A case for human-centered resumes

Jeremy Bird
17 min readJul 10, 2020
Hiring manager looking at resume with a candidate present.
© memyjo / https://stock.adobe.com

Since my first job more than 25 years ago, I have been fascinated with resumes. It is one area in which there’s no shortage of opinions. It can be difficult to wade through all that advice. Here is just some of the advice I’ve been given over the years:

  • Single-page (be succinct)
  • Multi-page (be complete, don’t hide experience)
  • No photo (avoid prejudice in the screening process)
  • Add a photo (be more personal and memorable)
  • Customize resume & cover letter before every application
  • Optimize for “keywords” to get through Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)
  • Showcase your visual design skills (for designers)
  • Don’t get creative, make it purely text-based
  • Apply for as many jobs as you can (it’s just statistics)
  • Network (quality over quantity)
  • Don’t use a template
  • Your resume is “too unique”
  • It’s not unique enough
  • Etc, etc, etc

Navigating all this advice can be extremely frustrating. I have experimented relentlessly over the years, trying to apply various advice I received. I constantly experimented, tweaked, and changed. Even when I wasn’t actively looking. Just in the hopes that I’d stumble upon the magic solution that would prove to be “THE” answer.

Here are just a few of my resume experimentations over the years:

Collection of resumes created by author over the years

Intentional Resume Design

This may seem obvious, but something I’ve learned is that THERE IS NO SINGLE CORRECT WAY that will work in all situations. Why all the disparate advice? Various recruiters, hiring managers, HR professionals, and job seekers have found things that have worked for them and their clients.

Blindly applying resume advice is just like mindlessly applying design patterns. Just because something worked for someone else doesn’t mean it will work for you. You have unique skills, strengths, weaknesses, and career goals. Resume design is difficult for many people because they don’t know how to cater their approach to their circumstances. Luckily, as UX Designers we have a lot of practice at making intentional, purpose-filled, research-informed design decisions. Yet, I see way too few designers actually using the UX process on their resume.

Not using the UX process on your resume (and portfolio) is like shooting yourself in the foot or trying out for a professional sports team blindfold with one hand tied behind your back.

I was also guilty of mindlessly following resume advice for far too long. I very clearly remember one day having a conversation with an experienced design recruiter who shared some statistics with me that, on average, if you apply for a job online, you have a 0.05% chance of actually landing the job! I knew I had to find a better way.

It is my desire here to share an approach that I have taken which has drastically improved my success. I share the principles and strategies that have worked for me in the hope that it might spark your own ideas and experimentation to enable you to find more success as well.

The problem with relying on optimizing for computers

Frustrated student looking at laptop computer
© Antonioguillem / https://stock.adobe.com

One of the most important things to understand with traditional resume advice is that almost all of it focuses around optimizing for the computer rather than humans.

This might sound obvious, but it’s important. Why? The entire goal is to get through Applicant Tracking System auto-screening technology. It’s to make sure your resume gets in front of a human at all. So why is this bad?

  1. Most companies don’t use ATS systems to screen their resumes. While it’s true that over 98% of the Fortune 500 use Applicant Tracking System (ATS) software, very few of them employ that software to screen resumes. The main goal of an ATS is to collect and organize the resumes and keep track of candidates through the hiring process. There are over 5.6 Million firms in the United States. Even if we extend ATS usage to 100% of the Fortune 1000, and even if 100% of those used ATS systems to screen their resumes that still is only 0.018% of companies that are screening resumes with technology.
  2. Optimizing for computers often results in a poor experience for humans. Even if a company you apply to does use computer screening and you are one of the 25% that make it through the process, extremely often when you optimize for a computer, the experience of a human reading that resume is poor. This often results in the same end result as if your resume had been screened out. Humans don’t crawl the words of a resume looking for key words, we skim a resume looking for something interesting. If the most important content isn’t at the top, if there isn’t a visual hierarchy, if what we’re looking for doesn’t jump out at us within the first 5 seconds, that resume is rejected.
  3. Many ATS systems have terrible search and/or recommendation engines. Even if a company isn’t screening your resume out with technology, many of the bigger technology companies do use them. However, it is no secret that the search and recommendation tools of the majority of ATS are very limited. It is very easy for your resume to be lost or never found, even if it isn’t being screened out. So even if you DO optimize your resume for key words, it is very easy for it to get lost.
  4. Optimizing for computers can make your resume feel commonplace. One common piece of recruiting advice is to find a way to “stand out”. The problem of lack of individualism seen all day every day by recruiters and hiring managers is largely caused by the use of ATS technology and encouraging people to optimize resumes for it. Much of the individualism gets stripped out when you are optimizing for computers. You check the job description to look for key words, then update your resume with those key words. But so does everyone else. So if your resume does get through, it looks like everyone else’s.
  5. Who has time for all that customization anyway? Let’s be honest, most of us that say we “optimize for computers” don’t really customize our resume for each application. Who has time for that? So the result is a really generic keyword-based resume that has all the pitfalls of computer-optimized resumes with none of the benefits. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

