User Experience at Hello Erik

What I’ve Learned as a UX Interviewer

Sitting on the other side of the table during a UX interview is a very different experience. I don’t see a lot written from the personal perspective of the UX interviewer. There are generalized guides and how-to’s, but no actual real-life accounts.

That is what this article is about. I wanted to write something with some personality and heart. So here it is; my experience over the last 15 months in interviewing dozens of UX candidates, and eventually hiring (two) Sr. level co-UXers that work with me as peers.

A personal take

Recently, more than a few articles have popped up concerning “what to do, what not to do, 5 biggest mistakes, one cool trick… etc etc.” The problem I had with these articles was that they were stale 600 word editorials that didn’t really provide anything interesting. The same boilerplate advice meant to generalize out to as many companies or candidates as possible. They were written from an anonymous, 3rd party perspective where there was no human voice, no empathetic POV for the reader to relate to.

This is all just my personal take, it’s not a general guide or a how-to. It might provide something that helps you directly, and it might provide some things you disagree with and don’t like, which still helps you to clarify your own goals and preferences. Either way, I hope it’s not just another boring collection of things you can read anywhere.

Before we begin, know I am not a hiring manager, I just brought my chosen candidates to the review committee.

  • I am not in HR
  • I am not a recruiter
  • I don’t sift through hundreds of applicants a day
  • Some of these notes might actually hurt you in some interviews
  • My take is biased, personally skewed, and not at all a “how to” guide.
  • I am just a UX person who desperately wants to hire people that care about they do.

My “What not to do” List

Over the past 15 months, I had the chance to have two separate job postings open, around 6 months apart.

Each time, there was probably 50 resumes submitted. Being that UX is a fairly specialized and nuanced role, I had the HR recruiter send me every candidate that came through; there was no way to explain what we were going to be looking for.

As the resumes came in, we looked at them usually within the same day. We had a system we went through first – the initial disqualification round. This is necessary, a lot of people don’t even try, or they just apply for every job with UX in it whether they are remotely qualified or not.

I will always put as much effort into reviewing an applicant as they appear to have put into preparing or submitting materials. I believe in being fair. But like the Russian Police, that first look at a resume has to be a stern one. Stern, but fair.

First Impression – The Resume

The email is forwarded with a resume attached. I drag it to the desktop and hit spacebar to preview it. Here are some instant DQ’s:

  • Unattractive Resume. This was the first thing we look at. If there is no sign of effort or good-intent to make my viewing of the resume a positive experience, it is an instant no.
  • Word Documents. Just don’t. Word has a “save/export as PDF” feature. Word is a composition tool, not a presentation tool. Plus, using Word isn’t always a good experience for me as the reader. Do you really want to leave the presentation layer of your first impression to each persons individual install of Office? Also – I think people forget that when a Word doc is viewed, all the little red and green squiggles appear under spelling or grammar errors, and since most of these jobs have a lot of tech skills, all the strange words and acronyms appear misspelled. Just ugly.
  • Margins. This is one of those intangibles that has so much hidden meaning to me. If your resume has small margins, or the same margin around the whole document, it just feels lazy. It doesn’t have to be graphic-art, but you’re interviewing for a role where your work will eventually be what a user sees and feels. Empathize with who you are sending your resume to.
  • Length. I do not, and never will, care how long your resume is if it is relevant info. If you want to include your resume as the first few pages of a PDF portfolio, even better.
  • Cover Letter. If you want to write something specific, send it. If you have a reason you want to work at this specific place, mention it. Otherwise, skip it. If it doesn’t say something beyond what we already assume – that you want a job – what value does it add?
  • Visually Designed Layouts. If you want to do an actual layout that has considerable visual design work done to it, great. Delight me. Times New Roman does not delight my eyes or brain. If your layout is not annoying and adds to my experience, that’s a plus. Why? Because imagination and greatness only come from risks. Don’t be as flavorless as possible for fear of rustling the jimmies of a prospective audience.
  • Don’t have a data visualization of your skills! Showing a graph or chart of a bunch of skills, with a few that are far lower than the rest is always a bad idea and should be nuked from orbit. Never do this anywhere.

skillsgraph

Second Impression – Portfolio & Material Review

With the resumes we didn’t instantly delete, it was time to check out any material you submit.

