They say one of the top three stressful events in life are job changes—whether that means you are willingly changing your job or not. Regardless of how much experience you have, there is something nerve-wracking about job interviews that never seems to go away.
Yes, they get easier, in a sense, once you have your storylines and experiences ready to go, but they can still be difficult to navigate.
Through the years, I have had my fair share of job interviews and have prepared many people for job interviews. There have been interviews I knew I completely bombed before even walking out. There were those I thought I did well in, only to get rejected. There were those I thought I messed up, only to get to the next level.
The point is job interviews are hard. Although they vary, there is one thing that stays consistent: how I prepare for job interviews.
After interviewing for over 70 positions before my first internship in user research, and all the interviews in between, I have learned a few tricks along the way to help me feel more confident and increase my chances of getting to the next step.
Why you shouldn’t sleep on interview prep
For a while, I thought I could walk (or dial into) an interview without any prior preparation. I believed it was about charming the person asking me questions and answering in the most favorable way possible.
Did I have experience with card sorting? Sure (nope)! Did I know how to manage stakeholders? Of course (what are stakeholders)!
After quite a few (very speedy) rejections, I realized interviews weren't about saying what the other person wanted to hear. Job interviews were about representing yourself most authentically so the interviewer can determine if you are a good fit and justify to others that you would be.
It is also a chance for you to decide if the job is what you want. It isn't mentioned frequently enough, but job interviews are also for you to feel if the job will be satisfying and fulfilling.
My job interview prep consists of several different steps that I take before talking to the first person (usually HR or a recruiter) and then throughout the other stages and after the entire process. I have used this process for a few years now, and while I certainly don't get an offer for every job I apply to, I do have a good amount of success, especially if I properly prepare.
Going through this method, or one similar, will help you get in the mindset of acing a job interview and will surely increase your confidence during the interview process.
The job prep process
I go through a few different steps at different stages of the job interview process. The overall journey looks like this (but might not be in this exact order):
- Find a job I like. I have written a few articles on how I find jobs, but generally, I search a lot on LinkedIn, Glassdoor, through various Slack channels, and ask my network very openly. Slack channels are one of the best places to find updates to jobs. People Nerds, ResearchOps, MixedMethods, and the User Research Academy slack communities regularly post job openings. You can also check out the UX Research Job Board.
- Tweak my resume. I always change my resume slightly before applying for a job. They aren't huge changes, but they might make a big difference to the hiring manager or recruiter looking over my resume. I cross-reference the job description with previous experience and put as many similarities in my resume as they are looking for. I also check on LinkedIn to see if I can find how employees at that company word certain tasks or responsibilities and use their language. In the end, ideally, my resume will mimic the job description.
- Write a cover letter (if applicable). The necessity for a cover letter varies across the world. I have found them to be much more popular in the United States than in Europe. I will always read someone's cover letter, but I expect it to be concise and without errors. I put a small blurb about why I would be a good candidate and make sure the companies' names are right. I can't tell you how many times I have seen a cover letter that was clearly copied and pasted with the wrong company name. Facepalm. I get everyone makes mistakes, but those applicants usually go into the rejection pile.
Before the first interview (HR or recruiter)
- Look up the company's mission and values. Once I get to the next stage, I start digging more and research the company. I look up anything I can find on the company's mission, what they are trying to accomplish, and why. I look if they have any values or guiding principles that resonate with any experience I have had in the past. I will prioritize those stories and examples over others.
- Find any information on the team I would be working with. As much as possible, I look for how the team works. For example, what are the processes of the research team? How do the product teams work? Is there any information on how much teams value (or don't) user research? What are the problems or struggles they might be having, and how can I help?
- Review the job listing again. I go over the job description again to remind myself of what they are looking for to develop specific examples of how I have tackled certain problems or successfully navigated particular responsibilities.
- Have specific work examples ready. One of my biggest faults when originally interviewing for user research positions was my vague and abstract answers. I didn't provide specific examples of how I managed stakeholders or chose the right method for a tricky research request. Always have specific examples in mind for the responsibilities listed on the job description.
- Come up with a list of questions to ask. I always ask questions at the end of an interview. These questions are usually things I couldn't find on the job description or when I was researching the company, such as how the product teams work (agile, lean, etc.), what the relationship is between product and research (or UX), or what the culture is like.
Before the second interview (manager)
- Look up the person I am interviewing with on LinkedIn. I do some gentle stalking to understand better the experience of the person I am interviewing with, which may give insight into how they work and what they expect. This also allows me to see if I have any mutual connections with them and equips me with more information before the interview.
- Pick specific stories and examples for the interview. For this stage, I generally will have a powerful example in mind that includes an end-to-end project. I will walk the person through this. Sometimes, at this stage, I get asked to do this through a short presentation, but if not, I will write everything down beforehand (even easier now that we're remote!) so I have a clear picture of what I'm trying to explain.
- Come up with a list of questions to ask. Again, be ready with a list of questions. These can be any leftover questions the initial contact couldn't answer or more specific questions about the role. Be sure to ask these questions because they will help you determine if you will be happy in the role!
Before the third interview (panel presentation)
- Look up who I am interviewing with on LinkedIn. Again, more stalking and researching. I like to know the backgrounds and roles of everyone I will be presenting to. This way, I am prepared if there will be a quantitative researcher in the room, and I know I will have to answer those tough questions! Same with other roles, such as designers or developers.
- Create a presentation. This presentation should cover as many points on the job description as possible and show a detailed end-to-end example. Usually, you have about 30-60 minutes for this presentation. Sometimes you will be able to present two case studies, depending on the time. I always ask the initial contact exactly what to prepare, and I always have back-ups, just in case. I like to prepare both a generative and evaluative presentation.
- Brainstorm a list of questions I think they will ask. This is a great practice for any presentation. I try to predict the different questions they may have on my presentations and have answers ready. For example, I get ready to answer difficult stakeholders, how I quantified insights, or how I navigated skeptics.
- Think of questions I would like to ask. Again, questions! It's your job as a researcher.
Before the last stage
- Prepare for the whiteboard challenge. I have an entire article dedicated to this and an online class, so check those out for more details.
- RELAX! You won't think if you are super stressed, so I always recommend taking some deep breaths. There is no wrong answer; just talk through your approach!
After each stage, I write a thank you note to whomever I spoke to. If I don't know the emails of the people I spoke to during later stages, I reach out to the recruiter or initial contact to ask if I could have the emails to send a thank you note.
Often, as hiring managers, we try to submit our review within 24 hours of the job interview, so I recommend doing this step as quickly as possible. I write a quick thank you note and appreciation for them taking the time to listen to me!
Stuck with some of these steps?
I commonly see people trip over some of these steps, especially the end-to-end process and specific examples. In this case, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- What makes you unique?
- What is your favorite part of user research?
- What is your least favorite part of user research?
- Where do you struggle most within the field?
- What is your process, from start to finish?
- What are some of your favorite projects that made you feel most accomplished? Why?
- What are some of the projects you struggled most on? What did you do to overcome the obstacles?
Are you not yet a user researcher? Check out my article on interviewing for a user research job if you haven't yet had experience as a researcher.
I know it seems like a lot of work, but it is well worth preparing for a job interview, especially those you are really excited by. Having this clarity and level of preparation will make you feel more confident and ready to answer any difficult question that comes your way!
Nikki Anderson is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 8 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Explore her research courses here or read more of her work on Medium.