Interviewing Candidates for UX Jobs

By Janet M. Six

Published: November 21, 2011

Send your questions to Ask UXmatters and get answers from some of the top professionals in UX.

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss how to interview and evaluate the work of a potential UX team member.

Each month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your question to us at: ask.uxmatters@uxmatters.com.

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Dana Chisnell—Principal Consultant at UsabilityWorks; Co-Author of Handbook of Usability Testing
  • Leo Frishberg—Principal Architect, User Experience at Tektronix Inc.
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at BMC Software; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Jordan Julien—Independent UX Strategy Consultant
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); UXmatters columnist

Q: We’re a small UX team in a large organization, and in the past, we’ve had bad experiences with agency staff not really knowing very much about user experience. Now, we have an opening for one new team member. Can you suggest some interview questions or tasks to help us check out our candidates’ skills and their fit with our team?—from a UXmatters reader

Hire with Your Headis awesome for a bunch of reasons, not least that it takes the emotion out of hiring.”
—Dana Chisnell

Three of our experts—Dana, Pabini, and Adrian—recommend that you read Lou Adler’s Hire with Your Head. “There is also lots of great, free content about hiring on The Adler Group Web site,” suggests Pabini. “If you’re a hiring manager or do a lot of interviewing, I recommend that you subscribe to their newsletter.”

“This book is awesome for a bunch of reasons, not least that it takes the emotion out of hiring,” recommends Dana. “Adler proposes one key question, which goes something like this: Of your recent, related experience, what’s the accomplishment you’re most proud of? Why? The answer reveals what a person is passionate about, why he or she is passionate about it, what a candidate’s signal strengths are, how he or she worked with other people on the project, and what’s important about that story. The interviewer can then ask follow-up questions about all kinds of things as part of learning about that person’s story.”

“Adler’s book also offers great advice on writing effective job descriptions that attract the best candidates.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

However, Pabini cautions, “While this can be a revelatory approach to interviewing job candidates, it’s important to state this question in a way that focuses the person you’re interviewing on a recent accomplishment that is relevant to your need. This is particularly important if all the information a candidate has is a generic job description that reveals little about your actual need, as is all too often the case. Adler’s book also offers great advice on writing effective job descriptions that attract the best candidates.”

“Adler has a brilliant—and easy—method for turning the typical job description into realistic, actionable objectives,” continues Dana. “This also makes interviewing much easier and more interesting for everyone involved.”

“Talking about the work in detail helps you separate candidates who interview well from those with real skills.”
—Adrian Howard

“While Adler’s book doesn’t address hiring UX designers directly, it provides some really excellent advice on how to approach interviewing and the hiring process in general,” says Adrian, who also recommends Adler’s ‘Use the One-Question Interview to Make More Placements with Fewer Candidates.’

“Having a focus on accomplishment-based questions—drilling down into a candidates’ experiences on real projects—is a hugely useful technique,” recommends Adrian. “Talking about the work in detail helps you separate candidates who interview well from those with real skills.”

Framing Interview Questions

“Interview questions should engage candidates in a discussion of their approach to their work, experience, and general problem-solving approach.”—Whitney Quesenbery

“The questions you ask are an indication of your stance—your perspective on an issue, so don’t just ask a battery of questions from a list,” recommends Whitney. “Interview questions should engage candidates in a discussion of their approach to their work, experience, and general problem-solving approach.”

“If you have been looking at candidates who are more accustomed to working in an agency, you should assess how well they would adapt to working on staff, within a corporate environment,” suggests Leo. “In my experience, there are two key differences between these environments: timeframes and focus. When I moved from an agency to an internal position, one of the questions they asked of me was: “Are you prepared for the possibility your work may take five years before it reaches users?” Your typical timeframe may differ. This, for me, was a welcome change from the five days my prior experiences in agencies had averaged.

“By focus, I mean what activities a candidate may have been accustomed to doing in an agency versus the activities that are specific to your organization. Are you supporting an internal set of stakeholders—for example, IT or Sales and Marketing—or are you creating experiences for products and services for external stakeholders? Although we can probably agree that the tasks and duties of a UX designer may generally be the same, there is a very different feel when the stakeholders are internal.

“Any concerns you might have about candidates’ skills and so forth should be self-evident from reading their resume and looking at their portfolio.”
—Leo Frishberg

“To gauge candidates’ comfort level with internal work, it would be useful to frame a question such as this: Tell me about a recent experience when you were asked to improve your agency’s own Web site—or whatever other internal tool might come to mind. What challenges did you face, and how did that project go?

