Julie Zhuo started working at Facebook almost eight years ago at age 22. At the time, she didn't know what she'd be working on, or where the company was going. But she liked its energy, the way everyone hacked forward, together. Today, as Director of Product Design, she feels like she was able to grow up with the organization — and as a result, shape several of the processes that have made Facebook unique.
One of these defining processes is hiring some of the best design talent in the world to think through the complex and often delicate interactions people have online. And Zhuo has seen both sides of the coin: How to hire designers for a mature corporation, and what to look for at the very beginning.
“At a startup, you need your first one or two designers to be versatile — great jacks-of-all-trades," she says. "Not only do they need to deeply understand and think through product strategy, they also need to have good interaction chops and decent visual sense, since they’ll be doing everything from designing the UX to thinking about the brand to designing icons — they need to have a diverse skill set."
In this exclusive interview, Zhuo shares how Facebook finds, interviews and secures phenomenal designers — including those elusive Swiss army knife individuals who can do it all — and how startups of any size can apply these principles to build bullet-proof design arsenals of their own.
According to Zhuo, finding the ideal designer who fits your needs is a two-part process. First, you have to find promising candidates (she runs through three concrete steps). And second, you need to decide if they're right for your team — which can be trickier than it seems.
PHASE ONE: Finding Quality Candidates
Be a Sleuth
The best way to find great talent is to look at the products you admire and figure out who built them.
“That’s how we hired some of our earliest designers,” Zhuo says.
She recommends sourcing lists of beloved apps and products from your whole team — not just the ones that are commercially successful, but even small apps or ideas that have an angle of something great, selecting for the ones that showcase the same skills and interactions you’re looking to build.
“Read the small print on products with elements you like— like a particularly effective UX, or an innovative feature, or a very polished, well-done navigation system, and then hunt through Google, LinkedIn and AngelList until you find the people behind them.” After you do that, the key is to not be too shy to reach out. People love hearing from fans, no matter what kind of work they do.
Tap into the Design Network
“Even now, the design community is still relatively small,” says Zhuo. “The fact that it’s so close and connected can work to your advantage.” For example, whenever a new designer joins Facebook, she always asks: “Who have you worked with in the past? Who would you love to work with again?”
In some cases, especially if you’re at a startup, it’s not unlikely that you’ll contract design work with people you’ve found on networks like Dribbble or Behance. Once you’ve found someone you like working with, but who you can’t hire full-time, they can become your entree to a broader network of designers who are more likely to understand your design language and objectives.
Build Relationships and Be Patient
A good search requires time and interpersonal energy. This is especially true when you’re recruiting designers who make decisions based largely on passion projects and learning opportunities.
“Sometimes we’ll reach out to a designer whose work we really like and just start a casual dialogue. That’s how you get to know people. It’s not just about: okay, do you want to work with us? Because sometimes people are working on projects they’re really excited about at the time,” says Zhuo. “But if you have that connection later on when the timing is right, you can bring them in.”
PHASE TWO: The Interview Process
Look at the Goods
Early in the hiring process, Facebook brings potential candidates on-site to present their work to members of the design team. Seeing the work in person is a top priority.
It's impossible to talk about design without looking at the work.
“I wouldn’t be able to hire anyone based on a conversation about skill sets,” says Zhuo, who still recommends one to two phone screens to make sure it's worth it from a cultural or experience standpoint to bring someone in. “You have to see what they’ve done so you can dissect it in person.”
For this reason, empahsis is placed much more on candidates' backgrounds than on in-person tests, brain teasers or white-boarding.
It’s critical that your hiring team scrutinizes the apps, websites or products designers have built as part of their portfolio or previous work experience. Both the candidate and the work should be able to withstand it. To make sure they’ve taken a thorough look, Zhuo provides a checklist to her hiring teams to analyze the quality of the work presented:
The idea: “Is there a solid rationale behind why they worked on what they worked on? Does it identify a real problem and attempt to solve it?”
Usability: “Is it easy to use? Is the design thoughtful and clear for how this product works? Does the designer have a good grasp of common patterns and interactions?”
Craftsmanship: “Did the designer sweat over all the details, both big and small, of the end-to-end product? Is there a sense that the final product is well-made? We’re not looking for something that’s just functional. We want products that leave people feeling like the folks who built this cared about them and their individual experiences. That aspect of high quality and craft is extremely important to us.”
“We don’t try to make these presentations too formal, like they’re giving a talk in front of a ton of people — it’s more like hey, we would love to learn more about your background and how you got to where you are now, and what excites you about the project you’re telling us about. What were you especially proud of?” Zhuo says. She has seen people put together elaborate Keynote presentations. But she’s also had people come in with just a folder of their past work and talk through it.
“In some of the best cases, candidates have included early drafts or sketches of their work so they can talk about the different things they considered doing and why they ultimately went the way they did.”
All of this can tell you a lot about a prospective co-worker. “You want to keep things open ended, not try to get people with gotchas or ‘true or false’ questions,” she says. “You find out more about someone that way.”
If the signals from their work is positive, you’ve found a very promising candidate. Facebook even applies these principles when they acquire teams of designers: When it came to bringing both software design team Sofa and location-based app Gowalla in-house, “It was because we really admired their products.”
Hire a Person, Not a Program
While Facebook does hire out of prestigious universities and top-ranked design programs, Zhuo emphasizes that this is just one aspect of their search rubric. It’s critical to remember that for every talented designer who graduates from a formal program, there’s another of equal caliber who learned independently.
