Some tips from experienced hiring managers.
Hi! This is Magda and Maciek. Together we are managing the Product Design team at K2 digital agency. One of our key responsibilities is recruiting new designers. We have been doing it for more than 10 years, so we have a lot of experience in this area.
Here we want to share some advice for people looking for a new job as a UX/Product Designer. Of course not necessary at K2. It should be helpful if you are applying for the job at any type of organization. We’re in touch with a lot of design team managers at various companies and most of them tell us that they pay attention to similar things.
This article is partially based on our talk from UX Poland 2018 conference in Warsaw. (You can check our slides from this event at the following link, but it is all in Polish: https://www.slideshare.net/macieklipiec/jak-zjednac-sobie-ludzi-i-zdobyc-prace-jako-ux-designer.) In this article we want to answer:
- How the recruiting process usually looks like?
- What is the most important thing hiring managers are looking for?
- What skills do you need as a UX/Product Designer?
- How to prepare your CV/resume and portfolio to be invited to the interview? (Think about this as „conversion optimization”).
- How to approach the interview and eventual design challenge?
- How to choose the right company to apply? (We haven’t talked about this at UX Poland, because it’s from the candidate’s point of view, so this is a bonus material.)
1. What the recruiting process looks like?
In most companies the process looks almost the same with slight variations. Here’s how it looks like at Google:
- Phone screening.
- Portfolio review.
- Design challenge.
- On-site meeting.
- Team matching.
Naturally Google is a very large company with many offices around the world. In our case its simpler, but all important steps are the same. We review your CV and portfolio to decide if we want to invite you for a meeting at our office or not. If we are not sure about you after the meeting, but we think you’re potentially a great candidate, we can give you a design challenge to solve. After that we will thank you or send you our offer. You will accept it or we will negotiate.
At some companies at early stages of the process you will be solely dealing with the HR people, not design managers, so you need to take that into consideration. In our case, we are directly responsible for the recruiting process and contact with the candidates.
2. What is the most important thing hiring managers are looking for?
It is always the answer to one fundamental question: is the candidate a good match to the company’s culture, team, and projects? Recruiting is all about finding candidates that are the best fit for a company.
Companies aren’t really looking for „the best”, they are looking for „the best match”. You may be the most amazing designer, but if your skills, experience, thinking or personality don’t match company’s needs, then you won’t be hired. And from the purely business perspective: the company must be sure that you can bring more value than costs.
We spend almost half of our life-time at work, so it’s important that we think alike and we like each other at work. It’s really in the best interest of both parties, companies and candidates, to find out if they are a good match.
And please don’t take rejection personally: often hiring managers may think that you are a super cool person, but at the same time not necessary a good fit with the company at the moment. That’s all.
3. The skills of a UX/Product Designer
Surprisingly we feel that recruiting UXers is now much harder than just a few years ago. Why? Because User Experience is now such a hot topic, many people are calling themselves UX Designers, regardless of their skills or experience.
What we have right now is what we call the un-normal distribution on the job market:
- There is a lot of UI/UX Designers — former graphic designers, who are applying for UX jobs with their portfolios on Dribbble. Please don’t do that. There is not such a thing as “UI/UX design”. They are much different disciplines with different skillsets, and we have never met a person, who was really good at both of them. Not to mention, to do everything on serious projects, you would need to work for at least 16 hours a day! In the 60’s Bill Bernbach at DDB started a revolution in the ad industry hiring creative teams of Art Directors and Copywriters. He recognized those two are different ways of thinking and working that together can make a better whole. We feel the same about UX and UI designers. At K2 we have separate job offers for UX/Product Designers and UI/Graphic Designers. Some people are applying for both of them, which for us is a signal that they don’t really know who they are, they don’t care, or are really desperate…
- There is quite a lot of Design Thinkers or Service Designers — people specializing in conducting workshops or design research, but not really experienced at designing anything in detail (and in digital especially). Nothing wrong with that, but we are not looking for such people.
- …And there’s not so much real UX Designers (which we prefer to call Product Designers at K2), who are really good at designing digital products from strategy, to concept, to implementation.
