Getting Hired

What Employers Really Want

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.

Posted in Learning From Others, Professionalism, Workplace and Career | 8 Comments »

8 Comments

  • Holger Maassen

    November 28, 2007 at 8:30 am

    Thank you for this article. Right now, … your article was just right to get a clearer view of how the different aspects are put together. It never ceases to amaze me that it is so difficult to do the job we do for our own. ;-)

    This is the report for IAs for Germany … http://www.gc-upa.de/images/pdfs/branchenreport%20usability%2007.pdf
    published by the German Chapter of the Usability Professionals’ Association http://www.gc-upa.de/

    ___ holger

  • Megan Fields

    November 28, 2007 at 6:31 pm

    Agreed, timely article considering the title-talk going on in the UX community. And I’m with you, Olga, that what we do is more important than what we call ourselves. But I’ve also experienced the issues semantics can cause when trying to staff and work together as a team.

    I was wondering if you can speak to the perspectives from individuals representing the different types of employers: the agency, the corporation, and the small business. Did they share similar views on the topic or were there any clear differences?

  • Terry Bleizeffer

    November 30, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    “One issue raised is that some older people are set in their ways.”

    I enjoyed the article, but I admit that line made me chuckle. I’m not sure if I qualify as an older person yet, but I will say that I simply don’t think this is true at all. In fact, in my experience the opposite is true. Experienced employees, even if they don’t have UX backgrounds, tend to be MORE flexible, because they’ve been shaped by experiences that demanded flexibility. It’s new folks who tend to see the world as black and white, right and wrong (like I did when I was new) and get set in their ways. Then the hard reality of time-to-market and limited resources and consistency-vs-innovation rear their ugly heads and they realize that adaptability is a critical professional skill. I think the myth of the intractable old curmudgeon is just that… a myth.

  • Olga Sanchez-Howard

    December 4, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    Thanks for your comments everyone!

    Holger: Thank you for sharing the report for IAs for Germany. It’s important to note that my article was compiled from an event/workshop in Washington D.C. and that there will be differences in each region.

    Megan: Your comment–”I’ve also experienced the issues semantics can cause when trying to staff and work together as a team.”–is important to point out. Given the challenge of following UX labels from one year to the next, it’s important for the UX team to define and be clear about the responsibilities for each role within their team. Also, to your question on whether the individuals representing the different types of employers share similar views on the topic. It’s interesting that in the context of the event/workshop none of the employers were interested in the words we use to describe ourselves. They were more interested in understanding your story–what you do, what you like, how you might fit into the UX team culture. The difference in views came from a direct connection with the type of clients, responsibilities, and leadership roles the employers were looking to hire for.

    Terry: Qualifying as “older person” is contextual to the UX team you’re looking to work with. For example, if I’m fifty and looking to work with recent college graduates who tend to be in their early to mid twenties, they might think of me as an older person. You make a good point about my statement that “some older people are set in their ways”. I was pointing out an issue that came up in the event/workshop as a journalist might. And your right, it could be as simple as a myth.

    Mary: Thanks for sharing! The recommended resume format in the article might be helpful in telling your story. In your high-level summary–where you see yourself as a UX professional, what you like to do–you might focus on your abilities as an individual contributor. Anything that helps potential employers see you for who you are rather than who they think you are will be helpful.

  • Christina Wodtke

    December 6, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    Olga– wonderful article! As a former hiring manager, I could comment on almost every point you made.. but I’ll restrict myself to one.

    *Be truthful*: I cannot tell you how many resumes I’ve seen where consultants take credit for a project their company did and they did nothing or had a peripheral role. If you think that helps you, it doesn’t. What did you actually *do* on this project is always asked, and often the resume holder looks deceitful. It’s not worth it. Worse, sometimes a member of the service or client team is now working at the hiring company, and you are caught out before you even set foot in the place.

    It’s not worth it. You will get busted.

  • Manoj Potdar

    December 13, 2007 at 9:45 am

    Olga!
    One point I really agree is that an employer just want to fill the position with the ‘right’ candidate. And for that they just dive into your resume and your samples. Now, here ‘right’ is a very relative term which may change from employer to employer. Out of all this, we also must answer the question “Are we getting what we want? Or are we just filling up the position for the employer?”

    In that aspect, I think, you missed the aspect of negotiating for your profile.

    Cheers,

    Manoj Potdar

  • James M. Boekbinder

    December 24, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Very good overview, but I disagree on one point, the ‘Create a straightforward resume’ – Personality should not be part…’ This may be true in many cases, but I have had success by doing exactly the opposite. My resume starts with a sub-header : ‘Who is Jim Boekbinder?’ The fact is, facts often don’t add up to the main reason why someone is effective, or why you would want to work with them. And something else: the profile of an effective person often crosses all these categories of disciplines, and a ‘straightforward’, factual account cannot convey their strong points. It’s precisely the ‘people’ aspect of the work that I like, so I’m the guy to send out to work on location and facilitate all kinds of changes. But if I was only to sum up the ‘facts’, then most people would assume I’m some kind of typical creative who sits in his bubble (educated as filmmaker, won x number of prizes, copywriter, etc.) or only works with other creatives. The little personal bit is my way of battling with the stereotypes that go with existing categories.

  • Russ Unger

    January 10, 2008 at 5:44 am

    Thanks for referring me over to the article, Olga. Very useful in swaying me in the approach for my next resume(s).

    While I am not looking forward the deep dive that is re-authoring my resume, the insights in your article (and from others on the IAI list) have really helped me fine tune my focus.

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