UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 858 August 28, 2012

Taking the Mystery out of Hiring User Experience Talent

You’re building a product development organization. Maybe you work at a large company, maybe at a small startup. In either case, the best developers and most enthusiastic product managers have been hired, but something is still missing from the team’s skill set. Who will take all the brilliant ideas and make them work for your users? Who can ensure that the technological solutions your engineers produce become useful, usable, beautiful products? Who will be responsible for the overall user experience?

Hiring user experience (UX) professionals can be a massively time-consuming endeavor that requires navigating a mysterious and hyper-competitive talent market. The standard practices in the UX field are still being established, everything is shrouded by a tangled web of jargon, and there is no shared language. If you have never worked within the UX universe, you’ll need more than just a map.

Making matters more intense, you can’t afford to make a mistake. Bringing someone on board whose skills do not match the role you need filled can have a serious long-term impact on your users and your products. The key to any successful hire is understanding and expressing your needs in the language that potential candidates can relate to. This article will show you how to take the confusion out of hiring top UX talent by following these steps:

  • Determine the skill set your new team member should possess
  • Identify the level of experience you are looking for
  • Understand the qualities that all successful UX professionals should have
  • Find a place for your new UX hire within the organization
  • Craft a job description you can then use to advertise your role to prospective candidates

Determine the Necessary Skill Set

We’ll start by examining some of the common roles you may encounter while searching for UX professionals. Even within the UX field many people have different opinions on the names for the different roles we’re going to discuss. We will use the names that we consider to be most common, but you may have heard terms that differ from ours yet describe very similar roles.

Interaction design

Interaction designers work through how things function. They are experts in information hierarchies and the ways an interface can transition from one state to another. Interaction design is the art of knowing if an interface should be split across one page or two, and whether a button or link would be more appropriate in a particular situation. Interaction designers can turn ideas into whiteboard or napkin sketches that are easier to comprehend and discuss.

NOTE: An overlapping concept that you will sometimes hear is information architecture—a term that generally embodies the idea of arranging information into structures meaningful for end users.

User research

User researchers can help you understand your target audience—the people you are building a product for. User research is valuable for gathering insights into how people use your product through usability studies during the design process. However, if user research is employed early-on, it can also provide vital information about how your product may be used before you even begin the development process. User researchers may come from varied backgrounds—human-computer interaction, anthropology, psychology, computer science, design—but they are all united by their empathy for people, their acute curiosity, and an analytical approach to problem-solving.

Visual design

Visual designers work on the aesthetics and appeal of a product. The intangible skills they possess delight and inspire users, drawing them into an experience. They have the trained eye and the patience to polish products to perfection as well as the skills to create production-ready artwork. They can develop design style guides for the rest of the team to ensure a coherent visual presentation of various features and products.

Visual designers often have a strong background in graphic design as well as an expert understanding of color, type, and layout. In addition, they need to be comfortable working alongside engineers to help execute their pixel-perfect creations on screen.

UX prototyping and front-end development

Many UX professionals possess coding skills that are becoming more diverse as the web splinters across new platforms. The value of coding skills for UXers is two-fold. First, they will be able to produce designs that are technically feasible from the engineering standpoint. Second, they may be able to build rapid prototypes to help the team visualize ideas, test them with users, and converge on solutions without investing significant development time into creating fully-functioning products.

NOTE: Prototyping can be very different from writing production-ready code. UX prototypers are not engineers, and their value lies in speeding up the design and decision-making processes.

Tied with a bow

You may see other job titles as you review candidate resumes: product designers, UI designers, user experience designers, usability analysts or engineers ... All of these relate to the skills we’ve described above, and soon you should be able to “bucket” candidates in these larger roles. Don’t be surprised if you come across people who have done some or all of the above; there is significant overlap between roles, and UX professionals often develop hybrid skills in areas adjacent to their main expertise.

If you are looking for the first UX professional to join your team, consider hiring a generalist—someone who has some experience in most or all these sub-fields. You should not expect to find someone whose skills truly range from visual polish to survey development and from front-end coding to information architecture, all at the same level. Yet, you can hope to attract someone who is comfortable enough with these areas to fill your needs for now and will then help you extend your team with more specialists.

Determine the Level of Experience

How much experience do you need? You have a few options that depend on your goals and the current make-up of your team.

You can hire someone who has just graduated from a design or HCI program—these greener candidates are usually excited, eager to experiment, and have a good foundation of knowledge on user experience practices. However, their lack of experience working in a fast-paced product development environment can lead to slower development cycles in the long run. If your team is willing and capable of mentoring junior professionals, this could be a very good investment of time.

We consider someone with 3-5 years of relevant experience to be a mid-level professional. These folks are usually confident in their skills and can get the job done well. They may need to adjust to the new domain space and are still developing their leadership skills, but are great for roles that require quality and speed of execution.

Seasoned professionals come in two different flavors. Some remain individual contributors and choose to become experts in a particular domain or method. Others prefer to expand their scope of influence by managing teams of more junior UXers. In either case, you should expect significant leadership and mentoring skills, understanding of all disciplines within the field of UX, and ability to best position their work within the company.