What should be the skills and responsibilities of a UX/Digital Product Designer according to us? In short:
- Designing interactions, processes, and user interfaces (“Sketch” or any other wireframing/prototyping tool).
- Designing information architecture (“Excel”) and feature/content definition.
- Gathering requirements and conducting workshops.
- Creating product strategies and concepts.
- Selling the work to the client or your boss (ability to explain and defend your work, preparation of presentations).
- Planning and shaping the design process.
The first two things from the top are the pillars of everything else. Design itself is often the easiest part of the job, but to do it properly you need a solid grasp of theory, at least a few years of professional experience, and a good knowledge of UI and business patterns. You should focus on these things as a junior designer.
As you mature professionally, you will find yourself more and more communicating with the client and doing workshops or giving presentations, than just being in the front of your favorite design tool.
Senior designers should be also excellent at creating concepts, selling their work, and especially scheduling, budgeting, planning and leading the design process. The more senior you are, the larger is the scope of you work and your point of view. But you still need to understand the little details and care about them.
As Irene Pereyra has said to me: “A good UX designer is super logical and should be able to out-argue any client and remove any doubts or vagueness from the structure or functionality”.
We don’t think experience at user research (qualitative or quantitative) is a must have for a designer, but certainly it is something nice to have.
Remember: “the right fit” is everything, so be honest about your skills and experience and don’t pretend you are someone you’re not.
4. How to prepare your CV and portfolio
Those are very important documents. Make them short and to the point, good looking, readable, easy to scan and friendly to the recruiters, who review dozens of them.
Good CV is:
- Not longer than one page.
- Have a short personal introduction.
- Clear list of your professional experience with responsibilities at each position.
- Your photo is not necessary, but it’s nice to have, as it makes you easier to remember.
Don’t give too much room to description of your education — it’s not terribly important. Great UXers come from many different backgrounds: psychology, design, art, journalism, architecture, business, technology. Don’t try to make your CV a piece of artwork — especially if you don’t have much talent as a graphic designer (and as a UXer you don’t really need it). Don’t try to show your skills on charts with percentages — almost everyone is doing it, but it’s stupid and totally useless for recruiters. One page, one readable font, black text on white background and a nice photo of you is enough. Usually the best designers have the simplest CVs.
The CV template below is the most popular design on Behance. It was copied a billion of times. It’s not awful really, but not very great either. Thankfully it’s short, but clearly form over function.
Your CV tells a lot about you. Some things might bring suspicion.
- Eternal Student — overemphasis on education and no serious work experience while candidate is over 30 years old.
- Born as a Boss — candidate’s first job after uni was a Creative Director, second was CEO, he highlights his skills at managing employees, while applying for non-managerial position.
- Lifelong Freelancer — a candidate who always worked alone and remotely is probably not a great team-player.
And please don’t quote Steve Jobs in your CV 😉
Your portfolio is even more important than CV. Every designer looking for a job should have one. Yes, even, junior designers, and especially them. As a junior UXer you can do some projects for yourself or your friends, non profits or open source community. Junior candidates with portfolios are always preferred to the ones without it — it shows your dedication to practice and learn.
Portfolios may take many forms and shapes — it doesn’t really matter. Make a PDF or a website, a Behance profile, whatever. (But Dribbble is not a good option for UX Designers.) What’s important is the content:
- Show the partial products of your process (wireframes, sitemaps, etc.) and the final effect (screens or links).
- Shortly describe your role at each project, the challenge and solution.
- Don’t include photos of walls full of post-its or you at the workshops with the client — it communicates nothing and nobody cares.
- Make sure your portfolio is full of projects adequate to the position you are applying to. Hiring managers don’t really care about your skills at illustration, designing brand logos, furniture or houses, when they are looking for UXers. (Once again: remember “the right fit” is everything.)
If you are a seasoned designer with a good CV and for some legal reasons you cannot send your portfolio, but you can show it at the meeting, it’s OK and understandable.
