Mariana Lopez joins us to discuss hiring and interviewing for UX roles. She covers the different types of UX roles, and the sorts of questions you can ask to determine if they are a good fit for agile software development teams. We discuss integrating design, UX and development in agile teams using Dual Track Agile, as well as the importance of empathy and teamwork in UX roles. Having a persuasive personality certainly helps, but the role also requires that you have the humility to learn from users as well as collaborate with the business on getting a product to market, even when you’re not totally satisfied with it.
Mariana is COO of WebRTC.ventures, and a longstanding leader in our teams at AgilityFeat, working in many roles across UX, Product Design, and leadership. Mariana holds a Master in Human Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon University and has been a Professor in User Experience at the Universidad de Costa Rica and the Universidad Veritas.
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Show notes with links to jump ahead are below
Show Notes from Episode 8 – Mariana Lopez on Hiring for UX and Design Roles
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- 00:00 Arin and David introduce their colleague Mariana Lopez, a longtime leader in our team who is now COO of WebRTC.ventures, and previously has spent most of her career in UX Design and team leadership roles. David notes the incredible results you can get by putting brilliant cross domain experts together in a room. For our teams at AgilityFeat and WebRTC.ventures, Mariana has always brought a different perspective to our work that is complimentary to Arin and David, and you’ll see that in this episode. Arin points out this shows the value of having UX experts in your team.
- 6:00 Arin brings Mariana into the episode and introduces her background. David and Mariana settle an internal company debate about who was first hired in our team. With apologies to our other teammate Andrea, Mariana was first.
- 8:42 David talks about how he met Mariana and first invited her to work with us at AgilityFeat. They worked together at a start up called Round Box in Costa Rica and David noticed how precisely she speaks and that each word has a purpose. Combined with her general brilliance, this made her an excellent facilitator for the company they worked in and were able to deal with much of the chaos of a startup. After David met Arin and they begin working on AgilityFeat, and Round Box wound down, so David brought her into AgilityFeat.
- 11:33 Mariana gives her side of the story, and notes how it was a blessing in disguise when that company closed since it allowed her to branch out. UX in Costa Rica was very new and she was happy to continue in that field, and work in other areas of UX such as interaction design. She talked about how during this phase we learned about working in different time zones and learned the importance of highly driven people when working in remote teams. Arin jokes about how when he first Mariana, he tried to get her to quit her other job right away to join AgilityFeat full-time, but she wisely wanted to see how things went first before leaping in entirely. David talks about how happy he was that she took that leap and how our shared values as a leadership group has been very important in our decade together.
- 16:10 The conversation moves into UX, and Mariana talks about her journey to UX. Her first exposure was as an undergraduate, where her professors would give the class requirements for a software class, and Mariana wanted to question those requirements. She got into heated requirements with her professors about what should be built and why, and that got her investigating that there must be a better way to figure out what users really want and need. It was during that search that she found the Masters in Human Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon and learned there was a field of study around this question.
- 18:20 Empathy doesn’t always come naturally to software developers because traditionally spend so much time in front of a computer, but learning these skills helped her to become a better manager of software developers and to produce better software. Her training in UX helped her to become more conscious of things like empathy in management, which was very valuable to her overall career path.
- 20:00 David notes how powerful a skill it is to help clients understand when what they are trying to build does not achieve what they want. Delivering value should be the focus of software development, not just the technology or the ideal list of features. Being able to tell a client that “You don’t need that”, and getting them to agree that “You’re right, I don’t need that”, is a superpower that UX training can provide.
- 21:45 How do you draw the distinction between what a product owner might value, versus what the users will actually value? Mariana talks about how being naturally persuasive helps, but it’s also something you can look for when hiring someone for UX. Do they understand the underlying “why” for what is being built, and communicate that back? A good UX person becomes the bridge between the business and users, and if you are a good facilitator, and can gather data from users, then you can be very effective in helping your business client to build the best software.
- 23:55 Arin asks how do you look for that ability in a UX candidate? Mariana starts by talking about the different roles in UX, because the answer varies depending on which UX role you are discussing. In the past, UX teams often had one person and one role, but that is changing now. Mariana lists 5 categories of UX roles:
- User Researchers – They understand the entire vision of the product and are great at interviews when you start out.
- Information Architects – They map the information hierarchy, content strategy, data organization, and navigation
- Interaction Designer – The person who does sketches and wireframes to bring the information architecture to life (this is where Mariana started out)
- Visual Designer – This is the person who makes it appealing. They add in color, branding, typography. This is a separate role from the UX designer in most teams (including ours).
- 27:45 So how do you interview for these roles? Start by asking for a portfolio for Interaction Designers. This will be a great way to talk to them, and the conversation is not so much about the deliverables about the portfolio, but instead the “why”. Why did you make those decisions? For the Researchers and Information Architects, ask more about the type of research they did, and can show how they were able to bring that knowledge into the team. Look for people who are great team members, and who listen, but who can also translate what you told them into concise information that tells a story. To be able to empathize with users, you need to be able to tell a story.
