A question I get somewhat frequently from up-and-coming UXers has to do with interviews. Although these people are showing up with small portfolios, the company interviewing them wants them to engage in a “design challenge.”
That’s not just for up-and-coming people looking for entry level work. I’ve interviewed for senior-level UX work and at times been asked to do a sample project.
I’ve blogged about this before, but let’s revisit it from another angle. Should you agree to do a sample project in the name of possibly getting the job?
Is The Project Fake Or Real?
Design challenges or sample projects generally fall into two categories. Projects are either totally fake or totally real.
If an agency asks you to design what a supermarket app might look like and they’re not working on a supermarket app, then this is a fake project designed to test you.
If the agency is working on a supermarket app and wants your ideas on this real project, that’s no longer a fake project. If a dating site asks you to mock up how you think a feature might look or work on their dating site, that’s a real project. During an interview, a company once asked me to whiteboard ideas that would be real solutions to their current real problems.
I suggest refusing to do real projects for free. If this company wants your ideas for something real, they should pay for them. At that point, you’re not just auditioning for a job. You are doing real consulting work. How many companies have improved their products from ideas “taken” from unpaid interview candidates’ sample projects?
I recently worked with an agency that was considering me for a long term commitment. How did they “test” me for that? By giving me a real project that was fairly small. I was paid my normal hourly rate and signed a contractor agreement. That let me see how they were run, do I like them, do they like me, etc…
There is no rule that says that a company that wants to try you out gets you for free. You are under no obligation to give away your time.
What If The Project Is Fake?
Despite my extensive resume and portfolio, there are times when companies ask me to do a sample project. So far, I’ve found 100% of those experiences to be frustrating. These fake projects tended to highlight how poorly the other company communicated, which quickly made me not want to work there anyway.
The winner so far was a UX agency that gave me a fake UX project but then rejected me saying that I hadn’t put enough design and polish into it. Whaaaaaa? See the other blog post for navigating the frequent vague nature of these challenges.
If the project is fake, it’s really up to you if you want to burn your time on it. That’s why pushing for more details is important. How many hours do you expect me to spend? How polished should this be? What does this job pay again?
Could You Add It To Your Portfolio?
A fake project can be another opportunity for someone new to UX to add to his or her portfolio. If your portfolio is a bit light and a company asks you to mock up what you think a great to do list app would be, maybe give it a few extra hours. Create something you would be proud to show off in your portfolio.
That way, even if these people don’t hire you, you now have another piece where you can explain a project and your approach to it. If you get hired, then great! If not, at least your time went towards something that might help you get the next job.
I don’t need to add fake projects to my portfolio, so I’m unlikely to say yes to something like this. But if you are starting out and this fake project isn’t under some sort of NDA, it might be worthwhile as artifacts you can add to your portfolio.
Hint: If the fake project needs an NDA, it’s probably a real project. 🙂
In early April, I responded to a local Fortune 100 company that had a contract open for an interaction designer who is an Axure expert. I had a Skype interview but had to turn it down. They wanted full time and I only had part time available. Their manager said full time or bust.
I felt badly for them. They sounded like they had a very high pressure project and were understaffed. It pushed my “caretaker” button.
They had a hard time filling the job, and at some point passed it to what appeared to be every recruiter on the planet.
As you might imagine, what felt like every recruiter on the planet started contacting me about this perfect job they had for me. It’s IxD! It’s Axure! It’s in my back yard! It’s a famous company! Yes, I know. I had to turn it down.
It was interesting to see how the recruiters described the job. Even more interesting was what they claimed it would pay. Sure, they take a cut, but wow. Many postings made it sound like you might get up to $75/hr. That’s not bad but I’m not sure it’s enough for the skills and level they’re looking for.
I emailed the woman who interviewed me, sent her a link to one of the online postings, and told her that she might find the job hard to fill at the rate that was listed. After all, they were looking for some very specific skills, expert level, and on-site full time for 4-6 months.
She thanked me and said she’d show the team. The team didn’t already know this? Well, maybe now she’ll monitor it.
And maybe not.