Portfolio

A UX portfolio is a hard thing to put together. A lot of work is confidential, proprietary, or just plain private. I get that more than anyone. If you’re going to submit a web or PDF portfolio, here’s what I would always be wary of.

  • Showing Final Designs Only. Visual design is awesome, and potentially a big part of your job. But it shows me nothing of your process; techniques, methods; innovations. I can’t see if you have an analytic or abstract though style. I’d prefer to see how you arrive at something. Even if you have to make a fictional example project or IA example, at least that shows me your inner though processes.
  • Dribbble, Behance, DeviantArt, etc etc etc. Please don’t send me to a site 3rd party site as the only option. Just do the PDF. Even if you just drag and drop the same images from the 3rd party site. Otherwise, suddenly I forget where the email is with your URL, or I want to view it on my phone and their mobile experience sucks, or as in a real-life case, Behance was down!
  • …In regards to the previous bullet. I have to send your materials to upper management and they have never heard of these niche sites. I’ve had to give people’s Behance (or whatever) to Sr. Executives who have no idea what they’re looking at. “Is this their website? Why are the pictures so small? The URL didn’t work. Why is the name different?” Once, when a candidate sent a Dribbble profile, my boss clicked and clicked the thumbnail, and when I told him “those don’t enlarge,” he looked at me and said “This is how people want to present their work?”
  • Current examples. It can have old items, but don’t send me a “Last updated July 2010” collection of examples.
  • Sending nothing at all. Send something.

Personal Website

  • It’s good to have. It’s 2013. Personal websites aren’t hard to build. Domains are $10.
  • Make it non-terrible. It doesn’t have to be the best thing I’ve ever seen. Far from it. If you’re not a web designer and never have been, make it simple, clean, and follow the easy best-practices of small websites. A bad website is such a bad sign.
  • Show Examples. Have your examples and portfolio up there. Maybe some link to live sites or apps. A personal site is a great place to maintain complete control over what you say and show.
  • Include links to relevant sites. Your Dribbble, GitHub,  Linkedin, Twitter, etc etc.
  • Again… Don’t have a data visualization of your skills! All this says is “This is what I suck at” and makes you look like you have shortcomings you felt necessarily to highlight. How does that help you? Especially if it isn’t a direct job requirement. Don’t put “HTML/CSS” at a low state if that’s not an integral part of the job. And if it IS an integral part – why are you applying for a job where your weak skillset is a liability to you?

Third Impression – The initial meet

If the first phases went well, I’d want to talk on the phone or in person ASAP. My personal goal is to rule people in, not rule them out. I want to attract as many people with strong potential as I can, and the quickest way to do that is by talking. It’s not an interview yet, I just want to make contact and get a sense for each other’s personalities.

Bad Signs

  • Low energy. I am a UX practitioner who loves what I do with all my soul. When people have low energy or seem to just treat this as a job, it brings the conversation down.
  • Not speaking to the different aspects of UX. Know what they are, what they mean, why they are important. Dominate the conversation with UX in-depth discussion.

Good Signs

  • Talking about methodology. It’s always real clear when someone is speaking from a place of genuine interest and knowledge, as opposed to when they are trying to use the right terms and topics but don’t really have it in their blood. Take control of the interview and start writing your process down on a whiteboard.
  • High energy. This is a personal thing. But I want people to be fired up. Care about what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re super advanced or a beginner, you can still have a deep investment in your work and the time you spend on it.
  • Give me the realtalk. Lay down the law. Tell me why things work and why they don’t. You’re a professional. If I’m trusting you to go and fight the UX battles against bad design, bad experience, bad ideas… diplomacy and compromise will not always work. If you don’t think it’s a good experience for the user, advocate that and don’t give up your principles.
  • Be direct about what you want. Never, ever say you’re “willing to do anything” or “whatever is needed.” If I ask, genuinely, what you want to do here – tell me.  None of us get our exact dream role, but having conviction for what you want to do is way better than just being a UX Roomba. Not sure what to say? Say “I want to kick some ass on your UX problems and crank this place into high gear.”

I do have one question I ask that is more about how a person responds. The details of the answer aren’t super important.

