We chatted with UX Director David Krovitz to find out what he looks for in a bona fide UXer and how other companies can follow his lead.
Currently the Director of Design and Innovation at The Walt Disney Company, David was a partner at Venice agency Push Offices and has served in UX / IA roles at Yahoo!,Genex, Zentropy Partners, and BermanBraun. He’s also a judge for the Interactive Emmy Awards and a repeat Webby Awards’ finalist and winner for best Celebrity/Fan sites.
How would you explain your job to your uncle?
The analogy I’ve used for years is that I am an “architect of digital products” and work just like an architect would on a home or apartment remodel. First, I would talk with my uncle about goals, budget and vision. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? How will we measure success? I get examples of the things he likes. I elicit from him the things he doesn't like. Then I go off, do some sketching and planning, and come back with something concrete to review.
Then we talk. We revise. Sometimes the budget goes up or down. The point is that all of this work, the planning and concept work, happens before the actual construction. My deliverables are the blueprints and schematics that make digital products happen, and the better I do my job, the easier things are to build and the more sure we are of success in the end.
Just as no one would expect to build a house without a plan, no one should jump into a digital endeavor without a vision and concrete plan in place.
What do you look for when hiring a UX Designer?
When I evaluate someone, I look at the combination of three things:
I always start with the portfolio. For me, it’s all about the work. I’m looking for great execution and technical proficiency. I look for diversity of projects and thinking. And I check to see if the portfolio can scale across different browser sizes. The last point is really important for a digital designer. Do they have a portfolio built in a modern, responsive, mobile-friendly way? I need digital designers who think about designs in context, and a person’s portfolio is the first impression of this level of thinking. The first piece of advice I would give is to invest in an easy responsive portfolio template, and make it look great across viewport sizes. You never get a second chance at a first impression.
For resumes, I’m a big fan of the one-page resume. The more senior a UX person becomes, the more experiences they have to share, so the challenge of creating a one-page resume becomes more difficult. It forces them to evaluate their skills and experience, focusing only on the moments that matter. Each job opportunity may require a slightly different resume. So creating all of that in one page is quite a bit of UX in itself.
The more design-focused the opportunity, the more design-focused the resume should be. For a visual designer, that translates to good typography and a gorgeous layout.
“Consider the portfolio and the resume part of your personal brand, a marketing opportunity allowing you to tell your story.“
LinkedIn provides additional context and dimension. I always try to look up a candidate on LinkedIn to see reviews, outside interests, people they are following, influencers and connections.
In many cases, I am a second or third-degree connection from the candidate. This can be an easy conversation starter. I definitely get a more complete picture on LinkedIn.
For a mid and senior-level person, I am also looking for awards, accolades, interesting projects, patents and the like. If I’m hiring someone junior, I look to see that they have worked as part of a team before, not just on personal projects or freelance work. I put a premium on agency experience. Depending on the agency, I will know that they have had experience crafting high-quality deliverables under strong creative direction. Hopefully, they will have also been involved in different projects on different types of multi-disciplinary teams.
In order to hire someone, I obviously need to spend time with them in person in an interview setting. The interview process is really key, because it’s where we talk about concepts, do some white-boarding, and I discover if the person is not only competent, but confident. I need designers who can clearly articulate their ideas and enroll a room full of people in their vision.
The more senior person a person is, the more autonomous I need this person to be right off the bat, so it is important to understand if we can gel quickly and if they feel comfortable taking a leadership role. The ideal candidate is someone who can lead as well as take direction; someone who can own the experience strategy and creative vision.
So for a more junior level person, you would look for agency work?
I do. An agency environment is a great learning environment. I started my professional career on the agency side, and I believe that a year at the right agency can be worth double or triple the time working in-house or even at a startup.
While at an agency, designers learn to be efficient and fast. There are multiple projects, multiple managers, multiple clients and multiple processes. All happening at the same time. There is passion. There is money. There is ego. And there is competition. A junior designer will know very quickly where they stand, and the better the agency, the better the talent, creative direction and mentorship.
At an agency, a young designer will learn tips, tricks and tactics to bring out their best work. Equally, they will soon discover the types of team environments they thrive in. The best advice I can give young designers is to try a variety of settings and experiences, within different structures. See what you like, where you do your best work, and who you learn best from. Then seek out those environments that nurture as well as push you.
What’s a revealing question you could ask a UX candidate that would let you know whether or not they’re right for the job?
I would ask, “What is the greatest project you’ve ever worked on, the one you’re most proud of, and why?” and, equally, “What is your biggest professional disaster and why?”