Earlier this month, two months after I interviewed for this job, a recruiter emailed me saying she had the perfect job for me! Axure Prototyper, blah blah blah, same job. What? They didn’t fill this yet?! It’s been two months. She said she spoke to the hiring manager the day before and the job was still open.
I threw some keywords into Google and found some recruiters had re-posted the job online in various places just a few days before. I guess the job is open.
But for much lower pay than before.
This time, the job posting said this would pay “up to $50/hr.” You might be able to get some entry level UX people for $50/hr. I wasn’t sure you’d get the right people at $75/hr, so $50/hr is not going to get anybody excited about doing this job. They couldn’t fill the job for two months at $75/hr.
I emailed the woman who interviewed me again. I told her that I heard the job was open since someone tried to sell me on it. I looked up some online listings, and I found that the pay is now “up to $50/hr.” As in maybe people won’t even make $50.
She thanked me and said she’d show it to the team.
I suggest that companies monitor what external recruiters are putting out there.
You might be surprised by the pay. You might be surprised by the job description. I’ve seen all kinds of disconnects in my years here and dealing with recruiters.
I remember years ago at a contract job. The boss was having a hard time hiring. The company required him to go through recruiters. I finally took him aside and told him what I was being paid (through a recruiter). He was MAD. He said my recruiter promised him she’d barely mark it up. Her firm was keeping 30% of what my employer was paying them. I said that’s why you are having trouble attracting great talent. After the recruiter’s giant cut, it really doesn’t pay that well.
It might be worth the time to set up some Google Alerts or something where companies can see how recruiters are describing the jobs and what they pay.
Here we go again! I just saw a job online. I am copying and pasting one of the lines from the job description.
Strong interaction design skills: Latest trends, color and typography
Oh this makes me sad.
Usually I’m picking on how the title of a job is UX or Interaction Designer and then many or all of the skills are visual design or front end dev.
But this one wins a new award. Doesn’t matter what the job title is. They are specifically saying here they think that color and typography are interaction design skills.
Someone do something about this, please. This came from a recruiter, but he’s trying to fill what looked like a job at an agency described as one of the biggest in the world. How does this agency not know this?
Interaction design is the more-science-than-art of laying something out. Think architecture. Making things more intuitive. Better processes, fewer clicks, helpful layouts. Interaction designs can have NO colour (or minimal, placeholder colour). Typography is often placeholder without finalised font styles or wording.
Just Google “visual design skills” and you will find heaps of pages and posts listing “typography” and “color” among visual design skills. These are not interaction design skills.
WTFVIZ is a blog that makes fun of infographics. And I can see where they want to poke at this one a bit.
To me, the most interesting thing is that whoever created it realized that there is just about NO overlap between being an interaction designer and being a visual designer.
I don’t totally agree with the Venn Diagramming going on here. But the more we can get the word out to hiring managers, HR departments, and other people in power that interaction design and visual design often have no overlap in talent, skill, or educational-background, the better.
Hmmmm let’s see. 5 years in graphic design (or interaction design, as if they’re nearly the same). Hands-on UI work including color palettes, typography, buttons, and icons. Adobe Creative Suite. And being well-versed in graphic design principles.
A few months ago, I applied for a job at a company where I’m a customer. They had a UX opening, so I tossed my hat in the ring. The gal I contacted set me up with a phone screen with someone there. She never sent me the name and he introduced himself really fast as if I knew who he was. I don’t know who he was. I don’t know if he was a creative director or the CEO of the whole, small company. I only know he was the guy on the phone semi-interviewing me.
He asked me what I thought of their UX, as a customer. I wanted to be positive, so I said that for my use of their system, most of my experiences were good ones. I did see some tough spots I’d love to fix.
He started barking that he HATES his company’s UX. He thinks the site is TERRIBLE. He started listing things he finds wrong with the UX. I wasn’t sure what to say… does he want me to agree or disagree? It didn’t matter because he didn’t let me get a word in. So I just listened to this guy barking at me about how bad his UX is.
