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How to Evaluate a UX Designer for Your Company, or, What Makes a Great User Experience Designer

Friends and colleagues often ask me what they should be looking for when hiring a user experience designer. They want guidance on how to evaluate candidates for the position and don’t know what questions they should be asking. Whether it’s full-time or contract, my answer remains the same: It’s all about mentality.

Below I’ve outlined what this mentality looks like and how to probe for it. In my decade of experience, 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.

The way we relate to the world deeply influences the criteria by which we make decisions in it, and vice versa. And when you see yourself as a guardian angel of humanity — the way the best UX designers do — the choices you make in your work come from a very different place than for most.

So what makes a great user experience designer and how can you evaluate one for your company? I think it comes down to a particular set of attributes. I’ve used the outline of a persona to illustrate.

Background: Process Over Portfolio

A great user experience designer, one you should be looking for for your company, isn’t going to whip out a collection of completed projects to impress you with. A great (and truly accomplished) UX designer knows it’s their process that stands out. The steps they choose to take when crafting a meaningful experience for their customers will give you far more insight into the way they’ll operate within your company and the value they’ll bring to the table than a set of glossy, superficial images naively intended to capture the hard work and deep thought that went into creating them.

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.

Sometimes what comes out the other side isn’t commercially successful and sometimes it’s never even implemented, but keep in mind that it’s possible those decisions were completely outside the UX designer’s jurisdiction. It wouldn’t be fair to judge them on it. There are many other people that touch the product throughout the process — visual designers, developers, marketers, CEOs — and ultimately the final product might not match the UX designer’s intentions whatsoever. In that case, the picture in the portfolio wouldn’t do much to communicate the UX designer’s skills, but the story of the process from start to finish might help you to understand what went wrong and how (if) this person tried to make it as a success.

Ask to see artifacts from each step and ask why they made the decisions they did. You’ll be able to tell whether they had good reasoning, where the intel came from, and if they were a critical thinker on the project. If they can’t back it up, chances are they won’t be able to back you up when you need it.

Goal: Intel Over Instinct

The best user experience designers strive to gather the richest possible information about their target audiences in order to make the most informed design decisions. They don’t like making decisions based on their gut reactions, and assumptions are their worst enemy. They recognize that there are many different answers to the same question, and figure out which answer is the right one for your company based on a variety of inputs.

Intel over instinct doesn’t mean logic over emotion. It just means they value the emotions of your target audiences more than their own emotions. How they would react in a given situation matters far less to them than how your customers will react…and they’ll stop at nothing to find that out before you make a big misstep.

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. Then they can make sense of everything they’ve heard and communicate the synthesis clearly to the members of your team so that it’s easily internalized by others and actionable for all.

The more they do these activities, the better they’ll develop their intuition about how your audiences will respond to potential situations you’re creating for them. 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

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.

Rules are made to be broken. Why? Because they constantly fail. They assume that when situation A looks and feels like situation B, the same behavior X will result in the same outcome Y. But under a microscope, situations A and B are much more different than they appear on the surface — meaning behavior X is going to yield outcome Z (which looks nothing like outcome Y and is bound to seriously disappoint your company).

Principles enable the best user experience designers to start with the desired outcome Y and your particular situation B to determine the best course of action for your company. The design decisions you make must be uniquely yours. Context is everything and principles allow for it whiles rules do not; rules demand that you behave the same way regardless of context, removing all reasoning.

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. Ask what they were and ask to have the resulting design decisions pointed out to you so you can see how they’ve been applied.

Attitude: Flexibility Over Formality

When rules govern behavior over principles, they lead to unproductive conclusions. Similarly, when rules govern mindset, conventions take precedence over effectiveness. Behavior then becomes about doing what others expect rather than what is right, especially when it’s hard to see at first.

No step in a user experience designer’s process should be considered an inevitability from the word go; anyone who insists that things must be done a certain way no matter what — wasting time and resources — isn’t someone you want on your team. Formality only creates the image of precision, it doesn’t make the claims any truer.

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

I had two other taglines for this one: trains over claims and inclusive over reclusive. What they all mean is that a great user experience designer doesn’t think that they are solely responsible for the user experience of your product. They recognize their role is to facilitate the process and integrate themselves into the team, not to control things from the outside without other people’s input.

