The Maturity Gap May 18, 2009Posted by dantemurphy in building a team.
It’s been a long time since I was entry level. In fact, one could argue that I never was–by the time I knew that there was such a thing as Information Architecture, I’d already been doing it for years. My path into the realm of User Experience professionals is not uncommon; a miscast developer with an empathetic heart and an appreciation for the often intangible things that make an experience delightful, I was a designer waiting to happen. And with nobody else at my company interested in or empowered to effect the behavioral design of our software and websites, all I had to do was lay claim to the title and it was mine.
Times are different now. Businesses have begun to embrace, even covet design, and UX consultancies are thriving even in dire economic times. At the recent Interaction ’09 conference, Jared Spool led a panel discussion on this change and the potential scarcity of interaction designers and other qualified user experience professionals it would expose. A link to the complete panel is included below.
The panelists each described the type of designer they were looking for, both in terms of skill and sensibility. And while I agreed that the designers they described sounded great, I was dismayed by two things that I didn’t see evidence of; entry level hires, and a plan to develop those people into the superstars everyone wants on their team.
Of course, it’s relatively easy, when you work for frog design or IDEO or Adaptive Path (and others) to demand only top-tier talent and turn away those with incomplete credentials, unpolished portfolios, and imperfect instincts about design. But when you’re the hiring manager at an agency without marquee recognition, or at a company looking to build or expand an internal design team, you can’t just roll out the red carpet and wait for the Josh Porter’s to come strolling up.
My question to the panel was this: what level of incompleteness are you willing to accept in a new hire, in order to turn that rookie into an all-star. Skip ahead to the 53:00 mark of the panel and you’ll see why I walked away feeling that the panelists either couldn’t or didn’t want to answer that question. (In their defense, as I mentioned earlier, they don’t have to think about this situation…yet.)
Like most people who ask a question at a conference of their peers, I had my own answer in hand and wanted to see how my thoughts compared to the thought leaders in my field. And since they didn’t really answer the question, and it would have been presumptuous for me to answer it then and there, I’m going to answer it now.
At the individual level, the only criteria I demand of every person I hire are passion and intellect. Experience is nice, and a mix of experience is absolutely necessary at the team level, but I would much rather hire a recent grad who has Louis Rosenfeld’s “polar bear book” on her summer reading list than the person who read it ten years ago, has been milling out websites ever since, but doesn’t know who Dan Saffer and Jennifer Tidwell and Barbara Ballard are. I know this is true because I’ve done this time and again.
The results have been quite amazing. Smart people who really love their job learn from experienced people at an alarming rate. It’s like spending time with a pre-schooler…they notice everything. And if you encourage their questions and theories, they will learn in two years what it took me ten to figure out because all I had to go on was instinct and trial-and-error. (Mostly error.)
The key is to critique them and evaluate them on the quality of their process and ideas, remembering that it is equally important to recognize the achievements and the opportunities for improvement. If the process and thinking are sound, even if they are not favored by your client, it is usually easy to quickly change course based upon your existing research by tracing back to a single “coin-toss” or judgment call.
Inexperienced designers do have one consistent shortcoming; the polish and aesthetic quality of their deliverables is often below par, simply because they are not as familiar with the tools and they haven’t had the repetitions. Avoid the temptation to take over and beautify the prototype yourself (unless it’s mission critical); instead, work with your rising star patiently to continually improve and refine their documents and presentations. Soon you will see that their fresh perspective extends beyond the product and into the process, influencing the way documents are drafted and presented or even the way in which problems are addressed.
Of course, while there are certainly more smart and eager entry-level candidates out there than there are Christina Wodtke’s, they still are a valuable commodity that you need to thoughtfully attract and retain. Offer mentorship, access to training and professional conferences, and ensure them that they will work on meaningful projects and have client contact within their first 6 months. Promise them the opportunity to experiment and learn by doing, but assure them that you will pay close enough attention to their work that they will be insulated from catastrophic failure. Abolish the caste system at your workplace and give them the same tools that the senior designers have, especially if they are doing essentially the same work.
And above all else, map out a career path for them (and everyone in your organization, including yourself). Make it clear that you want them to succeed and move ahead, that “a rising tide raises all boats” and that they will be recognized for their contributions. Demonstrate that they have options to move to other departments or to define their own role, and make it clear that your vision for the department or agency is flexible and always evolving.
So why am I sharing my treasure map to the goldmine of untapped talent? Because the integrity of our practice demands it. As we continue to develop newer generations of Bill Moggridge’s and Bill Buxton’s, we’ll all benefit from the re-allocation of dollars from marketing to design, And then, instead of the estimated 10,000 new designers Jared Spool postulated, we’ll need a million.
And I can’t make that many by myself.