Kevin Cheng  

Getting a User Experience Job

December 5th, 2005 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Tom briefly mentioned [last week][1] that we should be thankful for the improvement of the job market - in the tech sector overall but also in the design and usability space specifically. Out of curiosity, I took a glance at the number of job postings we have had at our [Jobs@OK/Cancel][2] board and charted a graph from our first full month of inception in February 2004. Keep in mind that, in addition to receiving a lot of job postings directly, our board sources from numerous publicly archived mailing lists as well such as [CHI-Jobs][3], [SigIA][4], [IxDA Discuss][5] and many more. We also separate emails which post multiple jobs within the same email wherever possible. Given these factors, I think our boards are a reasonable representation of demand in our industry.

While the postings have been somewhat erratic in certain months, the one thing that seems clear is that there is more consistent demand in the past three or four months, with over 80 job postings month after month.

###The GYM Circuit and Beyond
As a [Business Week article][6] mentions, a lot of talent is being snapped up by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft (GYM). During my job search a few months ago, I did the GYM circuit and more - looking at everything from internal tools development positions to consultancies and everything from interaction design and information architecture roles to usability roles to hybrids. Several months later, I find myself back on the hiring side in search of quality candidates.

Just as the demand has increased for user experience professionals, so too has the supply (though perhaps not the supply of quality candidates given how hard it’s been to find people). Many people have asked me for advice on how to improve their chances of landing a job in user experience - in particular their _first_ job in user experience. Obviously, there’s no step-by-step to guarantee a job offer. Rather, the best I can do is offer what candidates should expect in most interviews and some of the criteria that companies look at. They mostly relate to my experiences with software companies but most of it can be translated to other mediums, too.

###The Resume
The job search always starts here. If the candidate is looking for a user research position, this is more important since a portfolio isn’t quite relevant. Just like any other job, the resume is a place to put down keywords about things the candidate knows. They should include any and all user research techniques they are familiar with but make sure they know them enough to talk about if asked. In the work experiences segment, talk about the individual responsibility on research projects and how those results impacted design.

Designers should focus more on their role in design projects. Looking at a portfolio, the first thing that comes across a potential employer’s mind is, “Did this person do all the work for this? What part did he/she play?” Make that explicit. There’s nothing wrong with a candidate admitting they didn’t do the entire design themselves as long as they’re clear about what role they played.

For any resume, there’s debate over the utility of “mission statements” or “summaries” used in the beginning of resumes. However, with design, different designers often have vastly different philosophies on why design matters and how to approach design. If the candidate feels strongly about what design is to them and how to apply it, say so. It will help candidate find companies that sees eye-to-eye and filter out those that don’t.

###The Portfolio
Designers are expected to have a portfolio of some sort, whether the portfolio takes an online or offline form. Having _some_ online element is always helpful as its much easier to distribute to potential employers. Candidates should try to have as much information about who they are and how they work and think as possible.

In terms of the material, don’t just show the work - show the variety, the process, the thinking behind the work. Show the problem being solved, the sketches and iterations that led to a final design, talk about constraints the project was under, and of course, what the individual role in the project was.

###The Interview
Every company approaches the interview process differently. Some companies ask candidates to do a design exercise before the first interview while others administer an exercise as part of the interview schedule. Some will ask candidates to present their work to the interviewing team. Some will ask for redesigns of their products. Some will give candidates a full schedule of their interview day while others will give be more dynamic, potentially ending the day early if a decision can be made quickly.

###Be Prepared About the Company
This piece of advice sounds so ridiculously obvious but somehow isn’t practised often. Candidates need to learn about the company they’re about to interview with. Learn what they make, try their product if possible, find out about their competition, find out about their philosophies. Firstly, this allows candidates to have a real conversation about the company and products when being interviewed thus giving the employer a sense that the candidate cares and actually has a desire to work there. Nothing is more of a turn off than the feeling that the position is going to be just “a job” for the candidate (OK, not nothing - there are plenty of bigger turn offs to come).

Secondly, researching in depth about a company can help generate ideas …

###Be Prepared With Ideas
Although I’m not a fan of it, “redesign a product from our company” is a common interview question from many firms. There are varying degrees of this kind of question ranging from, “here is a product from us, give us a critique” to “get on a whiteboard and redesign this app”. For user research, questions might come up like “how would you test to see if these users were satisfied with this signup process we have?” Regardless, candidates should be armed with some ideas before going in to help them kick-start that process.

In addition to just design ideas, think about ideas for future products or product iterations. What would be a great integration with some of their tools? What would happen if social filtering integrated with that photo sharing site? These ideas are what some call, “spark”. A candidate could be competent technically as a designer but spark makes the rest of the team excited about the individual and presumably, shows the candidate’s excited about working with the team, too.

###Working With Others
Aside from creativity and competence, communication is a key area most companies look at. Working with other designers is an important skill but even more challenging is working with other roles such as engineers and management. Everyone has an opinion on design, it’s a question of how the candidate as a designer handles everyone else’s opinions (or for user researchers - how well they communicate people’s opinions to everyone).

A common question is, “tell me about a time when …”. Anyone with any real design experience will have come across times when their design was being over-ridden by higher powers such as clients or managements or a moment when user research data affected the design drastically, or when another designer clashed heads. Candidates should try to be prepared to talk about some of those experiences and how they did or would handle them.

