Getting Hired

Written by: Olga Sanchez-Howard

During a heated discussion on the difference between an Information Architect (IA) and an Interaction Designer (IxD), I suggested that what we do is more important than what we call ourselves. The response was that a label is an alias that carries a set of meanings. Yes, but what happens when there are two aliases that are very closely aligned? We can choose the alias we feel fits us best, but what do employers think?

As the User Experience Network (UXnet) local ambassador for the D.C. Metro area, one of my responsibilities is supporting local UX-related groups. Austin Govella, an IA colleague, thought UXnet should help get some answers to the question of what matters to employers, so we began to work on an event to gather professionals and employers to help us figure this out.

The ensuing event, titled IA Round-up, was a discussion panel and workshop where IAs, IxDs, usability professionals, and their employers came together to discuss what employers care about and what the perfect resume should look like.

The panel included three individuals representing three different types of employers: the agency, the corporation, and the small business. On the agency side, Dan Brown, principal of EightShapes, gave us a clear understanding of the agency perspective. On the corporate side, Livia Labate, senior manager of information architecture and usability at Comcast, outlined the best strategy to get a job with a large corporation. On the small business side, Michele Marut, human factors specialist at Respironics, Inc., described what she looks for. And I, Olga Howard, MC’d the event.

At the IA Round-up we found two reasons why employees and their potential employers may not find the right match:

  1. The terms used by professionals and employers sometimes mean different things.
  2. Resumes and portfolios may not sufficiently explain the work involved, or there may not be enough samples of work–wireframes, taxonomies, etc.

What Employers Care About

Employers have very specific needs and won’t spend much time trying to figure out the difference between an IA and an IxD. They just want their position filled. So while IAs and IxDs are having heated debates, employers pay attention to our resumes – that’s where semantics matter. The following key areas show how we can improve our resumes.

Paint a picture with your documentation:
Accurately describing documentation is difficult, if not impossible. It’s simpler just to show the documents themselves–they tell the story of where we started, where we ended, and how we got there. Unfortunately, we live in a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) world that usually prevents us from showing our documentation. Regardless, according to our panelists, they’d rather see a highly censored document than no document at all.

Include only what employers ask for:
This is a tricky one. Most resumes tend to include what employers ask for, but some of us add other qualifications because we’re concerned the employer won’t see the breadth of our experience.

Present a sense of purpose:
This is the number one issue we heard from our panelists. When we put everything on the resume, the perspective on what’s important is lost.

Include a job history:
Every employer wants to know what jobs we’ve had, what we’ve accomplished, and how we accomplished it. Employers are also looking for employment gaps: if there are any, say why.

Be truthful and promote yourself:
A truthful resume is not the same thing as a factual resume. When we are part of a team we should say which areas of the project we were responsible for.

Create a straightforward resume:
Personality should not be part of the resume. Instead, focus on factual information. If our experience describes the kind of skills and knowledge the employer is looking for, they will want to see examples of our work—our portfolios.

Have a portfolio online:
Although we are bound by NDA rules, we can censor as much as necessary. As our panelists said, they’d rather see a highly censored document than no document at all.

Formalize your UX portfolio:
Lack of formality in presenting a portfolio is like a photographer showing you her photographs in a pile rather than neatly stored, each in a plastic sheet, ready for easy viewing.

What employers are looking for in portfolios is HOW we like to do our work. This is really where your personality shows.

  • Are you attentive to detail?
  • Do you communicate clearly?
  • Do you spend time only on the important aspects of the job?

Unfortunately, the portfolio is where most of us lack clarity. In your portfolio, you should include scans of sketches, drawings, and anything else you use to do your job.

Some people include odes to their heroes, and that’s ok in the portfolio. It speaks to their work and values.

Changing Careers

UX is so new that universities have just begun to offer degree programs. Although many of us actually started in another line of work, there are established communities of practice that new UX professionals should turn to, get involved in, and learn from.

Transferable skills:
A number of skills from other fields transfer to IA, but the only clear way to understand what these skills are is to read about IA, IxD, and usability and start volunteering to do projects. The IA Institute offers a mentorship program, and UXnet is always looking for volunteers.

