You’re going to make the right hire.
I don’t know if you’ve been worrying about that or not, but I figured I’d offer some reassurance.
Many of my clients tell me hiring their first UX designer is their top concern, and for good reason. Hiring the wrong UX designer can be disastrous. You might end up with a product that doesn’t adequately meet your user’s needs. Worse yet, the toxic elements of a bad UX hire might seriously hurt your culture.
Either of these would be disastrous, wasting time, hurting morale, and eating up valuable runway, so some apprehension is justified. But not to worry—this hire is nothing you can’t handle with a little advice.
As a Partner at DesignMap and 25+ year UX veteran, I’ve hired nearly a hundred UX designers. I’ve learned the pitfalls and made the mistakes, so today, I want to help you avoid them. My hope is that by reading this post, you’ll be able to navigate the hiring process with confidence, so you quickly get the UX designer you need.
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#1: Hiring a UI designer When You Need a UX Designer
Do you need a User Experience (UX) Designer or a User Interface (UI) Designer?
Understandably, there’s some confusion over the difference between the two.
A UX designer should have the visual skills to create a great UI, right? And in order to be a UI designer, don’t you have to have a good understanding of UX principles?
While there’s definitely some overlap in knowledge and experience, both of these are different roles with very different skillsets.
UX Designers (often called Interaction Designers) focus on what the product does and how users interact with it. Working closely with Product Managers, Engineers, UI Designers, and UX researchers, UX Designers are responsible for understanding what users are trying to achieve, what’s technically feasible, and how that might fit in with the business. Then, they create workflows and basic screens (wireframes) that describe how software will work. Senior UX designers come up with big ideas, organizing concepts, and key workflows into screens. Junior UX designers extend the concepts and patterns to new workflows.
UI Designers (often called Visual Designers) focus on how the product looks. They’re responsible for the visual language of the product, including hierarchy of information and clarity of available actions. A senior UI designer comes up with ideas about visual design direction, nails down the final visual system, and applies it to key screens. Junior Visual Designers apply and extend the system to other pages and elements.
For your first hire, you’ll want it to be a UX designer. A UI or visual designer could make you the most beautiful, easy-to-use interface, but if the product isn’t actually desirable—if it doesn’t do a great job solving the user’s problems—none of that really matters. Further, the early adopters who’ll likely make up the majority of your audience won’t really mind less-than-perfect usability when their problem is being solved in a unique and excellent way.
Later on, as the product grows in popularity, having a visually delightful and highly functional UI will be a necessary component for continued audience growth, but until that day comes, make sure you get someone who can help you envision a desirable product.
#2: Getting Dazzled by a Perfect Portfolio
I love a portfolio that sparkles like a Tiffany display window, don’t get me wrong, but I know it’s all too easy to get caught up in good looks. What’s more important is the work that went into crafting those jewels.
A designer should be able to walk you through the details of creating their work—including all the mistakes, ideas that didn’t work, and things they’d do differently now. As a UX designer, being able to talk through their work and communicate how the user’s needs translate to design is an integral skill. They’ll probably have to do this on a daily basis with multiple different teams. They should be able to do it easily and comfortably in the interview.
In the same vein, if they talk through their projects as if each one went smoothly through the generic design process, it’s a sign they don’t know what they’re talking about or weren’t as involved as they’re implying. There are always hiccups and hurdles and deviations from the “ideal process”. They should be able to speak to these.
In general, I’m always turned off when someone pretends to be perfect. We all make mistakes, or have projects we are less than happy with. Someone who shows me a perfectly polished portfolio and says everything in it was their idea is likely lying and may have a bit of an ego, neither of which are good traits in a collaborator.
#3: Missing the Subtle Signs of a GREAT UX Designer
I find that there’s a world of difference between a good designer and a great designer. If you’re like me when it comes to hiring, you want the great one.
Here are the subtle skills I’ve noticed that mark the difference between okay and incredible.
Humility: look for a humble designer. They should be honest about their past mistakes, things they would have done differently, or problems they encountered. Design is difficult, and they should be happy to talk about these difficulties. One way to check for humility is to provide critique of something in their portfolio in the interview. If they handle that push-back with curiosity and engagement, great. If they are defensive or dismissive, that’s a huge red flag. This is my Partner Audrey’s one absolute-must when interviewing designers, and we’ve proved the rule every time we’ve skipped this step.
Flexibility: a good UX designer shouldn’t be too rigid in their opinions or prideful of their creations. They should care first and foremost about the user’s experience, and let everything follow from there.
Fresh Outside Perspective: this is a massively underrated trait. Someone with the ability to think outside the box and the drive to ask why things are done a certain way will bring better ideas to the table.
