If you work at a new startup or established company that doesn’t specialize in design, understanding what a user experience designer is and how to hire the right one for your needs can be complex. The fact that the design community as a whole is still trying to define precisely what a user experience designer is or is not should give you a clue as to just how complex that can be.

To know how to hire a UX designer, you first need to recognize what type of UX designer is the right fit for the position you’ve posted. For employers who are accustomed to working with people whose job roles are fairly cut-and-dried, understanding that UX designers come from a variety of backgrounds and don’t all have the same sets of skills can be confusing.

Jack of All Trades?

First, you need to understand the types of disciplines that roll up into user experience design. There are many complex diagrams about what the world of UX encompasses. The most straightforward way I’ve seen to express this is through a “T-shaped skills” chart.


The above chart illustrates only a handful of the many disciplines that roll up into user experience design. And then there are all of the skills that go inside each of these disciplines. With user experience design, the T-shape tends to look more like an unruly octopus.

And it’s not all about talent and skill. To be T-shaped, a designer has to have a willingness to try new things. The designer must also be empathetic. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO phrased it well in the 2005 article for Fast Company, Strategy by Design. He says that T-shaped people “are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need.”

Does this make them a jack of all trades and master of none? Not the good ones, not in my opinion. The effective UX designer has a great depth of knowledge in one or more fields that make up UX design. The puzzle you have to solve as a potential employer is to determine which of these skills you need the applicants to have the most experience in.

Finding the Fit

The type of UX designer you’ll need depends largely on where your company is on the journey to user-centered design, and the skills of the other designers you have in-house. For example, if this is going to be your first UX employee, then you’ll want a very experienced designer with a great depth of knowledge in Information Architecture, Visual Design, and Interaction Design at the very least.

When interviewing, don’t just ask the standard “not this question again” series of common questions. Ask questions like:

  • How would you describe your design process? Walk me through the steps you take to create an end-to-end experience.
  • What kind of interactions do you have with project team members: stakeholders, project managers, other designers? Who do you find you interact with the most?
  • How many designers have you mentored?
  • Do you have a mentor? If so, what are they mentoring you in?
  • Who do you follow on Twitter?
  • Do you blog? How often?
  • If you could attend any design conference, which one would it be?

These questions may seem a bit unconventional, but they can reveal a willingness to collaborate, cooperate, teach and learn. If the designer has a great answer for the first question, but no answers for the last six questions, you may be saddling yourself with a “design diva”.

The How, Not the What

You may be tempted to rely on a designer’s portfolio to judge their talent. But, as Whitney Hess put it on her blog post:

A great user experience designer, one you should be looking for for your company, isn’t going to whip out a collection of completed projects to impress you with. A great (and truly accomplished) UX designer knows it’s their process that stands out.

This is particularly true of designers coming from an in-house team where they may not be legally permitted to use examples of their work in a portfolio. Some larger corporations expressly forbid a designer from using what they create for the company in their portfolio, especially if it’s a matter of  intellectual property or if the design was for an internal application.

The bottom line is that any decent designer can present you with a slew of impressive screenshots. It’s being able to explain in detail how they arrived at those screens that differentiate the user experience designer from the visual designer.

Degree or No Degree?

The designers who are self-taught – I like to call them organic designers – have years of experience, come from a variety of backgrounds and use a smörgåsbord of tools in their design process. If they’ve excelled in their field, they are passionate about user experience, they are good collaborators and good communicators. They may not necessarily be extroverts, but they can communicate ideas effectively and work easily with a variety of people.

Being self-taught doesn’t necessarily mean they have no degree at all, but if your company requires a Bachelor’s degree for certain job roles, don’t limit yourself to Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Web Design & New Media or Interaction Design graduates.
UX designers need to be keen observers of human nature. If you are looking for degreed candidates only, also consider the people with backgrounds in psychology, anthropology, theater & performance arts, communications, music or other programs that require an understanding of human interactions and collaboration.

When I went to college, there was no degree in Interaction Design. The web was brand spanking new. My Master’s is in Directing in theater. And I cannot express to you how valuable the experiences in theater and theater education have been in my career as a UX designer.

What Do You Want to Do With Your Life?

Each UX designer I’ve worked with over the past decade and a half has had their own personal thumbprint of skills, talents and life experiences they brought to the table. But the truly great ones had one thing in common. If you asked them what their goal in their professional life was, their answer would be “To make people’s lives easier.”

This is the type of user experience designer you want to hire. This is the designer who will keep you honest and ensure that you are doing what is best for your customers, members, users, visitors.

And if you’re seeking less experienced designers who will be mentored within your company, make sure you include a more senior UX designer in the interview process. This may seem like a no-brainer to some people, but I’ve been surprised at how often I hear stories from colleagues at various companies working with an under-qualified designer, or a designer who was just not a good fit for the team, who was hired on by someone (a manager or recruiter) with no background in UX.

Share Your Thoughts

Do you have any tips for hiring user experience designers? Or do you have any questions about interviewing or hiring designers. Post them in the comments below.

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