UX Hiring: Let’s Talk About Comparable Experience
January 30, 2020
by: Jared M. Spool
UX leaders need an effective hiring approach to fill a position and build their team. If they take an ineffective approach, they risk pushing away highly-quality candidates, which makes it harder to fill the positions. And if they hire someone who isn’t capable of doing the work, because they’ve hired the wrong person, they create problems down the road as the team tries to achieve its goals.
As we’ve worked with user experience leaders to build up their team’s UX capabilities, we’ve noticed there are two approaches to hiring. Of these two approaches, we’ve found that one is far more effective in the long run.
Interestingly, the more effective approach isn’t the one most UX leaders start with. We only see it among teams with seasoned UX leaders. Leaders who have learned the hard way that how they hire matters, when it comes to building a team that will drive their organization to deliver better-designed products and services.
One approach: A quest for a perfect UX professional
Many teams approach hiring as a quest to find the ideal UX professional, whether they’re hiring a UX designer, a researcher, a UX writer, or a content specialist. Their hiring process eliminates candidates through tests and challenges, until there’s only one or two left. It can seem like their hiring process was inspired by The Bachelorette reality TV show.
On the surface, this feels like the right way to hire. After all, you want your team to be made up of the “best and brightest.” Every new addition should raise the average capability of the team. It feels like the right process should be to evaluate all the candidates for their individual talents, then make an offer to the winner.
‘The ideal UX professional’
It’s easy to identify teams that hire using this Bachelorette approach. They talk about the designer, researcher, or writer in terms of some ideal. Ask any member of the team what they’re looking for in a candidate, and they’ll describe qualities that are generic across all different skills.
For example, a team seeking a UX designer would talk in terms of an ideal UX designer. They’ll list out qualities that all ideal designers should possess. They should be ideal problem solvers, have a good eye, be masters of their tools, know how to sell their ideas, and so on.
Similarly, the ideal UX researcher should know how to conduct a variety of different styles of research, know how to plan studies, have the skills to sell the results to the team, and so on.
And the ideal UX writer should be both clever and smart with their writing. They should be skilled at choosing the right voice and tone. They must be skilled at knowing where the right copy needs to go. And they must work smartly in an agile setting, where their content might be for things that change frequently.
You get the idea. After the team identifies the role they’re trying to fill, they seek candidates who are as close as possible to this ideal version of that role. Of course, nobody’s perfect, but that won’t stop the team from trying to get close to perfect with their next addition.
The traps of UX perfection
As I said, on the surface, this feels like the right way to hire. What could be wrong with it? Well, lots, actually. This approach turns the hiring process into a Greco-Roman competition-of-the-fittest. Think of it as something like America’s Got UX Talent.
The team focuses their hiring process on tests and challenges. What kinds of questions should we ask to uncover who is a real UX professional and who is faking it? What kind of exercises can we give the candidates to eliminate those that aren’t good enough?
They choose to ask theoretical questions of each candidate, like: What’s your definition of great design? What’s a website or app you’d like to redesign and why? What’s your design process?
They approach these questions as if there’s one right answer. (Sometimes, they will tell the candidate there’s no wrong answer. That may be true, but there are definitely answers that will end up disqualifying a candidate.)
I’ve talked with many teams that have adopted this approach to hiring. It’s rare for those team members evaluating the candidates to have actually shared and discussed the qualities that they believe make a great UX professional amongst themselves.
Each team member has a different picture of what an ideal candidate should be, but they probably haven’t talked about it with others. That means each team member is judging each candidate on different—often conflicting—criteria.
There are rare cases when team members have discussed the ideal qualities. That conversation almost always surfaces a big difference in opinion. Some think designers should be more visual, while others believe it’s more of a leadership role.
They often don’t reconcile these differences, because it’s based on opinions and personal experience. That forces the reconciliation to happen after every high-potential candidate is interviewed.
