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Unicorns Need Not Apply

I was drawn to HIVE ’11, a one-day event “exploring the value of design in technology” held at the Microsoft Conference Center in September, by the promise of insights from revered Microsoft alums August de los Reyes and Scott Berkun, as well as design leaders from Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Surprisingly, one of the HIVE presentations that stuck with me was geared toward CEO’s rather than designers (though few CEO’s attended). In “How CEOs Can Lead to Great Design,” Jake Knapp and Braden Kowitz presented a game plan for building a great design team, including what skills to look for when hiring designers.

While the ideal team is made up of individuals with expertise in user research, UX (user experience) design, visual design, content and messaging, and front-end development, many companies make the mistake of looking for what Knapp and Kowitz called the elusive “unicorn” – a designer who is an expert in all these areas.

Of course, there’s one glaring problem with that kind of wishful thinking: There is no such creature in the design world.

No one can be all things to all people, as the saying goes, and Knapp and Kowitz explained that organizations need teams of people with unique and complementary skillsets. In an ideal world, there will be a bit of overlap between disciplines and skills, as this can make for smoother communication and less friction and territorialism.

Rather than looking for designers who can code – they exist, but are rare finds – organizations should focus on finding developers who love design, which are far more plentiful.

Check out minutes 6:26-10:38

What’s my take?

I couldn’t agree more that you should hire designers who are really good at design (whether it is interaction/UX or visual design) and may have some “soft skills” in the development world but don’t claim to be experts.

Leave that to the developers, I say!

If you hire developers who are passionate about design, it will go a long way toward ensuring both goodwill and positive communication between the two disciplines … which will lead to a strong, effective product.

I’ve worked with some awesome front-end developers over the years. The relationships that were most collaborative – that produced the best end-product – were with developers who had as much of an eye for design detail as I do. They didn’t complain when I asked that a button be moved 3 pixels to the left, because they understood that little things can make a big difference in the quality of the product and the experience customers will have. (Apple’s famous attention to detail is a big factor in its ability to sell a bajillion products each year.)

Other qualities we look for when hiring designers at Produxs:

  • Solid problem-solving skills. Can they clearly articulate their process and demonstrate it in their work? Do they ask good questions that help understand and dissect business/customer issues?
  • A deep understanding of users. How do they use data and metrics to understand user behavior? How have they leveraged research in their designs?
  • Positive and professional behavior. Can they take constructive criticism? What mistakes have they made and what did they learn from them? How did failure help them improve?

What do we avoid in hiring?

We avoid designers who claim to be “unicorns” or assure us they never make mistake.

What are the skills you look for when hiring designers?

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