It Was You All Along: 3 Principles for Recognizing UX Talent

By: Neal Jenks – Design Consultant and IxD Practice Manager at Software Technology Group

You know the story: Boy meets Girl (or Girl meets Boy, Boy meets Boy, Girl meets Girl…), Girl falls for Boy, but Boy doesn’t fall for her because, in short, he’s an idiot.

Maybe he’s blind, distracted, or both. He pursues someone else who is clearly not right for him or he follows some other less worthy dream.

If only he’d wake up! The answer is right there, waiting with open arms, ready to love him the second he shakes off his stupor.

Thankfully, in the stories we love the most, redemption comes! The Boy opens his eyes. He sees this Girl for the first time-the one who has meant so much to him for so long-and discovers that she is the one!

In a moment of blissful awareness, he holds her and whispers fervently, “It was you all along.”

The end. Roll the credits. We can leave the theater happy now.

We’re All Idiots

There are a lot of companies looking for the One that can make their product happy. Unfortunately, a lot of companies are idiots. False conceptions and misunderstandings about what they need in a product designer blind them to incredible personnel discoveries.

Of course, I sympathize with these poor, lost souls. They’re trying to catch a fish in the world’s most dynamic, constantly-shifting ocean. As I’ve noted before, the user-experience design field is still attempting to define itself. In that chaos, employers can find it tough to identify those who are, themselves, experiencing an identity crisis.

I know. I’ve been there. I’ve interviewed a lot of UX designers. Heck, I’m a UX designer myself, and I still let far too many diamonds-in-the-rough slip through my fingers. Idiocy, it seems, applies universally.

Fortunately, I’ve stared into the static long enough to see certain patterns emerge-enough patterns to help you (hopefully) avoid the same mistakes I’ve made.

The good news is that UX talent is out there -often much closer than you think. Most of the time, your new UX Designer is only a few emails lower in your inbox, or even a couple of cubicles away. The trick is to recognize them for who they are.

So how do you get to your, “It was you all along,” moment? Let me be your Traveling Pants.

Here are a few guiding principles.

1. They Come from Anywhere

I quote cartoons a lot. Get over it.

In the animated classic, Ratatouille, food critic Anton Ego has his world turned upside down after learning that his outstanding meal was created by a rat. After much soul-searching, he finally concludes that, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

UX designers come from anywhere and everywhere. The field is still relatively new. As a result, almost none of us leave college with “UX Design” on our diploma. More commonly, we enter the workforce in a related field and spend years developing problem-solving abilities. Then one day, we discover, to our delight, that we now possess the right set of tools for the UX world.

Here are some common fields in which UX designers germinate:

    • Visual design (including print, interior, industrial, and digital design, illustration, animation, and the like)
    • Multi-media production (including video game production, video production, and the like)
    • Front-end coding/development
    • Software engineering
    • Marketing
    • Psychology
    • Architecture
    • English
    • Business/functional analysis
  • Project management

See what I mean? Your UX match can come from anywhere.

Of course, an obvious match would be someone who has worked on products with an active UX title for several years. But that line of thinking will frequently lead you away from diamonds-in-the-rough.

Thank goodness someone possessed enough foresight to see beyond my less-than-traditional UX background. At the time, I did a horrible job branding myself as a UX designer, but they were prescient (or merciful) enough to understand how my visual design and marketing background could translate into product design.

Your next UX designer will most likely NOT match your mental image, so don’t try to shove them into a box. Their background doesn’t matter as much as their ability to solve problems, so focus on determining whether their background will help you solve your problems.

2. Thought Process Reigns Supreme

Sarah Doody, publisher of the weekly UX newsletter, The UX Notebook, wrote an article called, The UX of Hiring for UX Positions. I consider this the Bible for hiring UX talent. Seriously, you have no business trying to find a user experience designer until you’ve read this.

Like the UX designer she is, Sarah learned how to hire UXers by conducting user research. During that process, she unearthed some mind-boggling pearls of wisdom. Here is one of my fav’s.

 Jess Brown, Director of UX at Vice Media, [said], ‘If we just look at background, we may miss out on great thinkers in UX.’”