I don’t remember talking about me at all. I only remember listening to him rant about how bad his company’s UX is, and then…
He suddenly shifted gears to talk about the open job. He told me they wouldn’t be considering me for the job. Why not. Because they require their UX workers to also be visual designers so that they can “follow the process to the end.” I asked if they have ANY UX specialists. No. Everybody is a hybrid or generalist. They won’t consider anybody for a UX job that can’t impress them with a visual design portfolio.
If you read my blog, you KNOW what I think about that.
Newsflash: That could be why your UX is so bad.
If you don’t have any specialists on something, chances are it won’t be the high quality product you’re hoping for. That’s true about anything. If you didn’t have a great visual designer, your visual design will probably lack. If you had programmers who were generalists and had their main talents in some other area, you might find your code isn’t the best it could be.
It’s true for medical care. 🙂 Sometimes, you need a specialist to really get something right.
While UX generalists have their places, depending on your company’s size, I always suggest having at least one specialist if not more. Hire at least one truly talented and skilled interaction design specialist for where your interaction design really counts. Which is probably everywhere.
Here is a job that was sent to me by a recruiter who meant well. 🙂 I won’t embarrass the recruiter or company by saying who this is. But let’s take a close look at it.
The Title Says IA
The job title says UX designer and information architecture. I would expect this to be an IA and interaction designer job, period.
The Job Summary Says UX
Creative UX designer who digs lean principles and a customer-centric approach. Sounds like interaction design to me.
I’m an interaction design/IA specialist who in very small companies sometimes is asked to do some user research and testing.
Bulleted List of Skills Says Purple Unicorn
Proficient in HTML and CSS? That’s a front end developer.
Strong visual design skills with close attention to typography and layout says visual/graphic designer. I love that they should “care” about interaction design, but still be a visual designer.
You can talk to customers, organize usability tests, and analyze those tests to tell the story of what worked and what didn’t. That’s a user researcher who can also do the user testing and analysis.
Creative ways to perform lightweight validations of hypotheses. Yikes on the “assumptions.” Lightweight says, “Please don’t make us really go through user testing and analysis… come up with some short way to show that you designed something that works.” I guess that’s the IxD playing junior user tester.
Rapidly iterate based on technical constraints and customer expectations. Wow. And that’s WHILE going through a user-centric design process with user research, testing, and iterations. Sure!
Solving problems over visual aesthetics. BUT you are a strong visual designer who will pay close attention to typography… while being more of a problem solver than a visual designer. So you’re an interaction designer and IA… since they solve problems.
This Isn’t a Small Company. This Is Someone in the Forbes Global Top 10.
I’m dizzy after reading this. You want a front end developer who is a strong visual designer and will pay close attention to typography. You want this person to do user research and user testing. You want them to adhere to lean principles and a user-centric design process while rapidly iterating to give customers what they’ve already voiced they want.
There is no excuse for any company to try to hire one person to do the job of two, three, four, or six people. You will do your best work mostly with specialists. Saving money can be great, but if you really want to put the best product out, you need to find the best people. People are best when you let them work inside their strengths without making them work inside their areas of weakness.
I turned this job down when the recruiter presented it because I was sure that this company would not be happy with what I have to offer. I can offer a lot of what they said but I’m not a front end dev nor am I a visual designer. I’m an IxD/IA specialist with foci on problem solving and user-centric design. I wonder what sort of person they will end up hiring.
There are times when I’m brought into a company on contract or full time, and one of my tasks is to help build the team. This means recruiting, reading resumes, interviewing, and suggesting who the company hires. Today I’d like to let you in on how I approach that. To avoid endless uses of both gender pronouns, let’s say the candidate is female.
I should also mention that I believe interaction design and certain areas of UX are talents. While they can be improved, you are either born with a great sense of good UX or you are not. You’re either good at putting yourself in others’ shoes and determining what design will work best… or you’re not. I’m a mediocre artist. I could take years of art school and still be mediocre but with great technique.
So I normally am not too tied to a candidate’s educational background. I’m more interested in talent, skills, expertise, communication, and personality.
