Caitlin is a UX professional seeking a new position. She currently works for a large organization with great benefits, a great UX team and and the organization is a solid leader in their respective industry. The only problem is: She has outgrown the position and there is little opportunity for growth. But theoretically, she doesn’t need a job because she has a job.
One afternoon, Caitlin receives an email message from a job recruiter concerning an open UX position with a Fortune 500 client — Company X. The recruiter gives her some details on the position in the email and it sounds as though it is a step up. So Caitlin responds with interest and attaches a copy of her resume. A week goes by and she doesn’t hear anything back, so she puts it out of her mind since she is literally contacted at least once a day regarding open UX positions and has other active leads she is working on. Two weeks go by and on a Tuesday morning at 10 am, Caitlin receives a call from the recruiter apologizing for the short notice and asking if she can participate in a phone interview with Company X at 1 pm. She still has not seen a formal job description, but agrees to the interview. She also does not know who she will be speaking with or much about the division of the organization she might be working with.
The phone interview goes well — a lot of standard questions about her experience and her approach to design. She feels she answers them well and would like to think she is a good match for the position, but still has not seen a description nor has the interviewer talked much about the position other than to give a couple of generic descriptions of the project she would be working on. The last few minutes of the interview allow her to ask questions, but she is only able to get through one question before the interviewer has to go to another meeting.
Two weeks after her phone interview, Caitlin receives another call from the recruiter asking if she can give him some times she is available because Company X would now like to speak with her in person. This is a month after she initially expressed interest in the position and Caitlin is actively interviewing with two other companies — one of which she expects to receive an offer from. She agrees and asks if she can get a copy of the job description. The next day, she receives a copy of a fairly generic job description for a lead UX position. It looks like any other job description she has seen over the last month or two of her job search.
On the day of the interview, Caitlin leaves early with the address she has been given. She arrives to a confused parking situation and is unsure which door of the corporate headquarters she should enter. After walking to several entrances, she eventually locates the correct waiting area and checks in with the security person at the front desk. Ten minutes after her interview was supposed to start, someone from the UX team arrives. It isn’t the person she spoke with on the phone, but someone else from the team who explains the person she spoke with previously is out for the day.
The interview is uneventful with a hodgepodge of standard questions from various members of the team. Caitlin is afforded little opportunity to ask questions about the position and has trouble getting any sort of sense of the team culture. She does, however, receive another copy of the job description, which looks completely different from the description she received from her recruiter. Two hours later, the interview ends — twenty minutes past its scheduled time. Cordial goodbyes are said and she is left with a “we’ll be in touch” as a parting sentiment.
Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common. I have seen variants of this scenario occur dozens of times over the past 5–6 years. Sometimes, I have been on the receiving end as a candidate. Other times, I have been on the serving side as part of an interviewing panel. And I suppose if I were not a UX professional, it wouldn’t bother me as much. But when you are part of a team that crafts experiences, you can’t help but to evaluate those experiences your team creates beyond software products and features. The user experience of your team employees is of the utmost importance and it starts well before a job offer is extended.
Beyond your internal team, there is also the organization to consider. I can’t think of a single company orientation I have ever attended where the HR reps haven’t profusely heaped praise on the organization, espousing a plethora of positive attributes related to Company X. It’s clear all organizations are proud of their place in the world, the services and products they provide and their history. And yet so many of them fail to consider how they represent themselves to potential employees through the interview process.
I currently work at Walgreen’s and I think they are a great organization with a very rich history. So when I bring a candidate in for an interview, I consider myself an ambassador for Walgreen’s. It is my job to attempt to appropriately represent the organization. And even if we don’t hire a candidate, the experience they have of the interview process should leave them with a positive view of Walgreen’s. I can’t say I have always been the best ambassador. I’m human and have made mistakes during this process. Over the past 18 months, I have conducted dozens — probably hundreds — of interviews. And over my career, I have conducted exponentially more. Here are a few things I have learned along the way and some tips to improve a candidate’s interview experience.