I’ve seen some of the most highly skilled designers refuse to collaborate with teammates because it clouds their vision. They keep their methods to themselves, working alone until they’ve reached a solution they’re pleased with. Then they present the direction to their colleagues with a tremendous sense of self-righteousness, only to discover that none of their ideas are technically or operationally feasible. They’ve assumed they know everything without allowing anyone else to do their jobs.

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

The best user experience designers practice UX because they love getting to know people on a very personal level. Their passion in life is connecting with other people and understanding them in ways others don’t. At the most fundamental level, a first-class user experience designer is obsessed with other people’s happiness and has chosen this career in the hopes to change the world. Not because it will make them famous or rich or powerful or get them attention in any way, but because they have the desire to make people’s lives better — and this is the best way they know how to do it.

Does this person see themselves as the hero on all their projects, or do they thrive on learning new perspectives more than saving the day? Are they impressed with their own solutions, or are they focused on the problems they aim to solve? Do they talk about their target audiences with compassion and sincerity, or are they just giving you UX lip service?

Sniffing out a big ego can be a bit tricky especially if you haven’t worked with many UX designers — we’re definitely a confident bunch. But there’s a thin line between self-assurance and arrogance. The best user experience designers are humbled by their experiences, and the deeper they’ve dug, the more they’ve realized just how much there is left to uncover.

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  • http://www.vanshea.com Van

    This post is music to my ears Whitney. Having transitioned from pure visual designer/creative director to a much more user centered and well-rounded UX designer. My key questions to companies I work with are always “Why do they (users) what that?” and/or “Why do we (business) need that?” In the start-up world that I’ve been basking in lately, these basic questions help build and define my process of designing “value” for both sides. Hmm.. Minimal Viable Value?

    • http://www.vanshea.com Van

      Yeesh! My above grammer is nutty! Having transitioned from pure visual designer/creative director to a much more user centered and well-rounded UX designer. My key questions to companies I work with are always “Why do they (users) what that?” and/or “Why do we (business) need that?” Should read: Having transitioned from a pure visual designer/creative director to a much more user centered and well-rounded UX designer, my key questions to companies I work with are always “Why do they (users) want that?” and/or “Why do we (the business) need that?”

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Van, I’m so glad this resonated with you and is in line with what you’ve experienced in your transition. Keep it up!

  • http://www.uxdude.com Bobby

    This will help as I struggle to present my UX portfolio online. In the past–back in my visual design days–showcasing my past work online was easy: just show the eye candy (finished Web site) and list what my role was, any additional info, etc.

    However, since transitioning into a more UX-focused career in recent years, I’ve found it exceedingly difficult to create my “UX Portfolio” online (it still says “coming soon” on my site). What to showcase? In most cases, I didn’t do the visual design… so the only “visual” stuff I have to show is… well… not that visual. Interviews, data analysis/synthesis, prototyping sessions, maybe wireframes.

    Hoping I can use this article to figure out how the heck to present this stuff to the world in a compelling way.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Bobby, thank you so much for your comment and I hope the post can really help you hone in on what’s important to you. The best thing to do with your online portfolio (if you must have one) is to tell a story about a project start to finish, and show how you shaped the thinking and affected decisions. I think that’s more important to show than a series of artifacts. Good luck and keep us posted!

  • http://annehubben.com Anne Hubben

    Great post, Whitney! It’s so helpful to get this info from you and I’ll be directing a lot of people to this post! Thanks for writing it :-)

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Anne, thank you so much. I hope that recruiters can really internalize the distinction between a “skilled” practitioner and a meaningful one. I know it’s something you’ve always innately understood, but not everyone is as good as you! Keep showing them how.

  • http://www.brianpagan.net Brian

    “The best user experience designer wants to put themselves out of a job every time.”
    Indeed, the greatest benefits we UX people provide is usually pretty invisible; it’s when we take on the role of “facilitator” and help others be their best.

    Thanks for this post; I hope it opens some eyes.

    Keep rockin’ ;-)

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Thank you, Brian. Not taking credit for our work can ultimately be a great thing — if we’ve integrated our design process and way of thinking into the organization for them to have as their own. It’s not about being the hero (back to empathy over ego), it’s about helping people however we can. That’s what drives us.

      • http://www.brianpagan.net Brian

        If I started a Tumblr of great UX tattoos, “Empathy over Ego” would be one of them ;-)

  • http://www.behance.net/DaveHuer Dave

    This is lovely stuff! Thank you for posting it.
    Vancouver, BC

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Thank you for reading, Dave!