Ideally your portfolio should be online: include a link to your website, Behance, Dropbox or Google Drive. Don’t e-mail a 35 MB PDF file. Most companies give limited space for mailboxes. Sending heavy files through e-mail is bad netiquette. Hiring managers will have to delete it immediately and you don’t want it, don’t you? (Also: a CV weighting 3 MB made in Photoshop with not clickable links only shows your carelessness).
Great UX portfolio could be created even in Excel (or, better, in Google Docs) as this tweet shows:
4. The interview and design challenge
If you gone that far it’s looking really good!
At the interview hiring managers usually want to hear:
- What’s your professional history.
- What you already done (show some projects from you portfolio and describe your role at each of them shortly).
- What’s your day at work usually looks like and what you do.
- Who do you work with and how.
- What are the most important things you focus on.
- What do you like to do, and what you think is a waste of time.
- What‘s your expected salary is.
- When you could join the team.
Don’t tell that you like and are ready to do anything: show some attitude. Don’t try to educate hiring managers on what the UX really is. They probably were doing it before you could legally drink. Ask as many questions as you can.
Your recruiters will be probably tired and overworked (that’s why they’re hiring new people!). Take that into consideration and be kind to them. Take a look at the office — is this is the place you want to spend your time in?
Try to learn as much as you can about the company before the meeting, google your recruiters.
Never lie about your history, always be honest. The community of digital designers and design managers at each country is rather small: people know each other, exchange opinions, and the truth will always come out, sooner or later. You don’t want to be viewed as untrustworthy.
The point of the interview is to make each of us sure that we like each other and we think alike, not to impress each other with our brilliance. Your recruiters really want to love you and hire you, and just be over with all of this silly stuff.
Some hiring managers are giving a design challenge to the candidates at the meeting, to be solved at the front of them in real time. We think it’s pointless, incredible stressful to the candidates, and unconnected to the real job. However, we can give you a task to do after the meeting.
It’s simple, and we always give a whole week (with a weekend) to complete it. We will send you a short brief to design one or two screens. How do you approach the project is up to you, it’s very open. What we evaluate is both the concept behind the work and the work itself.
5. How to choose the right company
This was all about the recruiting process, however one more important question remains. How to choose the right company to apply?
Ask yourself: do you like the past projects the company has worked on, and would you like to take a part in them? Do you like your potential new bosses? Are they known within the community? Could you learn something from them? Do you like the office? Is the company open about its processes and methods? Is it transparent? Is it sharing its experience and expertise and supporting the design community? Do you like the company’s culture?
As a UXer you can generally work at:
- an agency, software house, consultancy, or design studio, doing projects for their clients;
- a large established company (often not very “digitally native”), working on projects for customers or internal tools;
- a startup, creating your own product.
Think which type of job and work environment suits you better? Each of these options may have some advantages and disadvantages for you.
At an agency you will have a chance to work with many different clients from different industries. You will learn a lot, often creating completely new things from scratch, working in a very fast paced environment. Atmosphere will be informal and relaxed, and you will be working with some very experienced colleagues, but also with many very young people, which is nice. But you will always be dealing with the clients, who will always have the final word when it comes to their projects. We think an agency is the best place to learn for junior designers.
At a large company the pace of work will be generally slower. You will work on things that already exist, rarely on something completely new. But you might focus deeply on just one subject. There will be more hierarchy, you will be working in larger teams, sometimes you might feel like just a cog in big a machine, and you might find yourself fighting against bureaucracy and already established processes. Culture will be more formal and traditional, but you will probably earn more.
At a startup the work may be frantic and you would probably find yourself wearing many different hats, working with a small, very dedicated team. However you will get a chance to co-create something really new and feel truly responsible for a success or a failure of your company. It’s something for more experienced designers, we think (often you may be the only designer on board), and you should really believe in your company’s mission.
And what company is the best to join if you get multiple offers at once?
You might be tempted to choose the company which will simply offer you the better salary at the moment. That’s understandable. However, you can always negotiate the money, now or later. But you cannot change your bosses, company’s culture and projects, unless you change the job. So choose wisely. Good atmosphere, nice people, cool projects, work-life balance, personal development, etc. are much more important than just a few dollars more. At least in our humble opinion.
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