How To Recruit, Train, and Retain Skilled UX Designersby@sturzaman
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How To Recruit, Train, and Retain Skilled UX Designers

by Nataly SturzaApril 14th, 2020
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A “ready” UX designer is a rare encounter in the wild. Designers usually do know how to make things pretty, but when it comes to product logic and interactions design, few feel at ease. The inevitable solution is to hire people with a relevant background and upgrade them to real UXers. In this article, I offer tips based on how we educate and coach teams at ANGRY UX, where I'm a co-founder and designer, as well as share our experience and "homework" examples.

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A “ready” UX designer is a rare encounter in the wild. Designers usually do know how to make things pretty – but when it comes to the product logic and interactions design, few feel at ease. The inevitable solution is to hire people with a relevant background and upgrade them to real UXers:  host lectures, give homework, provide practice opportunities.  

In this article, I offer tips based on how we educate and coach teams at ANGRY UX, where I'm a co-founder and designer, as well as share our experience and "homework" examples. I'll also be touching upon the cost and results of this process, and debating who is or isn't worth spending your time on.

This material will be useful to anyone who is looking to build an in-house UX team, retain strong employees and upgrade the overall level of the staff. Here we go!

Skills a UX designer needs

Interface design is different from web design in a sense that you have to think through a multi-step process in detail, keep in mind complex scenarios, negative and alternative states, and take into consideration limitations and business processes of a client. All of the above means that you have to be extremely meticulous and considerate. 

To draw a parallel, web design is like a business card: a person looks at a website and decides in several moments whether he wants to deal with a company, or not. UX design is more like a quest, where you have to take in account every single action and possible mistake, to make sure a user does not get lost and always feels comfortable. 

Here are the skills a UX designer can’t do without:

1. Logical thinking and analytical mind

Lack of logic makes it hard for a designer to think through every step of a user. To evaluate these skills during an interview, we pay attention to how a candidate structures the story about his/her experience and analyzes the test task. Sometimes, the way cases are structured in a portfolio can tell you a lot. 

Hint: technical education comes as a strong plus.

2. Attention to details

Once, a super nice guy came to an interview: all tattooed, with dreadlocks and relevant background. We were charmed. He proudly showed us a presentation for a well-known bank from his portfolio, and bam – it was full of little mistakes: typography, spelling, layout. Such negligence consumes time of more experienced team members, as they have to take over the editing role. 

Creating services is like an embroidery with multiple little things; that’s why we prefer scrupulous candidates.

Hint: this leads to a gender inequality problem in UX. From our experience, girls typically do accurate work better. Boys show more efficiency in creative design concepts.

3. An eye for proportion and aesthetics

This skill is hard and lengthy to master, but absolutely inevitable for UX design. You can see it pretty well in a portfolio.

Hint: background in professional photography or art comes as a huge plus.

4. Knowledge of coloristics is also well appreciated. If we see in a portfolio that colors don’t match – it’s the sign that we will have a hard time together. 

5. UX writing

Most interviewees sincerely answer “no” when we ask whether they understand how to write texts for interfaces. This is a must in the education program. 

6. Empathy

A good UX designer cares about user’s needs and tries to walk in his shoes. 

Hint: pay attention to how a candidate analyzes interfaces and talks about the task during the interview – does he/she speak about a user or about him/herself?

7. Tolerance to criticism

When you work in design, sometimes you get this moment of “this is bad, this has be redone, here and here”.  We don’t want a person to run out of the office furiously in the middle of a project – a designer has to be resilient to critique and corrections. 

Hint: inexperienced candidates, unfamiliar with waterfalls of comments from clients and colleagues, are usually at risk.

To work in UX, you’ve got to be a nerd in a good sense of this word. Often, experienced professionals are unwilling to condescend and review every pixel. Their concepts might be great, but others are forced to stay alert for small mistakes, and this can be extremely tiring. 

To sum up, a perfect candidate for an upgrade is a designer with 1+ year of experience, neat portfolio and self-discipline – it helps to spot mistakes and grow.

Education system: how to make a UX designer out of a designer

From our experience, a person with a relevant background can upgrade his/her skills in interface design in several months. We have come up with 5 major education blocks for our staff: 1) lectures, 2) checklists, 3) writing UX texts, 4) honing interface design skills, 5) immersion in user experience.

1. Lectures: sharing knowledge with the team 

A convenient way to share experience. Every Thursday night we host short meetings, where more experienced team members give tips on typography, grids and so on, review Behance cases – in other words, share practical matters, experience, give and check homework. 

Once in two weeks we host demos, where project teams show and discuss new cool user features that we have come up with: modernized search, upgraded notifications system. We integrated this format for team members share successful practices and solutions. 

From time to time, we also invite experts from related fields to dispute and host Q&As. There are no “right” ways in design: everyone follows their own path and comes up with their own system, so it’s always fascinating to listen how others work, to get tips and learn from each other’s mistakes.

2. Checklists: synchronizing the team 

In order for the team to work harmoniously and not repeat same minor mistakes, we have compiled checklists in four key areas:

1) Designing UI-states: how to build an info scheme or business process, how to think through all interactions from the first screen to the last SMS message, how to create basic and alternative scenarios, and so on.

2) UX texts: how to write and check interface texts: basic rules, order, aspiration for simplicity. 