Understand Qualities Important for all UX Professionals

UX professionals will bring a lot more than just design or research skills to your team. Of course, it’s crucial that they are proficient in their core skills, but there is also a set of qualities that will differentiate an outstanding UXer from a merely competent one.

Creativity

Your product is unique and any UXers you hire are likely to face challenges they have not encountered before. A creative approach to problem-solving, the ability to look at an issue from a new perspective, and continuous innovation are all required for success in the field. Good designers follow the rules. Great designers understand the rules and then bend them in ways that make products even better for users.

Communication, engagement, collaboration

UX professionals never work in isolation—their stakeholders include engineers, product managers, peer designers and researchers, executives and, of course, the end users. They need to be able to communicate their ideas to a diverse audience and get buy-ins for their proposals across multiple functions. Moreover, they often facilitate discussions and visualize ideas from other team members.

Successful UXers are proactive about forging strong alliances and collaborating with stakeholders from multiple disciplines. To be effective, they need to speak the same language as their cross-functional peers and garner support from others before diving into UX work.

User advocacy and leadership

Within a team, UXers are the experts on your users and their needs. Designers and researchers need to be fearless user advocates, and it is their primary responsibility to build a shared understanding of users that helps guide product development. This requires self-confidence, the ability to rally support, and a good sense of how to “pick the right battles.” In many organizations UX professionals also need to educate others on the value of their discipline and processes that facilitate UX engagement.

Tied with a bow

Bringing diverse perspectives, including those of users, into the product development process is essential for your success. This often means that UXers may be “dissenters” on the team, bringing up points that others have not yet considered. The people who are not afraid to be seen as such yet are capable of resolving disagreement in productive ways are the ones you want on your team. They will need tact, persistence, desire to work with the their cross-functional peers in the long term, and ability to find creative solutions that align with the product strategy, help users, and are technically feasible.

Find a Place for Your New UX Hire

UX talent is a strategic asset for the organization. UXers—regardless of their specialization—are more successful if they are positioned as an integral part of the product development organization. They can contribute the most if they are involved in product discussions, both strategic and tactical, early on. At the very least, they will understand the business goals and the technical constraints. At best, they will bring in valuable user perspectives that will help you develop a product that appeals to your audience.

Do not fret if you are hiring your first UX professional too late in the process and you need to engage them mostly on the tactical level, implementing ideas that you’ve already defined. Simply be open about your current needs for the role to avoid misalignment and frustration once you bring someone on board.

Craft the Job Description

A good job description serves two main purposes. On the one hand, it describes the position in a way that allows people who are qualified to self-select before applying. On the other hand, it gives prospective candidates insight into your organization and what it might be like to work there. Try not to be too formulaic—the job description should give an honest view of your workplace and the culture the new team member would be coming into. It can be helpful to think of the job description as a conversation starter while still addressing the main points that should be covered.

Your company

This is your opportunity to sell the candidate on your company. UX professionals are in high demand—tell them why they would be much happier joining your team than a competitor’s!

Role

Now that you’ve learned about the value different types of UX professionals could provide, you can outline what actually needs to be done within your company. Be as specific as you can, and if the role is still not well-defined and may change depending on who you hire, mention that too.

Responsibilities

How will you know that your new UXer was a good hire? It’s important to establish common metrics of success, and this is the place to do so. Mention all the core responsibilities you expect your new designer, researcher, or prototyper to have. While they may end up doing a lot more, you want to avoid a situation where you expect them to do something you hadn’t originally mentioned.

Qualifications

Education, years of experience, expertise in a particular domain, software skills, knowledge of certain methodologies go in here. This is the section that you can use as a filter when you look at candidate packets. Be realistic, however! Do you really care about that advanced degree if someone could prove their expertise with a solid portfolio and many years of experience under their belt?

Conclusion

Armed with the proper information, you are ready to get started in defining the role you want to fill in your company. It is key that you understand the skill set and experience you need from a UX professional to fill the position within in your organization. Knowing what it is you’re looking for will help you craft a job description that attracts the right candidates.

 

Piece of Cake photo courtesy Shutterstock.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Olga Khroustaleva leads the User Experience Research group at YouTube. Her team is tasked with improving the product experience for 800 million unique users who visit YouTube every month as well as YouTube's content providers and advertisers.

User Profile

Tom Broxton is a UX lead for Monetization and Devices at YouTube. Recent work includes AdWords for video, the self serve tool for video advertisers; TrueView skippable video ads; Insight, YouTube’s first generation video analytics tool; and research into the spread of viral videos. Prior to YouTube, Tom worked as a designer, consultant and creative lead in the UK with organisations such as Brandwatch, UpMyStreet.com and BBC News Online.

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Comments

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I'd like to add one piece of advice when sourcing UXers. Take note of their career history. Hiring a product manager, marketer, graphic designer, or developer into a user experience role can be great if you've got the time to invest in training and development, but more often than not it's disastrous and it happens a lot. Why? because to the untrained ear, it's very easy for someone to talk their way into a UX role. Look for relevant career history and take references.

If you struggle to locate someone with a career history that fills you with confidence, give me a call, I may be able to do just that

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We're actually trying to fix this problem over at Fresh Tilled Soil with our new Apprenticeship program (aux.freshtilledsoil.com). Wish us luck!