Craft Your Job Description Like A UX Designer
Jared Spool has written a great article on the job description. I love this article because it attacks so many cliches and really drives home a point about how we approach this aspect of the hiring experience. That point is, you should design the hiring experience. Spool calls it a “Job Ad.” That’s “Ad” — short for advertisement. Think of it as an advertisement and write it like one. Don’t slough off on this duty. It is the entry point to the experience of hiring a candidate — their first exposure to you as an organization.
If your organization is really as great as you and everyone else there thinks it is, you owe it to the organization to design an appropriate advertisement. Answer this question: Why should I work for Company X? That’s what a candidate is thinking and wondering when they see your job description. What challenges are you facing and how will I play a part in those challenges? And for the love of God, make the damn thing readable. I’m so tired of reading about how I will “collaborate” and “engage” and “disrupt.” Lose the business jargon and talk to me like I am a person. Write something that is worth reading or don’t write it at all.
Here is the opening for a UX Copywriter position I recently designed:
“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”
— Jack Kerouac
Words. In the right combination, they have the power to drive action, clarify the ambiguous and shape behavior. In an interface, they have the power build trust and provide a consistent narrative for the end-user.
If you fancy yourself a wordsmith seeking an impact through well-written copy with an eye for detail, we currently have an opening for a UX Copywriter. Join our team of UX professionals where you will write clean copy for complex medical applications used in a pharmaceutical environment where patient lives are impacted daily. We are currently in the process of completely redesigning our suite of medical applications and the core system that powers our pharmacies. This is an on-going effort phased over the next few years.
You will play a key role in this effort working with the design team to create and revise copy in a highly collaborative and learning environment. Our designs present both unique and complex challenges you will have to work through. But, you won’t have to do it alone and we promise there’s rarely a boring day. You’ll grow your portfolio and sharpen your writing skills quickly with our team as we iteratively build out new products and features over the coming years.
I do admit there is one buzzword in there — collaborative. However, I wanted to stress in that paragraph that the sole copywriter on our team won’t be left to their own devices. They will have our team’s support, but also be forced to work across teams. It’s debatable as to how readable it is. But it is certainly an improvement over most job descriptions.
The other benefit of really taking time to craft a good description is it will give your team some time to focus on what it is you really are looking for in a candidate. In the example of the UX copywriter position above, our team spent a considerable amount of time crafting the job description so it was readable, but then had to re-craft it as we began to realize the candidates we were getting were not aligned with what we wanted for the position. Sometimes, crafting the job description is like design — iterative. It forces you to think and rethink through the problems you want the candidate to solve. And that isn’t always immediately evident. Occasionally, you need a comparative factor (i.e. interviews with candidates) to help you focus in on the qualities you seek in a candidate.
The Integrity of your Job Description
You will either receive candidates through direct submissions via your own HR department or externally via recruiters. Most large organizations use recruiters today, but some (like mine) use a combination of internal and external resources. Regardless of whether you use internal or external resources, this will likely add another layer to the chain of communication.
One of the primary problems with many recruiters is their uncanny desire to reformat or reword your job description. I don’t know why they do this, but I have seen this a number of times. In some instances, like the UX copywriter position above, the description on the recruiter’s website bears no resemblance whatsoever to what we wrote. This is obviously a huge problem. One other issue: If you change the job description, it is also difficult to update all of the recruiting organizations.
Lately, I have made a special point of asking recruiters to only use the official job description we submit to them. I also attempt to get a candidate’s email address (either from their resume or asking them in the phone screen) and send them a copy if we invite them for an in-person interview. This is ensures they are aligned with what we are seeking as they prepare for an onsite interview. At the very least, I try to have a copy with me during the interview I can hand to the candidate in person.
Preserving the integrity of your job description is important as it sets expectations for the position from the outset. You need to ensure your candidate has read the true version as you wrote it, just as you need to ensure you receive a true copy of their resume (see below). The earlier you can do this in the interview process, the better.
