Dear Designer,

What are hiring managers looking for?

This what one of the most asked questions I got in the initial batch, so I thought I should probably answer it first. Here’s what you asked:

What do you look for in an awesome UX designer? What soft skills set UX designers apart? How much do you value soft skills vs hard skills?

I am an international student who’s looking for full-time UX Designer role. COVID didn’t allow much of internships to happen, so I do have my portfolio and experience through academic projects, but not much through the industry. I understand that getting a job is difficult. But how do I really stand out to the company with 200+ applicants? How do i get the first call for an interview?

I've seen a big part in recruiting in UX is having a portfolio that stands out from the status quo and of course, that looks different for everyone. I comb through a lot of portfolios and I'm always inspired because I love how some are so unique to some people. But of course I can't replicate that because that's not me! So I struggle a bit with making mine stand out. Has there been a (or a few) portfolio that was particularly memorable to you or content that you appreciated someone included?

what do you look for in new, older designers transitioning?

What are the most crucial skill expectations for a newbie in the first weeks of the job? I’m confident I can figure out anything tossed my way but it might take me a bit longer to process at first!

I have been asked this question for years: "Is it all about the UX portfolio?”

Is it all about the portfolio? How do You stand out? What are realistic expectations for people just starting out? What are people even looking for?!? So, what are hiring managers even looking for?

First of all, it’s important to remember: every hiring manager is different and, to make it even more complicated, a given hiring manager’s requirements and preferences very likely change from team to team they’re leading. This is because every team is a different and they all need different things. With that in mind here are the main things to keep in mind while you’re job hunting and trying to get someone’s attention:

Most of the time they’ve told you what they’re looking for.

There are some really, truly bad job descriptions out there but these days they are a shrinking minority. Recruiters are actually leading the way here and forcing a lot of us to follow best practices they’re establishing for job descriptions that actually describe what skills and experiences we’re looking for people to have.

Does it say something like “Design layouts, interaction patterns, and system components?” Make sure you have examples of that in your portfolio and make sure you mention it in your resume. “Work closely with product managers?” Make sure you talk about how you collaborated with people in product roles in your case studies and on your resume. These are the things we’re looking for when we’re reviewing your resumes and portfolios. You don’t have to make specialized resumes or portfolios for every job you apply for, but make sure you have highlighted the things they are asking for in your portfolio and resume before you apply for the job.

At a lot of companies (especially bigger companies) they are almost certainly doing some kind of keyword filtering for the those specific things. If you don’t have those words, you will get filtered out. Even if they’re using only humans to filter down the list of people they’re going to call, they’re looking for those things so make sure you have them.

Make your portfolio stand out

This does not mean it has to be overly flashy, or super technical. In fact if your site crashed my browser or causes my laptop’s fans to kick on and crank up to full speed I probably am asking myself “what exactly is going on here?” and that’s probably not what you intended. What it does mean is: MAKE YOUR PORTFOLIO ABOUT YOU!!!

I’m going to say that again because it’s so important: OMG PLEASE PLEASE MAKE YOUR PORTFOLIO ABOUT YOU, PLEASE!!!

If I had to guess, 80% of the portfolios I review are nearly indistinguishable from each other. They are like the same portfolio with slightly different words and colors. This is especially important for you bootcamp grads. The main way I can tell someone went to a UX bootcamp is because their portfolio is just a template they filled in and it looks like pretty much every other bootcamp portfolio I’ve seen, and I’ve seen thousands of them at this point. The portfolios I remember the best are the ones that focus on the designers that made them and the experiences they’ve had. So here’s three things to do to make your portfolio stand out and make hiring managers remember you:

  1. I’m going to say it a third time because it’s that important: Make your portfolio about you. You are the product. Don’t tell me your current employer’s pitch. Don’t give me the marketing copy for the product you worked for. TELL ME ABOUT YOU PLEASE! You are the one I’m considering hiring. Everything in your portfolio is actually just you talking about how great you are at this stuff, so make sure that’s what you actually do.

  2. Please don’t tell me about The UX Process just to show me you know it. Trust me when I tell you, it is immediately apparent to most of us when you don’t know it, even when you include it in each and every case study. This includes making up personas just to have them. If your instructor made you do it, fine, but leave it out of your case study unless it’s backed up by real research. This is a mistake almost everyone makes, especially people just starting out. When you do it you look like everyone else. Each of your case studies should be demonstrating some skills you are good at and would like to get paid to do over and over again for at least the next year or two. Before you sit down to write your case studies make a list of 5-10 skills you want to showcase (like the ones in the job descriptions we talked about above) and decide which projects you’re going to use to showcase which skills.

  3. Don’t make things up about your role or the project itself. Doing so seems to be super common advice, but it is super bad advice. It’s very obvious when brand new designers are trying to make a school or personal project look like something someone paid them to do. You’re not fooling any of us. It’s ok to be new and it’s ok to have school work in your portfolio. It’s not ok to lie about it and try to pass it off as “freelance” work. 99% of the time the problem with your school project is the way you’re presenting it, not that it’s a school project.

Senior Designers are so much more than pixel pushers

If you’re looking to make the transition from Designer to Senior Designer (or Researcher to Senior Researcher), you’d better be talking to me more about how you work with the people involved in projects than about how your work with Figma or some other tool. The primary thing that dictates the seniority of a designer (at companies that know what they’re doing) is how good they are at managing all the other people involved in the design process. The more senior you get, the more time you spend thinking about what you need to do to get people on board with the ideas you’re coming up with, so show me that.

Career Switchers, you are not starting from scratch

UX is a very popular field for career switchers to come into. Assuming you’ve taken a realistic look at what the job actually is and you’ve not run away screaming you are not starting from zero. Design is a professional service job. Even when you’re on an in-house team, a huge part of the job is working with people who don’t know how to do this stuff. If you’re switching from another career where you’ve also had to: work with people a lot, balance competing priorities, take and give feedback, and/or communicate outcome of meetings and work to people who weren’t there to see it then congratulations! All that experience is applicable to a design job, and you should talk about it when you’re interviewing and on your resume. You will still need to spend the time to learn the tools of the trade, but the people stuff is what we spend a lot of time teaching junior designers directly out of school, so you have a bit of a head start there.

Junior Designers, your main job is to learn how to get promoted

It’s scary when you’ve run the gauntlet and survived and the prize is more uncertainty. A lot of the companies that hire entry level designers don’t do a good job setting clear expectations. This is because a lot of places that hire entry level designers sadly don’t know what the expect from them. If you’re in your first year in a job as a designer or researcher, your main job is to learn the things you need to stop being entry level. Most of the time that means learning all the stuff it just wasn’t possible to teach you in school, whatever type of school you went to. All the working with people (”soft” skills…uggg I hate that term so much.) Design is a professional service, which means it’s mostly working with and managing the expectations of people. That’s not something we can teach in school, so most of us more seasoned designers agree that’s the main thing we want from you when we’re paying you for your first year or so. And no, sadly internships don’t really count here. Most internship programs are curated to avoid this stuff and focus on the tools skills your school is giving you credit for learning.

So there you have it. More than anything else we’re looking for you to be you, focused on the areas that you’re interested in and the most skilled at, and the experiences you’ve had that make you stand out from everyone else. All the hiring managers I asked agree on this point, so please stop trying to make yourselves look like everyone else, and show us a little bit about who you are.

Until next time 🤙