Enthusiastic: a good UX designer should be excited about your products and learning about your customer. They should be asking questions about your customers, curious about your problems, and looking forward to starting on solutions. If they seem disengaged or uninterested, they might be out of their depth, and you should look elsewhere.
#4: Not Having an Effective Hiring Process
I believe the most important aspect of a new hire is their “fit.” Experience and technical skills are easily assessed by looking at a resume and portfolio, but fit is harder. How well will they fit in with the organization? How well will their skills compliment those of their team? And how well will their personality mesh with the company/team culture?
My interview process is designed to figure that out as quickly as possible. It cuts out wasted time while still being thorough, resulting in a less clunky hiring experience and solid, “long-haul” employees.
Here’s the interview process I’ve developed over the course of interviewing and hiring almost a hundred designers (at the time of this writing).
Step 1: Evaluate the Designer’s Online Portfolio
Within 1–2 business days of receiving a submission, if the hiring team leader is impressed by the portfolio, they should provide simple portfolio feedback and request an initial interview; otherwise thank them for their time and end the conversation.
Step 2: Conduct an Initial 1:1 Interview
The first real meeting is typically a 1:1 with someone in a design leadership position. This is usually a relatively informal meeting; the stakes still feel pretty low for everybody, and there’s not a great sense of urgency. This allows you to provide honest and direct feedback and get a much better sense of the person behind the portfolio.
If they make it, it’s time to schedule a second round with the wider design team they'll be working with.
Step 3: Second Round Interviews
Provide feedback and second-round invitations within a day of the initial interview. Getting to this point is a big deal, and means they have a very real chance of being hired. You should weed a lot of candidates out in the first interview, and only invite back those you can really see yourself hiring.
Let your candidates know that Round Two is more formal and typically in a group format. There are generally a couple hour-long interviews representing a mix of all levels from the team they’ll be working with. The person in leadership who did their initial interview may or may not be part of this team depending on the situation.
This interview isn’t necessarily about grilling them on their qualifications. If they’ve made it to this point, the interviewers can assume the candidate’s qualifications are acceptable to the higher-up who did the initial interview. Interviewers should be assessing how well this candidate would fit the organization, paying attention to specific fit (company culture, work style, level of formality, etc.).
Step 4: UX Designer Post-Interview Evaluation Form
Interviewers evaluate the candidate using an online feedback form right after the interview. It can take anywhere from 5-30 minutes depending how much someone has to say, but it’s often a quick exercise. The form includes a section for their overall assessment, and a 1-5 scale score for their skills and culture fit.
If everyone is in general agreement in these feedback forms, you’re ready to make them an offer.
#5: Trying to Hire Someone Who’s “Done It Before”
With so much pressure, founders can ill afford a mistake. So when it comes to hiring product designers, they play it safe. They look for designers who’ve more or less solved the exact same problem for a different company.
On the surface, this makes total sense. If a designer has the skillset and playbook for solving your problem, that should be a slam dunk, right?
Well, not necessarily. This approach has some big issues.
It Discourages Adaptive Behavior: the designer feels that they can do the exact same thing they did at their last company, but that’s not true. No matter how many similarities your product or situation shares with their previous company, it’s not the same. Different context. Different company. Different problem. There’s no such thing as a plug-and-play designer.
It Can Lead to Toxic Culture: the designer may feel like they already “know it all”. They may feel entitled to their way of doing things because it worked before so why would they do anything else? This makes for a non-collaborative dynamic.
You’ll Gloss Over Qualified Candidates: looking strictly for someone who’s “done it before” means you’ll miss out on a lot of great candidates. On top of that, it can take you even longer to fill the role. Remember, it’s competitive out there.
You'll End Up with Archetypal Designers: this is also a problem when you hire exclusively from big-name tech firms, but you end up with designers with archetypal experience that all look the same. This hurts innovation. It’s extremely limiting for high growth companies.
Here's what I advise my clients: don't set strict hiring criteria before you start talking with candidates.
Instead, fill the top of your funnel with as many candidates as you can. Go through one round of interviews to see what’s out there, and then get more specific with your hiring criteria.
When it comes to hiring designers, you want unique backgrounds with unique perspectives. Those perspectives—that ability to think outside the box—is what really drives innovation, so see what’s out there before getting hard-and-fast with your hiring criteria.
There’s a lot more to be said about a UX designer’s requirements - but after this, they begin to be a little industry and product specific.
So let me leave you with a final summary of my ideal UX designer: someone who thinks outside-the-box enough to truly shake up and inspire your product team, and has the passion and collaborative skills to affect that change gracefully and productively.
And if you’re looking for more information on building a UX team worthy of a tech unicorn, check out this piece: The Tech Unicorn’s Guide to Building an Empowered UX Team.
I wish you the best of luck in your search for the right UX designer.