A better way

Businessman with arms raised in front of a cityscape.
© Odua — Dreamstime.com

It has been proven that, on average, you are 53x more likely to get hired by using networking than you are to just apply online and wait. The same is true of hiring top talent. Why? Because we trust recommendations of people we work with. Even if we haven’t worked super close with the coworker. There’s an inherent trust there. In fact, at some very successful companies, it is nearly impossible to get hired without a referral.

Even more interestingly, I have found that your chance of getting the interview and ultimately of being hired, goes up even more if you build a user-centric resume. That shouldn’t be a surprise to us UXers. Doesn’t engagement go up with a better designed game? Don’t revenue & renewals increase with better B2B software experiences that are more in touch with their customers jobs to be done? This is no different.

Ok, so you want to give this a try. How do you actually go about creating a user-centered resume? It’s very similar to any UX process, but I’ve found that there are 6 keys to building a user-centered resume that have helped me drastically improve my Application to Interview ratio.

Step 1: Understand your target audience.

It is vital that you not take a “To Whom It May Concern” approach to your resume. Depending on the size of company you are applying to, there are at least 3 distinct personas you should keep in mind. I’m going to review those three, but before I do, it is vital to reiterate that you should absolutely do your own research. Your case could be different depending on the company size, culture, and position you’re going for. As a starting point, though, let’s start out with 3 very common ones.

SOURCER/HEADHUNTER
A sourcer is someone who is responsible for tracking down potential fits for open job postings. Often they are paid (or at least receive a bonus) per referral that gets interviewed or hired. They often source for many different kinds of roles. They are given general guidance but often don’t have formal briefing or insight into what makes an ideal UX candidate. As a result they tend to focus on looking at years of experience, prestige of the companies you’ve done work for, and the influence you’ve had on others. They want to be assured that if they refer you, it will work out. Your moving forward in the process reflects well on them as well as you.

RECRUITER
A recruiter is someone whose job is to find qualified individuals for the hiring manager to interview. They often are a “hiring partner” with the hiring manager. It is their job to make sure the role gets filled. They often have more context & knowledge of what to look for than a sourcer. They often are focused on reviewing your resume & portfolio for specific skills or experience the hiring manager is looking for. They are also often evaluating if you will be a fit for the culture of the company. The question always on a recruiter’s mind is “Is this candidate worth the hiring manager’s time to interview?”

HIRING MANAGER
The main question in a hiring manager’s mind when reviewing candidates sent from the recruiter, is around results and how they approach problem solving. Will this be a person that can quickly fill in the gaps or solve the pain points on my team right now? Do they know how to solve problems? Is this someone who can hit the ground running? Are they going to take pressure off of me? When a hiring manager reviews a resume, he/she is skimming the resume to see if the person is interesting enough to take the time to review their portfolio. The main goal of your resume should always be to get the hiring manager to review your portfolio. (And the goal of a portfolio should always be to get the interview, not the job…yet).

NOTE
Also a few notes before we leave this topic. You should always do your own research on personas. Please don’t just take my word for it. The ideal of course is to interview potential resume “users” at your target companies. If that isn’t possible, take a recruiter or hiring manager in your local community to lunch in exchange for picking their brain. Most will be more than happy to talk about their goals and pain points with you.

Step 2: Your resume should reflect your personal brand

There is no one just like you. You have individual strengths, weaknesses, skills, and unique background you bring to the table. It is vital that your resume reflect that brand. Your resume should shout loud and clear what you bring that no one else does. If you can swap the name on your resume out for another designer and the resume still holds true, your personal brand is not strong enough.

If you never have focused on personal branding before, and need a nudge to get you started, check out Stephen Gates’ The Crazy One podcast episodes #6: “The power of personal branding” and #7: “Bringing your personal brand to life”. Also, UX visionary Jeff Gothelf just wrote a fantastic book on the subject called “Forever Employable: How to Stop Looking for Work and Let Your Next Job Find You”.

Another part of personal branding that seems scary at first is that you actually WANT to drive some people away. You want to attract the right companies and drive others away. You have to draw a line in the sand and say “this is the kind of job I want or the kind of company where I do my best work”. Yes, this opens you up to missing opportunities and being judged, but it also attracts the right companies to you.