- 30:40 David talks about when he interviews software developers, he uses behavioral interview questions. This is a good way to see a candidate’s soft skills, and see how they will navigate specific situations. Mariana agrees, and discusses how she always asks about their process, and specifically she asks “Tell me about a time where something that got built was not the best experience.” Everyone has been in situations like that where your ideal product was not launched due to budget, timelines, or other constraints. She wants to discover how the candidate found a resolution to these constraints, how they made their case, how they may have compromised to get something out to production, and how they may have followed up with other fixes later. The answers to them help you see what kind of teammate that designer will be. They need to be able to take critique, continue to grow, and build upon what was already done. Arin talks about how a question like this also applies to software developers.
- 35:19 Mariana talks about the tradeoffs between an in-house UX team, and an outside agency. As a manager, you need to decide which way to go, and the answer depends on how much you or your company are ready to invest in those roles. If you are new to leading those roles, or the company is not sold on those roles, then hiring an agency can help you to better understand how those roles will fit in your team. Hiring a single UX person may not change a company’s vision, the company has to value it first. Just hiring a UX designer will not make your application usable.
- 38:02 How do you scale a design group? In our team, we were fortunate that between Mariana and our Visual Designer Daniel Phillips, we were able to cover all 5 roles. But many teams don’t have that advantage. How do you go from zero UX roles to all 5 roles? Which ones are most important. Mariana notes that answer depends on where you are in your process. At early stages of a new product, the User Research and Interaction Design are going to be most important. Then you can add in Visual Design and UI Engineers as the team and product is built out. For larger products, you will need all 5 roles. For smaller products, you can get away with a generalist, but as you grow, you will want all roles so you are balancing day-to-day needs and ongoing research.
- 41:30 How do these different roles work within a development team? Mariana talks about working the UX processes into the cadence of an agile team, because design was an afterthought in many early agile teams. Some designers want everything pixel perfect before development starts, but in agile teams the designer needs to be able to work on it in sprints, and just focus on the design of what is coming next, without losing sight of the big picture. Design has to work in agile teams, and the way to do this is referred to as Dual Track Agile. The design team is working one or two sprints ahead of the development team so that you can provide the design elements necessary to the development team as the highest priority features. The research can be done 2 sprints ahead, which feeds the designs done one sprint ahead, and then the designs can continue to be refined during the sprint as needed.
- 47:35 You don’t have to get it perfect the 1st time in agile. You have to get something delivered and learn from it. Therefore it’s important to look for UX candidates who are willing to evangelize UX within the team, and help the team to understand the principles behind the UX design that was selected. When everyone is aligned on the way to work together, we will build better products.
- 49:00 David talks about working with developers on the Walking Skeleton in the early phases of a project, in order to test the technical architecture. For that initial week or two, Mariana would work in parallel with the customer and users on the design, which allowed the design team to be ready for development to begin, and already be a couple of weeks ahead. That was important to allow the cadence to start properly.
- 49:55 Mariana noted that she learned sometimes we were in too much of a hurry to get something out there, but after getting the initial product out there, we didn’t do enough product testing with users until after an initial deployment. Having a mature UX team is important so that they know the importance of doing that testing with users on an early (even imperfect) version so that you have enough data from real users.
- 52:15 Mariana notes how as software evolves, it’s important to understand that UX design is different for different modes of interaction. As Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Voice APIs, Video applications, and more advanced technologies continue to grow, some UX designers will specialize in those modes of interaction. This is important since the user experience is not as easily predictable, because it’s not just a straightforward path of button clicks through a web application. In more dynamic applications like that, user research is important to see how people try to use your application in unexpected ways and what obstacles they encounter.
- 55:25 Arin talks about how helpful it’s been with clients to bring design teams on-site, even though our team has always worked mostly remote. This is a very exciting aspect of a product when the client is just starting to see their ideas come to life. For companies considering hybrid work, these phases are particularly valuable times to bring people together in the same physical location. Mariana notes that it’s even better when you get to observe real users in their normal environments during this phase. Arin and Mariana recount a time where she did that with a construction software company on-site, and how valuable that was for her to meet the users of the application and better understand an industry she had no previous experience.
- 1:00:10 The interview wraps up! In conclusion, Mariana emphasizes the importance of understanding where your organization is before trying to hire for UX. It’s not just about hiring one person, you need to understand that it’s a way of working and you are trying to build out the whole journey. Note: David’s connection dropped out at the end of the conversation as he was noting how much fun it’s been working with Mariana over the years.
Links from Episode 8 – Mariana Lopez on Hiring for UX and Design Roles