It Starts with a Conversation: A Guide to Interviewing UX Candidates
I believe that if asked, most people would say that they are good at conducting interviews. However, even the most experienced interviewers can get caught up in bad habits. We rarely take the time to assess our own interviewing skills or have others provide feedback on our technique.
There is no shortage of articles about how to ace an interview as a UX job candidate, but there has been little focus on how to be an effective interviewer. Assessing UX candidates can be particularly tricky because they can have highly diverse backgrounds, experiences, and skillsets. In this article, I will use several fictitious individuals to represent a variety of interviewer/interviewee situations and provide recommendations on how to avoid common interviewing pitfalls.
How to Establish a Good Repour with the Candidate
Fredricka is a senior user experience research manager at a large technology company and Malia is interviewing with her for a junior UX researcher role. After quickly rattling off her name, job title, and some boilerplate corporate FYIs, Fredricka jumps right in to ask Malia a series of intense questions to evaluate her experience with a broad range of research methods. From Fredricka’s perspective, she has a very limited amount of time to evaluate this candidate and she wants to make sure she covers everything. Her employer also has a list of behavioral questions that she is required to get answers to before the hour is up. Malia immediately feels intimidated and uncomfortable by Fredrick’s rapid line of questions on things that she has only had a bit of experience in her past internship and coursework.
We’ve all been interviewed for a job at some point in our careers and we know what it feels like. Unfortunately, having empathy tends to be the first thing to go when a person gets into interviewer mode.
The majority of candidates will be nervous or have some anxiety, whether or not it is visibly obvious while you are interacting with them. When people are nervous, it has been scientifically proven that they are more forgetful and their cognitive processes are impacted. This means that you aren’t interacting with this person at their best and their performance may not reflect how they would do on the job.
Things to consider:
What might be going on in this person’s personal or work life?
Could they be intimidated by your job title or the company that you represent?
Always take the mindset that you want this candidate to succeed. Create an optimal environment for the person to be able to present themselves in the best possible manner. You should be empathetic towards a candidate even if you ultimately decide that they aren’t a good fit for the job.
Many interviews are now happening remotely and it is extremely tempting to multi-task. Just before the interview begins, make sure to close your email, set a do not disturb on your chat application, and put your cellphone on mute. Show that you are genuinely interested in talking to the candidate by frequently making eye contact (or looking into your webcam). It is ok to show emotion. Smiling and even laughing when appropriate can immediately put a candidate at ease and make the interview feel more like a friendly conversation. Sharing of thoughts and experiences shouldn’t only be one-way. Tell them a little about yourself. This could be a personal anecdote, something that you love about your job, or something fun about your team.
Have the perspective that this is not a test, but a conversation to determine a suitable match.
Conducting interviews can be a time-consuming process, especially when many of us are wearing many hats throughout the day. It can be convenient (or even advised by your company) to stick to a script of predetermined questions, but this can dampen our own curiosities to really get to know this person and their own unique story.
Calibrate your questions based on the individual’s level of experience. If the candidate’s only professional job related to this role is a prior internship, focus on what they learned during that experience. If the candidate has twenty years of experience, try to obtain a broader understanding of their background than just what they have done in their most recent job.
Find out what this person is most passionate about: Are they most excited about ethnographic research, design systems, accessibility, etc.? Their passion doesn’t have to align 100% with your own personal interests or the specific role that you are hiring for; Think about how they could bring more diversity to your team.
How to Evaluate Candidates
Sally is a senior UX designer working at a financial services company and Pablo is a candidate for a senior UX designer role on Sally’s team. Pablo appears nervous when thinking about how to respond to Sally’s question. Sally is thinking that she would have had a much quicker response to this question, and she is also starving, and can’t wait for her lunch break which is right after this interview. Sally isn’t really sure if Pablo knows his stuff compared with the person she just spoke to. That candidate works at a well-known start-up company, was much more confident in their abilities, and seemed like they could be a cool person to work with. At the very end of the interview, she realizes that she never gave Pablo a chance to ask any questions. She half-heartedly offers him a chance to ask her one question before she rushes off to lunch.
Unfortunately, Sally might not be evaluating Pablo in the most objective and open-minded manner and could miss out on hiring a valuable team member.
Be aware of your own biases. Biases can easily hijack your decision-making process. They can control you—without you realizing it—and leave you wondering why you keep getting inconsistent results from your hiring process.
