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Your design resume is awesome but I don’t care

I’ve spoken a lot in the last few days about what user experience is. My best descriptions don’t include those words any more. I’m finding that I can only express the qualities I look for when I’m hiring UX professionals in terms of life experiences. Meaning that I tend to prioritise specific academic qualification or checklists of skills much lower than I prioritise the things that make you the person that you are. And I have to acknowledge that that makes it almost impossible for potential candidates to formally structure an approach that I might respond positively to. My assessment of what makes an engaging resume or portfolio does seem to be at odds to the majority of hiring managers in the field or, more specifically, recruiters. I’m grateful to my UXPA mentees for pointing that out, since otherwise I may just consider that everyone is writing terrible resumes which is why they’re finding it difficult to penetrate into the first level of human interaction with me – an interview.

I’ll be honest. A lot of resumes I see are terrible. But worse than that, a lot of them are just not very compelling. I don’t find anything in them that makes me want to invest the effort I really should. There’s nothing in there that makes me interested in who that person is. I try, and fail, to respond positively to a checklist of application software, when, frankly, it’s meaningless to me. I have an expectation that anyone who is applying for a design role can manage application software. If you can’t, I’ll teach you how. That’s not the thing that makes you a designer. What makes you a designer is your ability to think, articulate, challenge, interrogate, evolve, be bold, be different, be confident, be accountable and have the courage of your conviction. I really need to see something of that in your approach to me, since that’s really what differentiates you. It might just be how you word a personal statement or whatever you call it. It might be in the narrative that forms the basis of your portfolio. It might be that you’ve got an interest in garden furniture. Really, I can’t tell you what it looks like, but I have to respond to you at a level more significant than simply a well-structured document. I have to work with you. I have to like you. So give me a sense of what that might be like, rather than letting me know how good you are at using Axure.

In the end, I can only offer a personal opinion. I’m the least professional professional I know. But since I’m hiring designers, it might be useful, or at least interesting. I’m willing to accept it might actually just be more confusing. But if you were considering working with me, at least you now know something about the things that make me the person that I am.

listening post: ryan adams – so alive

How I got found as a user experience designer

User experience design is a proper job. At least, user experience designer is a proper job title. It’s a job title I’ve given to myself for years and it’s worked for me to describe to others what I do, without necessarily having to describe to others what I do.

Three little words

More importantly, ‘user experience designer’ works as a job title when you want to be found. When I was hawking my freelance self around a couple of years ago, I made a decision on how I wanted to be discovered, and how easy I might facilitate that discovery. That decision was to bet the farm on 3 words – user, experience and designer – hopefully in that order. How I used those 3 words, and where I used them, was an important part of the strategy, but it is the 3 little words themselves that were to describe me to others.

Optimising for search

From the outset, I intended to capitalise on the visibility of those 3 little words and how they might somehow be associated with my own name. I thought at least having my name appear on the chunk of content returned by a search query would be a start. I like to think that the eye-tracking results would show a strong relationship between the user experience designer title and a real name in reasonably close proximity such that it fired some neural connection in the brain of the user that suggests I might be actually the embodiment of a user experience designer and therefore justifiably and majestically hoisted to the top of a mental list that someone is keeping.

There were a number of places I wanted that to happen:

  • My personal sites
  • CV/resume hosting sites
  • Recruitment sites
  • Job sites
  • Related sites (job title on flickr, linkedin, facebook)

Some of the searches I imagined were public searches, via google, bing, altavista, lycos, grep –r ‘user experience designer’ /theinternet, or something, for which I optimised on page titles, prominent usage in content blocks, page data, and so on. No black arts there. Others were more specialised, internal searches, such as cv/resume scans on recruitment databases, or paid-for searches on job sites. In these cases, I made assumptions about the data that was being interrogated, often based on the forms that collected the data, and tried to optimise based on that. For instance, I knew that no real person would actually read my uploaded resume until it passed at least round one of the keyword scanrobot, so if you’re not being specific about your job title, job categories and experience, then you stand less chance of rising to the surface, like Keanu Reeves does, when he’s dropped out of that slimepod into the machinespittle and chooses to breathe. I mean, a bit like that.

It takes a little patience to consistently optimise across multiple sites, with different search methods and black-box operational models, but the most important thing, as far as I was concerned, was to retain the focus on those 3 little words.

Maximising metadata

On its own, however, optimising for search using ‘user experience designer’ alone, was not enough. It got me closer to being discovered and considered, but I also needed something more unique that I could associate with the job title, that would filter the outputs to make them more about me.

Knowing that being found by virtue of someone looking at my own web site would be nice, but unlikely, I targeted those other sites that held my data, such as cv/resume sites and recruitment sites and picked a set of 3 attributes that I would bet my other farm on. Since these sites are largely form-based in their data-collection, and have reasonable overlap in their data sets, it is easy to pick the attributes you want to focus on and map that to the metadata they support.