How does this candidate express herself? Does she have thoughtful but unrehearsed answers? Does she pay attention to detail when giving information or does she leave me with a lot more questions? Is she good at anticipating what I want to know and providing that information? If I ask her about previous jobs, is she diplomatic or does she have a pile of complaints?
Is this someone I and others would enjoy talking to (professionally)?
Portfolio and Work Approach
The main thing I look at when reviewing a portfolio (especially one on a website before I meet the candidate) is can I tell what work the candidate did and what role she played on that team. I have seen too many portfolios that show a screen shot of the finished product and list the company name. I never find out what sort of team that was. Agile or waterfall? Did you do the visual design? Interaction design? Front end dev? Something else? Were you involved in the testing? What artifacts did you create and why?
I have voted against many candidates whose portfolios seemed to lack a good user experience. If UX is about anticipating the needs of a website visitor and delivering those in an easy and intuitive interface, then a portfolio that lacks information and process can really turn me off.
Due to NDAs and other legalities, not everybody can publish a portfolio online. I look for many of the same things during the interview. I have been unpleasantly surprised a few times when a portfolio presentation during an interview left me with endless questions. Which work is yours? Who was on that team? How long did this take? Who were the stakeholders? Were you surprised by anything testing validated or invalidated? The nicest thing I ever heard during an interview was that the head of the department had no questions because my information was so thorough.
I’ve also been unpleasantly surprised by candidates who claimed to be UX pros but had nothing in the portfolio but fully-designed comps. That tells me so little that I might doubt your UX pro-ness.
I also like to hear a candidate discuss her step-by-step approach to a project.
Personality and Culture Fit
Every office has a different vibe. Even different offices within the same company can have different vibes. It’s important to make sure that a candidate will feel like she belongs.
When I’m a worker bee, I love the feeling of being on a strong team that cares like I do. I would want to make sure our candidate makes the team stronger. There’s no good reason to hire someone beneath your standards. If you really need an interaction design specialist, there is no good reason to settle on that “UX Jack of All Trades” who couldn’t show any artifacts in her portfolio because she’s really a visual designer.
I’d also want someone who will fit in for the level at which we’re interviewing. I don’t like to put a junior where I need a senior. I don’t like to put a senior where I need a junior! These are recipes for potentially poor work output as well as not retaining that worker.
Cater To Strengths, Manage For Weaknesses
All in all, I like to cater to people’s strengths. If someone is a visual designer who is thinking about moving into interaction design, I wouldn’t hire that person as an interaction designer unless she can show good approach and some experience… and then I’d consider her as a junior IxD. If she comes in as a visual designer but IxD is a weakness for her, I’d make sure the manager is getting her some mentoring so she can explore this (assuming it’s a company that is FOR professional development of workers).
A good manager and team leader can help someone improve weaknesses, but this is only when you have a great manager and team leader AND when you have a self-aware worker who knows this is a weakness she wants to improve.
In this case, I also think a paper trail is appropriate. There should be some sort of documentation on what training, mentoring, or coaching the worker is getting and how she responds to it. That way, there are no disagreements later about what someone was coached on. I’ve seen those disagreements, and that often leads to someone quitting, someone being disciplined, or both.
Some weeks ago, I had a job interview screen with an HR woman from an agency. It was over Skype, so we had our webcams going.
I liked her and thought the interview was going well. She had good questions. She asked me a question I’ve never been asked before.
What’s your biggest work-related fear?
Hmmm, I’ve never been asked that! I’ll have to think.
I recognize that now is when I COULD have trotted out some over-rehearsed answer, but as usual, I went for honesty.
I said my biggest fear is that a job will ask me to do the two things that I’m weakest at (and therefore dislike the most). Those are doing graphic/visual design (I’m really mediocre, and that should be left to really talented people) and using Omnigraffle. I kind of giggled as I explained how I didn’t like Omnigraffle… I’ve used it, but I don’t like it. I can’t seem to get the hang of it. It slows me down. Anything making me work less efficiently is something I’d like to continue avoiding.
“That’s funny,” she said, “Because we’re 100% Omnigraffle.” And the interview immediately ground to a “let’s wrap up” kind of feel.