It goes “We believe in getting people the hardware they need. Tell me what we’d need to buy for you so you show up your first day and can just start.” Don’t say “just whatever” or “I can work on anything, I’m flexible.” Do you want a Windows box? Linux? A Mac? Do you need dual 27” screens? A big Wacom? What sort of keyboard? Mouse? Laptop? Desktop? Solid state drives? 16 gigs of RAM?

I’m not trying to burn money or just indulge in “geek toys.” This is a serious job and every second you’re impeded by hardware is a second wasted. Plus, I like to know that people have preferences and that things that matter to them. Even if certain hardware isn’t feasible, at least you spoke up. It also let’s you know your prospective employer’s view on investing in new hires.

My current CEO said to me during my interview, “If you’re working at a place that won’t get you the tools you need, you don’t want to work there.” That’s truth.

Why my current UX partners got hired

After many months of interviewing people, I find finally was able to hire a peer, and then he and I repeated the interviewing process for a few more months. We eventually hired a 2nd peer. Here are the highlights of why myself, my boss, and our company chose them:

  • They spoke on the UX topics without hesitation. They weren’t repeating things they’ve heard, or talking “around” UX like it was a book report.
  • Their first-impression materials were on-target. I ruled-in one of them on a first impression based on a single thumbnail of a wireframe. The other I ruled-in from the custom design and layout of his UX documentation he used at his previous job. It just had that intangible something that like-minds can just feel. Intuition is a big part of this.
  • They told me what they would do. Not passively, but literally told me what they would do here, making clear “Look, I know how to fulfill a UX role, and here’s how I would do it for this company.”
  • They cared more about doing good UX work than getting this job. You could just tell that their tools were sharp, but the tools belonged to them, not their current employers or me. They can take them anywhere and create great things. They didn’t need to be instructed on how to do the job.

But most importantly, they didn’t give rote answers my questions. They listened, and then educated me on the relevant topic. It was like I was the university student in the crowd asking a question, and they were the tenured professor at the front of the room spreading education. Do you see the difference? Answer as the professor, not as the nervous job applicant.

Oh and I guess they had experience. But experience isn’t what excites me. Lots of people have experience. And lots of people have 10 years of experience in repeating the same year 9 more times.

Don’t be a rockstar ninja lean agile UX designer.

Smart people hire a person, not a work history. They ask “What can you do for me in the future?” I’d take a newbie with potential over a veteran who doesn’t seem excited. Your career history and past accomplishments are good, but remember; I’m hiring a person. I’d be more prone to hire someone that isn’t an exact fit for the role, but has too much potential to pass up.

People can learn to “do” tasks. But you can’t teach people to care.

UX-ad

I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.
  • yingying

    Excellent! Excellent post Eric, thank you!
    Having been an interviewee for many times, I found I was always do some imagination about interviewers or the interviews… although people can have different taste, a very (probably the most) important thing that I should remember (and show them) is that how much I care and love my work as a UXer, and why am so passionate about it.

    Yingying

    yingyingz.com

  • http://twitter.com/DavidPRoyer David Royer

    Nice article! Lots of great points, and I am totally with you about the value of passion and designers caring more about good work than getting a particular job.

    However, I am curious about your disdain for skill visualizations. I actually think those suckers are very useful when screening candidates. Most designers are not equally strong in all skill sets (UX hats) and I find a representation of which skills are strongest very useful when trying to fill a particular role. I’d want to know the UX candidate sees themselves as stronger at research & IA, and weaker at visual designer, or vice versa.

  • http://www.helloerik.com/ Erik Flowers

    That’s a good topic of discussion.

    I feel like they skew the bell curve by including things that do nothing but lower the overall average. If you’re a spectacular 1st base player, just say that. Don’t include that you’re not good at shortstop and have a .105 batting average.

    When you’re asked in an interview (not that I’d ever ask this) what your biggest weakness is, they say “reply with a weakness that is actually a strength.” But I see these skill-charts as listing weaknesses that are actual weaknesses. It’s almost like saying “I’m a so-so unicorn.”

    I also think it might perpetuate the idea that a UX person should be expected to “pinch hit” for anything remotely related. But that’s a different paradigm battle ;)

    I’ve seen worse though, I had a person submit a resume once with their hourly pay indicated on each job in a timeline graph. /boggle

  • http://twitter.com/DavidPRoyer David Royer

    Nice metaphors. You make a compelling case and I think you may have won me over. I guess a nice replacement for the skill chat would be a headline like ‘UX designer specializing in user research & IA for complex systems’.

