Great teams are not born overnight - they are forged through a purposeful hiring process. At its core, hiring is not just about filling roles; it’s about finding the right people who match the role and the team. A purposeful process helps to smooth things out, improves the experience for candidates, and is important to build great teams.
☕ Building great design teams with a purposeful hiring process
Hiring well is difficult, yet it’s one of the highest leverage work a design leader can do. If there are missing people in the team and open headcounts, the rest of the team, the overall design output, and impact suffer. On a more abstract level, absent team members might also mean missing expertise (in a team with t-shaped designers), and a lower diversity of thought. So design leaders should prioritize hiring above everything else, and involve their teams as much as possible.
With hiring being difficult, some leaders are less comfortable putting effort into it and rely on their respective HR or People team partners to do much of the heavy lifting - which is a mistake. Great designers and researchers can be only hired through care, commitment, and focus, implemented in a purposeful hiring process (starting from the job ad up until the evaluation post-trial period).
I’ve written about our hiring process a couple of years ago, right after I learned my first few lessons in Hiring UX people at Emarsys. Based on the lessons I’ve learned since, some parts seem still quite relevant - having clear ideas about the team and how the role fits and having principles for the process and the hiring decision. In other parts, however, especially within the process steps I’ve changed my mind considerably, I don’t believe homework or trial days are good ideas anymore.
The hiring process can be viewed as any other design project. What’s already in place might be from an earlier approach, might be not intentionally designed to the goals, or might have issues. Evaluating and redesigning can improve the experience for both the hiring team and the candidate. As with any design process, tools like understanding business goals, having a vision, bringing in empathy, iterating on the process and process details, getting feedback from candidates, and measuring impact are useful.
I like to view the hiring process as having five components.
- A team vision: this helps in figuring out tactics and what profiles to look for (for example do designers do user research in their team).
- Principles: on the decision-making process make sure high-level goals are kept in mind (for example diversity or empathy towards candidates).
- Profiles: a detailed description of what sort of people we need, this is best described via a combination of the team’s general vision, collaborating with peers (from product, engineering, etc), and the needs for the specific role. This should also include a list of competencies needed.
- Process steps: the screens, interviews, etc. make sure to get feedback on each competency. Certain profiles would need customization.
- Guides: for conducting the interviews to reduce bias and also for how to evaluate the candidate and make the decision to progress.
These five components exist in every team, independently of whether they are defined or not. If they are not articulated well enough, the intention of hiring great people might get lost. So it’s better to give some thought and iterate as the team hires designers. The difficulty might be, that some teams don’t hire that often - so it’s a good idea to take notes and document decisions and some reasoning, even if it’s just a couple of lines in a doc somewhere.
Team vision and profiles describe who the team needs and what’s the purpose, while process steps and guides describe how we are going the get the new person and fulfill the purpose. Principles in this context are about the quality of the process and making sure high-level intentions are present in the process steps. Hiring is stressful for candidates and takes a lot of effort from teams. Having clear principles helps to keep to higher standards and things smoothly.
Over the last two roles I had, we came to similar process steps, which can be boiled down to a generic approach. This wouldn’t work for some profiles, for example, more senior roles might want to learn more about the team, while more junior roles might be fine with fewer steps. Each step focuses on one or two core competencies and also the overall flow would map as a user journey for the candidates. Ideally, each step would have two persons (to reduce bias), and each step would have different interviewers (to increase the diversity of opinions).
- CV review: looking for signs if the candidate matches the profile. This might be followed by a call with HR to establish some logistics.
- Hiring manager call: this is to establish if there is a general fit and to get the candidate excited by the role.
- Craft interview: with design team members focused on design & research skills. Might include a short case study presentation.
- Cross-functional interview: with peers from engineering and product to focus on collaboration and communication skills. Might include a short design critique or similar exercise.
- Decision: while the hiring manager should make the final call, it’s a good practice to involve other members of the interview group.
One of my key learning over the past few years was how homework, most types of in-person exercises (like whiteboard sessions), and trial days all suffer from the same issue. There are perceived benefits to both parties, as there is a deeper look into how the candidates perform, how they approach problems, etc that paints a better picture than a case study. The candidates also get a better and deeper insight into the internal collaboration of the company. But the downsides far outweigh the benefits. Every one of these practices asks the candidates to spend time and energy on unjustified tasks while creating further stress. Also, certain biases in these tasks favor some candidates over others that might be not aligned with the profile we are looking for. For example, whiteboard exercises favor people who can sketch quickly - which is a nice skill to have but disqualify a lot of candidates who would be otherwise a great fit.
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🍪 Things to snack on
A lot of great insights about issues in how to design orgs do their recruitment in Design orgs are their own greatest impediment to success in recruiting and hiring by Peter Merholz. The common problems the article mentions: Design teams rely too much on the HR / recruiter teams, design teams don’t spend enough time on hiring, the roles to be hired are not defined well enough, the process ignores best practices (for length, preparing interviewers and having no clear assessment guidelines). The article also gives some tips and best practices for these common issues.
Redesigning our product design hiring process is a great use case by Sean Filiatrault. From the process they’ve started with, the challenges for candidates sound quite widespread, as the challenges for the team (especially the negative reputation can have a long term impact).
I liked the learnings by the Faire Design Team in Designing an interview process for product designers. Preparing candidates with an interview guide for candidates sounds helpful to take some of the bias and stress out of the process, while training interviewers helped them to reach their hiring goals and removed some of the more subjective judgments.
Though about the engineering process, a lot of good insights in Develop Your Hiring System Like a Product to Eliminate Bias and Boost Retention over at First Round Review, treating the hiring process like product development. The article details how Dan Pupius applied this approach at Medium: Starting with a vision (what sort of team to build), principles (guidelines to apply to each candidate) to make decisions, tactics (how to execute the process steps), what to measure (also collecting feedback from candidates), and how to iterate.
A few good tips and tactics by Rachel Krause to use in Applying UX-Workshop Techniques to the Hiring Process. As in design work, divergence and convergence are important to reduce bias and group thinking in the process - writing feedback about candidates alone and discussing them together allows for more details to emerge. Prioritization matrices are good for putting the desired competencies into relation to each other.
Evan Sunwall writes specifically about hiring interviews and the differences between going with the flow, and making them unstructured or making them structured in Hiring Interviews Are Terrible: Smart UX Teams Structure Them. Since hiring interviews are similar to user interviews, it makes a lot of sense that spending more energy on them leads to better outcomes.