The Biggest Problems With UX Recruiting
By Raymond Stone on February 7, 2019
I love both basketball and user experience (UX) design, so I'll begin with a basketball analogy. For a moment imagine that the NBA did not hold a draft. In the summer of 2003, two players listed at 6'8” and 250 lbs sat on the market awaiting new teams. One had ten years of professional experience while the other had zero. The one with professional experience: Popeye Jones. The one without professional experience: LeBron James. In the corporate world, Popeye Jones always gets the interview. In the corporate world, Popeye Jones always gets the job. Yes—an extreme example, but bear with me.
I've unfortunately spent way more of my professional life searching for the next UX position than I'd like to admit, and my experiences force me to both live and learn all of the problems with recruiting in the field of UX. Many of these problems actually apply to recruiting in general, so even if you live outside of the design bubble some of these will sound familiar. Before continuing I should specify that this article refers mainly to companies looking to fill positions titled, “UX Designer,” “Product Designer,” or “Interaction Designer.”
Companies overvalue years of experience.
I instinctively want to say “way” overvalue, but admittedly UX design benefits from having some professional experience in a field, so I'll just leave this as a moderate “overvalue.”
Some job applications ask for number of years of UX experience as if to dare the more junior applicants to choose between honesty and having any chance of their résumés getting through the applicant tracking systems (ATS). Many up-and-coming UXers may find career growth difficult in a field seemingly obsessed with hiring senior level designers to the point where most open positions require 5+ years of experience on paper. The common practice of making this a hard requirement reveals a lack of understanding of the nuances of design experience.
Designers do not grow or learn at equal paces. While working at an agency a designer may juggle 4-5 projects at any given moment. I can't speak about client-side designer positions based on my career, but from what I hear a client-side product team could spend weeks arguing over the color of a button. Now imagine the aforementioned designer who shipped numerous products over the course of one or two grueling years at a no-name agency hitting the market to compete against a designer who shipped no more than a few products over the course of 3-5 years at a name brand company like Facebook, Apple, Google, or Microsoft. Guess which résumé makes it through the ATS programmed to auto-reject applicants with fewer than three years of experience. Even if both résumés make it onto the desk of a recruiter or hiring manager, guess which one passes the six-second scan test. Yes—the one with a recognizable brand to go along with 3-5 years of experience on paper. I understand that client-side designers dive deeper into their respective projects than agency designers do into their respective projects. However, by judging experience solely on years while ignoring both number and types of products shipped, many companies actively seeking candidates to fill open UX positions inadvertently ignore large portions of viable prospects in a field in which hiring managers often claim lacks talent.
Yet more about years of experience.
Companies hiring for positions requiring 0-3 years experience have claimed I have too much experience. Companies hiring for positions requiring 4-6 years experience have claimed I have too little experience. Yet, some companies hiring for positions requiring 7+ years experience have regarding me as a good enough candidate to interview several times before selecting one of the other finalists. Queue another sports analogy. Imagine a city baseball league team rejecting a player due to his apparent advanced aptitude for the game. A college soon after rejects that same player due to apparent lack of playing experience. Then a Major League Baseball team invites him to spring training, cutting him just before the start of the regular season not due to lack of skill, but due to limited roster spots. That baseball player can reasonably assume the sport's recruiting practices haven't evolved to the point of effectively scouting, evaluating, and developing talent. The development issue stems from the near absence of lower level positions in the field. In the case of UX, every company wants directors and senior designers. But where do these directors and senior level UX pros typically develop?
The issue with design challenges.
On the surface companies mean well when assigning design challenges to candidates for open positions. But while these design challenges seem like the perfect solution to make the process more democratic, do organizations assigning them take them as seriously as the candidates do? I have two personal stories and a tweet from an industry leader that say no.
Several years ago about four months before I finally broke into the UX field a recruiter from a major international car brand developing a smartwatch app reached out to me regarding a UX Intern position. He said the design team would decide between me and one other candidate. The recruiter relayed the design challenge to both of us along with the presentation schedule. The other candidate would present one day and I the following day. Eager to finally get what felt like a real opportunity to break into the field, I worked tirelessly throughout that weekend. A day before my presentation the recruiter called me to say I would not present my design solutions to the team because the other candidate's presentation “blew them away.” While I admire the other candidate's effort, the first come, first served nature of that experience didn't sit well with me, and remains one of the first major signs that success too often comes down to factors outside of relative skill.
In early 2018 I applied to a Senior Product Designer position and received a design challenge following a phone interview with the Director of Product Design. I completed two versions of the design since the description didn't specify whether they needed a mobile mockup or a desktop mockup. The following morning I emailed the designs to the director. Days went by without a response. After a week I sent a follow-up email reiterating my interest in the position. One year later and I'm still waiting for a response. Following that experience a tweet from Jared Spool caught my eye. Spool, one of the UX industry leaders and a vocal opponent of design challenges during interview processes stated in his tweet:
I'm no fan of design exercises during designer interviews.— Jared Spool (@jmspool) September 30, 2018
However, when I hear about a team that gives a candidate an exercise, rejects them, and doesn't offer any feedback about the candidate's performance, I think it's just cruel.
Says a lot about the organization.
Spool's tweet suggests design challenge ghosting happens regularly. These stories don't even include head scratching rejection emails I received following overwhelmingly positive reviews of my design exercise solutions.
Companies pretend to want real UX practitioners while understating what they really want.
Most ads for positions listed as “Product Designer” (at various seniority levels) list “UX” before just about any other required or desired skill. Yet, as I browse LinkedIn both inside and outside of my network, companies seem to fill open Product Designer roles more often with visual designers and graphic designers who dabble in UX than they do UX designers with UI skills. When companies interview me for this position team members often praise my portfolio as “great” while expressing concern over the lack of UI deliverables on shipped products. Essentially, my work always passes the eye test, but companies have held against me the fact that I've had relatively few opportunities to contribute visual UI designs on shipped products compared to visual designers who on top of their UI deliverables can always claim they “contributed” to the UX of their projects. Missing from Product Designer job postings: “we only care about eye candy and we only care about the eye candy you've shipped, no matter how much your personal projects blow us away visually.”
I'll conclude with my oversimplified “solutions.”
To design recruiters and hiring managers: look at a designer's body of work before throwing out the résumé, not the other way around. You don't need to recruit exactly the way sports teams do, but design competence goes far beyond years of experience on paper. Yes, experience matters, but so does pixel pushing skills, the ability to think through design problems, the types of projects a designer has worked on, and the designer's ability to fit into both structured and unstructured situations. Design challenges can give hiring managers and design teams partial insight about how a designer works, but only if the exercises truly exist to evaluate candidates and not merely as throwaway steps to convince candidates the process evaluates them fairly.
The industry should pick a winner between “Product Designer,” “UX Designer,” and “Interaction Designer,” so those in this field can know how to properly brand themselves for SEO purposes—or separate the roles into more individually unique and honestly defined skill sets that don't overlap as much so designers may better understand why they find it unusually difficult to transition between seemingly similar roles.
The world needs UX practice, but UX practice needs its own UX practice.
This article concludes at the end of the previous paragraph but if you stuck around this far then you can read the following tangent I excluded for the sake of focus.
I responded to Spool's tweet about my experience of not receiving feedback for a design solution. Since I tagged the company in question, a representative of that company reached out and apologized for my experience. I accepted the apology, but not the representative's supposed solution to contact the team I interviewed with. You know—the same team I couldn't successfully contact in the first place.