Improving Hiring for User Experience: The Interviewer
As I mentioned in my previous article on improving the hiring process for UX (two words: scented resumes), the rapid expansion of our field has created some confusion as to just what duties a person working in “user experience” might be performing, and what that person might be truly capable of. (This is to say nothing of the many, many titles within the UX community that can describe vastly different skill sets from one agency to the next.)
Now that we’ve looked at some of the ways the applicant can set him or herself apart from the herd and connect with potential employers, it’s time to sit for a while in the seats of those doing the hiring. This article will explore some protocols with regards to how to interview for UX, and also explain an interviewing exercise that I’ve had success with in the past.
Outline the Process
As a hiring manager, be upfront and honest about how long you expect things to take, how many steps to the process there will be, and who else in your organization might be contacting the candidate. In-person interview timeslots that are short and sweet and held in repetition work better—four individual interviews of 30-minutes each expose more about each candidate than a two-hour marathon with a single one. The conversation is fresher, crisper, and you get a better sense of comparison after each talk.
With four 30-minute sprints, the same basic subjects (experience, technique, background, etc.) will likely be discussed, and initial reactions can be better analyzed. Longer, meandering conversations provide little reference to one another afterwards, as the topics generally go off track with the natural ebb-and-flow of conversational tangents. Keep things tight, structured and on-script.
With these short sprints in conversation, there might be cause to bring the candidate in on multiple occasions. However, it’s not good business to string an applicant along for four score and evermore with no feedback either way, especially if they’ve been contacted personally past the initial screening. Whether it’s weeks or months, communicate that there is a indeed a timeframe in place. This allows the applicant to adjust his or her mindset accordingly and prepare alternative plans in case of rejection.
Know What You Need
As the interviewer, sometimes it’s just as important to understand what you’re looking for as it is to find who you’re looking for. This means understanding the shortcomings of your current environment or skillset, exposing them, and asking for help—not an easy task in anyone’s life, professional or personal. Be humble in admitting that you need help in these areas, and ask the applicant how they would respond to the request. A one-sided conversation seldom hits upon specific pain-points, as the applicant usually has no idea about your process, or the context in which the hire is needing to be made.
One of the most disheartening interviews I've ever had was with a network router company in the South Bay that is not traditionally known for their UX work, and perhaps didn't quite know the best practices of user-centered design (or more likely, how to relate to living, breathing human beings). While on-site for the introductory interview, I waded through the first few floors of their cube farm, and was escorted to a darkened conference room. I was placed in front of battery of a half-dozen interviewers, all silent, their laptops open with white glows illuminating their faces. It felt positively Cylon.
Dan Saffer talked long ago about the merits of a "topless meeting"—how so much more is gained when we disconnect momentarily from laptops and other devices and listen to one another. Being able to devote your time to the applicant sitting in front of you shows you understand the user’s experience as an interviewee. If you cannot conduct a research session with a potential co-worker, then user experience isn’t a priority of yours, or of your place of employment.
For this interview, I was unable to connect to the panel, as I wasn’t sure which words were resonating (to justify further elaboration), and which were being lost in the multi-task. Were they Googling me? Chat-rouletting with other potential candidates? Working remotely and maximizing efficiency of meetings by multi-tasking is fine, but job interviews are not the time nor the place for such endeavors.
Three Card Monte
Another tale of "When Interviews Go Wrong" came in the form of an exercise still sticks with me as something not to do. During this interview, circa 2009, I was led into a conference room with two Design Leads and given a one-page brief describing a new email client that I was to help actualize. My first instinct was to begin asking questions around the product itself, which was for an email client: Who is the target market? What is the typical usage? Is this a web-based product or add-on to something like Outlook? Anything to jumpstart the thought process would have helped.
Judging by their frustrated frowns, however, it quickly became apparent that asking questions was not what I was brought in to do. User research was no longer necessary, as they’d already provided me a piece of paper. I was pointed to a whiteboard, handed a marker and told to start sketching. While the two Design Leads sat back and watched, I spent the next twenty minutes working through the various components and states of this imaginary concept. It was a bit unnerving, and as a result, I didn’t get a sense that collaboration was a part of the company’s process.
I resolved to do things differently when I was the one hiring the candidates. After all, the design process isn’t a one-way conversation; it’s a shared effort. The interview process should be handled the same way. Throwing work over the fence often yields little benefit for anyone.
Draw Monkey Draw
In the exercise mentioned above, the potential employers had the advantage of referencing the application that I sketched in comparison to all those who interviewed before me. For a single product, this may have some relevance, but it doesn’t often suit my hiring needs. At digital agencies or consultancies, we receive a wide variety of requests from clients who are selling everything from tampons to computer processors. We have to place the emphasis on improvisation.
