Summary: The speed and transparency of the application and interview process was a breath of fresh air. I wish I could have gone all the way but making it to the third round, the top 6% of applicants, for UX Specialists at NNG is still pretty good. At least I learned some good lessons that I’ll be able to utilize next time.
First Exposure to the UX Field
My first introduction to the field of user experience (UX) design was when I was exposed to the writings of Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman while an undergraduate at BYU circa the year 2000. As one of my electives, I opted into a Human Computer Interaction class and had no idea it would have such an impact on my view of the design of computer user interfaces (UIs) and the field of UX design. My class professor had us read Nielsen’s book “Designing Web Usability” and Norman’s book “The Design of Everyday Things.” Both books resonated with me and became the initial seed of a career-long interest in making interfaces more user friendly for the end users of computer systems.
Use of UX Principles in my Digital Marketing Analytics Career
Over the past twenty years, my career has mostly been in the area of digital marketing and digital analytics. I have been heavily involved in website and mobile app development, as well as digital marketing through email, social media, paid search, display ads, and organic search engine optimization. While I have never had “UX” or “designer” in my job title, I have found continual use of the Nielsen Norman Group’s (NNG) UX design principles in my work. NNG takes a very data-driven approach to UX design, developing best practices that are a result of research and real user testing to determine if UX designs achieve their goals. Similarly, my work in digital analytics has always been driven by empirical verification if systems are meeting their goals.
In 2011, I became a product manager of the websites and mobile apps for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was in that role, more so than in my other roles over the years, that I was most often directly doing UX design and employing the principles and practices I had learned from Nielsen and Norman. I conducted information architecture studies, developed wireframes and low fidelity prototypes, and rad usability tests on the sites and apps. It was also during these years that I received my UX certification from NNG.
NNG UX Specialist Job Openings in Spring 2022
Since 2015, I have been more heavily involved in the digital analytics side of the marketing world, but I have always maintained my subscription to the NNG weekly newsletter. While their content is targeting those in the UX field, I have found many of their articles and videos still very applicable to my digital marketing world. In March of 2022, I saw in that email that NNG was hiring UX Specialist for the first time since 2018. I immediately dusted off my 2018 application. I carefully re-read the job description, paying close attention to exactly what they were looking for, rewrote my cover letter, updated to my resume, made some adjustments to required the writing sample, and threw my hat in the ring. I had applied back in 2018m, with no luck, was this was a rare opening to get into a world class organization, so how could I not at least try for it again.
In less than an hour after submitting my application, NNG emailed me back to let me know I had made it into the second round. I was thrilled! According to NNG, only 25% of applicants make it to the second round, so I was honored. The second round of the interview had two parts: 1) a design review exercise, and 2) a short video presentation. For the design review exercise, they gave me a screen shot of a window from a financial services website and asked me to critique it. The exercise asked me to write a usability analysis of this interface, pretending I was writing a consulting report for an NNG client. They asked me to include what was good and bad about the UX based on my knowledge of user experience principles and prior research.
For the video portion of round two, I was to pretend I was teaching a training class for NNG and at the end of the lecture, the audience was allowed to ask questions. NNG gave me the audience member question, and I was to record my two-minute long response to the question. Public speaking is a very important part of the job, and the exercise was designed to show how I might appear to audiences and that I could give a concise but complete answer.
Both of these exercises were right up my alley. The written analysis was akin to things I do every day in my job, analyzing UIs and offering suggestions for improvement. The video was fun too, and it was helpful that it was pre-recorded and I could take as my tries as I wanted and submit the version of the video I liked best. I attached my written design review and video to an email, submitted it, and again, in less than an hour got an invitation to round three of the UX Specialist job interview. I was amazed! In retrospect, I got my hopes up too high at this point, but who can blame me.
Round three of the UX Specialist job interview with NNG was a video conference meeting with one of the existing members of the team at NNG. About a day after being alerted to the fact that I made it to round three, I got an email from an employee at NNG who would be conducting the interview. This was a person I was familiar with, by name anyway, because they have written articles for the NNG website and recorded videos for the company in the past. I wasn’t sure how to prepare for the interview. Unlike the previous stages, NNG provided no guidance on how to prepare, so I re-read the job description and made notes of how my work experience aligns to what they are looking for. I tried to familiarize myself with other aspects of NNG’s website, including their services, all in an effort to better understand their business.
At the appointed time, I launched the Zoom meeting link that NNG sent. When I logged in, I immediately noticed that my video on Zoom looked dark and blurry. In my day job, we use Microsoft Teams and my video had never looked so bad in that app. I was distracted by the poor video quality, afraid it might affect the professional look I was trying to portray, but had to quickly put it out of my mind because the interview was starting.
The UX Specialist from NNG was very friendly and professional, including good lighting in their incoming video. They had clearly read my resume, cover letter, and the other materials that I had submitted in the application, and asked me to start off by telling about myself and my career. They asked why I wanted to work for their company and do UX work, which I answered reasonably well, I think. The interviewer asked me about the writing sample I had submitted with my application on the purposes and principles of websites’ main menu navigation. This led to a conversation about information architecture (IA) because my website menu article cited IA as as key part of good navigation. I was super nervous, but up to this point, the interview was going reasonably well.
