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Designing the Hiring Experience for Designers

Written by Atom Groom

Recent predictions have often said that design will begin to infect and influence the entire business. In my personal experience this is not only true but is happening now. It’s time that as designers we also assist in designing better hiring experiences. We can start with our own hiring experience and process.

In November 2016 I was suddenly and unexpectedly let go from a position that I have been working toward for fifteen years. It was unfortunate. The point is that this part of my life journey sent me back into the market again as a designer. This article discusses some of the observations that I experienced and why I think there is great room for improvement in the hiring process of designers or even creatives in general. I suspect that some of these talking points could be used to improve any hiring process.

It’s important to note that I am not only writing this article from the perspective of a candidate but also the hiring manager and person building teams. I’m grateful that I have been able to experience both sides of the hiring experience. It has afforded me a unique perspective on how we can improve.

It is equally important to note that I believe in cultures of transparency and deep collaboration. That is the perspective this article is written from. Because of that you may or may not agree with some of my talking points.


Job Description

Generally speaking most job descriptions that I stumbled upon were pretty well-written. It’s important to make sure that when writing a job description we are selling the position and also being completely transparent at the same time. There is absolutely no reason to hide anything. Either a candidate will figure out what isn’t being disclosed in the interview process and walk away or worse they will get hired and become unhappy at what information was not revealed upfront.

Description

Be sure to include as much information about the company, culture and role as possible. At the end of this article I have created a checklist to help write all the different points that could be included in a job description.

Salary & Benefits

Many job descriptions completely avoided these two very important pieces. If there is a budgeted range for a salary, put it in the job description! If there isn’t a budget, then go find one and put it into the description. Why waste someone’s time having them fill out the application if the budget and the candidate’s expectations don’t match? The worst that I experienced was providing my salary range, landing an interview, and then getting low-balled afterward. Seriously? Did the company think that offering me 40k less than my desired salary would result me accepting that offer? At the end of the day, the point is - let’s not play the salary game. Be transparent, say what you can afford in a range and move forward.

Similarly, benefits can also be a fork in the road. When writing a job description try to list all of the benefits provided. Include items like: healthcare and matching, stock options, etc. If we do not provide this information up front, we risk interviewing and making an offer to someone who will only discover benefits that are not appealing.

In these cases keep in mind we risk wasting the candidates time and giving them a bad memory about the company. We also risk paying several employees wages and time lost attempting to recruit someone that could have been ruled out immediately before they even applied. The hiring process takes a lot of time already, we need to be focused on keeping the process as streamlined as possible via transparency.

Team Collaboration

In many of my past positions as a hiring manager I surprised some of the employees under me by asking them to review and provide feedback on the job description that I created. I think they were mostly surprised because in their past experiences a leader or culture didn’t care about their opinion of how a job description was written or never allowed to have an opinion in the first place.

It’s important to involve your team in reviewing a job description to be sure that it accurately depicts the job and the culture or anything that might have been overlooked. It also creates transparency between the manager and the team. Which in turn creates a positive and energetic feeling that the team is involved and able to influence the shape a team takes. I have even been told that it made employees feel more confident they weren’t being replaced!

If our design teams collaborate and critique daily we should be eager to do the same on the job descriptions for our teams.


The Application

At this point the job description should be vetted and complete. Now it’s time to determine what to require of a job applicant when they decide to apply. If you are the candidate, you have read the entire description and have made the choice to apply.

Most of the applications that I completed were short and sweet. Just how I like them! They include full name, cover letter, resume upload, and social media links. Others included desired salary range and full address. One of the applications even included a place to upload a video about yourself.

The online application is another point where we need to be thoughtful and seek as little information as possible at first. Many of the other applications that I completed included several questions that required hours of my time to write. A few even included a design challenge that would require days to a week of my time. I touch on design challenges a little later in this article.

As a hiring manager we like to ask candidates questions up front to determine if they are a good fit. But, I think this is an area that needs to be rearranged. Once we receive a candidate’s information, resume and portfolio it should be enough to understand if we want to keep the conversation going. If a candidate is a good fit, we should send design thinking questions in the second step, not the first. I believe that design challenges should be approached in the same way. We should not be requiring twenty to forty hours of a candidate’s valuable time unless they are high on the list of people to be hired. That would mean that a design challenge should be next to the last step in the hiring process.

