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When You Shouldn’t Take That UX Position

by Chris Kiess
13 min read
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Warning Signs and Red Flags in Your Job Search

It was a dreary morning and rain was forecasted for the afternoon. I was only hoping it wouldn’t start until after my 1 pm interview had concluded and I had trekked my way back to the train station a mile or so from the offices where I would be interviewing. I had put in for the day off at my current position because you can’t go into work wearing a suit when you have an interview in the middle of your day.

So, I made my way to downtown Chicago via the Metra and had a nice lunch before entering what could potentially be my next place of employment. The phone interview had gone well. But, there is only so much you can learn in 30 minutes of screening. There were plenty of red flags during the phone screen, but I wasn’t mature enough in my career to spot them. It was the interview with the hiring manager where I began spotting all of the red flags. I ignored a lot of them because I was excited about the position and company I might be working for. We could call it confirmation bias. I only wanted to see and hear what would confirm the decision I wanted to make.

The manager was vague about the position requirements. The position I would be hiring for was a new position and the interview panel indicated it would be a “bit of an experiment” to have this new position in the organization. The job description was a carbon copy of any UX position listing you could find online. And, my direct report would be someone who knew nothing of UX with no formal education or experience in the profession. It rained on my way back to the train station after the interview. That should have been another red flag. But I’m not particularly superstitious.

I ended up knocking the interview out of the park, easily passed the design test they gave me and received an offer the next day. I took the position and within a month regretted my decision. All of the red flags and warning signs I had ignored became all too evident after only a short amount of time with the organization. My tenure with the organization didn’t last long and I was looking for a new position within 3 months of accepting their offer.

In the past 13–14 years, I’ve worked a lot of different positions in the UX profession — everything from information architecture to SEO to user experience and interface design. In that time, I have read hundreds upon hundreds of job descriptions and wasted even more hours with in-person interviews for positions I knew I would never take upon walking out of the interview. When you are reading the job description or participating in a phone screen or interview, there are some red flags and warning signs to keep in mind. Here’s what I normally home in on to get a sense of what type of position I might be walking into.

We’re building a UX team.

This usually comes out in the phone interview, but I have seen job descriptions where this is stated upfront. An organization that is building a new UX team can be a great opportunity or a major red flag.

One thing you need to figure out is how many positions they have open. I have discovered, many times, an organization states they are building a new team, but they only have a few positions open. I have taken a few of those jobs and it turned out, they never planned or received budget approval to hire any other designers. If you are okay with being a team of one or a few, this isn’t so bad. But if it is a large organization, you might find yourself with a mountain of work and not enough designers to ever really make an impact or dent in the organization’s strategy.

I have worked in places where they never hired enough designers and never intended to. I have worked in places where they hired a small staff and stayed true to their word. And, I have worked in places where the staff was built out with more than enough designers to handle the work. In order to figure out which scenario you might be walking into, there are some other questions you need to ask around organizational strategy.

When I am in these situations, I usually ask a question around what prompted the organization to build a UX team. The answer to this question will give you tremendous insight into how serious they are about design within their organization. If they are able to give you some detail around their upcoming projects and agendas where design is clearly playing a prominent role, then that is a good sign. If you receive a vague answer indicating they are playing “follow the leader” and building a UX team because that is what their competitors have done or some other unsatisfactory answer (like, it’s a directive from the CEO), that is not a good sign.

The bottom line with this warning sign is: You want to find out how serious the organization is about UX. This isn’t to say they might not be serious this year and get serious later on. But, you want to know what you are walking into.

We need someone who can conduct research, design interfaces and code.

I am well aware there are UX “unicorns” out there (Google it if you don’t know what that is). But, I have a philosophy I adhere to in work and life. I try to ensure I am not doing too many things and none of them very well. I’d rather be proficient at a few things than half-ass a lot of things.

That is the problem I see with these types of positions. The organization simply wants to get more bang for their buck. I have done the research and the design. I have coded (many years ago) along with fleshing out the design. But, I wasn’t truly operating at full efficiency in any of those positions.

