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How To Write Inspiring Job Descriptions For UX

To attract motivated designers and user researchers, keep your eye on the why. What’s the why? It’s the underlying purpose that brings you and your employees together. Why the why? Because if you focus only on what you need, then you run the risk of filtering down merely to an adequate match for the list of skills needed for defined tasks; however, if you lead with why a candidate would want to work with you each day, then you might just attract the best fit for executing your company’s mission.

I’ve written job listings for a half-dozen organizations over the years and for all manner of user experience roles. When I wrote my first job description, I took other listings from my company as a base, looked around for some examples from other companies and ended up with what I see in hindsight as being the usual run-of-the-mill hodgepodge of bullet points. Presented with this today, I would throw out more than half the content in order to focus on what’s relevant and unique.

Now, I prefer to start by finding the underlying raison d’être for the position in order to craft a customer-centered call for applications. In this article, I’d like to explain why and share some tried and true techniques for advertising your UX opening.

Create An Opening By Killing The Job Description Link

The main problem with the traditional job description is that it describes a job instead of the goals and results. In his article “Ban Job Descriptions and Hire Better People1,” Lou Adler asserts that orienting a job description around skills and experience is counterproductive. Instead, he advocates for a performance profile that explains what must be accomplished on the job.

Modern motivational psychology (see Daniel Pink’s Drive2) says that employees in the knowledge economy are motivated not by carrots and sticks3 but by purpose, not by tasks but by mastery. Similarly, Simon Sinek, author of the bestseller Start With Why4, argues that the problem with typical job ads is that they skip over the purpose: “They are all about the what, and not the why.”

Job ads should also be about the why
Job ads should also be about the why.

In my experience, designers and researchers in particular are emotionally invested in their work. Highly motivated UX designers are looking not just for a job, but for a quest, a great experience in improving other people’s experiences. They want to take on a mission that aligns with their own values.

The benefit of tapping into this desire for something larger than themselves is not necessarily that you’ll attract more candidates, but that you’ll attract those candidates who are inspired by your mission and culture. In his TEDx talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action5,” Simon Sinek underscores the value of hiring employees who buy into your larger purpose: “If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”

At Zalando, we strongly believe in our mission, so we do not want to present a job. Instead, we aim to establish a dialogue with candidates and learn about what would make them enjoy coming to work every morning to contribute, produce and grow. We want to offer careers that our people can easily transform into their callings, and our responsibility is to clearly explain this vision to our candidates.

Redefining The Job Description Link

To transform a job description into a career opportunity, we follow this simple checklist:

  • State the mission
    Interview product owners, designers and managers to identify the objectives and key results that you envision over the next year for this role.
  • Remove requirements
    Put yourself in the applicant’s shoes, rather than list your company’s needs. Move your internal requirements to a separate checklist for interviewers.
  • Present challenges
    Craft key results as statements about the impact that the designer will make on customers and the business. Describe the day-to-day work clearly but briefly — and tie it into the larger mission.
  • Highlight transformational benefits
    Keep the discussion of benefits and culture short but inspiring. Leave the standard ones till later, to minimize noise.
  • Inspire
    Excite applicants about the mission (“Should you choose accept it”), and send a clear message that the company offers an environment for professional and personal growth.
  • Test and iterate
    Ask, observe, measure and learn.

State the Mission Link

First things first: What’s the purpose underlying the role? Hiring guru Lou Adler talks about focusing on year-one success, rather than day-one requirements. And Sinek points out that successful hires are those who want a challenge. When I’m crafting a job description, I search out the relevant objectives and key results (OKRs) or key performance indicators (KPIs) that convey the longer-term arc and mission of the role. The exact targets often cannot be disclosed, but some real-life goals can trigger the candidate’s imagination and hopefully inspire them.

State the mission: What’s the purpose underlying the role?
State the mission: What’s the purpose underlying the role? (Image credit: steve95676)

To give you some examples of what I mean, here are some goals we’ve incorporated into recent descriptions:

  • “You will increase customer engagement by enabling fashion experts to build their own curated boutique shops within the larger Zalando e-commerce experience. The goal: Give customers a more inspiring and entertaining entry to our assortment.”
  • “You will increase the customer retention rate by personalizing recommendations, enabling discovery and individualizing the user experience.”
  • “You will increase brand loyalty and drive sales by designing enticing interfaces for fashion inspiration, guidance and advice. Your innovative design approach for editorial topics will give our customers a fresh, playful cross-device shopping experience.”