The 3 attributes I picked were:

  • Location
  • Type (Freelance/Permanent)
  • Rate

It’s here that I had a special case, which was really the determining factor in being found. If I were wanting to stand out from a crowd of user experience designers, who had all optimised for search, and, for example, all lived in London, I’d be faced with a bit of a challenge. A user experience designer in London is like a bicycle in Beijing, right? They’re all over the place. Saying you’re in London doesn’t make you stand out at all.

Location, location, location, location

But what about if you’re in, say, Norwich? I mean, a user experience designer in Norwich is like a, well, I can’t think a good analogy for there not being many of them, suffice to say, there wasn’t. Which was to my advantage. Type and rate were pretty simple to define, more a case of setting a level of expectation and screening out derisory and pointless offers. Location, however, was my unique selling point. Except it wasn’t a selling point at all. When I moved out to Norwich about 8 years ago, with the support of a previous employer, I knew I’d put myself out on a limb. What I did (user experience design), just wasn’t done in Norwich, so, should I no longer work for that employer, I would have been pretty stuck. One day, I was no longer working for that employer, which is where this story begins.

Nevertheless, Norwich was where I was, Norwich was where I wanted to stay, and so Norwich was the location I added to my data set. And I stuck to it. Which is the point – pick your data, optimise, and stick to it, because if that’s what really defines you, that’s how you’ll want people to find you.

Results

What I’d really narrowed myself down to was:

Keywords:

  • User
  • Experience
  • Designer

Attributes:

  • Location:Norwich
  • Type:Freelance or Permament
  • Rate:£ A number larger than the last number I thought of

What I got out of it was emails and calls from recruiters and robots that were slightly biased in favour of user experience design, and more or less centred on ‘the south east’ (including London), but, since I also included a number of other attributes as part of any upload, application or registration process, I also got a large number of administrator, programmer, database, design and other jobs as well. I got lots. Which was nice, but things weren’t really narrowed down to the degree that I had hoped for. Still, I hadn’t expected to get a perfect match, since, well, there wasn’t one.

What I had bet both my farms on was that one day, there would be a job, and its title would be User Experience Designer, and its location would be Norwich. When that job came up, if anybody was looking for a candidate, I would be the top of their search list. And that search list would have one name on it. And that name would be mine.

I had to wait a while. I had to do freelance work in London for a while. I had to travel 3 hours, each way, every day, for a while. But one day I got a call from a recruiter. I got lots of calls from recruiters, but this one sounded interesting. They had a user experience designer role. Duh. It was in Norwich. I’m listening. It’s permanent. It meets my criteria. Am I interested?

Have a plan

That call was for the job I’m currently in at Foolproof in Norwich. This job is the only job I want to do in Norwich. It’s a perfect job. And, because I was so busy travelling and sleeping and working, I hadn’t even noticed when they’d put the job posting out. I’d pretty much resigned myself to a London commute, and was actually considering an offer of a permanent user experience role based in Hammersmith. Which would have killed me.

But my bet paid off. When the recruiter searched for ‘user experience designer norwich’, I was indeed top of the list. There are others in the list now, as indeed there are other jobs that have appeared in the last year, but when I really needed it most, my plan was good. Have a plan, people, and stick to it.

agile user experience design

if you’re subscribed to about 27 job searches like I am and are very specific about the nature of your search parameters, say, ooh, I don’t know, ‘user experience Norwich 100+ miles’, even though you end up with a list of java developers and IT managers in Stevenage, then you’ve undoubtedly seen a proliferation of job specifications that on the surface look like exactly the kind of thing that matches your skillset and you’re just about ready to call up that recruitment consultant who likes using capital letters and concatenations of job titles repeated every other word throughout the advert, when you see, near the end of the page, the ‘Agile’ word. as in, ‘must have experience of working in an Agile environment’. or ‘Agile experience required’. or ‘we follow an Agile development methodology’. or ‘Agile Agile Agile Agile Agile Agile‘. or something like that.

this is fair enough. I applaud the adoption of a structured methodology to support a development process since I know just what a creepy mess it can be to not follow any method at all. and Agile looks like its a reasonable software development practice. it means you do things quite quickly. I can do that. I can do things quite slowly too, but if there’s a team dynamic and a project management style that encourages rapid development and lots of meetings where you stand around each other’s desks pointing at widgets and occasionally breaking out to the whiteboard that doesn’t have any pens, then that’s fine. but just because you do that, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily following an ‘Agile’ methodology. I mean, its ‘agile’, as in, you’re able to make decisions, act upon them, and reset the project outputs with expediency, but, you know, it might not be necessary to attach a label to it and market it externally as that. you don’t have to have a capital ‘A’. because as soon as you do, you’ve changed the job description entirely.

