Learning from My UX Interviews

Suit Speak by Jon Turner

illustration by Jon Turner

Some of you expressed some interest in what I learned from my experience interviewing, so I’m going to take a stab at that here. Sorry about the delay, but starting this new job has been both time- and mind-consuming, and has necessitated lots of other changes in my and my family’s lives that have kept me busy hustling around while the dust settles. But now that I’m a few months in I can say that I am 100% glad I made the move. The job is interesting, educational and fun, I work with great people who both appreciate and challenge me, and I see an excitingly long road of potential and possibilities ahead.

In order to get to this great new job I had many, many interviews over the course of a few months, which was quite an educational process. I learned (or re-learned) many things.

  • I learned that connections are great but not everything. I got this job at Belkin through a cold drop of my resume into Belkin’s online resume submission system.
  • I learned that you shouldn’t count on having internet access during your interview. That seems obvious now, but I made that mistake until I was without it in an interview—one that definitely could have gone better.
  • I learned that you should always offer a copy of your resume. If your interviewers feel awkward asking for one and you don’t offer, you could leave them with the impression that you didn’t come prepared. This one I also learned the hard way.
  • Most importantly, I learned that an online portfolio of shiny designs and documents is good to get you in the door, but not that great after that.
Explode by Jon Turner

illustration by Jon Turner

Presenting Past Work
Learning how to tell a compelling story about my past work was my biggest challenge over the course of my interviews. I had read Whitney Hess‘s excellent article about telling the story of your process in interviews, and thought I was prepared to do just. But I found that without specific preparation, talk would always circle back to the documents, and I would have trouble making that story as focused and clear as I wanted it to be.

What worked the best for me in the end was to create a Keynote presentation around a few specific projects. Preparing my “portfolio review” as a presentation made it easier for me to plan the arc and pacing of the story I wanted to tell. The slides provided visual anchor-points to the story for both me and my interviewers, and gave me a clear place to show mid-process artifacts like sketches, storyboards, and photos of testing. I tried to follow presentation best practices and keep the slides text-light and as support rather than the focus of my story. I was surprised how little detail about the final solutions was necessary in this context. Of course, I also had final designs and documents on my hard drive to show in case my interviewers asked to see them.

I told my project stories with the product as the protagonist and myself as a supporting character. There was exposition, action, conflict, resolution, and dénouement. Although this sounds kind of formal, everyone likes to listen to a story, and a good presentation is a fun experience. It helped me be more confident in my material and it gave ample openings for questions and discussion about the process, which is preferable to the dreaded, “Why did you choose yellow?” It also allowed my interviewers a chance to assess my presentation abilities, which are an important part of a UX design skill set.

Finding a Good Match
I also learned that the job market is pretty darn good right now for experience designers. Most companies that design interactive products not only know what “interaction design,” “UX,” and “IA” mean, they also feel an urgency to integrate these practices into their process. Although many places are still working out the best way to do this, the fact that they see it as vital to their success is a big change from 5 or 10 years ago. So it seems that there are more openings for seasoned UXers than there are seasoned UXers as the recession begins to turn around.

This means that employers need to pay close attention to how they are performing in the interview process, because it is a two-way sale. The current economy might tempt interviewers to feel they hold all the power, but waiting to begin the sales pitch until a candidate has been fully vetted would be a mistake. I know that it was important to me to feel wanted, to be excited about the role, the company, the team, and the projects—and some interviewers had given more thought to this than others. So for anyone out there looking to hire, I recommend evaluating your interview process from the candidate’s perspective and discovering what story it is telling about your company. After all, job candidates are doing their best to showcase awesome experience design; I think it’s fair for them to expect hiring UX departments to do the same. And when both parties get it right, it can feel like a match made in heaven.

4 Responses to “Learning from My UX Interviews

  • Great advice. I especially liked your point about telling the story of your process. You’re right: it’s crucial to help interviewers understand where you’ve made a difference to the design rather than just show the work.
    As an employer, I’m on the other side of the process and I like to be ‘interviewed’ by candidates (within reason). If candidates ask me interesting questions about the role it often shows they know what they want, they have ambition and they have clear goals. I worry about candidates who will do or say anything so long as they get a job. I know they won’t feel that way after they’ve been with the company for six months.
    So I loved your last point – when you’re going for a job interview it’s important to think of yourself as a partner, not a supplicant.

  • This is great Sarah. One of the standard things I used to do when interviewing UX people, was to kick off the interview by ask them to start at the earliest relevant point of their cv and tell me how they’d make the progression from role to role – precisely your point about telling a story. It never stopped amazing me how few people could do this: to look back and join the dots, or even talk about what they’d taken from the experience, beyond ‘I did X, then I left, and did Y’. But those that did join the dots really shone – they tended to have, as Giles mentions, the clearest ideas about what they wanted from the job and asked meaningful, challenging questions. One of my better interviewees, for example, was able to talk about her experience as a children’s guide at a museum (seemingly unrelated, right?), and show how it had given her experience of explaining complex ideas in an easy to understand way. Perfect.

  • Sarah, so great to read about your approach. I’ll definitely share this with others who are thinking through their “process story.” Congrats on your new gig!

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