  • http://www.helloerik.com/ Erik Flowers

    Now that’s what I’m talkin’ bout! If you get responses from that headline, you’re getting the right kind of people you want.

    I want to reiterate, it’s not that the other skills aren’t just as important. But if you narrow down and succinctly say what you really want, you’re going to get people who love those aspects and have a real focus in delivering high quality results in that area.

  • Kyle

    I enjoyed the post and will incorporate some of the items mentioned here into creating my resume.
    If you don’t mind extending your own perspective as an interviewer…
    1. What are your thoughts on interviewees that have a more even-keeled personality, but are passionate about UX?
    2. “Sending nothing at all. Send something.” & “Show Examples”
    For those of us whose work is not readily distributable in a public forum, what suggestions do you have?

    Any feedback would be appreciated.

  • http://www.helloerik.com/ Erik Flowers

    Someone’s general personality can be whatever is acceptable in a workplace. Loud, quiet, pragmatic, etc. The energy is more around innovation and exploration. Wanting to do things because their driven to create things that compel and delight people. To believe that what they do matters in a big way and have the desire to push that energy against the obstacles in the way.

    If you don’t have a lot of public work (even I don’t), you can still show a process and mindset and walk people through the work you have done and how you did things along the way. A user is a user is a user. What is important is honing in on their actual problem and solving it in an effective and delightful way.

    Even when people have lots of highly visual examples, mockups or flows or wireframes, the interviewer has no context of the work without narration. And how do we even know it was a successful UX result? Without vetting a project, seeing all the deliverables only shows that you can create artifacts. It doesn’t actually show you’re a problem solver.

    That’s the crux of why I like energy and people discussing why and how they do things. If they know why, and have a process that shows they know ways to explore and solve problems, artifacts are just a small piece at the end.

    I did a post about making a mock portfolio, if you want to read that too.

  • Kyle

    Thanks for the reply

  • Kellie

    Erik, I’m stoked. May we clone you? You’ve restored my faith in finding the right gig, with folks that have the same philosophy. Phew!

    And I SO BADLY wanted to say (at my last interview), “I want to kick some serious ass with [your current UX Team]“. I probably would have if I read your article beforehand… Maybe I’ll get the chance at my next interview. (!)

    Thank you so much for taking the time to help us driven newbies keep up our momentum.

  • http://www.helloerik.com/ Erik Flowers

    Great to hear it.

    I’m actually hiring 3 spots right now (ux generalist, ui and interaction designer, and visual designer). Feel free to do a mock interview, or real interview, if you’re interested =D

  • Kellie

    Interested! I’m sending you a Linkedin request right now.

  • Karl Vochatzer

    Nicely articulated about your perspective on hiring UX partners and peers, Erik. As one who is looking for my next full-time UX role where I can utilize my skills, knowledge and experiences while ever expanding the scope and depth of each, I truly appreciate this perspective from the other side of the table. It’s refreshing to feel that you really want to see that candidate shin and succeed rather than digging for something that proves that s/he is human and not a unicorn (or a rockstar ninja lean agile UX designer).

  • Elisa Baliani

    Hi Eric,
    I really enjoyed your article, it’s full of great stuff and pieces of sincere advice.

    Anyway, I would like to ask you some addtional words about data visualization of skills: what method or visualization do you recommend to be synthetic, clear, complete and not boring? A list of skills or, I don’t know, a short paragraph?
    Have you got a good example to show us?

    Thank you so much.

  • http://www.helloerik.com/ Erik Flowers

    I used to have funky resumes, but I’ve started to just make them super clean, laid out with precise spacing, margins, and just put things in bulleted lists. What I’ve found is that you can get things down to just the sheer fragments and make it scannable, and when people see the keywords and skills, they’ll call.

    What you have to remember is that a resume gets you phone screen, not an interview or a job. Just give enough to get people to say “yeah, I can see this person has the right description of things, lets call them to verify.”

    Avoid paragraphs. I recently redid a resume for someone and we cut out any proper paragraphs or sentences and just made it into fragments and bullet lists. And maybe some descriptive sentence fragments, but we removed every word possible so that it was clear, but not even close to proper grammar. It was a huge improvement.

  • Elisa Baliani

    Thanks a lot Erik, valuable advice!