I did like the forced visual approach to the sketching exercise, however, and modified the assignment into ‘Draw Monkey Draw (DMD)’—something that’s a bit more collaborative.
DMD is often used as an icebreaker exercise, with a more formal discussion around expectations and company information done in separate sessions beforehand. Having to force improvisation requires creativity, a foundation for any position within the field of design. Here is the process as we currently apply it:
- Three participants are in the room for this exercise: two interviewers and one interviewee. The position/department of the secondary interviewer (assuming you’re the UX representative) can fluctuate. In our case, they are often from the creative department (both copywriting and design), but sometimes they come from our strategy or product teams. This variety presents good diversity in the ability and methods used to communicate through different means—visually, literary, or otherwise.
- All three participants draw from a stack of index cards, each with a color-coded corner. The orange tabbed cards are indicative of the target Audience, the green dictates the Platform (mobile, tablet, text-only, etc) and the last, blue, states the Task— the experience to be accomplished in this process. For example, a real drawing scenario called for a tablet (Platform) device to help the clergy (Audience) perform home automation (Task). Another was mobile device to help dogs track their location. All three participants go off the same draw for each round, and take turns in being the one who chooses the set.
- With the Task, Device, and Audience in place, a timer is set for the sketching to begin. We started with three minutes, but found that it was too short a time to cogitate, process, and illustrate a novel concept. Four or five minutes feels much better in terms of timing to craft a throw-away idea, but still being able to iterate it effectively. You can also do musical chairs, playing a song with the same duration and ending the draw when the song stops.
- At the start of the timer, all three work in silence (sometimes humming along) from the same cards, with their own pens and paper to flesh out their approach. At the end of the time allotted, the interviewee presents first. They’re on the spot to show off their idea and sell the interaction and experience concept, referencing existing technology in the industry as well as any foreseen constraints or advantages. Storytelling is very helpful in user experience, and having the ability to create a narrative, even around a fictional concept, sets candidates apart.
- Following a quick Q&A to see how applicants respond to inquiry and criticism around their ideas, the other two participants (existing employees) present their ideas. The applicant is now asked to interview the other two participants, to see what kind of analytic, listening, and reference skills they have when not designing. It exposes their levels of empathy, how deep they’re willing to prove around an idea, and how much detail they can go into about an idea that isn't their own. It also shows what type of rapport the interviewer might potentially have with their co-workers.
- At the conclusion of three rounds of this random draw, the applicant is asked which of the nine ideas resonated with them and why. Through this conclusion portion of the exercise, we’re asking them to have an opinion, to potentially say critical things about themselves or another idea—an important aspect of collaboration. In a company of “yes men,” there are no bad ideas, and no concept is abandoned—a poor an inefficient approach to be sure. Making progress means cutting dead weight, as well as not being afraid to offend someone by putting down their concept.
Soft-skills are vitally important in our industry. After the card game, if neither interviewer nor applicant feels relaxed and comfortable with one another, then there’s likely a disconnect and the hire has revealed themselves as probably not a right fit.
This exercise is meant to be lighthearted and fun. The uncertainty in the randomness of the draw often reveals truths about each participant’s personality and illuminates how collaborating them will be. This also true for the interviewer as well. If the one conducting the exercise is showing that a stranger’s ideas and opinions are to be nurtured and explored, it’s a good sign that there won’t be a totalitarian mindset waiting for the applicant after the job offer.
Interviewing is more than just a chance to survey talent and find the right fit for your company, it’s also a chance to project, and hopefully instill, an ethos of collaborative creativity through interview techniques like the one I’ve just proposed. This type of approach can improve the accuracy of your vetting process while also humanizing the process of finding your new co-worker.
This is a great time to be in the field of user experience. Our skills in demand and the expansion of the industry bodes well for the future. While we may never agree on just what a user experience practitioner does, we can be more proactive and productive about discovering and connecting with one another.
Image of nervous interviewee courtesy Shutterstock.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Nick Cawthon is a UX practitioner located in the San Francisco Bay Area. His focus has been interaction design, prototyping, and user research on desktop and mobile devices. He has written a book, Aesthetic and the Usability of Data Visualization, published during his time at the University of Sydney while pursing a graduate Human Computer Interaction research degree. Nick is also an event organizer for the local Interaction Designer's Association, where he co-ordinates monthly talks given by leaders within the industry. When not pushing pixels for his consultancy, Gauge Design, Nick enjoys rowing on the Oakland estuary before dawn and is constantly dreaming of new metaphors for the frustrations of corporate stagnation. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.