dscout: You used to be a classical music conductor, and you’ve said that being a UX researcher is sort of an extension of being a conductor.
Jesse Livingston: As a conductor, a big part of your job is you're standing in front of an orchestra. You're looking out. You're watching people play. You're listening to the sounds you're getting, and your job really is to facilitate them to make beautiful music and to play expressively. I'm watching behavior. I'm getting feedback. I'm seeing, oh, wait this violinist looks like she's really behind. What can I do to react to that? Even that basic skill of getting outside your own head and being able to empathize with another human being, which obviously is fundamental to what we do in user research, is absolutely core to what you do as a conductor. The worst conductors are the ones that are in their own world. They don't care about the orchestra.
What I found was when I went to user research, this core drive to solve problems for people, understand what they're going through, and how we can think creatively to improve whatever scenario that they're in—it was very similar.
It's fascinating, and it makes a lot of sense. When you’re having an exchange with someone as a conductor, you're communicating, but not verbally. It’s incumbent upon you to understand what someone in the orchestra is saying without them actually saying it. You have to read other clues. In a way that seems connected to this idea of recruiting, especially when it comes to helping connect companies with candidates that may be a bit outside the box, or helping a candidate find a job they would be perfect for, but never thought to look for. In both cases, you have to read beyond what someone is telling you at a surface level. You have to understand something they aren’t explicitly saying.
Absolutely. One thing conductors talk a lot about is that you don't conduct with your hands. You conduct with your eyes. There's a sense in which a conductor is both observing people and communicating in that capacity as well. In a hiring context, there really is a lot of overlap with that. We often think that it’s really up to the candidate to know themselves and be able to communicate what's below the surface—the things they want from a job but maybe haven’t really articulated before. Unfortunately, most of us don't have a framework for understanding what job would be perfect for us, and so much of it actually has to do with the stuff that’s beneath the resume. Those core natural talents, like leadership style, how people communicate or work together, how they react in a system of rules and constraints. People need to think about whether they’re going to thrive in a situation where they’re constantly being asked to think outside the box, or whether they’re better off in an environment that’s more risk-averse. But these considerations aren’t really captured on your resume or your LinkedIn profile. And they aren’t something that a lot of us even necessarily think about.
What about on the business side? Is it something companies are thinking about?
What we hear constantly from customers is how difficult it is to find quality candidates, so what I started doing was trying to ask, what does quality really mean for people, specifically beneath and beyond the resume? I talked to a small group of recruiters and asked them: how do you identify candidate quality outside of the resume? What do you look at? What are you determining?
It’s such an important issue, I think it’s really incumbent on us to make inroads on this.
I want us to explore how we could help people, and companies, really understand what kind of environment and role helps them thrive. Really get into their element, to that place where things are flowing and time sort of disappears.
On a kind of existential level, that can feel like one of the higher states of being for us as humans. It's maybe a rarity for some of us, and not the norm, but the place where that often happens really is a vocational environment. And companies need to be able to set the stage for that to happen.
It’s a bit of a tall order—setting the stage for a higher state of being!
So can you help businesses recognize those qualities in candidates—and vice versa?
Businesses need some kind of tool that both defines these traits that can help you create a “model” for what success looks like in a particular role. Companies can take a handful of their top performers and see where things shake out in these behavioral traits for them. That will give them a rough idea of the kinds of things they want to look for in candidates. Then use the candidates responses as a point of comparison. It's like a resume, but for those off the resume skills.
Because people don’t actually change very much. What changes very easily are skills and domain knowledge. That's what happened with me. I didn't have any specific industry specific skills or domain knowledge with user research, but because I have an analytical, inquisitive mind, and a desire to understand other peoples’ contexts, UX research was a good fit for me. I just needed to learn methods. We need to recognize that we actually all have a series of talents in that respect. We just need to be in roles that leverage them effectively.
Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.