Speaking from the perspective of a hiring manager and a candidate, I believe we should keep the application as simple as possible. Here’s a quick breakdown on what you could include to accomplish this:


Talent Acquisition and Recruiters

In many cases after the applicant submits their info it lands in the hands of some type of talent acquisition or recruiter working internally or even consulting for the company. These are typically the individuals that work with the hiring manager to write the job description and establish who and what they are looking for in the role to be filled.

Initial Application Review

In my search the number one item that was overlooked in the communication chain was the ability to relay thoughtful feedback to a candidate. I’ll get into specific types of feedback further into this article, but in the initial review it is equally important to be transparent and thoughtful when letting an applicant know why or why not their application is being considered.

Most organizations or contractors use a third-party applicant tracking software to manage the workflow for each submission. In other cases basic email is used for communication. In either case it is not difficult to quickly communicate the status of an application with thoughtful messages unique to their submission.

Applicant Tracking Software

It’s important to know your tools. Almost every single one of these tools allows you to enter in specific types of replies to a candidate. It’s literally that easy to create a handful of thoughtful templates. Based off the role, determine why a candidate could be rejected and write messages around that. Similarly, if the candidate is being considered for the next round we can write messages around that too. This solves the problem of having to remember or re-type a message. Most importantly, it provides thoughtful feedback to the candidate!

Emails

In the same way that we can enter preset reply messages into software, we can also save drafts or have documents that allow us to quickly copy and paste responses based on the reason a candidate is being considered or not. Email is a little bit more cumbersome to deal with but it’s better to take the time to do this than to send a vague message.

What might some of these preset messages look like? Well, here are a few ideas:

I know the number one thing that most people will think is “How will I find the time to write these messages?”. Trust me, I understand the amount of time and energy that goes into hiring and interviewing. The point of this is to design a system that is both thoughtful and helpful to the individuals that have expressed interest in working for your company.

We have to get over the days of “tell me why I should hire you” and press further into thoughts of gratitude that people even took the time to apply. We should be honored that people are interested in spending much of their time on earth laboring for our organization. It’s a lot to ask, the least we can do is give a thoughtful reason why we’ve decided to move on with other applicants. Last, once we create these templates they are reusable and interchangeable for multiple positions. It’s just a week or less of work up-front and then small tweaks in the future.

Takeaway

Hiring Manager:

In the same way that we write a job description, take an hour to write out some template replies to candidates that are not a good fit for the position after immediate review. Supply these to the recruiter or talent acquisition person and reinforce the importance that they provide this feedback to each applicant.

Recruiter or Talent Acquisition:

Have a discussion with the hiring manger around these feedback messages. It’s best to have some of your own already that apply to every position to help the process along. If your hiring manager does not know the importance of immediate feedback, help them to understand and assist them in writing the reply messages.


Practice What We Practice

This is the most profound epiphany I experienced during my job search. As designers, we communicate, critique and collaborate every day. Yet we do not practice this at all in our hiring processes with each other.

What it looks like:

Building a design team is hard work. Finding the right candidate is a two-way street. It’s not fair to put out a job description listing all of your team’s expectations without allowing the candidate to have a transparent glimpse into your team.

Critiques

When I started my career as a designer in school and professionally it was a standard practice to perform portfolio critiques frequently. From what I know today, this is almost unheard of. It’s rare that you get a request or see other designers requesting a critique.

In the hiring process it is a very key component to help a designer understand where they stand professionally and how their work is perceived. In every single experience during my search there was no mention of my portfolio and when I requested feedback I received no response. Confusing? Yes! Very much so.

You see, if I am going to work within your team I expect that everyone will be critiquing my work and providing feedback. If your team is not doing that from the very start of our professional relationship, as a candidate I am going to question what kind of design culture you have in your organization.

Feedback is helpful, no matter what. In design school I was trained to receive feedback without being hurt or letting too much emotion destroy my career as designer. I think that many hiring managers today are afraid to provide negative feedback because they do not want to hurt someone’s feelings or discriminate against them in some way and be sued. I do believe that it is possible to provide honest professional feedback without discriminating or risking hurting someone. The feedback you provide could be enough to positively impact a designer’s career path.

Takeaway

Designer:

It is important to communicate that you are eager to receive feedback about your portfolio or resume – regardless of the company making you an offer. Be prepared to hear some ideas that you may not agree with and also be prepared to be adaptable so that you can lean into what is being said about your work. Regardless of you getting an offer or a rejection, if you do not receive feedback be quick to engage in a conversation asking if the team will provide feedback.

