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We're increasingly asked by organisations for advice on building a user experience competency. Our advice is to start at the top and get the right person for that first critical leadership role. User experience leaders demonstrate 3 core competencies: they understand research; they follow user experience methods and standards; and they are great communicators.
Photo by Adam Le Sommer on Unsplash
Scan any job-posting site to see what a mess our discipline has got itself into. User experience researcher, user researcher, user experience designer, usability specialist, human factors expert, interaction designer, information architect, user experience expert, user experience architect, user interface designer' these are just some of the job titles that have appeared over the last few months on one popular jobs board.
This variety of job titles perplexes people who want a job in the field but it causes an even greater problem for CEOs who want to create a user experience competency within their company. When job titles are virtually interchangeable, a candidate armed with a generic CV and a word processor can switch identities faster than Clark Kent. The truth is, it's like the Wild West out there — job titles can mean anything you want them to mean. As a result, matching candidates to vacancies can become a lottery, with hiring managers searching in vain for that critical X factor.
The real problem, of course, goes deeper than the job title. Vague job titles are a symptom of companies and recruiters who don't know the field well enough to know what a user experience team should look like, or whether they have found good candidates or not. The knock-on effect of this is obvious: unbalanced teams lacking the right skills and experience, teams that lack an authoritative voice and, ultimately, products that slip through the user experience net.
Simon Cowell once said, "If I said to most of the people who auditioned, 'Good job, awesome, well done,' it would have made me actually look and feel ridiculous. It's quite obvious most of the people who turned up for this audition were hopeless." So let's get real. How can you guarantee that you hire the right person for your all-important first user experience leadership role?
You'll have already noticed the Catch-22. If you don't have a user experience group, and if the hiring managers don't know the field, then how can you know whether you have found a strong candidate or not?
So you need someone on your hiring committee who knows the area. Engage someone with a strong user experience background — someone who has built teams and hired user experience staff — to help you find your first user experience leader. Alternatively, use a specialised recruiting agent, one who focuses on usability and user experience.
Building a team, observed Sir Winston Churchill, is not like building a house. You don't start from the bottom and work upwards and then add the leader on top like a chimney pot. You build a team from the top down. This means you shouldn't start by hiring inexperienced or junior people, but hire your leader first. Start with the team leader so that he or she can establish the operational framework, plan strategy, evangelise user experience and make subsequent hiring decisions. Appoint this person at an organisational level that carries authority: at least at Director level, and preferably at VP level.
A well-balanced user experience team will represent a number of disciplines and skills. But you won't find all these skills in one person. don't expect your user experience hire to also be a user-interface designer or an ergonomist or an information architect. He or she is likely to have a good working knowledge in these areas but you should focus on the main user experience strengths when hiring. You are not hiring a 'one-man band' — you are hiring the Principal First Violin. This means you must write job postings that are specific. Avoid the temptation to shovel in every role and responsibility you can think of. Otherwise, you'll send a signal to candidates that you don't know what you are doing, and the strongest candidates will hesitate to apply. Remember you are hiring a specialist not a generalist. So think specialist, specialism, specific.
I've also been surprised how many companies adopt what I call the 'Andy Capp' model of team building for their user experience teams. Comic strip character, Andy Capp applies for a job as a 'handy man' but then admits he has no experience or skills for any of the required work. "In what way are you a handy man then?" asks the interviewer. "I just live round the corner," replies Andy.
It is not uncommon for companies to staff user experience teams with internal people who do not have the skills or experience, but who are looking for a 'home'. These are sometimes admin people, or people whose current job has been eliminated, or sometimes just people who have been around a long time but don't easily fit in anywhere else. This approach devalues user experience and usability, and these kinds of teams usually struggle to be heard and are frequently ignored by design and development teams. If you are going to do this, do it right. Hire specialists not 'warm bodies'. Hire contributors, not facilitators.
What should you look for in a user experience specialist? Here are three competencies that will guarantee your first hire is a good one. Insist that candidates provide hard evidence (not just 'talk') of their ability to meet each of these criteria:
User experience is a research discipline, one that concerns human behaviour. So, first and foremost, you need a researcher: preferably one with experience in researching human behaviour. This allows for a wide range of disciplines that might include, among others, cognitive science, human factors, anthropology, sociology, ergonomics and psychology. The discipline that takes a scientific approach to studying human behaviour is called Experimental Psychology and this is a good indicator of what to look for.
What's important is that the candidate understands data. The candidate will understand how to design an experiment, and how to control and measure variables. He or she will know how to avoid collecting invalid or unreliable data, and will know the importance of prioritising objective behavioural data over subjective opinion data, and will be able to explain to you why this is important. The candidate will understand hypothesis testing and will know the scientific method; and he or she will know statistical methods, which tests to apply, and when to apply them.
It is not enough for candidates to talk about these things, they must have a demonstrable track record of work that they (not "the team") have carried out. Finally, a good researcher will demonstrate critical thinking, and should bring a dose of healthy scepticism to proceedings.
Does the candidate know about user experience? You should not have to probe very deeply to discover this. The candidate will know about the ISO 9241 standard and will be able to recite the ISO definition of "usability" (or at least paraphrase it). He or she will be able to discuss User Centred Design and will know how to 'sell' this design approach to you.
The candidate will know which user experience methods are appropriate for a given situation, and will know how and when to modify methods to accommodate limited budgets and aggressive timelines. He or she will know the difference between types of usability tests: for example, between formative and summative tests; between moderated and unmoderated tests; and between remote and lab-based tests. The candidate should also have experience with a range of other user experience methods and techniques, such as field research, user interface inspections, card sorting and persona creation. The candidate may not have experience with every possible technique (eye-tracking experience is still a rarity) but will at least know the pros and cons of these methods.
Good communication equates to good thinking. So the ability to communicate well — including the ability to write well — is a reliable indicator of a person's ability to marshal their thoughts into a coherent idea or argument, and to inform or influence others. Good communication is also a vital ingredient in managing and motivating a team. And it also turns out to be a good indicator of a person's ability to see a project through to completion, because when the participants have gone home, and all the M&Ms have been eaten, someone has to write the study report.
Increasingly we see user experience personnel focusing their main efforts on the more 'visible' aspects of studies (recruiting participants, conducting test sessions etc.) and then dropping the ball when it comes to disseminating the findings effectively — in some cases failing to document studies at all. This is the user experience world's version of academia's 'ABD' problem, where a doctoral candidate has completed 'all but the dissertation'. Of course, it is the dissertation that is the most important part of graduate study because it is the evidence that one can interpret and make sense of one's data and can connect it to the existing body of knowledge on the subject. More importantly it is how one shares one's work with others. Similarly in the user experience world, what matters is the ability to connect the data you have collected to the system changes the designers and engineers have to make. Being able to convey your thoughts and arguments accurately and concisely in writing, presentations and diagrams is an essential part of team communication.
Resist the temptation to simply hire the best of the crop of the people who apply. If the candidates do not meet your criteria, start over with the job search. Hiring no one will leave you in a stronger position than hiring the wrong person.
Dr. Philip Hodgson (@bpusability on Twitter) has been a UX researcher for over 25 years. His work has influenced design for the US, European and Asian markets, for everything from banking software and medical devices to store displays, packaging and even baby care products. His book, Think Like a UX Researcher, was published in January 2019.
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