I was reading the comments in a LinkedIn group posting several weeks ago and came across a link to a terrific blog post by Whitney Hess that discusses how to evaluate a User Experience Designer. I was reminded of Whitney’s blog posting a few days later when discussing with a recruiter acquaintance of mine how difficult it can be to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to evaluating prospective UX resources, especially for people (recruiters, HR professionals, IT managers, etc.) that don’t have a grounding in the function.
Our discussion came around to those companies that post job openings whose descriptions seem to be randomly conflated with user experience such as “UX Visual Designer”, or “UX Front End Developer.” Neither of which seems at first blush to be fully under the umbrella of User Experience. I opined out that this was a result of people writing job postings and job descriptions that don’t really understand what a UX designer does, let alone what makes a good UX designer.
I pointed my friend to this blog post, telling him that I thought it would help him out, and once he had a chance to read it he agreed and advised me to share it far and wide. So I am!
I want to pull out a couple of key passages for comment, so click the link and read the article, but then come back here for some additional thoughts…
This is the single best article/blog post I have ever read on what makes a great UX Designer great. Hess’ main thrust in the article is that it is more important to uncover and understand the mentality and thought processes of a UX candidate than it is to make sure that the candidate is buzz-word compliant with the latest tools, trends, and terminology:
I’ve come to learn that it really isn’t about whether someone has the best pedigree, has mastered all the right tools, has memorized all the latest terminology, or has worked on the most recognizable brand names. What matters in a user experience designer is the way they think.
I couldn’t agree more! I have always considered personality and team fit to be more important that knowing tool X or having worked in methodology Y. I can always teach a good candidate how to use a new tool or new method for reaching a goal, but it is very difficult (if not impossible) to learn how to be a good fit with a group, just as it is difficult to learn a new way to think.
Background: Process Over Portfolio
While it’s easy enough to pass off the end products of a design exercise as one’s own, it is much more difficult to bluff your way through a discussion of the process you followed and the decisions you made over the course of a project to get to that final design.
It’s the journey, not the destination. How they came to the final product is what you’re hiring them for, not the outcomes they came to. Other businesses’ outcomes don’t apply to yours. You’re a special snowflake and you deserve to be treated as such. How a user experience designer has treated previous projects is what you want to see.
As Hess also points out, any number of influences external to the UX Designer may have impacted the final design that is ultimately delivered.
Goal: Intel Over Instinct
In discussing this facet of user experience design, Hess looks at one of the bedrock principles of quality UX, that any of the hundreds or thousands of design decisions that are made over the course of a project should be validated. There are any number of methods for capturing data through up-front user research to inform these decisions, and several key methods for validating designs based on these decisions.
Quantitative data from web analytics and surveys, qualitative data from interviews and observations, usability testing, card sorting, participatory design sessions — whatever techniques they need to use to get the goods, they’re adept at figuring out which ones to use when, can manage the process throughout, and know how to get the most valid findings.
Hess does circle back to the initial conceit of this facet of UX, pointing out that the more practice UX Designers have at planning, collecting, and analyzing User Research data, the better their intuition for such information will be.
Intuition is enriched with experience, whereas instinct is innate. Neither is conscious, but instinct is an immediate reaction whereas intuition is an immediate understanding. A great user experience designer recognizes the difference.
Knowledge: Principles Over Rules
The next facet of UX that Hess addresses is really one that is universally applicable, that is the importance of understanding and valuing underlying principles over strict rules. As they say, “rules are made to be broken” and the only way to understand which rules are worth breaking is by understanding the principles that underlie these rules.
Some practitioners pride themselves on knowing the latest and greatest best practices from industry thought leaders. A best practice is a standard way of solving a common problem. It is a rule, a prescription for how to behave given certain circumstances. And it’s almost always wrong.
I’m not sure that best practices are “almost always wrong,” but it is a key skill to be able to determine when those best practices are wrong for the context of your current project.
Hess also points out another aspect of a quality UX Designer: the skill to determine specific principles that are specific to a given project’s industry, organization, and users:
Great UXers have a set of principles near and dear to the hearts that they use as guidance on all projects, but the best ones craft a custom set of principles for each project they work on, tailor made for the needs of the business and the customer.
Attitude: Flexibility Over Formality
This facet is a close relation to our previous facet, Knowledge: Principles over Rules, in that it speaks to the need to be flexible and understand when it is proper to deviate from “best” practices or, in this case, “best” processes. While the previous section deals with figuring out what to do on a project, this facet deals with how to do things on a project.
Like our previous facet, I think that this is a universal principle. Processes should (except in extreme cases) provide a roadmap for how to reach a destination, but you have to be able to account for unexpected challenges and opportunities once you are underway that may present options for achieving a higher-quality user experience.
A great user experience designer can bend their process without breaking it. Being willing to change course because it’s what the business and customer need at that very moment is the sign of a true leader, not a follower who knows what to do but not why. Zero in on how this person chooses to communicate, whether they’re making things sound complicated to appear intelligent or if they’re just telling it like it is.
Behavior: Assimilates Over Alienates
This attribute of a good UX Designer is another one of my personal favorites! When discussing opportunities with clients, I always emphasize the fact that I see myself not as the dictator of UX, but as a facilitator.
The best user experience designers aspire to be liaisons between different factions of the business that are not currently working together effectively. They don’t want to do all the work of getting to know the customer, they want to teach others how to make those exercises a part of their own daily work. They want to establish process within the organization that remains present and thriving long after they’re gone. The best user experience designer wants to put themselves out of a job every time.
Motivation: Empathy Over Ego
I think that there are two heavily salient points in this final section of Hess’ post: 1) the best UX Designers are able to empathize with their potential users and can use this skill to help guide the near-infinite number of design decisions that must be made over the course of a project; and 2) the best UX designers project a high level of confidence that can be off-putting.
From an evaluator’s standpoint, you want to try to get a feeling for how much of the first they possess without confusing arrogance for confidence.
What do you think? Do you agree with Hess’ method for evaluating UX Designers? I wish this was required reading for UX Managers, HR Recruiters, and staffing agencies.