“Any concerns you might have about candidates’ skills and so forth should be self-evident from reading their resume and looking at their portfolio. If you are truly unable to determine the breadth or depth of a candidate’s skills regarding your definition of user experience, I suggest that you review the language you’re using in your job requisition. By including keywords for the skills that you require, you can do a lot to eliminate folks who clearly don’t have what you’re looking for.”

Experience Working with Candidates

“I wouldn’t want to hire a UX designer without seeing him or her do design work—ideally, with the team that person will be working with.”—Adrian Howard

“I don’t think interview questions are enough,” asserts Adrian. “There’s a lovely chapter in DeMarco and Lister’s excellent book, Peopleware, which they built around the fable of a circus manager hiring a juggler. At the end of a number of interview questions, the manager hires the juggler, who then asks ‘Don’t you want to see me juggle?’

“You wouldn’t want to hire a juggler without seeing him juggle. I wouldn’t want to hire a UX designer without seeing him or her do design work—ideally, with the team that person will be working with. I would recommend paying candidates to work with you for half a day, on a real project. The insights you can get from a candidate’s doing a few hours of actual work—especially from the rest of the team’s working with that candidate—is more than worth the money.”

“Take a collaborative approach and work with candidates to solve a real design problem, providing the domain-specific information they’d need to come up with a good solution.”
—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

“Too often, hiring teams give candidates a brief set of printed instructions, then leave them on their own to complete a design exercise,” remarks Pabini. “A design exercise shouldn’t simply test whether a designer can come up with the same type of design solution that you’d expect from a team member who is much more knowledgeable about your problem domain. What you really need to know is what working with a person would be like. So, take a collaborative approach and work with candidates to solve a real design problem, providing the domain-specific information they’d need to come up with a good solution. This is an excellent way of assessing each candidate’s fit with your team.”

“Engage candidates in exercises of some kind. … Something that lets them get out of interview mode, so you can see them work.”—Whitney Quesenbery

“Don’t just ask questions,” suggests Whitney. “Watch behavior. Engage candidates in exercises of some kind. They don’t have to be long or difficult. Just something that lets them get out of interview mode, so you can see them work. This sounds a lot like the difference between good usability evaluation or UX research, which focus on behavior, and market research surveys, which focus on opinion.”

Focus on Candidates’ Expertise

“The industry seems to be saturated with UX practitioners who aren’t familiar with UX best practices and aren’t devoting the time necessary to be on the leading edge of their evolution,” states Jordan. “Things are evolving at a very rapid pace, and certain techniques that worked a year ago, don’t work today.

“The industry seems to be saturated with UX practitioners who aren’t familiar with UX best practices and aren’t devoting the time necessary to be on the leading edge of their evolution.”—Jordan Julien

“My recommendation is to focus on three areas of expertise:

  1. empathy—Ask questions that focus on how empathetic a prospective candidate can be with a given user. Focus on how quickly candidates can develop empathy, and what questions they ask to clarify users’ needs.
  2. trends—Ask design questions that refer to popular or relevant trends. Try testing how well candidates are able to integrate new trends into a user experience. For instance, if you’re in the financial services industry, you can ask how they would suggest leveraging real-time communication.
  3. knowledge—I’ve found that the best way to test knowledge is by showing the prospect a set of wireframes, a prototype, or a live site and asking them for five things they’d change to improve a user experience and what techniques they’d use to support their recommendations.
“Ask candidates for a design critique. Such an exercise is the fastest way I know of getting candidates out of interview mode and into work mode.”
—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

“And depending on the level you’re recruiting for, you might add in a fourth area of expertise: communication.”

“I agree with Jordan about how useful it can be to ask candidates for a design critique,” says Pabini. “Such an exercise is the fastest way I know of getting candidates out of interview mode and into work mode. The goal of the exercise is clear and its scope is limited, so critiques tends to put candidates who suffer from interview jitters at ease. It’s easy to compare the responses of various candidates—especially if you’ve already identified the weaknesses of a design. This approach is also helpful in separating good UX professionals from good interviewers. Interviews are just talk, after all, and designers have to be able to walk the walk.”

References

Adler, Lou. Hire with Your Head: Using Performance-Based Hiring to Build Great Teams. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2007.

DeMarco, Tom, and Timothy Lister. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd Edition. New York: Dorset House, 1999.

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