I just spoke to over 150 design leaders from companies large and small and even a few who are now working at the White House. My purpose for even being there was to help them figure out how to hire better UX (user experience) design people.

Those are people who think and design with a "customer first" focus. The managers there contended UX design was the wave of the future. Some even referred to an important article in the August 1, 2015 issue of Fortune entitled Humans are Underrated as proof. The article was about how people are being rapidly replaced by smart machines. It concluded by suggesting team and user design skills will never be replaced by machines, no matter how smart they (the machines) are. This conclusion was not surprising, however.

It's not new news nor is it an emerging new field. I "discovered" it on a search project about 30 years ago for a manager of supply chain systems working in the IT department. The person hired would be responsible for leading the implementation of a new inventory management and warehousing system. They wanted someone with great technical skills, enormous energy, outstanding interpersonal skills and years and years of experience. This was at the beginning of the ERP era.

The person who got the job was a fellow named Curtis. He was twenty-something. Curtis could have been his last name. I'm not sure. He was kind of average in appearance, low-key and thoughtful. He was referred to me by a VP who worked with him on a systems project the year before. After 20 minutes I sensed Curtis was someone special and could be perfect for the job.

It took me another hour to prove it to myself and a big onsite presentation to overcome the hiring manager's instant "too young, too quiet, too inexperienced and not dynamic enough to handle the job" reaction. Here's how I developed the proof and presentation to overcome this not unexpected concern. I always ask candidates to describe their biggest accomplishments. This is the core of the Performance-based Hiring interviewing process I advocate.

One of the fact-finding questions I asked Curtis was how he figured out user needs since this was a key part of the job. While Curtis was a great techie, where he really shined was getting totally immersed in the user experience. He told me how he sat with procurement people to understand exactly how they forecasted material needs, ordered and reordered parts, negotiated prices and how they chose and communicated with their vendors. He told me how he met with the sales team to determine how they forecasted sales and even talked with customers to understand their needs and what it would take to minimize supply/demand imbalances.

Then he told me how he drove a forklift truck picking and packing orders to ensure the printed orders (it was 1985) would logically map to the warehouse layout. This was the proof I used to get my client to initially see and ultimately hire Curtis. Not surprising, Curtis successfully did the same thing for my client implementing a state-of-the-art supply chain system. A few years later I heard that Curtis accepted a senior consulting position working for the same VP who had become a partner in the firm.

The lesson learned then was that high tech is not nearly as powerful without high touch. It's still true. While I've refined how I assess team skills since meeting Curtis so many years ago, the core concept is fundamentally unchanged. It goes something like this:

  1. Have candidates describe their major team accomplishments for their past few jobs.
  2. Find out how and why the person was assigned to the teams including any the person volunteered to join.
  3. Have the candidates describe the people who are on the teams including direct reports, peers, subordinates, company leaders, vendors and customers.
  4. Get examples of how the person influenced others on the toughest decisions faced, especially those in other functions and the higher-ups, and how he/she got group agreement.
  5. Find out who and how the person proactively coached, advised or helped to get better including those who the candidate did not directly manage.

Forget the personality tests. The questions above are how you assess team skills. If the team size has grown over time in size and influence and is multi-functional and includes some senior executives, you've got a hot candidate. The person is even hotter if others have assigned this person into stretch team jobs and the person performed successfully.

If this same pattern appears at multiple companies and the person is a rock-solid techie, you absolutely need to hire the person for some job. UX design is as important today as it was 30 years ago. I thank Curtis and people like him for leading the way. You should, too.