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Four things I learnt hiring my first UX team

This article is what I wish I had read before I started my journey as a first-time hiring manager.


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Marek Kultys

3 years ago | 9 min read

Hiring for the first time is not easy. For me personally, it was challenging and daunting but also exciting and gratifying. I was lucky to receive support from my colleagues at BenevolentAI, but I also had to figure a lot of things out on my own. I hired my first team in 2020 and learnt a lot in the process.

Here, I share my learnings to help other first-time hiring managers hire a team that they’re proud of!

If you received a green light to hire your new team — congratulations! You must be exhausted after having worked to get this far. You must also be excited about everything that is to come. Unless you hired people before, you may also feel a little lost or even overwhelmed by this new challenge. I remember all those feelings when I set out to hire a team myself as a first-time hiring manager.

Today, I lead a User Experience (UX) team at BenevolentAI in London. In the first half of 2020 we grew from a so-called ‘UX-team-of-one’ to a multi-role team of five. I hired every person on my team myself and made both good and poor decisions along the way.

But in the end, I managed to hire a strong, versatile team of dedicated and talented individuals with whom I enjoy working, and with whom we’re taking UX at BenevolentAI to the next level.

I wrote this article for other first-time hiring managers to share the things I learnt when hiring myself. This article is something I wish I had read before I started my journey. Even though my hiring experience is limited to UX and design, I believe the lessons I learnt are generalisable and transferrable to other disciplines. I hope this helps you hire a team that you’re proud of!

Define the role

Sounds easy, but it’s not. I found defining the role I wanted to hire to be one of the most difficult challenges in the entire hiring process. But it was also one of the most impactful outputs that I made, as it helped in decision making throughout the whole hiring process.

Don’t try to define the role using a job description. Of course, every job opening needs a well-crafted job description to start advertising, attract a diverse group of relevant candidates, and get conversations going. But for my internal purposes of candidate evaluation, I found the job description limiting.

I used it to define the contours of the role, link it to a career level, and help with early-stage evaluations based on each candidate’s resume and portfolio: simple who’s in and who’s out. But a job description is too coarse to be of use in evaluating candidates at the later stages of the hiring process.

It also lacks the dimension of time, as it is not designed to capture where you want your hire to be in the future: 3 months, 6 months, and 12 months in.

I was lucky to come across an article written by Jared Spool titled The Thank You Note — A Sketching Tool for UX Hiring. In this piece, Jared introduces the concept of a letter written to a prospective employee in which the hiring manager congratulates their future employee on the accomplishments in the first year on the job. I used this technique, and even though writing a letter ‘into the future’ felt odd at first, the results were revealing.

The Thank You Note helped me express clear expectations, which I could not formalise before writing the letter. It helped me identify the traits of character I should look for in the candidates. It aided in naming the soft skills that the candidate should have to succeed. It included a list of expectations ready to be shared with shortlisted candidates,

which helped them understand what they sign up for. It served as a blueprint for the initial set of tasks given to the newly hired team member. We also used it as a reference for their performance evaluation. Finally, it helped me align with the team and our stakeholders on the scope of the role and its place in everyone’s plans.

Design your own hiring process

When I started hiring, it was initially for a single role only. As there were no immediate plans to hire more than one person, it didn’t feel like—at that time — defining the whole hiring process upfront would be a good investment of time. Hiring criteria, things we’re looking for in candidates, protocols for interviews — all of that was in my head. Today I know it was the exact wrong thing to do…

My first hire quit after six weeks on the job. It was a blow to the team and to myself, as I couldn’t help but take it personally. Today I know that my first hiring fiasco was due to bad luck rather than lack of judgement. But then I found it challenging to explain to my colleagues (and to myself) that my initial decision to hire was based on sound evaluation backed by the evidence from the portfolio and from interviews.

I’ve not repeated my mistake. Before hiring again, I worked with our talent acquisition team to formulate a draft process for hiring a UX designer at BenevolentAI.

Over time the draft grew into a document that lists the phases of our UX hiring process, names people involved in hiring, and sets the criteria for candidate evaluation that can be used consistently across all interviews. It covers guidelines for hiring for three types of UX roles (Product Designer, User Researcher, and Visual Designer) and for three career levels (senior, mid-weight, and intern).

The process was vetted by stakeholders across the business, which gives confidence that successful hires should meet everyone’s expectations. More recently, members of the UX team who were hired using this process helped refine the process to grow our team further.

Our UX hiring process includes five phases. In phase 1, the hiring manager screens candidate’s resume and portfolio. We’re looking for evidence of design skills demonstrated in well-communicated case studies. In phase 2, successful candidates have a phone conversation with a recruiter from our talent acquisition team.

Next, in phase 3, it’s a phone conversation with the UX hiring manager. We talk about the UX team in more detail and discuss mutual expectations, candidate’s reasons for applying, and their competencies specific to the role.