In addition to the conflict resolution skills, there’s an inherent skill that’s being looked at - the candidate’s ability to defend their design decisions. If the candidate can’t explain why they chose a font, or hierarchy, or research method, then they’re susceptible to anyone’s opinion overriding their decisions.

###Getting the Experience
Of course, the real problem for most trying to get into the industry is a lack of experience. Luckily, there’s plenty of demand beyond the companies you want to work for. Non-profit organizations, open source projects, or even personal experimental projects are all potential targets to hone design and research skills. Some of them even recognize the need for such services! [Usability Sprints][7] for example, helps organize practitioners with non-profit organizations.

Another option for those with technical expertise (or friends with such expertise) is to work on a small project of their own by utilizing all the [open APIs][8] that are available these days. The added advantage is that the project is likely to be exciting for its contributors and could get some exposure. Also, unlike working on a personal project such as a blog, there’s interaction with other roles.

Speaking of blogs, everyone and their dog has a design weblog nowadays but that shouldn’t stop a potential candidate from starting or having their own. Aside from being useful for companies to evaluate the candidate’s thinking in more depth, it’s a great outlet to process and think about design topics. As an earlier [debate][9] between Bob Baxley and Scott Berkun mentioned, putting words down can assist in processing and organizing thoughts. If nothing else, it’s a documentation of the process embarked on for the volunteer projects.

###Talk to Experts
Finally, one of the best ways to hone those skills and get advice on interviewing is by tapping the minds of colleagues in the field. As I mentioned, most have blogs where they share their thoughts on various topics. Speaking of experts, a lot of them drop by here occasionally, too. If these experts are so inclined, I’m sure additional wisdom would be greatly appreciated!

[1]: “Thanksgiving 2005″
[2]: “Jobs@OK/Cancel”
[3]: “CHI-Jobs Archives”
[4]: “SigIA Archives”
[5]: “IxDA”
[6]: “Revenge of the Nerds - Again”
[7]: “Usability Sprint”
[8]: “WSFinder”
[9]: “Getting Your Design Past the 36th Chamber of Engineers”

5 Responses to “Getting a User Experience Job”
Dave wrote:

I would add just one more thing–Be Different; Be You. Don’t try to be what you think they are looking for. Be unique and individual. What will you bring that is NOT like everyone else who just walked through the door. The IxDA recently had an event here in NYC with creative directors from AOL, MTV, Frog Design, R/GA and Ameritrade. What was clear from the discussion is that when hiring they are usually looking to add something to their team that they don’t already have. I think it was Robert Fabricant from Frog who said something like, “Have an interest outside of design. Show that you are passionate about something … like scuba diving.”

Regarding portfolios, It is important to remember that pretty pictures won’t get you the job, you need to have a story to tell around those pictures. You need to convincingly demonstrate that through rigor and exploration you arrived at what you are presenting.

At the above mentioned event it was clear that portfolios are usually taken w/ a heavy grain of salt as it is almost impossible to know for sure what the presenter did vs. the entire team. AND with today’s emphasis on collaborative work models a portfolio is less about “I created this” to “these are the types of projects I worked on.”

Dom wrote:

We’re currently recruiting and I find it shocking just how bad some CV’s can be. A nine page epic detailing everything down to your dog’s inside leg measurement is showing little thought to the intended user of your CV. If they can’t demonstrate that they can concisely prepare their CV, whilst still managing to sound good, I tend to give them a pretty quick introduction to Mr. Paper Shredder.

Scott Berkun wrote:

The irony of bad resumes is that a resume is in fact a designed object. It should be designed to for *the reader* first, not the applicant. A 9 page CV can not possibly be a good experience. Same for flash portfolios that take 10 minutes to view, or are navigated using a new kind of hieroglpyhics the candidate invented for themselves.

When I used to recruit at conferences for MSFT I’d try to quickly abandon resumes altogether. Whenever possible I’d ask candidates to show me a product they use, or something we’d find on a kiosk or in a restaurant nearby and make it better. What would they change? Why? What research would they do? etc. Soon we’d be hapily sketching on napkins and actually designing and I could see if they had the goods. A conversation like that about a real thing is a much faster way to find out if the candidate has a clue than any stack of references or degrees.

In fact, I’ve had some smart candidates offer me before and after screenshots of their work to talk about - an offer I *always* accepted. It accelerated the transition from abstraction (CVs, references, blah) to reality (Show me what you can do and how you think)

Dmitry Nekrasovski wrote:

I am surprised that neither the original article nor any of the comments have mentioned networking as an important aspect of landing a first job in user experience. As a new master’s graduate who has just landed his first real UX job, I found that connecting with professionals at local UX events and through informal interviews prior to the actual job search was invaluable. All but one of my rounds of interviews came from these contacts rather than formal job postings. If you are looking for your first UX job and don’t have the kind of resume that will stand out amongst the thousands companies receive for formally advertised positions, or if you just want an efficient way of getting your foot in the door, this is a worthwhile investment of time and energy.

David Heller wrote:

Dmitry, great point. to that point, I’m curious about any success or failure stories in using LinkedIn or similar networking sites for either recruiting or finding a job? I’ve been pinged using LinkedIn maybe twice, and have pinged a few people in the past, but nothing ever seems to work out through it. Just curious.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?