Hiring UX Professionals: 3 Critical Mistakes to Avoid

by Jared M. Spool


As a UX leader, there’s an easy way to mess up an otherwise solid user experience strategy. All we have to do is hire UX professionals who do not have the skills, knowledge, and experience to do the job we need.

The inverse is also true. The best way to achieve our UX strategy goals is to hire UX professionals who have the right skills, knowledge, and experience that our team needs.

Hiring UX professionals is hard work. More importantly, it isn’t a topic we discuss often enough.

As a profession, we act as if everyone knows how to hire well. At Center Centre – UIE, our research shows many folks don’t.

Many UX leaders make serious mistakes while hiring. Mistakes that may push away the most qualified candidates while flooding our hiring process with people who don’t have the expertise our positions demand.

This increases the risk we’ll hire the wrong person, and take a long time to do so. These mistakes are often easy to avoid with a well-designed hiring process.

A tale of two interviews.

During our research, we met up with a seasoned UX design leader who had recently interviewed with a fast-growing startup. Before her interviews with the startup, she was attracted by the company’s initiative to build up their UX team.

Her first interview with the CEO went very well. They discussed how her experience creating and executing a UX strategy would be perfect for the position. The CEO was very receptive to some ideas she came up with. She left feeling quite energized and excited about the position.

She had a very different experience during her next interview with the Head of Product. The Head of Product told her that her work would primarily consist of producing wireframes and visual mockups. When she brought up the strategy work she’d discussed with the CEO, the Head of Product told her that wasn’t what the job would entail. The Head of Product wasn’t interested in her strategic ideas.

After the second interview, she withdrew from consideration. It was clear to her that the organization’s two leaders didn’t agree on what the job was. She had previous jobs like that. She felt she didn’t need the frustration that comes from not knowing what her job is.

The CEO and the Head of Product weren’t on the same page. It seems they hadn’t discussed upfront what their new hire would do once they arrived.

Many job seekers told us similar stories. It’s the number one reason people tell us they stop pursuing an opening.

Candidates often ask recruiters, hiring managers, and interviewers what their job would be if they were chosen. Often, nobody seems to know. Or everybody thinks they know, but has an answer that doesn’t agree with what others say it is. The candidate decides the potential job is not worth it and backs out.

UX Hiring Mistake #1: What work will the new hire do?

If it seems like nobody on the interviewing team has discussed this before, it’s because they haven’t. It’s extremely common for teams to start interviewing candidates without ever discussing the position amongst themselves.

When we’re working with UX leaders to build their UX teams, we start the hiring process using what we learned from Lou Adler’s Performance-based Hiring. Performance-based Hiring is a perfect approach, because it starts by defining the new position upfront. It feels natural to UX professionals because it’s a similar approach to what we do when we’re designing a product.

When using Performance-based Hiring, we start by creating a quick sketch of the new position. What will the new hire accomplish during their first year? What benefits will their work deliver their team? We often craft this in the form of a thank you note that we write our new hire, on their 1-year anniversary.

We can use the thank you note as a validity check. We circulate it amongst the hiring team and the people who will work with this new person, once hired. We ask: Is this what we need the new person to accomplish in their first year? Are these the right benefits from their work? Is it too much? Too little?

With that feedback in hand, we then write up a more detailed description, which Lou calls a performance profile. A performance profile is a job description on steroids. It’s a detailed list of every major objective that our team’s newly-hired member will accomplish during their first year.

We invite everyone involved in hiring this position to work on crafting and reviewing the performance profile. Since they have a hand in performance profile creation, they’ll give the same answer about the job is when a candidate asks.

Every position has different needs.

A UX team had three open positions for senior UX designers. Their initial inclination was to create a single job description for all three positions. After all, one senior UX designer is just like the others, right?

Not in this case. The accomplishments for each new designer during their first year would be dramatically different from each other.

The first senior UX designer would lead the integration of a new design system across the organization’s 30 products, working with product teams all over the globe. This senior designer would need extensive experience with design systems and have skills in persuasion and diplomacy, as some teams are not excited about migrating to the new design system.

The second senior UX designer would join a team to migrate their 15-year-old, 1,000-screen desktop application to mobile. They would be the only designer among 100 developers, so this would take incredible leadership skills.

The third senior UX designer would join another team whose market-leading product is facing their first strong competitor in a decade. The competitor is beating them by delivering a simpler, easier-to-use product. This team has never thought about UX before. The newly-hired senior designer will need to teach them everything, from research to interaction design.

Had the team used a single job description for each position, they could have easily hired the wrong people. Someone with the experience necessary to successfully roll out a sophisticated design system project wouldn’t likely also be deeply experienced in training teams to think about their users for the first time.