  • http://coscienz.blogspot.it Antonella

    This post rocks!
    I hope it will open some mind! I agree with everything and especially with the last part. A huge ego is the big enemy of a objective design. Thanks for sharing it!

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Thank you for reading, Antonella!

  • Mehera O’Brien

    Whitney – I’ve been reading your blog for awhile now, but I’ve never posted a comment. I really enjoy your topics and often nod vigorously in agreement. This article is so great that I just had to finally say hi. I’m also a UX designer in NYC and I find it reassuring to have a voice like yours in our community. Thanks for all the effort and passion you put into sharing your thoughts. I’m a big fan.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Mehera, thank you so much! It means the world to me that my thoughts and perspective resonate with you and in some way reflect your own experiences. Having that validation is so important, and as an indie it’s something I’m always looking for myself. Thank you for taking the time to comment and for doing what you do. Please keep reading and sharing your views as well!

  • http://www.beelinemediadesigns.com Maurice

    Thanks Whitney for an awesome post!
    I used to be one of those…”here’s my website portfolio” type of dudes. Now my portfolio in just to entice clients/employers for more information.
    My work is mainly with online applications or SaaS products. Typically taking them from enterprise to a more modern delivery without disrupting their clients.

    I personally have a presentation I use which was built to run for a few minutes. What I have notice is that it usually last 30mins to 1hr just because they get so intrigued and immersed in the process, almost like they’ve never seen anything like it before.
    I walk them through the process of requirements, competitive analysis, content inventory, design patterns, pictures of whiteboarding, ideation, sketching and exploration, how UX fits within an Agile environment, grids, responsive designs, I touch on the role of the BA and Product Manager, the review and approval process, how I interact with the developers, then I end with a before and after comparison. All the while using their products or services as a “possible” example/scenario and how it could be tailored to their needs.
    I consider my presentation a sales pitch which offer remedies to simply complex problems.

    For me this has been very successful, and most often result in an offer, or on their list for future projects, usually more complex ones. :)
    Regardless, I always feel I have raised the bar for the others to follow.
    They would actually tell me how refreshing it was to see my approach rather than show a bunch of websites.

    BTW – They sometime even go as far as telling me the type of people they have been interviewing (pure UX vs. designer with UX vs. Interaction designer vs. coder who think UX), what they lack and what they think I bring to the table.

    Anyway…enough blabbing from me.
    Great article.

    Toronto, Canada

  • Lindsay

    I have forward this quote to 5+ people in the last 10 minutes:

    “The best user experience designers practice UX because they love getting to know people on a very personal level. Their passion in life is connecting with other people and understanding them in ways others don’t. At the most fundamental level, a first-class user experience designer is obsessed with other people’s happiness and has chosen this career in the hopes to change the world. Not because it will make them famous or rich or powerful or get them attention in any way, but because they have the desire to make people’s lives better — and this is the best way they know how to do it.”

    Spot on and beautifully said.

  • kendall

    This landed in my inbox this morning, and I had an interview for a UX role this afternoon. It gave me confidence that I am a good UXer. Fingers crossed I get the role.

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  • Jason

    “The best user experience designers practice UX because they love getting to know people on a very personal level.”

    This is saccharine and misleading. Loving “getting to know people” certainly won’t hurt your ability to conduct research or empathize, but I don’t believe that it’s an essential pillar of the practice, nor will it guarantee any level of proficiency as a UX practitioner.

    I’d swap in attention to detail, or the ability to move between macro and micro contexts. Or patience. Or a willingness to be proven wrong. There are many other useful talents and propensities that are more germane to the craft.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Jason, your comment reveals that you just don’t feel this way about the people you serve. You may be surprised to learn that it actually *is* how many of us truly feel, that this isn’t fake sweetness but genuine compassion. If I were your employer, I’d sure be wondering why your heart isn’t in it.

      • Jason

        Whitney –

        I think it’s important to remember that there are many personality types in the world, including many people who are natural introverts. This doesn’t mean that they don’t interact effectively with others – it just doesn’t “energize” them in the same way that extroverts get boosted. See: Myers-Briggs

        Picking the right ways to gather data and incorporating it into the design effectively are ultimately more important than deriving deep emotional satisfaction from the research activities.

        Different people enjoy the various steps of the process differently.