Of course there is no right or wrong answer. I’m looking to discover a person’s passion and integrity. What does “success” mean to them? What does “best” mean?
Does “best” for them mean the awards they won? The one that got them on the cover of AdAge or FastCompany? Or does “best” mean best for the customers by lifting engagement by 20%? There’s no right or wrong answer, but I think it reveals a lot about values.
Now, the “biggest disaster” question tells me a little bit about how humble they are. Especially in this “Fail Early, Fail Often” culture, I think a UX designer has to own the fact that they’ve made hypotheses that didn’t turn out the way they expected. Sometimes we swing for the fences and really strike out. Talking about our failures forces the discussion around outcomes, which is really the essence of our job. Designing outcomes for real people. And sometimes we miss the mark. And that is a critical part of our job. Failure is just a step in the process of moving in the right direction.
How do you know you need a UX designer to help your company?
I don’t know a company out there that doesn’t want to increase sales, increase productivity, add value and drive ROI. Executives want to get smarter about who their customers are, what they do, and where they struggle. Whether you’re a large enterprise or a small startup, a seasoned, talented user experience designer is critical to the success of any project. They will help ask the tough questions and work through the answers quickly and collaboratively, like “What do we need people to do in order to be successful?”, “What should we stop doing?” and “Who is this for and why they care?”
A UX designer can help answer these questions, help create the vision, articulate the design, test the hypotheses and work with customers and stakeholders to build products that matter. In short, a UX designer helps a company focus their digital efforts.
How should a company work with a UX designer?
I always think of design as an investment. So just as you would prioritize marketing or sales as a mission-critical part of any initiative, prioritizing the design, and the process of design, is of equal importance.
Many people only think of design in relation to the final product: Photoshop files, or wireframes or prototypes that can be handed off or built. And that is surely the most visible part of the process. That is the “making” part of the process. But design is as much about thinking as making. And the better the thinking, the better the making.
The biggest hurdle companies face when hiring designers is they aren’t prepared to pay for “thinking time.” They have their PRD or PowerPoint deck or design brief and just want a designer to execute.
“The dirty little secret is that companies actually NEED their designers to think in order for them to do great work.“
Designers need to be enrolled in the solution they create. They need to understand the customers—who they are, what they do, why things matter—in order to best to address their needs, fix their problems, or create something new. The more involved designers are in the creation of the business goals, identifying user goals and stitching them together to form measurable success metrics, the more personally invested the designer is in the solution they are creating.
And this results in better work. Quicker work. And work that is part of a true collaboration. Companies would be wise to consider bringing in a UX expert early in their process, even for a week, to sit with the business owners, customers, and developers, get to know the landscape, and help craft the experience strategy or vision that they will be marching towards.
What about the costs of bringing in a user experience expert?
I have been on both sides of the freelance ecosystem. I’ve been a contractor and a hiring manager. I have contributed to million-dollar, multi-year initiatives, and I have had to get something out the door in three weeks.
My first recommendation when evaluating costs is to think holistically. What are all the resources needed to bring this idea to life? What are the inputs I need? What are the outputs? What are the roles?
Traditionally, the largest expenditure for a digital initiative is engineering. And engineering cost estimates are generally made in terms of weeks and months. While design estimates are generally made in terms of days.
We don’t question an estimate that calls for five engineers for six months plus a technical project manager, and yet we balk at the need for an extra week of a designer’s time. This inequality needs to change. Design is an integral part of the user experience.
My recommendation is to double the amount of time allocated for design and urge the team to create an additional prototype sooner, validate with real customers faster, and revise more quickly. That last step, in and of itself, will more than pay for the cost of the designer through saved re-work time and effort.
My second recommendation is to experiment with different levels of design talent for different lengths of time. This will help you find your sweet spot of performance, efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Different jobs require different levels of design talent.
Finally, there is real proof in the marketplace that good design matters, and elegant, gorgeous experiences work better for marketing, entertaining, selling and generally establishing and reinforcing your digital brand.
We are seeing large enterprises like IBM, GE, and Fidelity invest millions of dollars in their internal design teams, because innovation matters and designers have proven to be that engine of innovation. Design agencies like Adaptive Path and Teehan+Lax have been incorporated into these larger enterprises (CapitalOne and Facebook, respectively) as the currency of beautiful design has risen.
Whatever your product or service, if it competes in an open marketplace filled with elegant, intuitive, social, mobile, personalized experiences, you will need great design in order to succeed.
It is definitely a great time to be a designer!