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Advice from 6 Research Leaders on Hiring and Evaluating UX Candidates

We asked directors of user research how they measure team fit, skill mastery, emotional intelligence, and growth potential among new hires.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Danbee Kim

The user experience field is unique in the breadth of paths folks take to it. From traditional arenas like HCI, human factors, and product design to art, the social sciences, and even medicine, UXRs are a diversely skilled community. 

People Nerds talked to some leaders with experience evaluating, hiring, and building user-research teams for insight into how they're thinking about this workforce. Below is a summary of some of their advice—illuminating for both team leads and those vying for UX positions.

1. Look for "researcher-builders"

Alyson Madrigan | Head of Product Research & Strategy @ Credit Karma

As a research function founder, I've built multiple research functions and practices from the grounds up. This has largely been in the context of growth stage companies with mid size product and design orgs. When it comes to hiring the first set of researchers for these roles, I actively look to hire what I call researcher-builders. These are folks who have a diverse set of technical skills and who may have had exposure to scaled companies, but who have that scrappy factor and a sort of inner drive to not only do the research work, but to bring a new way of being into existence.

This may look like building new practices, infrastructure and operations, self-service programs, creative types of deliverables, assets, and experiences, but it also looks like introducing certain traits into the mix, including an orientation towards impact vs preciousness, a low ego, a certain amount of ambition, high levels of EQ, an interest and willingness to really connect with cross-functional stakeholders, and to inspire, educate and facilitate learning journeys.

In many ways, this leads to eclectic teams who are builders, change agents, visionaries, educators and makers, as much as they are researchers. It is a special skill-set and character trait, and it is not always an easy journey, but it is deeply rewarding, full of exponential growth (for business and individuals alike) and often leads to life long relationships built on deep mutual respect and gratitude.

2. Focus on how they fit with company values

Heather Breslow | Head of Research @ Robinhood

On the Robinhood research team, we approach problems from a place of intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness, and so we hire people who demonstrate those qualities. Sometimes this comes through in a candidate’s storytelling about their academic path or career journey. 

Other times it’s clear that someone can easily engage in a conversation about a topic they might not have thought much about. In hiring for this mindset, we’ve built a team that shows up ready to listen to and learn from our customers and each other. This helps keep our customers at the heart of the company’s decision-making, and makes collaboration and feedback easier and more obvious.

We’re also responsible for making our work, which can be nuanced or technical, understandable to non-researchers, so candidates who are clear communicators tend to stand out. All interviews are an opportunity for a candidate to demonstrate this skill, but it shines brightest in portfolio presentations when someone is talking us through work that to us is new and unfamiliar. 

Being able to break down complex ideas in a way that makes sense to any audience is important both within and beyond Robinhood; it’s also how we make good on Robinhood’s mission to democratize finance for all.

3. Think as much about your team, as the individual

Kat Lee | Director, Design Research and Strategy @ Intuit

For every researcher hire, I’m evaluating the individual as much as I’m thinking about our team. I thought it would be best articulated by sharing the questions I ask myself. But before I do so it’s worth noting that I believe researchers can come from all walks of life so I don’t have screening criteria that I consider binary.

Team brand: This doesn’t mean hiring look-alikes but rather understanding your brand elasticity.

  • Does the candidate have shared values?
  • Inside and outside of work, what is the candidate personally and professionally passionate about?
  • How will the candidate contribute to our purpose and vision?

Research skills +: Core skills make a strong researcher, but it’s the hidden powers that make them shine.

  • How well does the candidate meet the core skills defined in our job profiles?
  • What superpower exists that will make us stronger as a team and push our boundaries?
  • What can other team members (including myself) learn from this candidate?

Confidence and vulnerability: This is about becoming an influential and trusted thought partner with cross-functional partners.

  • With craft assignments, I’m looking to understand a candidate’s train of thought, not a right answer. Is the candidate comfortable with ambiguity and able to clearly articulate a POV?
  • Is the candidate self-aware and transparent about lessons learned and/or where they can improve?
  • Can the candidate thrive as an independent researcher and a closely knit cross-functional partner?

4. Evaluate their ability to think "big picture"

Rob Huddleston | UX/Design Director @ Capital One

During an interview or initial conversation I throw all of the canned questions out the window and focus more on learning about the person and their personality. 

Of course I want to hear about their specific skill sets, experiences, methodology and craft but I equally want to make sure they will be a good culture fit, someone that can influence, and someone who can teach others.

I want to surround myself with, and build a team of people who both have something to learn and something to teach or share—this is what gets me excited about someone. As someone who hires designers of several disciplines ranging from Design Ops, UX Strategy, Research, UX and UI/Visual design, Content writing, etc I recognize that each discipline has its unique point of view and place in delivering great products and experiences for our customers. I look for people who recognize their role in contributing to the bigger picture alongside others and value the collaboration involved in delivering any outcome.

5. Pay close attention to their portfolio

Tom Riley | Senior Talent Acquisition Consultant @ Vanguard

If I wanted to prepare myself as a design candidate at Vanguard, my focus would be on having a really solid portfolio. It’s the best way to tell the story of your work and the impact you’ve had. People learn in all sorts of ways. 

A formal degree in design or user experience is great because it shows you’ve put in the time to get a deep understanding of theory and practice. But a portfolio is how we are going to learn more about you and what you’ve been able to achieve.

6. Give applicants a sense of what the job is actually like

Stefani Bachetti | Director, The Studio @ dscout

There's always that basic core set of needs with any hire: passion for the field, excellent communication skills, ability to navigate ambiguity, etc. Depending on the role, we might leverage a typical share out and/or structured interviews. Other times, roles might warrant targeted exercises that allow us to get a sense of not just how a candidate might apply their skills to the work we do, but also give them a sense of what the job is like. 

It can be a challenge to make sure you aren't asking too much of candidates while still getting an authentic view of how they might exist among the team. Sometimes the best way to assess how that will play out is just to do something together, though.

I think the stickier area is surfacing what new lens or specialty a candidate might bring to the team that will not just fit in with the current skill set, but also help the team grow and evolve into who we want to be moving forward. 

Our team isn’t static and neither is the work, so having people and pieces that play off each other in a positive way is key. It introduces a bit of an unknown to navigate and project, factoring in expected business needs, internal strategic intents, team/culture dynamics. It feels a little like chemistry, bringing different elements together to make something even greater.

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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