Consultant Thursdays: Hiring A User Experience Team

After talking to a bunch of recruiters and other managers, it looks like User Experience is going to making a comeback in hiring. We are the leading indicator for a lot of things. (You can’t start a website application project with proper user experience, right?) So, this is a good thing for all technology workers. However, if you have questions on what to look for or how certain factors play into people’s interest level in your organization, here are a few answers:

What should I look for in hiring a user experience designer?

It is a combination of deliverables and people skills. Not only do the user experience designer have to have the skills to design a solution, he/she must have the skills to sell that solution to multiple stakeholders. Due to the salary levels available to skilled user experience professionals, the market also has become a breeding ground to project managers, bad designers and other people with good sales skills and not much else. This not only creates the “Well, I don’t have much money because the last guy screwed it up”-situations, but this also creates a sense of mistrust of the next candidates. But, when you meet a real user experience designer, you’ll know.

  • Look at his/her wireframes. Are they clear? Do they make sense? Can you walk through them?
  • Ask to see personae. Is there data backing it up?
  • Have them give a presentation. Is his/her thinking structured? Can he/she speak well.

A user experience designer should be able to explain the reasoning behind his/her thinking (e.g. we tested the solution, it’s best practices, statistics backed it up.)

What should I look for in hiring a user experience manager?

Hiring a manager is a much different task than hiring an  individual  contributor, and the roles require much different skill sets. I’ve seen situations where companies had manager positions open for months, or years, and this happens because there are a few internal team members that shoot down any decent candidates that come in.

Remember, you are hiring for a leader (read: former President William J. Clinton) versus someone that just maintains status quo or screws it worse (read: former President George W. Bush). Managing a set of wireframes is a much different task than managing a group of user experience professionals, all of whom are used to having their own way because that’s the way it’s been.

Corporate culture affects how people manage, so factor this into the type of manager you hire. Joel On Software has a wonderful post about this. I recommend having other managers in the organization interview versus the people that are going to be managed. A senior user experience architect may not realize that the skills to manage people are much different than the skills to build a wireframe and usually don’t judge the candidate accordingly.

The level of candidate may differ, depending on the size of the team. If the team consists of four members, you will want more of a working manager who is more tactical versus one who manages a division of 25. This is because strategy is more important.

Why can’t I find good candidates?

As much as user experience professionals are motivated by pay, they are not necessarily motivated by pay. It could be a combination of several factors, like the type of work your organization does (In one place I worked at we did intranets, — try attracting talent for that — and we were still able to grow the team to 25.), the size of your company or the project lacks integrity.

Outside of pay, what is most important to a user experience professional is the environment, because that is where people are going to be spending at least 40 hours a week. User experience professionals are in the industry of categorizing and judging people’s skill level, so they quickly detect whether or not they are going to do well in an environment.

A few questions to ask yourself before moving forward:

  • Do the interviewees get a sense the hiring manager is qualified? There is nothing worse than interviewing with someone who isn’t qualified for the job you are interviewing for, much less being a manager. The hiring manager should be forced to go through questions that are not on a prepared list, because interviewees pick up on lack of experience. There is nothing worse than the a hiring manager who requests, “We’ve had this business problem for six months, solve it in 15 minutes.”
  • Are the company politics evident during the interview? In some agencies, the politics are so deep, it is like having two jobs: dealing with the client and dealing with the internal personalities. Some people like that. Think whether or not your company is slow-moving with micro-managers galore, will it turn candidates off?
  • Is your company a comfortable place to work at? If you are placed in the back corner or have a cubicle that is the middle of everything, that is not a place you probably want to work. Why expect a candidate to do the same?
  • Are the projects interesting enough? Certain people are suited to certain environments. While you might want to attract the best talent, you may not be able to keep them because the work is not fast-paced.

How much should I pay them?

This also depends on what you have to offer and which market you are in. At the end of the day, it is what the market can bear. As the economy recovers, this will change.

If the job can be performed mostly offsite, they might be willing to trade some flexibility for pay. Same goes for a the project is interesting and has a lot of upside. Boring, less  glamorous  projects may actually cost your organization more to attract talent; because while it is  boring, it is also very profitable.

The real answer:

  • Look at the market. What costs you $100 per hour in the Bay Area might cost $40 per hour in Omaha. Talent that is also too cheap is a bad sign. Whomever you hire should have the track record to go with the pay.
  • Talk to candidates that might be willing to do the onsite/offsite thing. It might not seem like a lot but, in certain  metropolitan  areas, that two hours of commute each day translates into 10 hours a week, which could be used doing other things.
  • Most importantly, construct the job so it fits real-world people. If you are trying to hire senior level people and the pay does not match, good luck. Also, if you have to overpay to get anyone in the door because decent candidates are avoiding you, read some of the tips in previous questions.

Constructing the right team is hard. Take your time with it. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your team shouldn’t be either.