“Sometimes, designers without traditional training possess an ingenuity that you don’t usually see,” says Zhuo. “We’re really just looking for people who have that element of extreme proactivity. Even if they did go to a great school, they should have experience stretching themselves on projects both inside and outside of the classroom. Great candidates take the initiative to experiment, design and build on their own.”
Product and design managers looking to weed out blander, less creative candidates with great pedigrees should look for indicators of proactive behavior in their portfolios.
You want a designer who has looked for opportunities in their own lives: Problems that need fixing. Things that could be easier.
“You want someone who sees there’s a problem and wonders why no one has come up with a hack to fix it or a tool to make it easy yet. Then they go and design that tool. Do they include that in their professional submissions? If they do, that’s a good sign.”
Simulate a Team Dynamic
Poor team dynamics are a problem for a company of any size, but they can make or break a startup fast. A superstar designer may not be worth the potentially fatal trouble of a superstar ego. And a shy but talented designer may not share their opinion often enough or have the initiative to do what needs to be done without being told.
Ultimately, “You want people who are open to feedback but can also distill that feedback, have an opinion about the right direction to go, including what the pros and cons of different proposals are, and who can articulate all that in a way that everyone can understand,” Zhuo says.
The best way to pinpoint this personality is to simulate the experience of being on the team in the interview process — and then assessing how the candidate fares.
“We usually have the person talk to three or four different designers on the team,” says Zhuo, “We’re trying to make it as real as possible, to approximate what it is like to actually work together: Helping each other, looking at each other’s work, getting each other’s feedback and criticism and having thorough discussions.”
Zhuo and her team ask potential designers to walk through both their work and their story in an open-ended conversation to figure out what it would be like to work with them on a daily basis. Personality cues are just as important as their professional track record during this part of the process. When the candidate doesn’t know where the conversation is going, it’s harder to provide rehearsed answers, and it’s easier to slip into their true, everyday habits and beliefs.
Not only does this help Zhuo and her team assess culture fit, it clarifies how the person will manage and deal with problems — including the unexpected.
You can learn a lot about designers just from their process, how they got started, what they struggled with.
She also suggests that it helps to have the candidate talk about a design they’re familiar with: “What are your favorite apps to use on your phone? Walk us through why you think this product is well-designed? Or how do you think this product could be improved?”
When it comes to working on a team, “It’s not just about the final product,” says Zhuo. “It’s also about the process of getting there,” and hearing candidates talk about how they’ve moved through projects with past teams can shed immense light on their potential — and you can get a sense of their work ethic and ego along the way.
Watch How Their Minds Work
A designer must have the capacity for high-level analysis. The right candidate should “have really great observation skills and pay attention… she really thinks critically about what could be better about any given product you throw at her," Zhuo says.
She recommends presenting a candidate with a really big, hypothetical problem. “Let’s say we asked you to design a common interface, like a kitchen stove or a microwave. Now, you’re not actually going to come up with complete designs for a full kitchen stove in 30 minutes — but it’s just a way to look at how you approach a big problem: How do you break it down? How do you get started on designs?”
Generally, you don’t want candidates that jump immediately into answer-mode. You want the candidate who asks about and appreciates the constraints, who suggests unique touches based on human behaviors they’ve observed, and who gives well-reasoned arguments about all their decisions. You want someone who asks a lot of questions, listens carefully, and weighs conflicting responses to arrive at an answer.
Turn the Tables
Give your candidate the chance to assess what your team has done so far — and to articulate what they’d keep, what they’d change, and why.
“If there is a way for the designer to use the product that has been built... to look at it in its current state, then see what they have to say,” urges Zhuo. “What would they be excited about changing? How do they think it could be improved? How would they work with you to figure out the best design and solution? Have them give a critique of your product. That is one of the easiest ways to understand whether this is going to be a really great fit.”
And the Most Important Quality…
The mark of a really great designer is that every decision they've made has a purpose, has intentionality.
To get at whether someone really has this attribute, Zhuo asks a few favorite interview questions:
Think of a long-term project in your portfolio. “If you had two more months to work on it, what would you have done differently? What would have you added or continued to refine?” Thoughtful candidates are the ones who have been so attached to a project that they’ve thought many many times about how they could have made it better. “Occasionally you’ll get people who’ll say what they ended up with was perfect and they’d change nothing, or who suggest very minor cosmetic changes, which doesn’t come across as super thoughtful.”
Have you worked on large teams? “If a candidate says yes, then you need to get to the bottom of what they actually did on that team. Ask them: What decisions were you directly responsible for? Collaborators with a clear sense of their own value and contributions are often excellent additions to a team.”
Have them pick an app or a product they love. “Ask them to analyze why they think the person who designed it made the decisions they made and whether they agree. We want someone who can dig into something they really do love but still see what they would have done differently.”
The last question is a good one in particular, because it exposes a candidate’s values — and that should be the ultimate goal of your process going in, Zhuo says. When you ask someone to evaluate their work or someone else’s they are bound to focus on something in particular — the elegance of its look and feel, whether the core idea was a good one begin with, or the way different interactions play out.
“We have multiple people ask similar questions like these because you want to understand what’s really important to someone. That's the key."
Julie Zhuo started as a Product Designer at Facebook in 2006 after graduating from Stanford. Today, she manages the design and research teams working on News Feed, content, navigation and the core mobile experience. She tweets at @joulee.
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