But then came one of the questions that caused me to stumble a little. The interviewer asked me, if I was to get the job, which area of UX would I like to research more? It wasn’t that hard of a question, in fact, for some people, it would seem to be a softball, but I did not have the various dimensions of UX in mind. In fact, I felt like my mind went blank and when I knew I could procrastinate answering no longer, I gave a presumably sub-optimal answer that I would research why more companies do not adopt UX best practices.
The interviewer, seeming to cue off my previous response, asked me to imagine that I was designing a new, one-day course on “How to sell UX.” They asked me to describe how I would approach developing such a training class. For this question, I think I bounced back a little. I said my approach would be to do research, looking for themes and common obstacles, and then using those as my outline for the class.
Their questions for me lasted for about 40 minutes. The final question/request was for me to walk through a UX design concept. Again, my mind drew a blank. In fact, during the interview, I felt like my brain was operating at one of two extremes–either my mind was racing with my mouth frantically trying to keep up, or my mind was blank and I didn’t know what to say. Luckily, the interview offered to give me a prompt with more detail on the request. They said to imagine I was explaining usability testing to a client who was new to it. After that, my brain jump into hyper speed again, and I easily talked through the major steps in usability testing. The one thing I neglected, in respect, in that final answer, was to sell the benefits of usability testing.
Not Moving on To Round Four
I knew I hadn’t performed as well as I could have in round three, still I was hoping and praying that it would be enough to get me through to step four, where I felt confident I could really shine. I knew what was roughly going to happen in round four because NNG was very open about the process from the time I made it to round two. They sent me a document with all the steps in the interview and recruiting process (see Appendix 1: Appendix 1: Eight Step NNG Recruiting Process) and even included what percentage of applicants generally make it through each round.
The transparency with which NNG treated the whole application process was a breathe of fresh air, as was how quickly they responded to emails and moved from step to step. So many companies I have applied at over the years, even very reputable ones, will not send notifications until months later, and some not at all, if you were not selected to move on in the process. But this was not so with NNG–three days after the videoconference interview of round three, I was informed that I would not be moving forward in the UX Specialist application process.
What I Would Do Differently Next Time
Obviously I was saddened by the result, but I understood. I did not come across as professional, poised, and put together as I would have liked–all of those being very important characteristics for a top-notch consulting and training company. In retrospect, I could have prepared better for most of the questions. NNG does research, thus they asked me what research I would like to do. NNG conducts training classes, thus they asked me how I would put together a class. NNG is deeply immersed in the UX world, thus they asked me about UX design concepts and UX sub-areas of interest of mine. Basically, the interviewer asked me to show how I would do the job, hitting the ground running from day one.
I’m not sure if I will ever have the opportunity to apply with NNG again, but if I do, I will be more prepared next time. At least I can be pleased I made it as far as I did. I was in the top 6% of candidates. Unfortunately, with a great company like NNG, they get a lot of applicants and they only hire about 0.5%, that’s one half of one percent, of applicants. As they said in their rejection email, with those kinds of odds, “clearly, even great UXers will often not make it.”
Appendix 1: Eight Step NNG Recruiting Process
- Resume screening (3/4 rejected at this stage)
- Design review and short video exercise (another 3/4 eliminated here)
- Videoconference interview (top 6% of the initial applicants)
- Design conceptualization exercise and UX process exercise
- Another videoconference interviews
- Reference checks
- Final interview with Jakob Nielsen (in-person when possible) including a longer presentation with slides you prepare
- Welcome to NNG
Appendix 2: Potential Interview Questions I Found on NNG’s Site
Behavioral questions: “Tell me about a time where you had to present controversial UX research findings to stakeholders. How did you prepare, and what did you do?”
Situational questions: “Two months ago, you joined an app team as their first UX designer. You recently completed a qualitative usability test with users, revealing several high-severity usability findings from a recent app redesign. You are scheduled to present your results to the development team in a week. You suspect these findings pose a risk to the redesign’s success, but you also know that the app team worked many nights to complete the redesign. What would you do?”
Appendix 3: Other NNG Interview Questions I Found Online
“Very intense interview process. If I remember correctly it was an 8-step process, alternating between practical exercises and interviews, ending with a few presentations: recorded and in-person. You get tested on skills that you would be expected to do on the job.” -Anonymous User on GlassDoor.com
“The recruiting process is 8 steps total, with 3 steps requiring interviews. The first round was very laid back. The interviewer was extremely friendly and genuine with her line of questioning (as well as answers to your questions). The second interview process requires you to talk to two workers separately (so, ultimately, you will end up being interviewed twice at this round). The first two rounds are through Skype or other video calls. The third interview process consists of an in-person presentation, design exercise, and then lines of questioning.” Interview question examples include: “Tell me about the projects you are currently working on.” and “How would you react when… lines of questioning pertaining directly to situations that could arise in the position.” -Another Anonymous User on GlassDoor.com