It takes a long time to find the perfect candidate
The biggest downside of this approach is how long it takes. Because the team is looking for the best possible candidate, they can’t stop until they’ve talked to every applicant. If they get a large number of applications, it takes quite a while to screen and interview everyone. Stop too soon and you may miss someone better in the pipeline.
Add that to the reconciliation time when a candidate has high potential. The team must discuss what makes an ideal role as they evaluate each candidate’s potential. Each team member’s opinions must be hashed out. This can happen multiple times during the hiring process, slowing everything down.
By searching for an ideal UX professional, the team must look at the position’s maximum qualifications. Those qualifications describe the ideal new hire.
Yet, there could be many candidates who have the minimum qualifications to do the job. But, in the pursuit of UX perfection, those candidates will get pushed aside if it’s possible there’s someone more qualified in the applicant pool.
The other approach: Searching for comparable experience
There’s an alternative to the Bachelorette hiring approach. What makes it different is the team starts by establishing the minimum qualifications to do the job.
Those minimum qualifications may be quite high. The team doesn’t have to lower their standards. They only have to define the minimum of what the new team member will need to do a great job.
After the team has identified the minimum qualifications, they can start looking at each candidate with a different lens than the Bachelorette approach. They can look for each candidate’s comparable experience.
Comparable experience is what a candidate has done in their career to suggest they can do the job. It doesn’t look at abstract knowledge about design, research, or writing. There are no tests or exercises.
Instead, using the comparable experience approach, interviewers partner with each candidate to explore the journey of that candidate’s career. What evidence is there that this person has done, in their current or past work, anything close to what they’ll do when they get here?
The first step: What will our new hire do during their first year?
This approach requires some work from the team before they advertise the position. In contrast, a team using the Bachelorette approach starts advertising the position right away.
In the comparable experience approach, the team must identify what the new hire will do after they’ve arrived. This can be difficult for some teams to identify. Do they need someone to do more of the work the rest of the team is currently doing? Or do they need someone who will do something new and different, to extend the team’s capabilities?
For example, let’s look at a team hiring a senior UX designer to lead a design system rollout to the organization’s 30 product teams. It may take a year or more to get this rollout moving.
What is the work the UX design system lead would do in that first year? They might inventory UI components across the products to look for variations and identify a common component language. They’ll need to understand the political landscape of working with different teams, each with their own schedules and deadlines. They’ll need to sell the idea and help attract teams to work on a pilot rollout. They’ll need to put a governance system together for controlling contributions to the component library and establish brand guidelines.
This is a big job. Ideally, the team wants to hire someone who has done all of these things before. They want someone whose past work has comparable experience.
Every new position may be different from a past hires
Our imaginary team will likely only need one person to lead their new design system. But they may need additional people to work on the design system with that project lead. The comparable experience for those candidates will be different from the UX design system leader’s comparable experience.
What would the first year’s work for those new design system project members look like? Well, they might be the ones to do the detailed work of the UI component inventory. They would document each component and establish a priority of implementation. They’ll need to work with the developers to identify the specific behaviors and interactions of each component. They’ll be responsible for working with the product teams to learn about edge cases and exceptions that individual products may need.
The day-to-day work of each newly-hired position will be quite different from each other. Therefore, for each position, the hiring team needs to explore different comparable experiences.
Interviews become about collecting evidence
When hiring based on comparable experience, the interviewer’s role changes. They are no longer a judge and jury for whether this person is the best of the candidate pool. Instead, they are partnering with the candidate to uncover any demonstrable evidence that they have the desired comparable experience.
The nature of the interviewer’s questions change. Behavioral interviewing questions are more effective here than testing the candidate on their theoretical knowledge.
For example, when hiring that UX design system lead, the team might divide up the interview responsibility. One interviewer could go deep on the UI component inventory.
The interviewer can ask “Tell me about a time you created a UI component inventory for 15 or more products.” After the candidate shares an initial project description, the interviewer and candidate can work together to surface more details.