Well that IS funny. I asked what they use to prototype designs. She didn’t think they prototyped designs. She told me, “There’s a lot of white boarding and sketching.” Hmmmm…
I said, “Even if you don’t hire me, can I please talk to your UX leaders about including prototyping in their process? It’s so important!” She said, “I hired those people but I’m not really sure what they do day to day. I SHOULD know, but I guess I don’t.” I told her that as the HR person, she can’t possibly keep up with everybody’s processes.
She said she’d tell the hiring manager about me but she’s worried I wouldn’t be happy there if all they use is Omnigraffle. I said maybe it’s my year to get some training and get over my Omnigraffle fear. *smile*
But she’s right.
Asking someone their fears is a GREAT and efficient way to see if there is something that quickly disqualifies them for the job. I probably quickly disqualified myself. She’s right; I could use Omnigraffle if someone told me I had to, but I wouldn’t be happy in an Omnigraffle shop. Great to get that out of the way early.
Tell the truth. Don’t use rehearsed, sounds-good-to-HR answers. What IS your biggest work-related fear? Care to share it in the comments?
More and more, I’m seeing companies claim they want more generalists. They want more jacks of all trades. They want a front end dev who is a UX genius. They want a visual designer who “cares” about user experience. They want an interaction designer who can “see a project through” and do the visual design too. They want an information architect who can hand-code his own prototypes in HTML and CSS.
UX: I Do It All
At one job, I interviewed a guy who claimed to be the total UX package. He does it all. He’s a front end dev. He’s a visual designer. He’s an interaction designer. He was sure he was f’ing amazing at all of these things. You only need him.
His LinkedIn showed mostly front end dev jobs until he seemed to get himself into more UX roles. I asked him for his UX artifacts… show me wireframes, customer journeys, approaches, processes, something you designed that was invalidated and then was improved… he had none of that. He showed fully-designed comps and that was basically it.
Is A Generalist Is a Specialist In Multiple Areas?
Would an interaction design specialist say this guy is an interaction design specialist and expert? Without being able to show work, process, and experience, probably not. Would he qualify to speak at an interaction design event because he is a serious expert with a great resume? Probably not.
Would a visual design specialist say this guy is a visual design specialist? Without being able to show an extensive visual design portfolio and his design process, probably not. Would he qualify to teach visual design, typography, iconography, illustration, and branding because he is a serious expert with an impressive background in visual design? Probably not.
Would a front end dev specialist say this guy is a great front end developer? Probably. He had a long resume of front end dev and code samples someone can check out. We can then judge if he’s talented or not in his area of true specialty.
In reality, this “generalist” is a specialist in one area and probably significantly weaker and/or significantly less experienced and/or significantly less educated/trained in other areas. And remember that at least when it comes to visual design vs interaction design, they are completely different sets of skills. Different talents are required. They often don’t overlap at all.
There might be some people who are true specialists in multiple, unrelated areas. However, they are so rare they are often called “purple unicorns” or “purple squirrels.”
To A Specialist, You’re No Specialist
There is an old Jewish joke where a man buys himself a yacht and takes his parents out on the boat. Disregard the captions. Recorded in 1963.
He proudly tells his parents that he is the captain of his boat! He even has a captain’s hat! Long story short, the father says, “By Momma, you’re a captain. By me, you’re a captain. By you, you’re a captain. But by a captain, you’re no captain!”
Basically, in the opinion of someone qualified to judge you, you are not what you think you are.
I started off writing HTML. CSS later. I got my first copy of Photoshop in 1994. Why am I not passing myself off as a jack of all trades? Because to a visual designer, I’m no visual designer. To a front end developer, I’m no front end developer.
I don’t bother pretending I’m a generalist, and luckily, I don’t have to pretend nor do I have to do tasks I don’t really enjoy in order to get jobs. Neither do you. There are niches for all of us. Stand up for your strengths and specialties. Perhaps the more we stand up for our specialties, the less companies will stop creating jobs that combine a pile of completely unrelated skills and talents (coding, art, interaction).