Once you begin working in the field, you’ll know what strengths you can present to employers. Being new sometimes makes it difficult to have an opinion about the UX conversation going on, but you have a unique perspective and that’s what matters, so have an opinion.

The question of age:
What a nervous experience it must be to be older than your UX peers and compete for the same job. If you are this person, you have years of experience behind you. You have strengths younger UXers probably don’t have, so pay close attention to the job description and play to your strengths. One example is the person who has been a manager for many years. This person can play to their managerial strengths and speak to supporting the UX team in UX work. Employers are usually willing to build roles around your strengths.

One issue raised is that some older people are set in their ways. That is to say, set in the ways and processes that were in place during their tenure. These days, things change so fast that it’s hard to keep up with new thoughts and ideas, so older folks looking to work in UX need to be extremely flexible and adaptable to different processes and cultures.

Two questions you can ask yourself before moving to UX are:

  1. Why are you interested?
  2. Given that culture is a large aspect of work, will you add to the culture?

Next Steps

How much are you worth?
Find out how much other UX professionals are getting paid. This will give you a good idea of what salary you should ask for. The IA Institute Salary Survey and the Aquent Survey of Design Salaries will be helpful.

Where can you find job listings?
You can find great job listings on several websites including here in the Boxes and Arrows jobs section, the IA Institute job board, and the IxDA jobs section.

How can you get help with your resume?
If you need more help, the IA Institute’s mentoring program is a good place to start. Even if you don’t find a mentor in your area, you’ll find very friendly IAI members who will help you out. You can also contact your UXnet Local Ambassador and host your own IA Round-up. This will help give you context as to what local UX employers are looking for.

For formatting direction also try using Livia’s resume template below.

First Last
123 Name St, City, ST

(000) 000-0000 | first.last@firstlast.com | http://firstlast.com/portfolio

High-Level Summary/Goals as an IA: where you see yourself as an IA, what you like to do

Month YY to Month YY: My Title, Company Name, Location
– Two or three sentences describing responsibilities go here.
– Your favorite, proudest accomplishment goes here
– Your second greatest accomplishment goes here
– Your third relevant accomplishment goes here

(Repeat for as many relevant jobs as you want to show.)

Degree Title, YYY, Institution Degree Title, YYY, Institution

You can find Livia’s direction and template at Livlab.com.

Designing for Nonprofits

Written by: Olga Sanchez-Howard

We all find ourselves looking in the mirror at one time or another and asking ourselves if we’re doing all we can for the good of society. What’s it all for?

Those of us in the user experience (UX) profession can actually do something about it. As information architects, interaction designers, usability consultants, and developers, we don’t have to change our careers to do something good for society. All we have to do is connect with the right nonprofit: One that shares our goals and whose mission we support.

Once I asked myself that question, I decided to take a sabbatical from the commercial field and devote my time entirely to nonprofit entities. During my two-year nonprofit experience, I found that there are some differences in working with nonprofit organizations that can be monumental challenges.

The most important difference between nonprofits and commercial or government entities is how they do business. This trickles down to every aspect of working with nonprofits and will ultimately affect anyone’s decisions to work or not work with them. The following are some of the challenges I faced in my two-year commitment to only work with nonprofits.

Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are Creatively Divided

A non-profit’s cash reality—the uncertainty of income—is one perspective not shared by government or commercial entities, at least not to the same degree.

Nonprofits depend on their income from government grants or the public-at-large, so an inconsistent cash flow might make them want to scrimp and save. For this reason, many nonprofits tend to break a project into its parts and bid out the work to a variety of companies in an attempt to obtain the most inexpensive solution.

