UX Hiring: The Power of the Screening Question

by Jared M. Spool

“In 250 words or less, tell us about the UX project you’re most proud of.”

We use a tailored form of this question when we’re helping clients with their UX hiring. While the specific question we ask candidates will vary, it does the same thing each time: It tells us which candidates to talk with first.

It’s a great prioritizing tool because, unlike a résumé or portfolio, it’s specific to the job we’re hiring for. For example, when our client was hiring a new senior designer to lead a massive design system implementation and rollout, we asked “Tell us about the biggest design system implementation and rollout you’ve ever led.” The answers that came in told us exactly which applicants we should talk with first.

A simple technique to speed hiring

The number one priority for hiring great team members is to uncover the evidence of each applicant’s comparable experience. The answer we get from each applicant is the first inkling whether they have the experience we are seeking in an ideal new hire.

Candidates love a chance to brag about their best work. But résumés and portfolios aren’t tailored to tell us what in their past history is relevant to the job we’re trying to fill.

Résumés and portfolios are often generic documents that candidates create once. They send the same documents to every position they apply for, independent of the job.

By asking about something that’s specific to the team’s upcoming project work, we can get the applicant talking—from the first moment they apply for the position—about potentially relevant accomplishments.

We can push candidates with high-potential to the front of our hiring pipeline. If it turns out they are right for the job, we find out early. We can expedite their subsequent interviews, discussions, and reference checks. If the candidate meets our needs, we’ll make them an offer.

All this happens faster because we asked this simple question up front.

Tailoring the question for our upcoming work

We’ve always tailored the screening question for the specific job we were trying to fill.

When we were hiring a senior design leader to start a new team at one of our bigger clients, we asked applicants to “Tell us how you built the best design team you’ve ever led. What made the team so great?” The answers we received were amazing and highlighted the most promising candidates right away, in a way that neither their résumés nor their portfolios ever did.

With another client, we were hiring more junior UX team members, to free up their senior team from day-to-day production work. For these candidates, the team expected to train any new hires on the production work. They wouldn’t have that experience already.

For these positions, our screening question focused on how the applicants learn: “Tell us about a recent difficult project that you learned how to do on the job. What made it challenging and how did you learn how to do it?” We were looking for answers that demonstrated they were strong self-learners, even when things got complicated.

We work hard to get our screening question to reflect the bulk of the work. That makes it more effective. We receive better answers from our applicants and we can quickly identify those candidates with the most promise.

The question comes early in the application process

We ask the question up front. It’s part of applying for the position.

In the job ad, we describe the work that the new hire will do. In the ad, we ask applicants to share their résumé and, optionally, their portfolio (we never require a portfolio). It’s at that point that we also ask applicants to answer the screening question by sharing their relevant experience.

The combination of the two—describing the work and asking for their comparable experience—is what makes this technique so effective. The job ad and screening question make it clear what we’re seeking. This gives highly-qualified candidates the opportunity to call attention to themselves in exactly the right way.

What we do with the answer

The first thing we do with an applicant’s answer is thank them. You’d be surprised at how many organizations never thank applicants for applying. Sending a simple thank you helps us stand out.

We do a quick review of their answer. If there’s anything confusing or something we’d like a little more detail on, we send a quick email asking for elaboration. Every time we’ve asked, the applicant responded quickly with helpful additional information.

As we start to get applications, we look for who we’ll contact first for their 30-minute screening call. In this call, we ask the candidate a few more questions, share a little bit more about the position, and field their most pressing questions.

The answers to our screening question tell us who to call first. If we’re lucky enough to get a response that indicates this candidate has high potential, we schedule their call right away. If they’re a great match for our job, they might also be a great match for other employer’s jobs. We don’t want to risk losing them because we didn’t respond quickly enough.

During the first 15 minutes of our 30-minute screening call, we start by digging into their response. We ask as many follow-up questions as we can fit:

  • How long did this work take?
  • Did you lead it or were you working under someone else’s leadership?
  • Had you ever done this kind of work before?
  • What made this project different?
  • How did you learn how to do this work?
  • What did you find challenging about the work?

We’ll often send the candidate some of these questions ahead of time. This gives them a chance to prepare. That improves the quality of their answers during our initial 15-minute discussion.

Because we asked the question when they first applied, we can have a more focused discussion during our initial call. We leave that call with a deeper understanding of the applicant’s experience. That understanding helps us decide how to continue with interviews.

The screening question aids in self-selection

Sometimes, we get an application without an answer to the screening question. Often it’s because the application submission tool or the recruitment site won’t let them add a customized message to their application. (We’re shocked at how many job sites refuse to let applicants provide custom information to potential employers.)

Or maybe the candidate didn’t see the request for the information? We could have accidentally buried the request in the submission instructions. Because it’s not something employers commonly ask for, the applicant missed it.

If we get an application without an answer, we email and ask for it. Most of the time, we get back something that is quite helpful.

However, there are instances where we won’t get an answer, no matter how often we ask. These applicants don’t have the experience we’re seeking and therefore can’t answer the question. They might be an awesome UX professional, but they’re not the right person for our job.

In these instances, we send them a nice thank you, explaining that we were looking for someone with more experience. If it turns out they have the experience they’re looking for, we invite them to reach back out to us.

Those applicants that don’t have a response—or don’t have an answer that matches what we’re seeking—have eliminated themselves from our process. At every stage of the hiring process, we want to focus only on the candidates with the highest potential. The applicants without a great answer are telling us they aren’t right, even though they might have had an impressive résumé or portfolio.

A very powerful, yet simple tool

We got the idea of the screening question from Lou Adler, who invented the process he calls Performance-based Hiring. We’ve since adapted the question for our own use when hiring UX Professionals.

It’s delightful when we get a fantastic answer from an applicant. They are so proud of what they’ve accomplished. We can start our interview process by celebrating that accomplishment with them. The entire tenor of the hiring process starts upbeat and fun, because they get a chance to shine as we learn more about them.

Today’s hiring environment is more competitive than ever. There aren’t enough qualified UX professionals to fill all the available jobs. We need a hiring process that will quickly identify those applicants with the highest potential, so we can act quickly and get to an offer if they’re the right person for the job. The screening question is a simple tool that gives us the power to do just that.

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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