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The Maturity Gap May 18, 2009

Posted 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.

Jared Spool’s panel at Ix09

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.


1. Tina Bejian-Binnion - May 18, 2009

Wonderful first post, Dante! (were you a farmer in a former life?) Very nurturing and thoughtful approach to cultivating an all star team and strengthening our influence and value. …Glad to be a beneficiary 😉

2. Barbara Ballard - May 18, 2009

We’ve a similar issue, due to a combination of geography and the nature of our work. We need to (as an organization) have deep mobile and UX expertise, and we aren’t paying Big City prices. So we go look for people who want something else in life (like life), people who tend to stay with a job. It really does take about two years to go from web designer to the level of expertise we provide our clients.

We leverage this by having a high senior to junior ratio, like more than 1:1. The juniors get mentored, a lot.

My major issues to look into for junior designers? Curiosity. Go-get-it-ness. Attention to detail. Systems thinking. I can teach design thinking if necessary. I can find plenty of people who can create graphics; that can be outsourced.

3. Dave - May 20, 2009

“the polish and aesthetic quality of their deliverables is often below par,”

Really? This is the biggest problem you see? I would say the bigger problem is XD practitioners who focus on the polish and aesthetics of their design at the cost of a few more iterations or a couple more days exploring the design space.

4. Amy S. - May 20, 2009

You make some excellent points in this post, Dante, and it’s refreshing to read this perspective. I suspect that many UX professionals got where they are because someone along the way helped encourage them to grow and learn–I know I did–and that encouragement should be passed on to bright, passionate people seeking to enter the field.

I look forward to reading more of your posts!

5. Rob Enslin - May 20, 2009

Hi Dante,

I loved your post – it certainly struck a chord with me. Not knowing the IxD industry well enough I can’t argue where the biggest challenges lie, but with most ‘new’ professional fields I strongly agree that passion and intelligence is key to stardom (raw talent with passion is a bonus). On the flip side I’m not sure agencies are willing to take chances with ‘unknowns’ especially with the ominous economic gloom ever present.

I still think, however, that if an individual has the right amount of passion and drive, stakeholders won’t be able to hold them back.

6. Rebecca D - May 20, 2009

There wasn’t a better motivator for me than learning from someone who not only knows what they’re doing, but feels passionate about why they do it. (thanks, Dante) I hope many more newbies like me can benefit from teachers willing to share their knowledge and passion. It turns a job more into a craft.

Keep up the good blogging!

7. Soo - May 20, 2009

Thank for this post, Dante. I just learnt some things that I’ve been doing wrong with my team. Keep up the blogging!

8. Chick Foxgrover - May 20, 2009

Great stuff, Dante. Very much looking forward to your further musings. I think “maturity” is the right word for your insights, and it’s refreshing.

9. Vicky - May 20, 2009

“the polish and aesthetic quality of their deliverables is often below par,”
From the other side of the fence (i.e. as said rookie), I’d say we’re painfully aware of this. What it also is is that our speed is below par – if we had more time, the finish would be there, as it is, we’re just trying to knock it out and stay on target!

dantemurphy - May 21, 2009

Honestly, that’s one of the really refreshing things about “rookies”…most of them are very aware of areas they need to improve and are willing to take the steps to do it. And the ones who aren’t are easy to spot. That’s one of the reasons I really enjoy working very closely with a new hire (regardless of experience level, but especially with those who have more potential than experience). It gives me the opportunity to provide a “boost” when the timeline is starting to bear down, but I try to let the final product be the creation of the originating author…even if I would have done it differently. As long as it’s good, I’ll stand by it.

Thanks for your perspective…and best of luck in UX!

10. Jared M. Spool - May 21, 2009

I too was a little disappointed that the panelists dodged the question. I would’ve liked them to talk to the issue of mentorship/apprentiship.

I’d like to see more discussion of how we want to mentor the up & coming talent. I think, as a field, it makes sense to develop an overall strategy, including talking about how we want to provide mentorship to potential mentors.

If we’re going to meet the demands, we really need to think about scaling up as quickly as possible.

11. Russ - May 21, 2009

Way to articulate this… reads very familiar to how I approach hiring and cultivating talent. Well put, sir.

