Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How I got found as a user experience designer

User experience design is a proper job. At least, user experience designer is a proper job title. It’s a job title I’ve given to myself for years and it’s worked for me to describe to others what I do, without necessarily having to describe to others what I do.

Three little words

More importantly, ‘user experience designer’ works as a job title when you want to be found. When I was hawking my freelance self around a couple of years ago, I made a decision on how I wanted to be discovered, and how easy I might facilitate that discovery. That decision was to bet the farm on 3 words – user, experience and designer – hopefully in that order. How I used those 3 words, and where I used them, was an important part of the strategy, but it is the 3 little words themselves that were to describe me to others.

Optimising for search

From the outset, I intended to capitalise on the visibility of those 3 little words and how they might somehow be associated with my own name. I thought at least having my name appear on the chunk of content returned by a search query would be a start. I like to think that the eye-tracking results would show a strong relationship between the user experience designer title and a real name in reasonably close proximity such that it fired some neural connection in the brain of the user that suggests I might be actually the embodiment of a user experience designer and therefore justifiably and majestically hoisted to the top of a mental list that someone is keeping.

There were a number of places I wanted that to happen:
  • My personal sites
  • CV/resume hosting sites
  • Recruitment sites
  • Job sites
  • Related sites (job title on flickr, linkedin, facebook)
Some of the searches I imagined were public searches, via google, bing, altavista, lycos, grep –r ‘user experience designer’ /theinternet, or something, for which I optimised on page titles, prominent usage in content blocks, page data, and so on. No black arts there. Others were more specialised, internal searches, such as cv/resume scans on recruitment databases, or paid-for searches on job sites. In these cases, I made assumptions about the data that was being interrogated, often based on the forms that collected the data, and tried to optimise based on that. For instance, I knew that no real person would actually read my uploaded resume until it passed at least round one of the keyword scanrobot, so if you’re not being specific about your job title, job categories and experience, then you stand less chance of rising to the surface, like Keanu Reeves does, when he’s dropped out of that slimepod into the machinespittle and chooses to breathe. I mean, a bit like that.

It takes a little patience to consistently optimise across multiple sites, with different search methods and black-box operational models, but the most important thing, as far as I was concerned, was to retain the focus on those 3 little words.

Maximising metadata

On its own, however, optimising for search using ‘user experience designer’ alone, was not enough. It got me closer to being discovered and considered, but I also needed something more unique that I could associate with the job title, that would filter the outputs to make them more about me.

Knowing that being found by virtue of someone looking at my own web site would be nice, but unlikely, I targeted those other sites that held my data, such as cv/resume sites and recruitment sites and picked a set of 3 attributes that I would bet my other farm on. Since these sites are largely form-based in their data-collection, and have reasonable overlap in their data sets, it is easy to pick the attributes you want to focus on and map that to the metadata they support.

The 3 attributes I picked were:
  • Location
  • Type (Freelance/Permanent)
  • Rate
It’s here that I had a special case, which was really the determining factor in being found. If I were wanting to stand out from a crowd of user experience designers, who had all optimised for search, and, for example, all lived in London, I’d be faced with a bit of a challenge. A user experience designer in London is like a bicycle in Beijing, right? They’re all over the place. Saying you’re in London doesn’t make you stand out at all.

Location, location, location, location

But what about if you’re in, say, Norwich? I mean, a user experience designer in Norwich is like a, well, I can’t think a good analogy for there not being many of them, suffice to say, there wasn’t. Which was to my advantage. Type and rate were pretty simple to define, more a case of setting a level of expectation and screening out derisory and pointless offers. Location, however, was my unique selling point. Except it wasn’t a selling point at all. When I moved out to Norwich about 8 years ago, with the support of a previous employer, I knew I’d put myself out on a limb. What I did (user experience design), just wasn’t done in Norwich, so, should I no longer work for that employer, I would have been pretty stuck. One day, I was no longer working for that employer, which is where this story begins.

Nevertheless, Norwich was where I was, Norwich was where I wanted to stay, and so Norwich was the location I added to my data set. And I stuck to it. Which is the point – pick your data, optimise, and stick to it, because if that’s what really defines you, that's how you’ll want people to find you.

Results

What I’d really narrowed myself down to was:

Keywords:
  • User
  • Experience
  • Designer
Attributes:
  • Location:Norwich
  • Type:Freelance or Permament
  • Rate:£ A number larger than the last number I thought of
What I got out of it was emails and calls from recruiters and robots that were slightly biased in favour of user experience design, and more or less centred on ‘the south east’ (including London), but, since I also included a number of other attributes as part of any upload, application or registration process, I also got a large number of administrator, programmer, database, design and other jobs as well. I got lots. Which was nice, but things weren’t really narrowed down to the degree that I had hoped for. Still, I hadn’t expected to get a perfect match, since, well, there wasn’t one.

What I had bet both my farms on was that one day, there would be a job, and its title would be User Experience Designer, and its location would be Norwich. When that job came up, if anybody was looking for a candidate, I would be the top of their search list. And that search list would have one name on it. And that name would be mine.

I had to wait a while. I had to do freelance work in London for a while. I had to travel 3 hours, each way, every day, for a while. But one day I got a call from a recruiter. I got lots of calls from recruiters, but this one sounded interesting. They had a user experience designer role. Duh. It was in Norwich. I’m listening. It’s permanent. It meets my criteria. Am I interested?

Have a plan

That call was for the job I’m currently in at Foolproof in Norwich. This job is the only job I want to do in Norwich. It’s a perfect job. And, because I was so busy travelling and sleeping and working, I hadn’t even noticed when they’d put the job posting out. I’d pretty much resigned myself to a London commute, and was actually considering an offer of a permanent user experience role based in Hammersmith. Which would have killed me.

But my bet paid off. When the recruiter searched for ‘user experience designer norwich’, I was indeed top of the list. There are others in the list now, as indeed there are other jobs that have appeared in the last year, but when I really needed it most, my plan was good. Have a plan, people, and stick to it.

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