Remove Requirements Link

Job descriptions usually contain a long list of tasks and requirements. These are employer-centered, uninspiring and often irrelevant. Lou Adler says that requirements not only filter out a lot of perfectly qualified candidates, but are counterproductive to diversity hiring.

And for UX, the quality of the work far outweighs any more mundane requirements. As Pixar’s Andrew Gordon says7, “any art-based job is more about your portfolio and less about credentials.”

Question your requirements. For your UX research opening, do you really require two to five years of experience or a degree in psychology, or do you need someone who can set up a test plan that increases your conversion rate by 0.8%? Does the designer you seek really need to know Axure, or can they learn it on the job?

Despite having said that, don’t throw all requirements out. Some traditional bullet points such as “A positive attitude” or “Experience with e-commerce” are uninspiring because they are employer-centric, but they are still helpful for internal use precisely for this reason. I like to collect such requirements into a separate internal hiring checklist to help me articulate interview questions and screen CVs. Removing these mundane yet important requirements from the external listing not only makes the job description more applicant-centric, but allows you to better evaluate candidates. When candidates are not given the answers in advance, the right ones will successfully identify the experience and skills they need to deliver results. Anyway, the hiring checklist is a story for another occasion.

Transform Tasks Into Challenges Link

After throwing out the requirements, prune the tasks. Half of these are usually boring, but I still like to keep a few to show the flavor of the work. Because the language of user experience, user interface and human-computer interaction design is confusing even for designers, hiring managers should communicate day-to-day tasks in accessible language to ensure that UX candidates understand the focus of the role.

At this stage of the description-crafting game, I take one of two routes. The first approach is to keep the basic tasks short and string them together — for example, “ideation, information architecture, wireframing, prototyping and testing” or, for a lead position, “setting direction, identifying priorities, assigning resources, tracking progress and critiquing designs.”

The second approach is to elevate tasks to challenges (we literally call them “challenges”) by tying them to the larger purpose, focusing on the outcome (“responsibilities”) — for instance, “Hold accountability for developing a category structure for our store that measurably speeds product finding.” The subtle difference in how you frame the description reinforces learning and a sense of ownership.

Elevate the tasks to challenges by tying them to the larger purpose, focusing on the outcome
Elevate the tasks to challenges by tying them to the larger purpose, focusing on the outcome. (Image credit: Flazingo Photos8)

Promote the Transformational Benefits Link

We like to keep the list of traditional benefits short and to focus instead on the unique ones. All of the perks can be discussed during an interview or at some later stage anyway. We pick the most unique or fun perks but then hone in on how working for us can transform one’s career. For instance:

  • “Embark on a tour of mastery.” (We’ll explain what that is in a minute.)
  • “Network with a large, active in-house UX community of practice.”
  • “Become part of a growing company where you can shape the future of our work processes.”

We are especially proud of our “tour of mastery,” which is based on the tour of duty9 concept of Reid Hoffman and others (a new “compact” between employers and employees for the post-industrial age). We added a nod to Daniel Pink by replacing “duty” with “mastery” to focus on the employee motivation aspect of the tour.

The tour of mastery is a purpose-driven personal growth plan aimed at leveraging and expanding each tech employee’s professional potential. The tour mainly involves exercising certain competency muscles in day-to-day work (for example, deepening one’s information architecture skills by testing and redesigning a category tree), supported by conferences, trainings, mentoring and peer critique.

Inspire by Writing an Inviting Call to Action Link

Don’t ask people to apply for a job. Invite them to have a conversation about their career and their goals. In our most recent postings, we changed the boilerplate “Want to join us? Then go ahead and apply!” to “Sounds like fun? Start the conversation. Tell us what the next step in your career could be.” We still don’t have the clearcut winner here, but we plan to follow up with the results of such tests.

Here’s an encouraging anecdote that tells us we’re on the right track. A few weeks ago, a bright young designer sent us an email saying that “It was surprising to see a job posting from Zalando on Dribbble, so I had to see what it was about.” Later, during a phone conversation, she expressed joy upon learning of our goal to visually improve the interface of our online store in order to maximize emotional engagement. She told us, “That was the most inspiring job description I’ve read in months.” Objective achieved!

