Getting Hired in UX

I’ve been helping some of my clients with hiring UX designers lately. Here are some tips you might find helpful if you’re looking for a role.

Beware miscommunications from recruiters

If you’ve been lined up the role by a recruiter, be cautious if they make you feel like you’ve been headhunted or that you’re somehow a special candidate. Some recruiters try to encourage you to apply by flattering you, and then they they do the same thing to the employer – telling them how incredibly enthusiastic you are about the role. When the interview happens, both parties can feel weirded out by the lack of enthusiasm on both sides. More than anything else, recruiters want the hire to be successful so they get their payday. This means they sometimes bend the truth a little. If a recruiter ever gets in touch and it turns out you have a direct link with the hiring company, tell the recruiter you don’t need an introduction. It’ll avoid problems like this and since there’s no longer a middleman wanting a cut, you might end up with a higher salary.

In the interview, tell your detective work stories

It’s easy to learn how to preach a few design tropes and to trot out the steps of a good design process. The problem with interviewing for UX roles is that anyone can do that. The interviewer has to weed out bullshitters and passengers who have coasted through good projects on the energy of their team members.

User experience is not about following process or preaching. It’s about finding the right problems to work on and taking them apart. It’s a journey of exploration and discovery – finding your way past wrong turns, overcoming hurdles and making sense of a complex world. Your challenge is to communicate your this during an interview. Try thinking of your projects as detective stories. Most design projects have aspects that fit into a good story arc. For example, there’s usually a point at which your eyes are opened by unexpected user research findings, or where the project gets into trouble and you have to adapt your approach to get out of it. This is the juicy stuff that the interviewer will enjoy hearing about. If you can’t tell these sorts of stories, the interviewer will assume that other people dealt with this stuff and you were acting in a junior capacity – doing what you were told but never really grappling with any big challenges.

Prepare for interviews by piecing together true narratives for each of the big projects you’ve done recently. Writing and public speaking really helps because it forces you to think in this way. If you can explain your work using good narratives, this tells the interviewer how you think, which is far more important than how pretty your portfolio is. Narratives are also useful because they’re easy to remember and retell, even when under stress. Exactly what you need in an interview.

Red flags

There are certain responses that I always see as bad sign:

  • When asked about user research findings, can you describe at least one surprising finding that led to an improvement in the product? Red flag: if you talk about user preferences (what they said they liked) rather than user behaviours. If you don’t have much hands-on research experience, don’t panic – the interviewer will already know this from your resume, but you’ll still need to show that you’re used to attending the sessions, feeling the pain and deliberating with the team about how to action the insights.
  • When asked about a design decision, can you describe the trade-offs you considered? All design involves considering alternatives approaches and weighing up their strengths and weaknesses. Red flag: if you can’t answer probing questions about design decisions, and defer to authority (e.g. “the client wanted it like that”) or other externalities like legacy systems.
  • When asked about a big project, can you name which key problems were left unsolved at the end? Red flag: if you can’t name any. Design is never finished. The company learns, time passes, competitors pop up, users mature and the market moves on. You need to be able to talk about what you wanted to do next and why.

Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to do a design exercise in the 2nd or 3rd round

Being asked to do a design exercise is a good sign. It’s time consuming for the employer to run these sessions so it means they think you’re worth it. Some interviewers will email you the materials a few days in advance and then have you present your work in the interview. I personally don’t do this – it gives an unfair advantage to people who are able to take time off work and put some serious hours in. But if you get this opportunity as an interviewee, you’d be stupid to not take full advantage of it. Even though it’s more stressful, it’s fairer to be given the brief on the spot in the interview. The type of design exercise will depend on the client, but it’ll usually be a microcosm of a UX project, packed into an hour or two. Some planning, some evaluation, a little whiteboard design sketching, discussion of research options, that sort of thing. If you’ve not done this before then practice. Practice a lot.