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Expand Your Idea of the Perfect Candidate: Why Diversity in Culture and Experience Matters

[OPINION] Diversity matters in UX. Not just in cultural variation—but in experience as well.

Words by Sierra Rackley, Visuals by Danbee Kim

For too long, the technology space has been an exclusive industry, dominated most often by those with a traditional background and education. As a result, the task of designing inclusive products for a diverse set of users had never been a priority. It begs the question: How are companies expected to meet the needs of those users, if they are not represented within the company?

Earlier this year, companies big and small showed their support in the worldwide movements against racial injustices following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. We saw pledges to add more diversity to teams and to add representation to leadership. While many companies made notable strides towards progress, we also watched as more than a few made no true effort to prioritize cultural diversity—and were called out for it.

How diversity impacts your org

Diversity is not just a social cause; it directly affects the bottom line.

A Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation. Additionally, closing the gender gap would add $28 trillion to the value of the global economy by 2025—a 26% increase, according to the World Economic Forum. This means that companies are more likely to grow and prosper when women gain greater financial independence.

When we discuss diversity, most people note the importance of having cultural variation. And of course, the systemic and overt racism that exists in hiring practices is cause for concern. But we know that diversity in accessibility, thought, and experience are just as critical.

The tech industry made waves in 2018 when giants like Apple, Google, and IBM announced they’d no longer require applicants to have a college degree. This would open up a world of opportunity and talent pools that hadn’t previously been tapped into.

In the company of those beginning to make the transition into technology, and specifically to the fast-growing UX industry, are people with nontraditional backgrounds. They’ve discovered the current value in the field, seen the financial security and stability it offers, among various other reasons.

It’s hard not to notice which applicants tend to land the interviews and receive the most offers—those with similar career experiences to the job they’re applying for. After all, because they would seemingly have the smoothest transition into the new job. There is a case, though, for hiring candidates whose backgrounds are not a “perfect match,” but have transferable skills that are so closely aligned, that they make the candidate extremely valuable.

Diversity is not just a social cause; it directly affects the bottom line.

Sierra Rackley

My non-traditional route to UX (and what it taught me)

I am an example of someone, a Black woman, who pivoted into a career in user experience design. Before making the switch, I had aspirations of being the world’s top FBI criminal profiler. I received an undergraduate degree from Georgia State University where my major was Neuroscience. I worked in a behavioral research lab during school and my first job after graduating was with a criminal justice agency. I thought that this was what I wanted to do with my life, but I quickly found out it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

After interacting with the poorly designed websites on a daily basis—and complaining about it on enough occasions—a friend introduced UX design to me. I buried myself in learning everything there was to learn about the industry and realized my interest in human behavior and solving problems that was once driven by an FBI career, was now stoked by creating a useful product for users.

After deciding that this was the career move for me, I attended a bootcamp at General Assembly. My cohort included tons of talented soon-to-be designers! They were former social media marketers, seasoned chefs, entrepreneurs, along with many other nontraditional backgrounds. Almost two years later, not only have they impacted the industry in positive ways, but they give back to and mentor the communities that served them as well.

It was not until I had to take a closer look at my journey and sell my experience to recruiters and hiring managers, did I realize how much my background had prepared me for the roles that I was applying for. Through listening to and helping crime victims every day, I learned how to empathize and get ahead of their needs. I learned to consider multiple perspectives, which has helped with juggling various stakeholder needs. As unique as it may seem, my experience is not uncommon. With a newer discipline like user experience design, the linear path is becoming outdated.

Consider how fine-tuned the communication skills from applicant pools with sales, marketing, customer support, and journalism must be. Workers with backgrounds in healthcare, education, and social work understand what it means to be empathetic and have the soft skills the technology industry so often neglects. Former architects and engineers bring an even different perspective to the world of design.

It’s no secret that a diverse workforce stands to be more innovative and forward-thinking than their uniform counterparts. In recent years, design industry leaders from various backgrounds and educations have emerged to create some of the most dynamic products for brands like Twitter and Facebook to show the importance of representation and power in transferable skill sets.

3 things to remember when expanding your team

As we reach the last month of a tumultuous year, the momentum has come to a lull as employees take their extended and well-deserved breaks. It is the season for reflection on the progress that has been made all year and the beginning of planning for the next quarter.

As a hiring manager, recruiter, or company leader, how can you consider taking the road less traveled and take a chance on hiring someone from a non-traditional background—but with tons of transferable skills?

Here are 3 considerations every company should have when expanding their team:

1. Recognize that technical or hard skills that the job may require can be learned!

Across the internet, there are tons of tutorials and lessons for designers to learn how to use prototyping software, run ideation sessions, and which books to reference. It’s not as easy to pick up a book and learn how to empathize with a stranger or be patient with a stubborn coworker. Especially in tech, we need more people who come from backgrounds that have required them to interact with others, so that the AI tools and software they build have an element of human relatability and fewer biases.

Tip: Maintaining a budget for continuing education and robust training for employees.

2. Practice putting yourself in the candidate’s shoes.

Think about your own personal story. Think back to when you were a child and someone asked what you wanted to be when you grew up. Now think of how that answer changed over the years and compare that to where you are today. For most of us, that ideal career we had as a kid, is completely different from your actual career journey. You may be someone who dreamt, lived, and breathed becoming a hiring manager—but if not, think about that person or company who gave you your first shot and allowed you to grow, despite not having much experience or exposure to the field. Apply that same empathy to the resume that’s come across your desk from a candidate who has 7 years of experience in hospitality, but hopes to break into the world of user experience.

Tip: Perform assessments that gauge how biases affect the hiring practices at your company. Hear from current employees and prospective ones as well. Educate yourself about the experiences of candidates.

3. Be intentional about your recruiting practices.

Having intentional recruiting practices means acknowledging your biases and committing to changing your approach. Once you rid yourself of the assumptions that a UX designer needs a HCI degree (or 100 years of experience in a 70-year old field)—you can begin to see the value in candidates who have unique skills that can add color to the industry.

Tip: Get creative and recruit from nontraditional sources from groups that aim to reinvision the status quo. Forbes even suggests realigning marketing and recruiting.

Continuously set aside your biases in order to continue to make strides towards a more varied workforce. Consider the impact that you have on such an important industry, by expanding your idea of the “perfect candidate.”

For help locating and retaining more stellar candidates, look into these resources:

Sierra is a Product Designer with a passion for understanding human behavior and traveling the world. She enjoys working collaboratively to make complex tasks a little simpler.

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