This particular conversation with the candidate was a sweet reward in and of itself. Even without that, though, we are clearly seeing that our effort of emphasizing purpose and laying out potential career development paths results in inspiring conversations with talented and passionate designers.

Test and Iterate Link

As you already know, testing and iterating is the key to the best results.

In user testing, observations are more valuable than opinions. (As Jakob Nielsen says in his first rule of usability10, “Pay attention to what users do, not what they say.”) However, when you evaluate the clarity of information (instead of evaluating the ease of use), it’s hard to observe directly.

Our latest approach to evaluating job descriptions is three simple methods:

  • guerilla-style think-aloud user tests at a meetup,
  • online surveys distributed to the UX community,
  • crowd-sourced inline comments on a draft description (shared online).

The goal of such research is to learn whether a job description feels motivating enough, is clear and reflects well on Zalando’s UX competence and UX maturity.

Zalando's UX jobs website
Zalando’s UX jobs website

Because we think big and act fast, our job descriptions are online after just a couple of hallway tests. We suggest never skipping hallway testing; asking colleagues for face-to-face feedback is always invaluable. Apart from the good ideas for refinements, the most important feedback I’ve received from colleagues kept me from putting a spoof “unicorn designer” job description out into the world. Staring into these descriptions for days on end and in a sort of creative hysteria, I thought the parody was a hilarious idea. Thankfully, several designers pointed out that it was not funny at all and essentially prevented what could have been a disaster.

(We are still testing and refining the aforementioned postings, and we’ll report our findings to the UX community. Watch this space.)

What Do You Think? Link

Our most recent UX career opportunities11 are the result of the approach described in this article. Do you find it helpful? What have you learned putting it into practice? What hiring approaches do you find work best for user experience positions?

Share with me 12 and in the comments below. And if you’re an aspiring master UX hiring manager, we are looking for UX leaders to help us inspire designers.

(vf, jb, al, ml)

Footnotes Link

  1. 1 http://louadlergroup.com/ban-job-descriptions-and-hire-better-people/
  2. 2 http://www.danpink.com/books/drive/
  3. 3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc
  4. 4 https://www.startwithwhy.com/
  5. 5 https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en#t-466975
  6. 6 https://www.flickr.com/photos/sgooglesgoogle/290042749/
  7. 7 http://www.creativebloq.com/animation/job-at-pixar-10121018
  8. 8 https://www.flickr.com/photos/124247024@N07/14089974535/in/photostream/
  9. 9 https://hbr.org/2013/06/tours-of-duty-the-new-employer-employee-compact
  10. 10 http://www.nngroup.com/articles/first-rule-of-usability-dont-listen-to-users/
  11. 11 https://tech.zalando.com/jobs/ux
  12. 12 mailto:jay.kaufmann@zalando.de
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Jay Kaufmann is UX Talent Lead at Zalando. In his previous consulting work, he helped a wide variety of companies manage User Experience.

  1. 1

    This was a great read and I think the topic is valid for almost all web/software jobs. So many of them want “digital unicorns”, requiring an absurd amount of skills and experience instead of focusing on their immediate needs. As a contractor I’ve been forced many times to brave the job market and so many of the pitches are just a dry list of skills and technologies. I would love to see more inspiring requests like the ones in this article.

    2
  2. 2

    It’s amazing how UX employers need an article like this to attract good candidates while a Masters-level graduate like myself can’t get a job to save my life (recent graduate talking here). While, yes, I do want money, I’m honestly looking to contribute to something bigger than myself and grow a company’s vision. Not all the words in a cover letter can get this across coming from a candidate with so little experience.

    Going off of what Adrian Sandu was saying, my arduous job search has taught me that many employers are looking for unicorn candidates with expertise in everything and years of experience in even in Junior positions. It’s telling me that UX still has a long way to go before employers, recruiters, and other people writing job descriptions understand the training that some of us leave college with. Self-made UXers from the 90s and early 2000s have no sympathy for those whose entire UX world transformed while we were still in school learning outdated stuff.