The true problem with this scenario relates to your own professional growth. If you truly want to grow as a designer, you will do so much more quickly if you aren’t dividing your attention between being a good coder or researcher and sharpening your skills as a designer. Learning those skills along with design skills will take you twice or thrice as long.

You’ll be reporting to the head of marketing in this position.

It could be that you will be reporting to the head of QA or the head of development. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that in this scenario there is no director or manager of UX? This is always a warning sign or red flag for me.

I have been in positions where I reported to someone who was not educated or trained in UX. It wasn’t a complete disaster and those people truly put forth their best effort. However, it made it extremely difficult to advocate for UX and spread design-thinking throughout the organization. It also required more effort to explain my position on a project to one person (my supervisor) and then have to sell it again to a product team. In short, it was hard getting the backing I needed on projects or it required significantly more effort.

The other aspect of organizations who have not hired a UX director or manager is the question of how serious they are about design. Do they just need to fill some slots with a few wire-framing monkeys or will they eventually grow in maturity and hire that director or manager who can help push design agendas within the organization? You need to ask and answer this question before proceeding unless you are ambivalent about having a manager or director who can give you the appropriate support.

This is a short-term contract for 3+ (or 6+) months.

There are a lot of designers out there who take these short-term contracts. Many of them are freelancers and usually have a good amount of experience. If you’re freelancing and not looking for anything permanent, you can ignore this section. But if you are looking for someplace to hang your hat in an organization that understands design, you might want to scrutinize these positions with a bit more vigor.

I normally look for an organization that will take design seriously and when I see short-term contracts, I try to find out if they are just looking to fill a gap on their team or have some temporary need for UX. The other thing I would want to know is if they currently employ anyone full-time in UX on their product team. That tells me how much work I am going to have to do in explaining and educating a team on design.

If the organization is just filling a gap for some temporary need with no internal UX team, it will usually be an uphill battle to get a design nailed down and gain buy-in. They are likely not schooled in design and may know little of UX. You may encounter a scenario where there is little or no research to base your decisions on and few resources for you as a designer.

The counterpoint to this is I have taken quite a few 6-month contract-to-hire positions and they worked out fine. If the organization stipulates the position is contract-for-hire, it is not as much of a warning sign as when they simply have a one-off project they need a designer for. This means they are merely testing you and have intentions of filling the position permanently with a UX presence.

How do you manage conflict with a product manager or a development team?

I have been asked this question in many interviews and it suggests there is internal conflict within the organization. One position I accepted, where I had received this question in the interview, resulted in me walking into an all-out war between UX and development. I spent my first year building relationships with developers in that position. There were a lot of hurt feelings and bruised egos to mend.

Today, I counter this question by stating how I work with other teams and then following up with: “Do you currently experience challenges in working with other teams?” What I am trying to find out is if the problem is with UX advocacy or if there is simply a tug of war or power struggle occurring. It can be a long, uphill battle if you are working with teams who resent your existence in the organization. And, it may be some time before you can patch up relationships so you can do your best work.

Conflict exists in any work environment. But when this question comes out in the interview, it may be a warning sign that you will have some relationship-building to do. The good news is: If you have good people skills and the energy, you will be a fresh face and may represent a new start with “the resistance” and thus have an easier go of mending the cuts and bruises inflicted previously.

We’d like to use the majority of the interview to focus on your portfolio.

There is no way of getting around presenting your previous work. But, some interview panels may place the entire focus on this one aspect of your work in the profession. (If they don’t ask about a portfolio at all or don’t delve into your previous work, that could equally be a warning sign or red flag.)

Here’s the thing about portfolios: I’ve seen a lot of them and most of them don’t tell me too much about a candidate as a designer. I don’t understand their projects — the complexity and subtle nuances in the design process. It’s hard to ascertain just how much of the work belongs to the candidate. And like most designers, I’ll gravitate to the aesthetics while lacking the ability to evaluate the functionality of a design because there is little likelihood I can understand the domain and challenges of a particular project in the space of an hour or two.

If you work in UX design, ask yourself how long it takes to design the average feature. For me, I would state the bare minimum for most projects I work on is 4 weeks — a month. Many of them take far longer to fully develop as I work in healthcare — a complex domain. Is it not logical to conclude I am not going to understand a candidate’s project and have the ability to truly evaluate it in the space of a few hours when it took a month or longer to design from start to finish?