How long did it take? Who was involved? What was the most challenging part of the project? How did you overcome that challenge? What were the deliverables? What lessons did you learn from this project?
As each interviewer collects evidence, they’re matching it up to the minimum qualifications the team initially established for the position. When they find a candidate who has all the established minimum qualifications, they are ready to make an offer.
For early-career hires, we look at learning experience
When a team uses the Bachelorette approach, they leave behind less experienced UX professionals. Those folks who are right out of school or early in their career suffer the most. The less qualified applicants won’t meet any standards that are looking for the best and brightest.
However, when the team is defining the minimum requirements for a comparable experience approach, they can lower those minimums to bring on less experienced folks. This is perfect for filling day-to-day production positions, where the work is ideal for someone just starting out.
For these positions, interviewers can focus on the candidate’s learning experience. Tell me about a time you had to learn a new design technique. How did you learn it? How long did it take? Who did you learn from? What was something that was challenging to master? How did you learn to do it? What lessons about learning new things did you discover?
The evidence collection process doesn’t change. It adapts to meet every position where it needs to be.
More time up front, less time to making an offer
The biggest downside of the comparable experience approach is it requires the team to spend much more time defining the position. The team leadership will need to align on what the candidate will do upon arrival.
This means planning ahead an entire year. That planning can be hard for teams that work reactively. They are not sure how to look that far out. (It’s not impossible. It just takes practice.)
All this upfront planning takes time. It can require a few weeks of meetings and writing to get a solid description of what the new hire will do. Part of that process is defining the minimum requirements to match the evidence against. (This gets faster the more teams use this approach.)
It’s an investment. But, hiring a new team member is the most important way to grow capability. It’s worth the heavy investment.
That investment pays off after interviewing starts. After each candidate’s interview round, the interviewers can easily come together and share the evidence they collected.
The moment they determine that a candidate meets all the minimum requirements, the hiring manager can make an offer. No need to interview every candidate in the pool. This can speed the time to an offer dramatically.
Comparable Experience is a more energizing approach to hiring
When we studied teams using either of these approaches, we noticed something very interesting. The teams who used the comparable experience approach were far more energized about their hiring process than teams who used the Bachelorette approach to find an ideal candidate.
The teams on a quest to find the perfect UX professionals found their process exhausting. These teams saw hiring as a burden. They would put it off until the last possible moment, creating problems and compromising on who they hired.
That exhaustion also drags out the hiring process for the candidates, who can see that the team’s not excited about hiring someone. This pushes away the best candidates, and, ironically, makes hiring someone take even longer.
The teams using the comparable experience approach loved the process. They enjoyed being a partner with each candidate, trying to draw out what those candidates brought to the process. They felt like they really got to know the people they interviewed. It feels more like a fun research job than an administrative burden.
That energy and excitement translates into a faster hiring process. Teams are excited to dive in and ready to surface someone they think meets all the requirements. They get to an offer quicker.
Comparable Experience produces better teams in the long run
The proof of which approach is better comes after their new person joins the team. A team that chose the comparable experience approach has done the hard work of figuring out what the job is. Their new hire (and everyone that person will work with) now has a clear understanding of what they should be doing on their first day.
Even more important, because that person was hired primarily based on their experience of having done similar work before, they likely know how to get started. They just need to look to what it is about the new environment that will change things up.
Teams that pick the Bachelorette approach still have the hard work of figuring out what that person will do. Yet, they often postpone that until after the candidate accepted the offer. That means most of the team isn’t prepared (and sometimes even the candidate doesn’t know what they’ll be doing.)
New hires that don’t know what they should be doing are more likely to leave in their first year. This creates the vicious cycle of forcing the team to do even more hiring.
We’ve found that the teams that use the comparable experience approach grow their overall UX capacity faster than teams that try to find the perfect UX professional with every new hire. They have higher retention and their teams deliver increasingly better designs.
Hiring is the most important thing a UX design leader can do. It’s important to choose the most effective approach. That’s an approach that focuses on a candidate’s comparable experience.