The bidding situations I’ve encountered in this fragmented approach have divided the project into the following parts.

a) Marketing/Campaign management: Most of the time, this is the highest priority and the conversation revolves around how to get donors, volunteers, or activists. Naturally, the conversation then moves to the campaign tool.

b) Design: As of late, nonprofit organizations have begun to pay close attention to the user experience and are actively sending their employees to information architecture, interaction design, and usability conferences. This is a big step in the right direction. If anyone needs UX work, it’s nonprofits since their mission relies on the public’s money, volunteer efforts, and activism. In this case, the user truly is king.

c) Technology: Is it a content management system (CMS) or a campaign management tool? I’ve done a ton of research on this and found no good answer. Large nonprofits almost always buy big CMS tools that they don’t need, many times as a result of politics but also under a false impression of perceived value. I’ve been surprised that, given the option to chose a smaller more effective tool, most nonprofits chose to go with the big CMS because they think they’ll need those extra features in the future. But that future rarely comes because the site design and—most of the time—the back-end change about every five years.

d) Implementation: This generally goes to the company that wins the technology part of the project, unless it’s Sharepoint or something that comes from a large corporation. In this scenario, there may be an intermediate company that does implementation, or the project managing or design vendor will have a group of developers who can implement.

e) Maintenance: This will most likely fall to the internal development team because the organization is looking to spend little money.

So, although in a commercial project I may win the entire project, with a nonprofit I would most likely be one of three or four partners in the project. If that isn’t enough of a challenge, I found that in many nonprofits, stakeholders differ greatly depending on the stakeholder’s position and department.

Stakeholder Expectations May Differ From One Person to the Next

Unlike most commercial projects, where I usually work closely with the marketing team, in nonprofits I worked with all the directors of the entire organization…and the expectations from each stakeholder are entirely unique.

I once found myself in a room with stakeholders who requested very different information. One stakeholder requested a chart of “quantified” user statistics from their current site; another requested “qualified” data. Yet a third wanted to see none of that…”too much information for me.” Managing those kind of expectations can be challenging.

A worst-case-scenario was when I was working on the Big Brothers Big Sisters design and I found myself in a conference room with the directors and CEOs of the federation’s organizations throughout the country. My challenge was to get all the stakeholders on the same page and comfortable enough to allow a handful of the federation agencies to represent the entire country. With my microphone clipped, a projector, and an amazing presentation assistant, I was able to walk them through design elements as they asked questions. By the end of the conference, I had met my challenge with seven agencies representing the entire country.

Focus on the Mission Can Leave Details Dangling

Nonprofits have a mission which is 100 times more amplified than a commercial entity selling products. A nonprofit, by its definition, IS its mission. Without the mission, the organization doesn’t exist. So, while the commercial sector is asking us how they can sell widgets using the web site, the nonprofit is asking how our work is helping the mission.

At first glance I thought this was great; this is what I want commercial companies to do since they’re so often focused on the widget. But it’s not that simple. In order to get buy-in on the big picture, I need consensus on the smaller pieces that make the big picture—usually from a large number of stakeholders. And if the organization is not paying attention to the smaller pieces, getting to the big picture can be difficult.

Creating Emotion in Design

Look and feel is extremely important for nonprofits because emotion is so intertwined with connecting the user to a specific issue or cause. Emotionally compelling creative connects design and the mission. The challenge here is in balancing appropriate design with the emotion necessary to inspire the user to become a volunteer, donate, or call their congressperson.

So how can balance between design, good usability, and emotion be achieved? It all comes down to the designer. The trick is to find designers who can evoke emotion with their design. Having done that, directing good usability and strong design will create the necessary balance to inspire users to act.

One important lesson I’ve learned is that an appropriate design does not translate into a snazzy site with the latest gizmos or the latest in Flash. There are nonprofits who don’t want to look like they’re rolling in money; in fact, their goal is to look like they’re doing their job despite the budget. So, my job is to help them present a lot of information and make the user experience enjoyable. Information architecture professionals are very valuable to nonprofits because we tend to think about how people will find the content rather than how cool the site will look.

Our Work is As Worthwhile as Our Cause

In an ever-changing world, there is one thing that can’t be taken away from us—our conviction. In the past few years, nonprofits have begun to realize that good user experience design is one of the most effective ways they can achieve their goals, and they are beginning to set high standards for their cause. Despite the sometimes peculiar-to-nonprofits challenges, we should help nonprofits step up by adopting a cause and competing for the work—because we know we can do better.