Organization:

I’ll reiterate this several times in this article: it is incredibly important to a designer’s career to receive feedback about their portfolio and resume. Therefore, any designer in the company that is reviewing an applicant’s work should be providing short, immediate feedback. Someone within the organization should be in charge of tracking it, summarizing, and relaying it back to the candidates. I have done this as a hiring manager and also worked with recruiters and talent acquisition folks to relay and it’s not that much additional work.


Collaboration

In many design related application processes an organization will require a designer to submit some type of artifact to display their skills and show their experience and or thinking. Exercises like this can take hours or even days to complete. I believe the industry term is “Design Challenge”.

As designers we collaborate with each other and also with other parts of an organization like product, marketing and engineering. It is something that we are trained to do and a skill we need to be great at in order to be successful.

The problem with this part of the hiring process is that it lacks collaboration with the existing team and also the feedback piece mentioned in my last point. If we are going to experience how we collaborate and what that looks like from both sides (applicant and team) then I believe that we need to change how we approach this methodology in our hiring process. It’s not professional for a design team to ask for hours or days of an applicant’s time and not collaborate with them even if it is a short meeting or phone call.

Takeaway

Designer:

Be prepared to invest hours or days of your time into a design challenge like this. That said, make sure that when you apply to a position that you are really interested in it so you don’t waste your time or the company’s time. Make sure that you structure your submission in a way that creates conversation and opens up the door to collaboration. Ask questions and be eager to talk to people on the team. In some cases, the challenge isn’t what you submit, the design team is actually looking to see if you will ask questions and collaborate or design in a box by yourself.

Organization:

First off, it is important to acknowledge that it is asking a lot of someone who may have a full-time position, a family, or an active life. At the very least we should be providing as much feedback as we can. It is not okay to just say “Thanks. We’re not interested.” in a short, impersonal email after an applicant spends hours or days laboring on something for your company.

We need to ensure that we are screening applicants to be positive we’re not wasting their time. Only ask applicant’s that the team is very serious about pursuing. Do not make wide sweeping decisions and ask twenty designers to submit their design challenge when the team only really likes five of them. And never include a design challenge in the initial job description.

It’s equally important to make sure that when an applicant does submit their work that you take the time to meet with the applicant and let them talk through their work and collaborate with you – even if you do not plan on hiring them. I know you think this is a waste of your valuable time but remember, you asked for several hours or even days of theirs. It is the least we can do. Even if you meet with a candidate to provide feedback, thank them, and allow them to understand why it’s not what you’re looking for - it really is the right thing to do. If the hiring process is allowing too many candidates into the design challenge round, then it should be restructured to narrow down to fewer candidates. Having fewer candidates should allow the design team to meet and have a short discussion with each person.


Why is all of this so important?

Growth

It is important that we hold ourselves accountable to helping other humans grow personally and professionally. In the creative world of design and product building it is even more important.

Feedback is blood of our industry, without it we wither away. If we continue with hiring processes like we have today, we end up hurting our industry and individuals too. We destroy the very fabric of what it means to be a designer and at the same time make our cultures and organizations look unthoughtful and uncaring. We cannot continue waving empathy flags around on Twitter all the while treating our own industry like garbage.

By taking the time to provide feedback to our candidates we help not only the industry grow, but people too. In the process of doing so, we’ll probably even grow a little bit ourselves. ;)

Missing Talent

If we are going to attract the best talent to our teams we have to put our best foot forward in every aspect of the hiring process.

By lacking in any of the areas above we create a huge risk of scaring off good talent. I personally did not apply to many positions because of these overlooked items in either the job description or interview process.

Another item to keep in mind is that by taking the time to provide feedback and collaborate you might have a complete change in mind about a candidate. Many times when I was the hiring manager I decided to take the time to speak with someone and not judge them solely on portfolio and resume. And many times, I was pleasantly surprised. You cannot judge a book by its cover! A few of the best candidates were the ones that I almost overlooked and passed on. Take the time to talk to people, you might be surprised too!


Closing

I encourage every single person that takes the time to read this article to start the process of change in your organization. Start small and work towards building a hiring system that is transparent, collaborative and thoughtful. You’ll be glad you did and people all over the world who didn’t get the job, will at the very least be left with a small grain of understanding and feel empowered to improve and move on to the next application.

Thank you for reading. Cheers to a better hiring experience!


Artifacts

In the process of writing this article I thought it would be helpful to create a simple checklist to help our industry get started in creating a better hiring process for designers.