talent together are so important. It's a way to show a candidate: "look, we take this stuff just as seriously as everyone." I think something many candidates fail to do is do a true cost-of-living comparison when they're weighing a $150k offer in DC with a $75-90k offer in a smaller community in the Midwest. Like you said, it's definitely a riskier proposition if there are no other companies to pick you up if things fall through.

@Ryan245435 - The bonus we just re-instated as of last week and it's caused an appreciable uptick in applications--no word yet on whether it'll land another solid candidate. If we don't even in spite of the bonus, that'll definitely signal a potentially tapped market. Have you been burned by that bait and switch before? Do you practice UX design remotely?

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Singing my song with this topic! Thanks for the article. An omission: Carolyn Chandler (Manifest Digital, the Starter League), the co-author of "A Project Guide to UX" is also based in Chicago. Your list, while naturally only a sample of the many talented UXers in the Midwest, is oddly all-male.

Not only is there great talent here, local companies should seek local candidates to avoid all the existing and growing Midwest UX talent getting recruited to the coasts. Keep it locally sourced and sustainable.

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The par that makes it difficult is location and salary. In the DC area I can pull a salary of $150K+. I love the idea of remote and more companies need to really look at this if they are going to get the talent that they want. One thing that's important for UX Architects / Designers etc. is the strength of the market in the area. You might have a great opportunity, pay well etc. If you ask me to move to the area and something happens. How easy will it be for me to get another position paying the same thing or more? if your the only game in town you wont be able to grab quality people as there is no safety net for them if something happens. In the greater DC area I can pick up another $140k+ opportunity in 2 weeks or less.

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You could use the 10k to ramp them up on-site :)
The 10k bonus is great, but it also says to me that you have tapped out your local market.

My point is that you ought to take your own advice. It's frustrating that many employers in our industry use remote working as a bait-and-switch to draw applicants.

Good luck in your search.

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@Ryan245435

Good observation. Many of these issues stem from our company's growth in the last 2 years (doubled in size from ~40 to 80). We had some luck at the end of last year and start of this year reaching more into our networks in Nebraska. I started a meetup group (http://nebraskaux.com) to connect designers in the area and that's helped quite a bit.

To your point, though: until I feel like we've tapped out the top design resources in our area, we'll stick with hiring local talent. For us, the ramp-up time is much quicker with local designers but our remote designers are just as good or better in all other facets.

If I'm not able to hire high quality designers into Hudl's product team as fast as we need them, I'll re-open our remote position. The bonus is testing for which other top designers in our area might be interested with a little extra incentive.

That "ramp up" I mentioned could be part of an article on hiring and training remote designers. It's not a not against remote work--just that we could be doing better getting remote designers smoothly up-to-speed quickly.

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How has your experience with remote designers gone? I see your current openings are all in Nebraska, and you are offering 10k signing bonuses. Why not hire another remote worker as the article suggests?