woman playing violin
PHOTO: Michel Catalisano

“Don’t hire for talent.” So said a LinkedIn influencer. He suggested you hire for work ethic and ability to learn. 

But can a person with an ability to learn be taught anything or everything?

Other viral LinkedIn posts make similar suggestions: Don’t hire for talent, hire for culture fit. Hire for attitude or skills. Hire that go-getter who can learn to do the tasks you need. The reasoning appears to suggest we don’t have to hire for talent, we need to hire people with great attitudes who learn easily and can do user experience (UX) after a bootcamp or a little training.

Talent Versus Skill

Talent is defined as “natural aptitude,” or “a natural ability for being good at a particular activity.” Skill is defined as, “the ability to do something well, usually as a result of experience and training.” This would imply that talent is something you are born with and skill is something you can acquire through education, experience or study.

For a non-UX and software development example of talent versus skill, think American Idol auditions. Many of these hopefuls may have a great work ethic, passion, an ability to learn new things, a great attitude, drive, dedication and other qualities that could help them thrive in a workplace situation. And while many may have studied music and taken singing lessons to help improve their musical techniques and skills, we've all seen the televised auditions showcasing people without any actual singing talent. You can't give a person an ear for music, it's something they have or don't have.

Related Article: That Millennial Thing: How to Train & Develop a New Generation of Leaders

Hire for Talent, Especially in UX

UX talents and skills are still misunderstood in many workplaces, making it fairly easy to get a UX job without any natural talent for UX work. Hiring managers currently focus on visual design portfolios rather than the process and approach. Answers like, “I just open Sketch and start designing,” or, “I make wireframes,” are acceptable, however, potential employees should be asked to describe the user-centered design process. 

Great UX practitioners requires strength in three areas that can be difficult to learn later in life.

  • Empathy. This is required to design products and interfaces for people who aren’t us. Not everybody is born deeply understanding that people have different beliefs, needs, views and approaches. We can’t superimpose ourselves onto them. Empathy allows us to naturally understand their world if it’s completely different from ours, full of ideas we’d never have and choices we’d never make.
  • Problem Solving. Some people appear to be naturally better at recognizing and solving problems than others. This requires strong reasoning, deduction, a pinch of being a detective or researcher, and having the creativity to imagine multiple solutions.
  • Possible Outcomes. Without a certain amount of common sense, you may be unable to imagine negative possible outcomes and as a result move forward with poor choices. Anybody believing that something, “can’t happen to me,” might not naturally be strong at seeing possible outcomes. UX practitioners need to be excellent at envisioning or predicting possible outcomes so they can solve problems before they happen. They can imagine paths and choices users will make and see where there could be flaws, pitfalls or confusion.

Great UX work also requires extensive knowledge in two areas. These can be taught, but lean heavily on natural talents.

  • Architecture. UX experts are designing the “virtual” building, informed by research and relying on natural talents in problem solving and possible outcomes. They decide the structures, organization, paths, flows and layouts, predicting what will work best for customers (and then testing to validate hypotheses). Like an architect must design how a building can be used by someone who is differently-abled, UX specialists must also consider accessibility, designing interfaces that are usable if not delightful for those with visual, hearing, mobility or cognitive issues. It’s the right thing to do, it’s making the system better for everyone, and in many countries — including the US as of January 2018 — it’s the law.
  • Cognitive psychology. You will do a better job designing interfaces that appeal to customers when you consider the customers’ natural behaviors, attention span, memory, how information is parsed and cognitive load, which is how much mental activity a task requires, aka, “Don’t make users think.” Knowledge of cognitive psychology goes hand-in-hand with empathy. If you know principles of psychology and behavior, but can’t put your own preferences and ego aside, you could be a poor UX practitioner.

Related Article: For a Better User Experience, Forget Alexa, Use Occam's Razor

Natural Talent Can’t Be Taught

Whether we imagine someone has a “gift” or a “talent they were born with,” we often recognize when someone is just amazing at something, seemingly with little effort or education. Training, studying, and experience can magnify and enhance these talents.

While you are hiring for personality, experience, work ethic, attitude, dedication, and passion, also hire for talent. There’s no substitute for it.