UX Hiring Mistake #2: Posting a generic position

Each position needs a unique description. We crafted a unique performance profiles for each one.

In each position’s profile, we wrote up the major objectives for the person who would eventually do the work. Because the work was so different, there was almost no overlap between the three positions. They were similar by the title of senior UX designers only, not by the work involved.

We wrote three different performance profiles. Then, we wrote three separate job ads. Because we had the written objectives, we could craft a different ad describing that position’s project details.

The ads did a great job of attracting highly-qualified applicants. Many of those applicants had the specific skills, experience, and knowledge that the position called for.

This made interviewing substantially easier. The team filled each position with someone very different, but perfect for their new job.

Who assesses the candidate assessors?

An interviewer’s most important job is to determine if a candidate has the skills, experience, and knowledge to do the job. Yet, during our research, we heard repeated stories of interviewers who didn’t seem to have any idea how to do that.

There were stories about candidates who were asked about experience that wasn’t mentioned in the job ad. For example some interviewing for a position advertised as a UX researcher were asking a candidate about their coding skills.

Candidates told us they were also asked to solve design problems that had nothing to do with the work. For a company whose product is a health practice management software, they were asked to design an elevator control panel for a building with 5,000 floors (nothing to do with healthcare software).

The candidates told us interviewers spent a lot of time on seemingly unimportant things while ignoring more relevant topics. For example, some interviewers would fixate on how a candidate used specific design tools. Or they’d have the candidate spend most of an interview describing an ideal design process. Yet, those same interviewers hardly discussed how the candidate had solved relevant design problems or performed comparable work.

In many organizations, interviews were highly repetitive. We heard about teams where each interviewer asked identical questions, covered the same ground, and, yet, missed hearing about large portions of the candidate’s work experience.

To make matters worse, after those interviews, many candidates were told they didn’t qualify for the job because they were missing requisite experience. Yet, in many cases, they did have good experience, but the interviewers never asked about it.

Unprepared interviewers make the hiring process longer and push away qualified candidates. Unfortunately, most teams do very little work to make sure every interviewer is prepared effectively.

UX Hiring Mistake #3: Interviewers aren’t prepared.

To prepare interviewers, we start with the position’s performance profile. Working through each objective, we carefully identify all the skills, experience, and knowledge we expect to look for in our candidates.

Each major objective in the performance profile is assigned to a specific interviewer. During their interview with each candidate, interviewers work to learn about the candidate’s comparable past experience. What evidence does the candidate have from their past work that shows they can do what is necessary for this job?

Each interviewer has a different set of questions. For example, let’s say we’re hiring the senior UX designer who will roll out the large design system project. One interviewer would own the position’s major objective of conducting a UI component inventory—the process of identifying all the user interface components used across all the products. (A massive job when your company has 30 mature products, each designed and developed without consideration of the others.)

To determine candidates’ comparable past experience developing UI component inventories, that interviewer would ask these questions during their interviews:

        Tell me about a time you had to inventory all the components across many different products? 

        What was your inventory process like?

        How many products did it involve?

        How did you record your results?

        How long did it take to inventory one product?

        How long did it take to inventory all the products?

        What was the most difficult part?

        How did you overcome that difficulty?

        Who else did you work with on the inventory?

        If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?

… and so on.

Another interviewer would own the position’s major objective to coordinate the integration of the design system into the 30 products. They’d look for comparable past experience with these questions:

         Tell me about a time you had to convince multiple product teams to adopt a design system?

         Walk me through the timeline of what happened.

         How many products were involved?

         How did you get the first team do adopt the design system?

         What lessons did you learn from that first team?

         What did you differently in future teams because of what you learned?

         Which team was the most difficult to work with?

         What made them difficult?

         How did you overcome their obstacles?

        How long did the entire roll out take?

… and so on.

Candidates love questions like these because it feels 100% relevant to the position. They can see exactly what the organization is seeking in their new hire. And when the candidate has comparable experience, they get very excited to tell their story to someone who is genuinely interested!

By using the position’s performance profile as the preparation tool for the interview, interviewers make better use of their time with each candidate. The team learns more relevant information and they better identify highly-qualified candidates.

An intentionally-designed hiring process.

The three critical mistakes we’ve discussed here all stem from one root cause: The team hasn’t designed their hiring process well enough.

With performance-based hiring, we overcome these critical mistakes. We use each position’s performance profile to ensure every interviewer knows what they’re assessing the candidates on, how each position is different, and how to tell candidates what they’d do once hired.

Avoiding these three critical mistakes also attracts better-qualified candidates and ensures that the person hired will be a fantastic addition to the team. This is essential for UX leaders who need to build up their organization’s capability to deliver better-designed products and services.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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