Too often, when thumbing through resumes, we over-obsess on background. As I’ve already noted, doing so is counter-productive. What IS productive is figuring out the way a designer thinks through problems.

Allow me to emphasize: Learn how UX designers think. When it comes to UX ability, nothing is more telling.

And remember that this all-important X-factor almost never surfaces on a resume. Eliciting this info from candidates requires digging. Good for you I have an awesome shovel :).

My brother, Joel Jenks, is Executive Recruiter for the City of San Antonio. He once told me that the most impressive candidates tell stories about their professional past, and the very best stories answer these questions:

    • What problems were you seeking to help your employer overcome?
    • What solutions did you present, and how did you arrive at those solutions?
  • What were the results of those solutions for your employer?

Few questions help you understand how designers, or any professionals, think through problems like the preceding.

So ask! You don’t need to ask those questions verbatim, but get your candidates talking about problems they’ve have faced, how they’ve faced them, and how their solutions brought solid returns. Keep asking follow-up questions until your candidates are cornered into specificity.

I’ve used this technique with candidates in the past, and their responses quickly paint a vivid picture.

Vocational skills constitute a mere fraction of the whole UX designer.

3. Real Skills Are Indispensable

Seth Godin’s outstanding article, Let’s Stop Calling Them Soft Skills, underscores what I’ve turned into a bedrock principle:

Quoth Mr. Godin:

“Let’s call them real skills, not soft. Yes, they’re interpersonal skills. Leadership skills. The skills of charisma and diligence and contribution. But these modifiers, while accurate, somehow edge them away from the vocational skills, the skills that we actually hire for, the skills we measure a graduate degree on. So let’s uncomfortably call them real skills instead. Real because they work, because they’re at the heart of what we need today.”

“Hire people, not skill sets.”

From henceforth and forever, soft skills shall now be called real skills. So let it be written/said/done.

Sarah Doody re-enforces this principle. The sentiment shared by Amy Jackson, a UX and design talent agent, is shared by many in Ms. Doody’s research:

In my experience, real skills are not merely the difference between a good UX designer and a great one; they are the difference between someone who can do UX design and someone who cannot.

In short, a candidate without significant real skills is an organism without a heart.

At the heart of UX design lies the user. And designing for the user demands empathy. And acquiring empathy requires a host of real skills: Listening, setting others at ease, kindness, patience, yada yada.

In addition, a candidate’s ideas are nothing until they can sell them. Their designs are meaningless until they can stir up stakeholder zeal. Final deliverables are worthless until they employ balance and diligence when working with the dev team.

Here are a few real skills that I consider indispensable for UX designers.

    • Leadership. In my mind, UX design and leadership are one and the same. UXers are generals, not foot soldiers. We don’t wait for some higher-up to provide neat and orderly instruction. We grab our bayonets (or, you know, MacBook Pros), charge to the front-lines, and rush into the cacophony of battle-doing research, making proposals, and shouting, “To me, product team!” the whole way. If you’re interviewing an obvious order-taker, take a hard-pass.
    • Flexibility. Kenny Rogers said it best. UX designers have to, “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ‘em.” Product design requires constant give and take, and you need someone wise enough to understand when to fight tooth-and-nail and when to relent humbly.
    • Extra-mile mindset. UX designers are the ultimate self-starters and hard-workers. Solid products require endless amounts of diligence, dedication, and willingness to step up-to-the-plate-even if doing so means stepping outside of set job descriptions.
    • Empathy. See my “At the heart of UX design…” thoughts above.
  • Thirst for learning. In this constantly evolving field, those who aren’t keeping pace with blog articles, newsletters, podcasts, tweets, product design organizations, and product updates will quickly fall behind. No UX designer knows all that they need to know, but no UX designer ever stops trying.

As the employer, recognize the critical role of real skills and focus your interviews accordingly.

Believe me, I know: Finding your UX design match can be a daunting prospect. So allow me to close with a few words of comfort.

Mr. or Ms. Right is out there! We’re all idiots when it comes to recognizing true UX talent, but not only does it exist, it is often much closer than you think. So use these principles to help uncover those great UX designers. Your company’s happily-ever-after awaits.

Happy hunting, you romantic devil, you.

Posted in IXD