Don’t be susceptible to confirmation bias by making assumptions and prejudging someone before the interview: Just because someone has companies like Facebook, Google, or Amazon on their resume doesn’t automatically make them a rockstar. Or you might experience recency bias by comparing a previous candidate that you just finished interviewing with someone that you are currently speaking with.
The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias whereby our perception of someone is positively influenced by our opinions of that person’s other related traits. In contrast, the horn effect is a bias whereby one’s opinion of another is unduly shaped by a single negative trait. To combat this bias, force yourself to think about the candidate in a balanced manner. This can be difficult as we typically formulate an opinion of someone very quickly. If you find yourself reacting negatively to this individual, try to think about any positive attributes that you have observed so far. If you are reacting positively, try to think critically about any flaws that you noticed.
Remember, the goal is not to assess how good the person is at interviewing, but to determine if they are qualified and would be a good fit for the role. Just because someone provides “all the right answers” and appears extremely confident doesn’t necessarily predict how they will do on the job.
Probe: Ask questions about who, what, where, when, and why.
Your company may provide a set of behavioral questions that are recommended for you to ask. These questions are often phrased as “tell me about a time when you…”. Just because candidates are coached to answer these questions in a STAR structure doesn’t mean that it lets the interviewer off the hook to follow up. Interviewers often fail to probe deeper on these questions which can lead to a false or superficial understanding of the candidate’s experience or actual capabilities.
Here are a few situations where you should definitely take the time to follow up and investigate:
There appear to be disconnects between their responses and their experience as presented on their resume.
You disagree with what they said or think that the candidate provided a poor response.
You weren’t confident that they understood your question.
You weren’t completely sure that you understood their response.
You feel like they didn’t completely or fully answer your question.
You should probe deeper to more fully understand the context of the situation, give the candidate an opportunity to provide clarification, and also for you to follow up with more specific questions about their response. Plan to ask at least a few follow up questions for each behavioral question that you plan to ask.
Don’t Waste Time
You likely won’t get to every question that you want to ask, and you shouldn’t attempt to squeeze them all in rapid-fire succession. Make sure to ask your most important questions first, give sufficient time for the candidate to provide an answer, and for you to follow up with probing questions.
You don’t need to ask the candidate for information that they have already provided on their resume such as which design or research tools they are proficient with or where they went to school. Don’t spend a lot of time telling the candidate things about the company that they could easily learn from visiting a website.
Limit the number of wide-open questions. Candidates have no idea how detailed a response that you are looking for and will typically overexplain. Instead, try to make most of your questions specific and give a sense of how in-depth they should be in their answer.
Also, keep in mind that questioning should be a two-way street. Do not wait until the last five minutes of the interview to allow the candidate to ask you questions. Try to answer their questions as openly and honestly as you can. Remember that they are also evaluating you as a representative of your company (and potential work colleague or boss).
Many interviewers are coached not to provide any feedback to candidates during the interview. This may be influenced by overzealous HR or legal teams that are afraid of interviewers saying “the wrong thing” which might have future theoretical legal consequences. You should be careful with the kind of feedback that you provide and thoughtful in how it is presented, but feedback should certainly be part of the interview process.
Providing constructive feedback is actually another way for you to assess the candidate. Observe how they react to your comments. It doesn’t mean that they must enthusiastically agree with what you have said, but do they appear to genuinely consider and embrace you providing feedback, or do they seem resistant, annoyed, or frustrated? The way that they react could you give you a sense of how they might respond to feedback if they were to join your organization.
Feedback shouldn’t always be negative. You can comment on why you liked a particular project in their portfolio or that you found a particular aspect of their background interesting. Positive comments throughout an interview can make the candidate feel more comfortable and often can help them to present a more genuine self.
During the interview, did you:
Make the candidate feel comfortable
Find opportunities to probe deeper to find out the what, why, when, and how
Provide both positive and constructive feedback
Give them ample opportunities to ask questions (before the end)
Smile during the interview
Get Feedback on Your Interviewing Technique
It takes time and experience to improve your interviewing skills and it can be difficult to objectively evaluate your own performance. Make sure to get feedback on your interviews from either your boss or peers. If possible, record your interview sessions for them to review or allow them to sit in on a few of your interviews.
No matter the outcome of an interview session, the interviewee should always feel like they were genuinely listened to, had the opportunity to present themselves in the best possible manner, and that the interviewer was actively engaged in the conversation.