the role I’m in now is pretty agile. working for clients in the city on software development projects that require daily collaborative sessions on user journey development and wireframe builds necessitates a rapid, robust style of user experience design. I’ve had the luxury, in previous roles, of having lead time for development and intervals of checkpoints measured in weeks, when in reality, a couple of days was probably more sensible. for this project, however, there is a definite urgency, not least driven by expenditure, that requires that the user experience design iterations are compressed into daily outputs and reviews. I can’t say that I prefer working one way or the other, although the day-by-day cycle definitely drives increased output and, as yet, doesn’t appear to impact either the focus on the user or the quality of the output (he says, doing that breathing on his fingernails and polishing them on his chest thing).

so why am I bothered about what somebody calls their particular working environment, when it really doesn’t matter, since it doesn’t effect the ability to deliver engaging, meaningful user experiences? because that word is a barrier to employment. that’s why.

barrier 1: ‘I don’t see that you’ve got enough Agile experience’. this applies when you sit with a development team as part of over 3 hours of face-to-face interviews for a user experience role at a software house in a corner of a business park somewhere between an A-road and another A-road, and are told they work in an ‘Agile’ environment, whereby they do all those things I’ve just mentioned with each other’s desks and whiteboards with dry pens. in this case, no amount of discussion on my part about working to suit the environment and being fine with daily scrum meetings and managing sprints and workstreams and swimlanes or whatever, manages to persuade them that I can work in an ‘Agile’ environment. because I can only demonstrate that I could work in an ‘agile’ environment. I can’t actually check the box, that I probably designed in the first place, that says ‘Agile (make sure its a capital)’. or they just didn’t like me. which is equally likely.

barrier 2: ‘I don’t see that you’ve got enough Agile experience’. fair play that if after half a day of talking to real people in a stuffy conference room about a role that they then use the ‘Agile’ thing to let me down. at least I had an opportunity to demonstrate that I was the right candidate. at least I was across the threshold. at least it was a team of people who at least have their own understanding of what ‘Agile’ means. this is just a mild annoyance. in contrast, what really gets my goat, even though I don’t have one, is the creeping proliferation of ‘Agile’ as a keyword in job descriptions posted via recruitment partners on behalf of clients. this nastiness is much worse, because it actively excludes potential candidates before they even have the chance to demonstrate their worth. it is the doubled-edged sword of internet recruitment whereby I might maximise my presence in searches or on recruitment portals by ensuring that ‘user experience’ or ‘information architecture’ or ‘UX’ or ‘IA’ is a key attribute such that searches will find me. and that’s pretty successful. mind you, you can probably find me if you search for ‘Norwich’ and ‘idiot’ or something, but that’s a different user altogether. the downside of optimisation in this case is that I don’t use the ‘Agile’ keyword to enable a higher ranking. that’s to say, when those machine-driven CV scrapers are trawling for candidates based on a job description with ‘User Experience’ in the title and with ‘Agile’ as a keyword requirement, I’m probably not on the list. unless its for a job in Norwich. which it never will be. why not just add ‘Agile’ to my CV? because, in fact, and to the point, I can’t honestly say I’ve worked anywhere that has used the ‘Agile’ word, despite the fact they might be ‘agile’, so I don’t use the word. It would be a lie.

barrier 3: ‘I don’t see that you’ve got enough Agile experience’. slightly more galling than not even getting onto a shortlist is getting onto a shortlist managed by an agent acting on your behalf who understands what ‘Agile’ is marginally less than they understand what’ User Experience’ is. I have to say, I have come across some excellent recruiters at some excellent agencies, and they really understand the marketplace and the applicability of roles to my experience. but they don’t manage all the client relationships. there are numerous black holes I’ve been down whereby the only application route is online to an agency I’ve never heard of to a client I don’t know, based on a job description I quite like the look of (which, coincidentally, pays going rate). after falling through the silent vacuum for a few days, not really getting any indication of application status, I might endeavour to find out what’s going on. if I’m lucky, the application process will have yielded a phone number for the recruiter which means I can actually follow it up. if I’m unlucky, I’ll contact them and they’ll say ‘yeah, I saw your CV, but I don’t see that you’ve got enough Agile experience, and they said they were looking for that, so I didn’t feel I could put you forward’, or ‘yeah, I saw your CV, and they liked the look of you, but they didn’t see you had enough Agile experience, so they didn’t select you for interview’, or ‘Tim Caynes? What job was that? User Information what?’ . its the human interpretation barrier that is the worst. I’m reliant on a third party communicating to a forth party about my personal experience and applicability when they have to negotiate around a keyword that neither they understand or I believe should be a gating factor. or they just didn’t like me. which is equally likely.

as Rob said the other day ‘Agile? That’s just working quickly, right?’ I can do that. Do I need to pass an exam or something?


listening post: the who – 5:15