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    • 3

      Dan, if businesses don’t respect the knowledge gained in your degree then you need to prove your skill set. Build it and they will come. Find some charities who want a designer or create your own projects so that you have real world examples in your portfolio. I’m not sure why you’re expecting sympathy, you don’t want an employer to pity you, you want them to value you. Do some unpaid work experience and prove your worth, let the company realise that you’ll value add to their products and justify employing you. Don’t hate on those who have built a broad skill set, it’s taken years of continued learning and a professional understanding of multiple technologies, that’s why these employees are in demand. If you want to stay in this industry you’ll also need to continue to improve and evolve your skill set.

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    • 4

      While Okibi also gives valuable feedback about taking the “player’s stance”, we must admit that there is a wider problem in the industry with so many job ads looking for “2-5 years experience”.

      It’s not only arbitrary but to my mind sends a subtle message that managers want a designer who can do everything out of the box (>2 yrs) without costing too much (<5 years).

      Hiring managers: Am I off the mark here? What's underlying this perceived "sweet spot" of experience level?

      1
      • 5

        Nice article Jay.
        Yes I totally agree with you: there is a wider problem in the industry, but there is also a drag in our community of practices about addressing those kind of problems.

        Today we do have a communication disfunctionality when we talk about roles, terms, skills and product/service ownership: ambiguity is always right behind the corner and without clear names it’s difficult for everyone to agree on what we are really discussing. Without a basic layer or a common ground of understanding, I see how the industry is always reverting on measuring the only metric they know and comprehend: what they need VS years of seniority.

        The 2yr < 5yr subtle message, is not very subtle imho, but as @Okibi wrote, part of the game is and should remain in the hands of the candidate: some game rules are not clear but are known, and, in this free market scenario, I find fare a system where you have to create your leading edge.

        We are a young industry and things are going fast. Topics like these is what we need to actually rise awareness and the quality bar of the discussions between hiring managers and professionals.
        And as I said to you last time we spoke, I loved the implementation of your guiding principles in your job posts.

        Keep going!

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  3. 6

    Jay,

    I really like this article, as I feel that a lot of UX job postings aren’t very clear due to vague descriptions, or because the key descriptions are buried underneath a lot of unnecessary filler text. I also like that you’re not afraid to use the hiring page as a ground zero for testing out what works and what doesn’t.

    With all that being said, I’d love to find out whether a complete lack of requirements around desired years of experience has a positive or negative effect on the number of applicants for a position. While I agree that requirements can filter out a lot of qualified candidates, as an applicant I do like to have a general sense of the years of experience needed so I don’t waste my time (and the job poster’s) by applying to a job that really should be applicable to someone with, say, 5+ years of experience.

    It’s a shame that I’m located in the US and can’t fluently communicate German as I would definitely apply to the open UX researcher position.

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    • 7

      Good point, Jon, about being explicit about the career level expected. At Zalando last year we initially left this out because we had a number of openings and could consider a range of candidates. Lately, as you’ll see on our UX jobs page we’ve added the word “senior” to our Interaction Design positions since we now have a more specific target. I still prefer something like “highly experienced” over “senior” and both over an explicit number of years because age or years of experience isn’t a direct match to ability or potential impact.

      As to the question about impact on number of applicants: Our measurements are not accurate enough (and the time frame of our new listings not long enough) to say with confidence. We did see very few “senior” candidates with the non-specific ads, and there *do* seem to be a few more now that we are explicit. However, I think the main issue today is that senior candidates are in such high demand that many of them aren’t actively looking.

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  4. 8

    Jay,

    Thank you for this amazing and fully informative article. People tend to think of this question as something hear-splitting, but it’s not right. To my mind, we need to come to a determination of this question with great relish and application.
    Be creative. Yes, I guess it’s very important. Have you ever read Lakoff’s ”Moral Politics”? The reason of paying attention to this book is eye-catching metaphors with deep figurative sense. Such word combinations impress you from the first seconds you read it. I agree with your idea about creation an opening by killing the job description!
    Actually, one more great problem is ordinary style and predictable sentences. We shouldn’t enervate our job descriptions with spammy words! Picking key words is the necessity. Best job description, by the way, can be found here: https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/blog/2014/04/job-descriptions-that-win-3-outstanding-examples Last but not the least, keeping the uniqueness makes your description leading. Do not forget to check the offer for similarity using Unplag https://unplag.com/ in order to attract good candidates, as I think, they can not bear trashy proposals.

    Jay, thank you again. You gave me the impetus to mull over about this problem!

    0

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