3) Typography: line breaks and abbreviations, dangling prepositions, dashes, and other details.

4) Design: working with atomic design kit, components, constraints

Checklists are stored in the Notion app, serving as working material for beginners and teams. These are the basics that you need to know for sure so that the leads don't waste time making minor edits, and everyone can learn and double-check each other.

3. Writing UX texts

Our designers do microcopy themselves, so we have to teach everybody. Reading popular books is not enough: it is one thing to read and study, and another – to apply your knowledge. Thus, we gradually came up with a three-level system of practical tasks:

1 lvl: applying basic rules. 

How to train: write four or five sentences a day. The topic does not matter, e.g. how the day passed, what new things I learned, who pisses me off the most. The main thing is to write regularly and clean the text up with services like Hemingway Editor or Grammarly to see the mistakes and hone the skill.

2 lvl: analyzing texts inside a user scenario.

How to train: fix script bugs from real applications. For example, analyze the process of searching a car on Booking, find errors and design 2-3 screens with UX-text. 

3 lvl: being able to write a couple of paragraphs in a single tone and style, with specificity, transparency and emotion. 

How to train: pick a website/an app and ask the designer to suggest alternative texts,  thinking about the target action and user portrait.

4. Honing interface design skills

When interviewing, we ask candidates to evaluate an interface in order to check their level of design skills and their ability to think analytically. 

Examine what a candidate pays attention to and how they explain their point of view. Do they simply express a personal opinion, e.g. "I think it will be better this way", or provide well-backed arguments.

When teaching, the art director analyzes results with each team member individually. Experience has shown that group sessions are as good as useless: while one actively defends his/her concepts, others remain silent. That's why we discuss homework one-by-one as if we were tutors: we read, listen to arguments, and walk our “students” through theory again and again. 

Everyone gets individual homework. For example, if one constantly ignores typography, he will get the task to find and screenshot typographical errors in major services (Amazon, Asos, Booking, taxi and delivery services – a treasure trove of typographical and textual errors).

5. Immersion in user experience 

Our approach is based on numbers and user needs. We spent 6 years doing UX research in the fintech field, accumulated a large knowledge base, and only then did we start designing. 

Our UX researchers are involved in every stage of product creation: from user portraits to usability testing. For example, for weekly tasks analysis, a researcher collects analytics and insight on a specific process. 

A researcher acts as an advocate for users and defends their interests, based on  experience, numbers and results of a UX-research and usability tests. This is how designers adopt expertise, immerse themselves deeply in a project and make decisions based on data rather than their own insights and perceptions.

In the course of a project, we collect controversial hypotheses to test them in the final usability test. Designers participate in tests, see how users perceive their decisions and thus understand what works and what does not. Sometimes we let them do the usability test themselves and test their own ideas. 

We show results of usability tests to the whole team, discuss conclusions, argue, review most important and critical moments and decide how to tackle problems. This is how the expertise of the whole team grows.

How much time and money does it take? 

Educating employees is expensive, lengthy and not always productive. We pay a lot of attention to newbies and during the first month host weekly sessions to revise the direction, hear and offer feedback. With experienced employees (middle-level and higher), we host meetings once every 1-2 months, and develop individual plans.

Important: self-development is a full responsibility of an employee. If he/she does not do homework and does not schedule meetings, it is a sign that a person is not ready to grow.

Talking about the financial side and hours of the core team, we spend around $7500 USD per month on education. It requires time of the strongest team members – but it’s an investment in the future. Education allows us to grow the speed and quality of projects.

Moral issues: when something goes wrong 

On interviews, everyone was super excited about our education system with regular meetings, homework and lectures. But once the work started (or the trial period was over), half of the people didn’t seem to care anymore and the director had to run around asking “Did you do? Why not?”. Meetings got postponed, progress slowed down. 

Now we understand we simply took on too much: we forced, imposed, managed. At one point, we changed our approach and just stopped pushing. Growth has to be voluntary: those willing to learn end up outperforming those who lack motivation in any case. It’s a great natural selection: the passive guys end up as a dead weight in a strong team and leave. We give resources, set goals, but don’t impose education. 

Some learn with pleasure, but with no effect on work. Game tasks with zero responsibility flow easily, but on a real project a person might get stuck, unable to make a decision. If such a barrier occurs – you need to find the reason and fight it. Sometimes it might be rooted in psychological struggles that can be tackled with a guidance and advice on how to gain experience and recognition from the team, how to get rid of the imposter syndrome, an so on.

To sum it up

Employees are the core resource. They are responsible for the final result, so investing in growth is strategically important. 

It costs time and money. Sometimes it ends up being wasted, but you better invest in education than loose in speed and quality of projects. 

Forcing does not work. Experience shows: those who want to grow, find resources, ask, show, inquire. If there is no motivation – you will most likely waste time. 

Investing in education leads to the growth in the average team level: passive members leave, motivated – upgrade. Each of our team members can take care of any task: both easy and difficult. We don’t have to search for an “easy enough” task for a particular designer. 

Thanks to education, we save time of the strongest and most expensive employees. The core team (middle, senior and lead designers) does not spend time on fixing mistakes anymore and does not carry those who lag behind. 

Education helps to retain staff. You can’t let strong professionals get bored. Alongside the main work, we help them to develop skills according to individual plans that we create together – to stay engaged, to progress and lead the team forward.