The Integrity of the Candidate’s Resume
I hate to pick on recruiters so much, but their marketing tactics just make it so easy to do and often defy a good interview experience. What I am referring to here is their tendency to strip out the formatting of resumes, replace it with their own format and add their logo. I realize the logo is important to them so I don’t forget which agency a candidate came from. However, the logo is useless to me given I will be contacted by the recruiter multiple times following an interview. It is unlikely I will forget where the candidate came from.
Reformatting a candidate’s resume when they are a designer is something of a Cardinal Sin in my eyes. UX design candidates often spend significant time to produce a visually appealing resume. This helps them stand out and shows they have some sense of aesthetics. It is truly a shame when a beautiful design is watered down and placed in a Word document making it look like any other resume. And most of the time, the reformatted version is worse than the original.
As an endnote on this practice: This is often done so the resume can more easily be processed through a database allowing keyword recognition. This allows the recruiters or your HR department to conduct a search on their database at a future date for the positions you are qualified for. Nevertheless, I usually ask for a copy of the candidate’s unmolested resume early in the process. This doesn’t necessarily negate all of the damage done, but it does give me a paper copy or official version to remember a candidate by. And, it is one more reason to bring a paper copy of your resume to the interview.
Clear Communication Throughout the Interview Process
The majority of problems tainting the experience for the candidate revolve around communication. This problem can be exacerbated when working through outside agencies or third parties who help facilitate interviews. Sometimes it’s as simple as which building they should go to for an interview, who they should contact at the front desk or even where they should park. These are small details that only become huge details if they are not communicated.
It’s pretty easy to draft up a snippet email you can send to a candidate or recruiters. This email should cover where to park, what building you are in, who their primary contact will be and how to get in touch with that contact once they are on your campus. Draw up a map if you need to (your HR staff may already have a map of campus). Failure to do any of these things can result in a delayed start for the interview and a bad experience for your candidate. A delayed start means you and the candidate get less time to evaluate one another.
I’ve been on the receiving end of these situations and have also been the hiring manager who flubs this up. It takes only a small amount of time to write something up prior to the interview and ensure the candidate receives clear communication. It also makes it look like your organization has their shit together — even if you don’t.
Questionable Recruiter Practices
The amount of time I spend for each candidate I phone screen is about 1.5–2 hours. If I decide to bring them in, I’ll spend that time again in the interview process for a total of 4 hours of my time, on average. That’s ten percent of my work week and 4 hours the organization will pay me for a candidate whom we may or may not hire. So when I lose a candidate who had potential as a new-hire, that is a total waste of time and resources.
There are instances where the experience can become jaded for the candidate as a result of poor recruiter practices. Recently I interviewed a person we wanted to bring onsite. However, while we were trying to get schedules aligned, he received another offer. I then received a follow-up message from the recruiter asking if I wanted to move forward with a counter-offer even though we had only conducted a phone screen with the candidate (and weren’t even sure we would be extending an offer). Specifically, the message asked if my organization would like to make an attempt at “beating” the offer he had received from another organization. My answer, of course, was absolutely not.
A scenario like this results in a bad experience for all involved. We have a very specific and thorough hiring practice here at Walgreen’s and I wasn’t willing to make an exception for any candidate. But think about the experience from the candidate’s point of view. They have an offer from another company and even if we were willing to make a counter-offer, we knew very little about the candidate. How would you feel about an organization willing to hire you when they were not sure you were a match and knew very little of you? This could result in a very bad fit and bad experience for all involved.
Shortly after this incident happened, the same recruiting agency contacted me with another candidate indicating he was out-of-state, but they were willing to subsidize his relocation costs. I thought this was great and it put me at ease in scheduling a phone interview because this would make relocating easy on the candidate and not weigh as heavily in his decision to hire in with us should we extend an offer. So during the course of the interview, I asked him about moving to Chicago from a different state. He proceeded to inform me he was willing to do that and understood through the recruiter he would be moving “on his own dime.” I paused, briefly considering whether I should divulge what the recruiter had emailed me earlier that week. I, then, began to communicate what I had been told. We lost that candidate for other reasons, but I can’t help but think this factor contributed to the loss.