  • http://www.notjustprettypictures.com Tony Santos

    Hey Whitney,
    I think this is a great article, and I wish more hiring managers in the SF Bay/Silicon Valley area would read it. I’ve been looking for work for about 6 months now and have found myself basically giving this explanation to hiring managers and recruiters who are looking for a quick hit of pretty pictures and eye candy and who get annoyed (some times to the point of interrupting) when I try to tell a story about process, or explain that as an interaction designer I don’t have any finished glossy “pixel perfect” images to show them. I think we need to do a better job as a group of professionals educating companies what it is we do.

    On a related note, I’m using this article as part of the research for one I’m writing about the rift between hiring expectations for UX designers and what UX designers say it is they do. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it when it’s finished in the next few days. Keep up the great work :)

  • http://[email protected] Kathryn Storm (@stormka)

    Resonated: Formality only creates the image of precision, it doesn’t make the claims any truer.

  • http://www.thinkbrownstone.com Russ Starke

    Great piece, Whitney – I’ve been phrasing it like this over the years: “if you’re looking for someone who has all of the “magic bullet points”…that’s an extremely narrow way of looking at it.” Because I’ve found that those bullet points are concrete and tend to decay over time…the boxes that need to be checked are far from concrete, and even if we could come up with a pretty good set of them, they’d be obsolete next month. Were I work, we are most definitely interested in how people THINK, and the diverse backgrounds of the folks we’ve hired proves it…it’s not about a specific certification, degree, software skill, etc.

    Really great post, very well said – thanks!

  • Georgy Saveliev

    Thank you, Whitney!
    Your writing is a great affirmation for those of us who have the same mindset and want to know they are not alone with it in the world.

    As it said: “for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.” (Luke 6:45).

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  • Scott Daniels

    Thank you, Whitney! You put into words what I’ve felt for a long time. This really gets into the heart and soul of what makes a great UX-er. Well done.

  • http://www.zecora.ca Boris Iglesias

    “The best user experience designers practice UX because they love getting to know people on a very personal level.”
    This is a great quote. So true. Sometimes I think one of the best exercises for UXers is meeting new people, connecting and “observing” behaviours everywhere. We can get a lot of input from very simple social activities.
    Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://conzz.com(thecobbler'skidshavenoshoes!) Connie Seidel

    Brilliant article Whitney. I’ve been reading you off and on for a while and this is my first comment back to you.

    as a 16 year vereran UXer/UCDer, I could not have put these thoughts on what it takes to be a UX professional any better. I’ve been evangelizing UX in the IT division of the company I came to 6 years ago (and yes, there is no UX team – I’m it – team of one! in an IT division that produces on the order of 300-400 IT projects a year for the business). Pointing people to your article will help my people understand even better the mystery that is UX. People now use the phrase a lot, and have a sense that we really need it here, but they’re still mystified as to exactly what it is. And that’s because of the very aspects of the “art” of UX that you’ve captured. We do endeavor to put ourselves out of a job! We do care more about making people’s lives better than getting recognition – often even to a fault maybe. Managers, developers, DBAs, visual designers seem to find that a difficult concept to grasp, let alone live by. And maybe even more bizarre to most people, we typically don’t even try to do that. It’s just the way we’re drawn ;-)


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  • Shilpi Dahele

    One of the BEST UX related articles I have read in a LONG time!!!! This should help a lot of budding UXers change their approach and thought processes regarding design. I will be sending this to my team mates :)

  • http://www.digivitz.com Jamie

    Nice post, though to me it seems like your characterization of a Ux Designer falls more in the Ux research camp. It all depends of course on how differentiated a particular team’s roles are. I do agree that it’s always more important to understand a candidate’s process over their work tools or even finished artifacts, but I do think final product is important, even if it deviates from the purist Ux intention. as a manager I would want to hear about how that happened, how that made the person feel, and how good they are at letting go and handling the imperfect world in which we work.

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  • http://twitter.com/JoeVillanueva22 Joe Villanueva (@JoeVillanueva22)

    This is absolutely, without question, one of the best posts / articles I’ve ever read. And I read probably 20 posts a day.

    Thank you for this.

  • http://www.myintuition.ca sorin stefan

    Hey Whitney, remember our phone conversation from 3 years ago?
    YOU gave so much confidence in my work…

    THIS post did it again!
    Thank you a million times, God bless you.

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  • Amit
  • ineedsubstance

    Curious if working for a company that has never valued data and analytic could hurt someones chances of landing a UX job in the future. Could relying on user scenarios, customer feedback and usability testing be enough? More data is obviously better, but if it is not available or cared about from a company level, what can we do?

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