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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