12. Jason Robb - May 21, 2009

Wow, great first post!

As an upcoming UX/IXD professional, it’s good to hear these are the important things you’re looking for.

Thanks so much for starting this blog. Can’t wait to follow your thoughts on the interwebs.


Jason R.

13. Greg Imhoff - May 21, 2009

I started in the business before there was a pool of experienced UX people from which I could hire talent. So I was forced to transition folks trained in related fields into a UX context. I very much agree with the statement: “The key is to critique them and evaluate them on the quality of their process and ideas …”

To this day I still look for evidence of solid problem solving skills in a portfolio. And perhaps because of my beginnings I am more likley to try to find these key skills in people not necessarily carrying the new credentials of the profession. In talking with a person about how they came to a certain solution you often uncover their passion.

14. Mohammed Mudassir Azeemi - May 21, 2009

Very superb post. I myself consider the Entry Level UX Dude.

I started my UX Studies by doing the following:

1- The UI Does Matter, my blog that was the response of frustration in iPhone apps UI.
2- Got my article published in the iPhone Life Magazine April 2009 issue
3- At the same time I was reading Web Forms by Luke W.
4- Got the Jennifer Tidwell book Designing Interface, but felt that I am missing something so I start reading Jesse James Garrett’s The Elements of User Experience.
5- Asked for some experts help about the sample documents mentioned in the book. So far no exact response. Instead got more books, question asked at IxDA forum
6- just started writing my own write-ups according to JJG’s book
7- oh I do attended Edward Tufte seminar in San Jose, year ago.

I do request from the Expert Experience Designer that please be the powerful mentor for the jr who are on the forum and at work. As Dante said it that the are like preschoolers. So they have too many queries which to expert may sound odd or funny. But please let us be like curious toddlers until we grow up.

Thanks again Dante! By the way I m working as a Software Architect in San Francisco, applying UX stuff at work and on my personnel projects after work.

Take Care

Mudassir Azeemi

15. Jacqueline Caddle - May 21, 2009

This is an encouraging post. I’m new to the IA/UX field, striving to make the shift from library science (with Polar Bear book in hand.) It’s been nearly impossible to add anythng substantial to my resume/portfolio or gain the experience necessary to compete for the jobs I see posted every day. I’m willing to learn, but no one is willing to teach.

dantemurphy - May 21, 2009

Well, the good news is that there are a couple of other hiring managers who’ve said “amen” so far, and hopefully there will be more. Feel free to let your current boss have a look…do it tactfully, of course, but let her know that she’s squandering a valuable resource if she doesn’t nurture your desire to be more than you currently are.
And if that doesn’t work, see who on this post is hiring! (Sadly, I am not…)

16. Mohammed Mudassir Azeemi - May 21, 2009

Hello Jacqueline,

I am also new in this field, and working on my personal project on that line. Would you like to join me and my project?

We can keep that project open source and share our learning?

I am in San Francisco Bay Area, where you from?

17. Jacqueline Caddle - May 22, 2009

Hello Mohammed,

I’m in Philadelphia, but if an online collaboration is possible I’m certainly interested. Here’s my website – http://www.mortvia.com

18. Elizabeth Bacon - May 25, 2009

Hi Dante,

Nice post, thanks for the opportunity to talk more about the panel! I only caught up with it myself via http://library.ixda.org last week–it was the only non-lightning session that I missed at the event!

I think your focus on employee development is spot on. When I was in a position to hire a team at a large organization, I cared much more about raw intelligence, taste, and passion than I did relevant work experience, much less software skills. I also used a variant of Cooper’s hands-on whiteboard exercise during the interview process to test people’s ability to think on their feet and communicate. One hire who didn’t work out well (whom I actually had dinged but then was over-ruled by my boss) turned out to lack an ability to critique herself and accept constructive feedback. That trait has since become a principal point for those I mentor. A lack of ego, and ability to collaborate whole-heartedly, is crucial in the practice of IxD.


19. Johnny Holland - It’s all about interaction » Blog Archive » Book review: A Project Guide to UX Design - June 10, 2009

[…] sloppy mistakes in wireframes. However, this attention to detail could well be justified, given a point made by UX designer Dante Murphy that inexperienced designers often suffer from “below par […]

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