Career Life Stories: Chris Abad, UserTesting

How can a talent for math and science coupled with an interest in art evolve into a career in design? Chris Abad, VP of Product and Design at UserTesting, talks to us about finding top design talent in tech and shares his observations around what designers want from prospective employers.

What inspired you to pursue a degree and career in design?

Growing up, I was always very math and science oriented. In fact, originally, I wanted to be a doctor. The problem was that because math and science came so easy, I wasn’t particularly challenged, and it stopped holding my interest as I got older.

I began to think about what I enjoyed doing or what could be fun as a career path, and that’s when I started considering art. Art was the opposite end of the spectrum for me from all the math and sciences; however, the highly creative aspects both challenged me and engaged my brain.

In part due to my aptitude for math and sciences, I was also fascinated with computers. My first computer was one of the redesigned iMacs, and it was my intro into having something to tinker with. Back then, all the Mac programs skewed toward design. Once I figured out I could combine computers, art, and design, I was hooked.

What are some of the hottest trends within design today? Similarly, what design skills and experiences seem to be the most “in-demand” today?

Over the years, it’s become obvious that there is not just one generic role for a designer, so trends around design specialization have emerged, especially within large teams. Other shifts include bringing copywriters into the design function along with highly technical prototypers. There is also a broader trend around scaling design via the help of design operations teams. Design operations teams aim to systematize design processes and provide a support structure which allows designers to focus on what they’re best at, and therefore, become even more efficient at delivering value.

In terms of “in-demand” skills, I’ve noticed an uptick in the desire to onboard strong animators and illustrators within design teams.

It seems design has become increasingly technical. What is your take on technical vs. non-technical designers?

Whether or not design should be technical has been a big debate for many years. On one hand, the folks who have demanded that designers be technical have historically underestimated the value of all the other things that designers bring to the table. As an industry, we’ve over-indexed on people being technical. We thought product managers had to have CS degrees to be valuable or that designers had to write code to be valuable, and in some ways, I think pushing design to be technical isn’t such a good thing. On the other hand, I think we’re seeing design become more technical because as design matures as a function, we’re starting to see value in specialization. All that said, it’s worth noting that there are still plenty of great designers who are not technical at all.

The Silicon Valley landscape is highly competitive for great designers and product managers. Can you share any recruiting tactics that have helped you win top talent for your teams?

Recruiting designers is hard. One of the differences I’ve noticed between recruiting designers versus product managers is that you can attract good product managers by putting yourself out there and getting them to come to you. With designers, that’s almost never the case. It may be that there are simply far fewer good designers looking versus some of the other roles. At any rate, recruiting designers requires a proactive approach.

With designers, in particular, it’s important to be authentic, which makes it really tricky when you’re working with a recruitment firm and why it’s so important to pick the right partner. Designers are turned off by anything that feels inauthentic, salesy, or pitchy. Sometimes the way we have to recruit is completely incompatible with using any kind of recruiter, internal or external. Recruiting designers is often about the personal touch. In some instances, the only way to solicit a response is for the hiring manager (or design team member) to reach out directly, recognize something unique about the candidate, and then offer to sit down for coffee.

From the candidate perspective, have you noticed any recurring themes around what is most important to them from a company, team, or experience standpoint?

During the recruitment process, designers often try to get a sense of the design culture within the organization and a read on what sort of respect designers receive. Most designers are coming from a company where they don’t feel like they have a strong enough voice or that they don’t have the authority and space to do their best work.

Designers earlier in their career want to have opportunities to experiment with crazy ideas and the chance to be mentored by someone they can learn from. For more experienced designers, they typically want the opportunity to help the organization make better design decisions.

What qualities do you think make a great designer? Are there any personality traits you screen for when hiring?

We bias toward candidates who possess strong fundamental product thinking, meaning that their thought process and the way they solve problems supports a strong design process.

We also, of course, assess culture fit. It’s critical that designers don’t have an ego. We like people who are humble, highly collaborative, and understand how to work with people who come from different perspectives. It’s more important to us to have someone who plays well with others than it is to have a rock-star designer because rock-star designers on a team they can’t work well with won’t get anything done. Highly collaborative people who have great potential are the ones who are able to execute.

Do you have a favorite interview question?

It’s more about the interview process rather than the questions. We try to make our interview process very cross-functional because we want people coming from different perspectives to feel like the candidate is someone they’d work well alongside. We compliment that cross-functional approach with a very design-heavy component to assess craft skills.

These days, whenever I’m involved in an interview process, it’s typically to focus on leadership skills – that can be for both managers and individual contributors, as both can show strong leadership. What I tend to ask for are scenarios where they’ve championed design within a group. If they’re going to be the voice of design, what do they bring to the table? How do they partner with product managers and engineers, and what challenges have they run into? These questions help me assess leadership skills and potential.

When thinking about your own career, what experiences have been the most valuable in helping you develop into a design executive?

My mistakes and failures have taught me more than anything else about being a design leader. Design leadership has so much to do with collaboration, persuasion, and bringing people together around a shared understanding. Understanding people is critical, and in my experience, "understanding people" is so complex; there aren’t any shortcuts. You just have to experiment and put in the time trying to solve “people problems”. 

As we wrap up, what resources (books, podcasts, courses, conferences, blogs, etc) would recommend to candidates wanting to expand their knowledge about design?

A lot of the design content out there tends to be focused towards design practitioners. However, the content that I find particularly interesting is around design leadership which often has more to do with hiring and organizational structure. There are a lot of companies that have been pushing product leadership content, however InVision is one company that has done a great job at pushing design leadership content. You can check out InVision’s blog here and or explore InVision’s Design Leadership Forum here.

The Leading Experience (formerly Managing Experience) Conference may also be worth looking into for folks seeking this sort of design leadership content.

Finally, what is the best way for readers to connect with you?

LinkedIn is the best way to connect with me.

We’re grateful to Chris for sharing his story and advice with us. If you enjoyed the conversation as much as we did, please check out our other great guest interviews on the Robert Walters blog!