Granted, this is one agency I am referring to here (one our organization will probably not be working with in the future). But, I have seen questionable practices from other recruitment agencies over the years — pressure tactics, half-truths and outright lies. I have seen these tactics from a hiring manager’s perspective and have also been on the receiving end. My advice is to minimize the amount of work you conduct with these agencies or don’t work with them at all. They can potentially ruin the hiring experience for an employee before they even start their first day.
The Interview Process
The interview itself is an experience for the candidate. And, it is the meat and potatoes of the experience your candidate will have. Any candidate with a modicum of experience will be evaluating this process — especially if they are a user experience designer. As it is likely the candidate is actively interviewing with other organizations, they will be comparing you and your organization against those other interviews at other organizations. It’s important to craft this experience as well. And fortunately, this is mostly within your control.
As a candidate, myself, I have truly been through some horrendous and, sometimes lame, interviews. Consider this: If you hire a candidate, the interview process is something they will remember their entire time with you. It also significantly shapes their initial impression of you and the organization. But, are you approaching the interview as a hiring manager or from a user experience perspective? This is not subtle distinction I am making here. Focusing on the interview as a hiring manager has you comparing the candidate against your job description and a list of requirements for the position. Of course, you should do this. But focusing on the job interview from a user experience perspective allows you to also focus on the candidate’s needs and pain points in the interview process. There should be a healthy balance between seeking what you need and exploring the candidate’s needs.
How interesting and challenging will the projects be?
Who will my manager be and what will I learn from them?
How is design valued in the organization?
How much do my future co-workers enjoy working at the company?
Notice, three of the four questions focus on cultural aspects of the company. The other one focuses on design. These cultural questions probably stem from pain points in previously held positions. Spend some time talking about your culture and design within the organization. Address these issues by discussing your team culture, the structure, how design is integrated into the organization and, above all, be specific about what the candidate would be working on and the first projects they will tackle. This is how a any hiring manager should approach an interview — through an assessment of the candidate’s needs and pain points.
Answering these questions will markedly improve the candidate’s interview experience. In turn, this will change their perspective of your organization. And once you have addressed that, you can then turn to your own needs. I usually begin all interviews with a discussion of the culture, the projects and the challenges within the organization. With that said, there are some additional points you should keep in mind during the interview process.
Have some basic etiquette. If there is one thing that will ruin the hiring experience for a candidate, it is a lack of basic etiquette. Consider one interview I had in recent years where the hiring manager walked out — late, I might add — with a laptop in one hand, holds her other hand out, says hello and pauses while she looks back to her laptop to a retrieve my name from her Outlook calendar. Not a good sign for someone who would have potentially been my boss. And, it’s not the only interview I’ve had where they forgot my name, got my name wrong or forgot I was coming in for an interview. A few pointers on basic etiquette:
Know the candidate’s name and use it (a no-brainer)
Be on time — their time is just as important as your own
Briefly show them around the office and introduce them to your team if there is time
Offer them water or something to drink before the interview
Spend some time with the candidate’s resume before the interview so you know about them. One of the top pieces of interview advice you’ll often get as an interviewee is ensure you do your research and know a little bit about the company before you show up for your scheduled interview. Why then aren’t employers expected to do the same? I’ve been through interviews where it is clear the hiring manager has not looked at my resume until I am sitting in front of them. Hiring managers should do their homework. Don’t just know the candidate’s name and last-held position. You should be spending time with their resume and portfolio and have specific questions for them concerning their experience. This point seems obvious, but I am confounded at how often I have encountered potential employers who don’t seem to have done their homework on me.
Change your perspective as a hiring manager. A common interview question: “Why do you want to work here?” The largest part of the problem with this question is perspective. This gets to the root of how companies and corporations see the hiring process and how they view their prospective employees. It’s as though a candidate has shown up begging for a position with nothing to offer. Consider Caitlin from the beginning of this article. She has a good paying job with a great organization. As a hiring manager, you should be telling her why she would want to leave that. It’s your job, as a hiring manager, to convince a candidate to leave their position for something newer and more exciting just like it is the candidate’s job to convince you they are worthy of the tasks they will encounter in this new position. Companies in America need to change the way they think about hiring. The interviewee and hiring manager should mutually explore their potential relationship as equals. Rather than just a long list of questions you ask the candidate, try having a candid conversation with them.