Successful candidates progress to phase 4. It consists of a series of on-site interviews with the representatives from cross-functional teams at BenevolentAI. One of those interviews is a collaboration session where we discuss a design or a research brief and work through ideas on a whiteboard. Other sessions are competency-based interviews.

Finally, in phase 5, selected candidates are invited to a follow-up conversation with the UX hiring manager, where we exchange feedback about phase 4 interviews and answer outstanding questions.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, we no longer invite candidates to our office. All hiring is done remotely. We had to adapt by removing the whiteboard session and adding an extra step to our UX hiring process — a time-boxed design task given to candidates to complete at home to demonstrate their technical skills and critical thinking.

Although my long-term personal ambition is to remove design tasks from our UX hiring process (why? that’s a topic worth a separate blog post), I found them effective in helping motivated and talented candidates stand out.

Control uncertainty

When hiring — as in any other context — we make decisions based on the information we have at hand. A decision to hire or not is a tough one, as we extrapolate someone’s suitability for a role from a small set of observations gathered in an artificial interview setting. In other words, due to various constraints and weaknesses of the hiring process, there’s always going to be an element of uncertainty in candidate evaluations. This is especially true for new hiring managers because of our limited experience in hiring.

When I started hiring, the feeling of uncertainty was overwhelming. But over time, I learnt to manage it by deciding where I can tolerate it. To this end, I try to split candidate evaluations into two buckets.

The first bucket includes competencies and expectations critical for the business and succeeding in the role; this is where we want as much certainty in our evaluations as possible. The second bucket holds competencies and expectations for which it’s okay to accept some uncertainty and potential surprises.

These buckets will be different for every business, for every team, and even for each individual role you might be hiring for. As a hiring manager, you should decide about these buckets. Writing The Thank You Note can help.

At BenevolentAI, we’re building an AI-powered platform that enables scientists to discover new medicines faster. This is an unusually complex challenge. As we operate in cross-functional, interdisciplinary teams made of highly collaborative individuals, those who join us need some excellent team and human competencies to succeed.

While excellent technical UX skills are necessary, they’re not of the highest importance, as our products are for internal use only. That’s why my first bucket is dedicated to interpersonal competencies.

First of all, it’s impossible to succeed in a complex multi-domain environment such as ours without sophisticated communication skills. That’s why all aspects of oral, written, and visual communication is the first thing that I look for when hiring for UX roles. Secondly, because our products at BenevolentAI are not consumer-facing, we define ‘good enough’ differently than many of our UX colleagues in the tech industry. That’s why we look for people who — when necessary — can broker and accept far-reaching compromises that may feel uncomfortable or even unfair elsewhere. Thirdly, we can’t afford to hire people who are not likely to stay with us for longer, as it usually takes at least 3 months to onboard new joiners at BenevolentAI.

All other competencies went into my second bucket, as I was okay to accept more uncertainty and evaluation risk in those areas. I was also prepared to provide training, mentoring, and support wherever necessary. So, for example, I placed less emphasis on verifying core design skills during the recruitment process.

Instead, I relied on proxy indicators of candidates’ competency, such as resumes, portfolios, and visual presentations. It’s important to note that this distribution of emphasis works for the UX team at BenevolentAI. It might not work for you because your situation, company, and culture are different.

It’s okay to trust your intuition

When I started hiring, I had this assumption that there’s an ideal candidate somewhere to be found and that measurable evaluation methods (as if they were some sort of a recruitment algorithm) will help me find that perfect hire.

But over time, as I interviewed candidates, saw potential hires slip away, made offers, and had other offers rejected, I accepted that the reality is more nuanced than I initially assumed.

There are many good candidates. Many people can fit the role in their own unique ways. While quantitative methods can help in the hiring process and evaluation of competencies (both hard and soft ones), don’t rely on them alone in decision making. Instead, trust your own judgement to weigh in and add nuance where systematic evaluations are not enough.

Think about it this way — the hiring process is the start of a new professional relationship with one of the candidates. It’s a relationship that matters, one that you will need to grow and maintain over the years to come. From that perspective, good chemistry between people is as important as qualifications or hard and soft competencies.

For what relates to you personally, you should best trust your own judgement. For what relates to other team members, involving them in the hiring process will provide a platform for sharing perspectives and concerns.

Hiring is not science. For one of the roles I hired for most recently, I was in a stalemate position. I limited my hiring options to two candidates who met all requirements and criteria.

They both met most of my expectations, but each in their unique way. After assessing design tasks, finishing all multi-staged interviews, analysing feedback from the team involved in evaluations, and completing debrief calls with candidates, I was still unable to decide.

When I shared my dilemma with a colleague in talent acquisition, he encouraged me to trust myself and follow my intuition. Once I got to the end of the line — having exhausted all other evaluation options — my responsibility as a hiring manager was ultimately to decide. And that I did. And I never regretted it.

Originally published here.

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