If the interviewers focus on your portfolio for the majority of the interview, is this really a red flag? Well, it could be they are simply inexperienced in interviewing. A portfolio does not tell a hiring manager about your character, your motivation or how well you work with others.

I don’t like to spend a lot of time on portfolios because I don’t think it gives me a holistic view of a candidate. And, I have been interviewed enough to see the familiar glassy-eyed look of a hiring manager about 5 minutes into my portfolio presentation. For me, too much focus on the portfolio is a red flag because building screens is the easiest part of building a product. The hardest part is selling the design and gaining alignment on the right solution to the right problem. That takes critical thinking, character, motivation and the ability to work well with others.

One last note: Pay attention to the engagement you receive while presenting your portfolio. What type of questions are they asking? Do they ask specific questions concerning decisions you made? Are they concerned only with the visual details and not with the functionality? Are they asking who you worked with to develop the feature? The questions they ask can help you determine whether they are truly engaged with what you are presenting.

How experienced are you with Axure (or any other tool)?

I can teach a candidate how to use a software program. It’s much harder to teach a person how to be engaged with their projects or how to play well with others. When there is an emphasis placed on the tools you’ll use as a designer with the stipulation you need those skills to be hired, it suggests a rigidity in the position you may not find amenable with learning and growth.

This is usually something that will become evident in the phone screen. If you have experience with the tool, then great. If not, what you want to find out is how open the hiring manager is to teaching you a new skill. If you detect a resistance in this respect, how open will this person be to you learning other skills in the position? How devoted will they be to your professional growth in other endeavors?

On my current team, we use Figma and are perfectly open to teaching new-hires how to use the tool. We have an entire training program in place to help onboard new designers. That is the type of environment you are looking for in terms of growth and learning new skills.

Tools will come and go. What’s hot today, won’t necessarily be the hottest new tool next year. It’s much harder to find good designers than to teach them the latest and greatest UX design tool.

Looks like we are all out of time…

I’ve been in a lot of interviews where there was no time left for me to ask questions about the position, the team I would be working with or the culture of the organization. This, to me, is either a red flag or simply the result of a poorly managed interview (which may equally be a red flag).

I have written about the interview process before where I state an interview should be a mutual exploration between a candidate and the organization to determine if it is the right fit for the organization and the right fit for the candidate. That means there must be some time allotted for the candidate to ask questions about the position. When there is no opportunity for that mutual exploration, it suggests the hiring process is more of a one-way street for the employer. If that is the case, how will that one-way street look once you are hired?

It’s important you are offered the opportunity to ask questions and explore the position to determine if it is truly that next step for you.

It takes a little experience to recognize early warning signs a position might not be the right fit for you. But, those warning signs and red flags usually appear during the interview process if you are tuned into them. The above points are a good starting point in determining just how a position might pan out in the end and whether you should spend your time pursuing the position.

That being stated, a single warning sign or red flag is not cause to reject a position outright. Moreover, you can chalk some of these signs up to inexperienced interviewing techniques. Remember: We’re UX designers and not HR pros. It has taken me years to develop good interviewing skills and I still sometimes flub things up or run out of time in an interview. But, I try to maintain as much honesty and transparency as possible while also considering the user experience of the candidate.

Ultimately, interviews are tricky ground to tread on. You have an hour or two with a team of designers to determine whether the next few years of your employment will be path bearing the fruits of professional growth or a path littered with barriers and organizational dysfunction. It’s hard to see the future in the space of an hour or two. The best we can do is look at all the data and make an informed decision based on what we discover in the time we have in the interview process.

post authorChris Kiess

Chris Kiess, Chris is a healthcare designer with 15 years of experience in the health industry. He has worked with a number of large organizations in healthcare to include Eli Lilly, Indiana University School of Medicine, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Alzheimer’s Association, Amedisys Home Health and Hospice Care, Walgreens and Baxter Health. Chris currently resides in the Greater Chicago Area, working with a start-up in the home healthcare space.


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