Don’t focus too much on skills and qualifications. Too many times, I have seen managers get wrapped up in the requirements of a position and pass over good candidates because they don’t hold a black belt in Photoshop or some other skill. Peter Capelli writes of this in his book, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs. He writes of how your resume goes through a computer scan in many organizations so the hiring manager and HR can more easily manage applicants. Don’t have the right keywords? Sorry, game over. But consider this: If an employee is perfectly qualified for the position, why would they want it? Wouldn’t it be a bit boring to not pick up some new skills or learn a few new tricks? A surefire way to end up with a bored employee and an open position in 6 months is to hire someone who is qualified or overqualified for the position you have. In the past, I have been perfectly clear in interviews and will tell the manager I don’t want a job I am completely qualified for. Often, I am interviewing because I have become completely qualified at a current job and am seeking new growth potential somewhere else. Consider this when you interview your candidates. Do they really have to have every skill listed in the job description or is there flexibility for growth and on-the-job learning? If there is flexibility, be clear about this and paint the position as one where there is growth opportunity. From the candidate’s perspective, this may be a huge selling point.
Know the job. While I did just discount the laundry list of skills and qualifications often listed in job descriptions, it is important the hiring manager actually know what is on that list and understand what the job will entail. I have been on many interviews where it is clear the hiring manager not only doesn’t know anything about me, but they often don’t know much about the position either. I have even had instances where I would ask about a specific skill in the job description and the hiring manager knew nothing about it or couldn’t communicate effectively about it. This is often a sign the position is not very well defined or the description is little more than a template.
Drop the lame questions. What is your greatest strength (or superpower for the really lame)? If you were on an island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? If you were a box of cereal, what would you be and why? These are allegedly questions designed to reveal a candidate’s character. I would call this “pop psychology” for those who defend such ludicrous questions in an interview. Moreover, most people who would ask such a question do not have the experience to adequately interpret the answers they would receive. Let’s get real and talk about what matters in the interview. The candidate is not a box of cereal or a superhero, but rather someone who will be working in your firm and will most certainly face a different environment and set of challenges than in positions they held before this. So, the focus should be how they will perform in your organization and culture. The above questions solve nothing except making you and the candidate look extremely stupid. In addition, avoid most of the canned questions asked in interviews. Reserve those for the most inexperienced positions you hire for instead.
After the Interview
Forget about the unwritten rules of the hiring and interview process. What I am specifically referring to here is contact with the candidate following interviews. It seems there is an unwritten rule where contact between the hiring manager and candidate are restricted to a formal thank you note from the candidate that often receives no reply. I encourage candidates to email or call me with questions — before or after any of the interviews. Some recruiters don’t like this practice. I try not to work with those recruiters if possible. Not every question will be answered in the interview process and the candidate should feel you are open enough to have an ongoing conversation with them during the hiring process.
If you don’t extend an offer, it’s a small world and you never know when you will cross paths again. Just because a candidate isn’t qualified today, doesn’t mean they won’t be qualified in the future. You may find yourself interviewing them again. You could well find yourself interviewing for a position at a future organization they work at. This is another reason I encourage cordial relations following the interview. If you reject a candidate, send them a personal note via email letting them know why. This is hard to do, I realize. No one likes to give bad news. But it is tremendously useful to candidates to know why they didn’t get a position and it can change how they not only view you and your team, but also your organization.
Don’t forget, the people you interview are not just potential employees, they are existing customers or potential customers to whatever service or product you offer. It is quite likely many of the candidates I have interviewed over the past year are Walgreen’s customers. Considering the lifetime value of a customer, I want to ensure they have the best experience possible because we want to keep or gain their business.