When last we saw our intrepid hero, he had unearthed the first foundational Triforce of UX: Empathy. Next, he must face the void in order to discover the next, but equally powerful Triforce of Curiosity.
The Triforce of UX consists of Empathy, Curiosity, and Humility.
In each part of this three-part series I discuss why I believe each of these are the three most important aspects of a good UX Designer, and three questions to ask to discover if the candidate matches these qualities. I’m sure many of you will disagree with me on some or all of these. That’s okay. I understand how you might feel. I’m curious to better understand why you feel that way, and would be humbled by your responses 😉
In The Legend of Zelda, as in most games — nay, life! you begin with precious little. You acquire new relics, tools, weapons, and knowledge as you seek out and discover hidden treasures. Like a cheap box of crappy chocolates, you never know what’s inside! But unlike crappy chocolates, discovery of something new and strange is actually a good thing! The same is true in UX.
When considering a UX candidate, ask yourself some questions:
Does the candidate want to get into the heads, and hearts of the users/developers/stakeholders? Do they foster a healthy nature of inquiry? Do they harbor a desire to always be learning something new?
Or, is this another hot-shot MY Experience designer? (A UX Designer without the U is a MyX Designer). Do they think that their experience, knowledge, and anecdotal evidence will be “enough” to develop this project? Are you about to hire someone who thinks they’ve learned all they need to know and need go no further?
All artists are willing to suffer for their work. But why are so few prepared to learn to draw?
When we think we know, we cease to learn.
— Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
Without a deep-seated desire to empty our cups and fill them anew again and again we ossify; become stagnant knowers of history. You want to hire builders of the future. Because…
…and only half. The best designers provide the best solutions to the problem context. They can do this because they know what the actual problems are. They know the problems because they asked the right questions of the right people at the right times. They asked the right questions because they did their research. They researched because they were curious to find the actual problems. They were curious to find the actual problems because they wanted to find the best solutions. They wanted to find the best solutions because they felt empathy for the users. They sought empathy because they were humble, and were curious to see if there was something new to discover.
1. What inspires you?
Nobody wants an uninspired designer. It’s kind of our core competency — to be inspired! Often we use the words inspired and creative interchangeably. “That was a creative solution! That design is inspired!” A lot of people think inspiration and creativity are always epiphanies, or original invention. Sometimes that’s true…maybe. But the bulk of inspiration comes from the intuitive connection of disparate thoughts, ideas, images, and patterns. You acquire the bits of information as knowledge. Your experience helps you connect those bits of information.
Riffing off a great visual by Hugh MacLeod:
These connections help us better understand how our world is put together. They also give us insights into how we might solve a problem in a way that’s never been done before. But in my experience, more often than not, inspiration has come when I’ve discovered that the super-complex problem I’ve been looking at has already been solved incredibly well (sometimes by me in the same project), I just couldn’t see before that the problems were related or the same. At that point, you feel a bit silly — it all seems so clear, so obvious. But this is hindsight bias, and what really just happened was inspiration!
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.
— Steve Jobs, WIRED, February, 1996
When you ask your candidates about what inspires them, you’re delving into their knowledge and knowledge-mapping experience. How deep is their well of experiences? How diverse? Are they a spread-thin generalist — a mile wide and an inch deep? Are they a laser-focused specialist — an inch wide and a mile deep? Are they something in between? You might want one, or both, or a hybrid. That all depends on you, your project, and your team. Ask follow-up questions about the breadth and depth of their knowledge and experiences.
Use their résumé, portfolio, website, Twitter bio, LinkedIn recommendations, whatever you have, to guide you to probing questions regarding past experiences, and projects. How did they gain the knowledge they have? What urges them onward to acquire new knowledge? How have they applied seemingly unrelated bits of knowledge in meaningful ways? Can they connect the dots?
“Wait, wait, wait!” you say! “Brandon: first you basically inferred that a designer relying on their knowledge and experience was a bad thing! Now you’re saying that’s where inspiration comes from!? Which is it?”
Great question! I’m glad you asked. The difference is really about context. In the Steve Jobs quote above he said “…a lot of [designers] haven’t had very diverse experiences.” and therefore “…they end up with very linear solutions.” I interpret his remarks to mean not that they aren’t knowledgeable, but that the scope of their knowledge leads them to rote, banal, or possibly incorrect solutions. By doing new research, new reading, new learning, (you could also substitute new for different) we diversify and gain knowledge about the current problem in its current context with the current user-base. Old knowledge is helpful, but new knowledge will be the key that unlocks the best solutions for new problems.
