Between the start-up boom and the ever-increasing need to empower enterprise employees with best-in-class digital products, it’s a great time to be involved in the field of User Experience (UX). Although each person’s path into UX is different, at some point everyone has faced a phone screen, initial interview, and maybe even a follow up interview before a decision they were hired. Over the last 6+ years helping establish Cardinal’s UX practice in Columbus (and now Nashville), I’ve been a part of over 100 interviews, countless coffee meetups, email threads, phone calls, and job panels helping candidates prepare for interviews. With that in mind, I thought I'd share some helpful tips to assist UX job seekers showcase their skill sets and breeze through interviews. While these 10 tips can’t guarantee you’ll be hired, they will definitely help you be more prepared when meeting with a hiring manager.
- Anyone can recite Wikipedia.
At some point in the conversation, you’ll need to be able to articulate how you define user experience, the roles and responsibilities, and your thoughts on the industry. Anyone can give a bland Wikipedia response or abbreviate something they scoured from usability.gov, but this is your chance to be unique and help the interviewer get a feel for how you understand the field in your own words.
- Skip the alternative facts.
It’s rare to see someone who is a true UX “unicorn” (I hate that term btw), who has completed every deliverable for a project. No one is expecting you to have done the user personas, visual design mockups, front-end development, and usability testing (if they do, feel free to end the interview, you don’t want to work there anyways). In all seriousness though, UX is a team effort, and it’s ok if you only assisted on a deliverable or process, just be clear about what you did and didn’t do. The truth will come out eventually and trouble will ensue if you get hired and can’t perform a task you said you could. Plus, you never know what role a hiring manager is trying to fill, and you might be exactly what he or she is looking for.
- Show your math.
Everyone enjoys showcasing a final product’s wow-factor, but how did you get there? It’s rare that there were no changes, or you didn’t have to include input from multiple stakeholders. Just like in high-school algebra, it’s important to be able to see how you arrived at the final solution. Show your sketches, mood boards, Dribbble screenshots, notes, and throw away concepts. Most interviewers want to understand your process and design thinking abilities, including how you worked under any brand or technology constraints.
- Be Inspired.
Share your sources of inspiration – blogs, books, speakers, and conferences. You’ll be surprised how much conversation this will spark. The UX community is growing rapidly, and there is no end to the available options to learn and explore. If you can’t share any of these during your interview, it typically shows a lack of personal interest in UX and can indicate you aren’t looking to progress in your career.
- Community isn’t just for retirees.
A quick search on Meetup will provide a multitude of great groups to go meet others in the UX/CX/IA space (or similar). Being involved in these groups provides education, networking, and opportunities for you to share the struggles and victories with your peers. Knowing the key players and companies in your city can help you get hired or referred quickly if the interviewer knows of a better fit for your skillsets. It certainly helps move your name to the top of the list when hiring managers know you have a strong network and could help increase new business or refer other qualified candidates.
- Pass the baton.
Are you a Front-End Dev, Researcher, Interaction Designer, or Information Architect? Understanding when and where your skill sets are the right fit in the project lifecycle can be a huge benefit to teams new to incorporating UX. Being able to discuss how to use different methods for receiving or handing off work helps demonstrate that you understand your part in the larger team workflow and how you can individually make the project more successful. You don’t have to have all the answers, just an understanding of what you can provide and how you collaborate with different roles on your team. Painting a clear picture of where your role will start and end can help reduce ambiguity with your interviewer and showcase your interests and specific areas of expertise.
- Knowledge is everywhere.
"But Ryan, what about education vs. Experience?"
When looking at education vs. experience generally, there are typically 2 extremes. The first extreme includes amazingly talented people who didn’t do the traditional college track with stellar work examples but have knowledge gaps. The second are amazingly talented people with advanced degrees and a vast knowledge base but have little-to-no actual work experience or portfolio pieces. Which do interviewers prefer? Like a lot of answers in life… It depends.
Does the team makeup allow for hands-on mentoring and junior roles or does the team need someone that can contribute strongly when they walk in the door? What level of maturity has UX reached in the organization you’re applying to? Do they need someone to help define their offerings and handle defining your team’s UX process?
Understanding the makeup of the team - both the level and what’s expected of the position will help you present yourself and your background in a way that will help the interviewer see whichever experience you have as a match, instead of a miss.
- Invest in some sweat equity.
I meet a lot of eager people looking to break into UX but are currently working in another field. They often ask how they can build a portfolio of work when their current role doesn't offer any opportunities. Unfortunately, the answer is extra hours, weekends, and cheap or un-paid work. I interviewed a candidate once who blew us away with her initial attempt at a portfolio because she decided to volunteer to improve her favorite restaurant's website. She interviewed customers, made personas, did card sorting, and some wireframes showing how the website could be improved (for free). Granted, I'm sure she got a free waffle or 2 out of the deal, but her passion for generating her own opportunities to do some basic UX work spoke volumes about her desire to break into the industry and helped showcase her workflow.
- Technology is a privilege, not a right.
UX practitioners have long demanded a seat at the technology table and today we're starting to be able to cash in those coveted RSVPs. This means you must own the responsibility of learning how to design for a specific technology (native, hybrid, responsive, etc.) and how your design decisions will impact the development and usability/accessibility of your product. If you don't know something, ask. Partner with your development team, research, or take a workshop. There has never been a more exciting time for someone in UX to get involved with cutting edge technology opportunities and being able to speak to why your concepts and design decisions align with the platform will pay dividends in your interview and your career.
- Empathy, empathy, and more empathy.
For your users, for your stakeholders, for your development team. The difference between a good interview and a great interview? Show empathy towards the different challenges each role on a project team will encounter. Did your research uncover a need to pivot away from a strongly held belief from a stakeholder? Are your users struggling with a confusing interface preventing them from doing their tasks quickly? Are your design changes going to impact the development team causing a lot of rework? Being in UX is similar to being in politics, and it's important to know how to build advocates along the way. Helping your team understand what you do, why you do it, and how it helps the overall product is good – understanding those same answers for the rest of your team is better.
Interviewing can be stressful but don’t worry, using these tips should help you stand out amongst the crowd and provide a framework for a thorough conversation … Just remember to tuck in your shirt and be on-time.