Microbot from Big Hero 6
This clip from Big Hero 6 is the perfect example. Remember that Callaghan invented the tech for Hiro’s battle bot. Hiro had already invented his battle bot leveraging that tech. All Hiro needed was a “new angle” to be able to see another, radical application of that same idea — the microbot. (If you haven’t seen BH6, you should. It’s awesome. Thanks to my two year old and five year old, I’ve seen it probably 50 times, and still like it)
2. Are you involved with online/local/national/global UX communities? In what ways?
Depending on where your company is based geographically, and the candidate’s personality type, they may only have interacted with other UX designers via books, forums or websites. That’s okay. What you’re trying to determine is if this candidate operates in a vacuum or if they seek new learning and insights from their peers, mentors, and industry leaders. The medium isn’t as important as their involvement.
UX has been around a very long time. Much longer than you might think. There is no shortage of available information on the subject. But that didn’t keep me from not knowing anything about it! I was one of those earnest seekers of knowledge only kept from the truth because I knew not where to find it. I first learned of the terms Interaction and User Experience design from a recruiter. She cold-called me and said I was perfect for a lead UX role at a hot startup in Seattle. Delightful! But I was a bit befuddled — how could I be qualified for a role let alone a Lead role if I’d never heard of that role? She’d read my LinkedIn profile and surmised that based on my experience with various technologies and roles I’d be a good fit for a UX position. She was right! I researched the field, discovered that this weird hybrid dev-igner I’d been trying to be for the last 7 years was actually a legitimate field. I took the job. Then I got to learning! I read The Inmates are Running The Asylum, About Face, The Design of Everyday Things, Don’t Make Me Think, and Rocket Surgery Made Easy. I immersed myself in the field’s literature determined to hone my skills.
These books (and many more) are only one way to be involved in the community. I didn’t know it at the time but there were local, national, and global conferences dedicated to helping people like me grow. As I learned of each event I found new ways to rekindle my curiosity, learn, grow, and be inspired by my peers and mentors.
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
Speaking of mentors…does the candidate have one? More than one? Who are they? How often do they meet, and what do they discuss? If they don’t have at least one, why not? What are their career aspirations? (This will help you determine how hungry they are for knowledge and industry participation outside of their day-to-day, in addition to their drive and motivations.) Do they attend meetups? Which ones? When was the last one? What did they learn? Do they ever speak at these events? Are they finding ways to get involved? (Additionally — ask yourself if you’re providing the means and motivation in your own company to encourage your people to learn, grow, and get involved).
A lot of the public, large-group stuff (conferences, meetups, happy-hours) can be intimidating or just flat-out a non-starter with some personalities. Don’t let that sway you. There are numerous, individual ways people can be involved — writing blogs and articles, discussing ideas on IxDA and Stack Overflow, or like me when I first started — reading. Your goal here is to discover not just how they’re engaging with the community, but that they’re engaging. Your endgame is to discern how and when they learn, or if they seek learning and growth at all.
3. When was the last time you learned something new? What was it? Who/what taught you? How did it change you?
This last question is pretty straightforward. Are they continuously and consciously learning? Are they the eyes-wide-open, fresh-off-the-boat, giddy-as-a-school-kid, voraciously curious type? Are they the staunch, know-it-all, set-in-their-ways, tenured professor type? Did they read something this morning that got them thinking about something at work in a new way? Was it so long ago that the knowledge is now old-hat or irrelevant? What changes did they make in their habits/life/practice/thought-processes based on this new knowledge?
A fool uttereth all his mind: but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards.
— Proverbs 29:11
Give them a few minutes to formulate a response. Since we don’t have parents cornering us at the dinner table every night asking “So, what did you learn today, hmmmm?” it’s not one of those things we tend to think about regularly. Additionally for some, learning and being curious about the world around them may be so second-nature that they don’t even think of it as anything relevant. They just do it. Give them a chance to introspect. The ability to respond quickly, thinking on one’s feet is important, but so is the ability to stop, and really dig deep (see Proverb above). As an interviewee I’ve appreciated the times when the interviewer set the bar by saying things like “take your time” and “it’s okay to think about this for a minute or so — I really want your best answer here”. I’ve even had an interviewer say “Take the next two minutes to think about my next question, then respond.” This meaningful break can give you both an opportunity to stop and take a breath — to connect to the deeper thoughts and memories without the pressure of an immediate response. If the candidate seems uncomfortable with the silence, you can even excuse yourself for a bit “I’m going to step out for a minute or so while you collect your thoughts — would you like some water?”
You can also use this as an opportunity to see how the candidate formulates deeper, more complex ideas. In effect you’re asking them to connect the dots on their experiences to lead to a creative insight for this interview question. You’re probing for inspiration! Given the additional time allowed, you’re looking for something deeper than their patent responses. Did they use the time to formulate something meaningful? Did they delve deeper and discover something, perhaps even new to them on-the-spot? Did they learn anything from this experience?
I hope you’ve enjoyed Part II of our foray into the Triforce of UX. Stay tuned for Part III : The Triforce of Humility. Please get in touch below! I’m really curious how the community feels about the questions I chose and why. Do you have any that are better? Please share!
What separates the good designers from the great? Get in touch below!
Originally published here, where you can also read parts I and III.