Some years ago I was given advice by an employee of one of the “big 5” technology companies to not just apply to every job I saw they had open. They said that’s a sure-fire way to get automatically rejected. They said to pick a team or product line I wanted to work on the most and to watch for an opening on that team. The idea was that would allow my passion to come through in the application. It is true. If there is one regret I have from early in my career it was that it took me too long to learn to never settle.

Step 3: Design an intentional visual hierarchy into your resume.

One of the keys to user-centered resumes is visual hierarchy. It is pointless when you are optimizing for key words, but when you are optimizing for humans, it is essential. Use font size, font weight, color, and proximity to direct the reader’s eye where you want it to go. Make sure the most important things are the most obvious. It isn’t a bad idea to do a 5-second test with a few people on your resume to see if the most important things are coming through.

One other concept that is important here is the 3-in-1 rule. That is, you should make sure the visual hierarchy supports 3 separate experiences.

5 SECOND EXPERIENCE
Your resume should communicate the most important points in under 5 seconds. If someone can look at your resume for 5 seconds and not get the most important “elevator pitch”, you have failed. (Remember personal branding and persona pain points here). I tend to cater my 5-second experience to Sourcers. For example, because I’ve never been employed by a Fortune 500 company, I tend to focus in my summary around clients who have used the work that I’ve done (which do include many of the Fortune 500 & 100). I bold these so they can be easily recognizable. A couple years ago, I also added some big and bold icons summarizing my experience in Graphic Design, UX Design, Leadership, and Project Management. These two things along with my headline are intended to be the most important takeaways. Also another approach I use is to add in a few visual elements (icons, a personal logo, and a little color in my case) to break up all the text.

1-MINUTE EXPERIENCE
You should also design a 1-minute experience into your resume. After you’ve captured attention with your 5-second experience, give them the next most important takeaways. These could include roles, companies, key skills (more on that below), and education. I’ve structured my 1-minute experience to resonate most with recruiters who are often focused on previous roles and skills.

If you notice, my roles, key skills, and degree name are bolded, font-size is larger, and I use color and a horizontal rule to help direct the eye to sections the user might be looking for.

3-MINUTE EXPERIENCE
Finally, I like to design the 3-minute experience into my resume. My goal at this point is to convince the recruiter/hiring manager to contact me for an interview. They probably aren’t going to spend more than 3 minutes on my resume — even if it IS interesting to them — so I try to keep it to 1 page. For years I had a 2–3 page resume, then one day I challenged myself to create a 1-page version and liked it so much, I ended up keeping it. (It’s made a lot of difference in landing interviews). For my additional content for my 3-page experience I have mainly focused on results I’ve achieved and specific techniques I’m experience with under each Key Skill. This is done to show versatility.

Step 4: Focus on results more than job duties and skills more than software.

One piece of traditional resume advice that is absolutely critical on user-centered resumes is to focus on results. Recruiters and hiring managers can be bored with “was responsible for designing software” descriptions. Get specific. Where possible quantify it.

Also, please don’t list software under “skills”. Everyone in this industry knows software. It is an expectation. That’s like a house framer or construction worker listing “ability to use a nail gun” on his resume. DO list the skills you have, though. Focus on skills you have that you want to keep using or gain more experience with. Again, attract the right companies.

Step 5: Research & Test

Don’t just assume everything is good. One essential element of the UX process is user research. This applies to resumes, too. I’ve already talked about the value of using “5-second tests” on resumes. Also, share your resume with some friends (ideally hiring managers or recruiters) and ask for feedback. One other way I like to test is to apply for a few jobs every now and again even if I’m not actively looking and track how often I get interviews. When I’m not successful at getting an interview, I reach back out to the recruiter or hiring manager (especially if I know them) and ask what experience other candidates seemed to have that I didn’t. Sometimes they answer and sometimes they don’t, but any feedback you get can be very helpful. It’s also reversed a decision of whether to interview me more than once when I actually DID have the experience they thought I didn’t have.

Step 6: Learn and adjust

Constantly experiment. Learn. Enhance. Repeat. One of the great paradoxes of personal branding (of which resumes are a part) is that if you wait to do it until you need it, it will be too late. I always keep my resume current. You never know when you’ll need it.

If you have a position you think I might be a fit for, a copy of the above resume can be downloaded at https://jeremyrbird.com/resume/Jeremy_R_Bird.pdf

Get your resume in front of the hiring manager through networking

Child wearing a hat with a lightbulb on it holding finger up like he has an idea
© Sunny studio / https://stock.adobe.com

One very important corollary to all this talk about user-centered resumes. Remember all that discussion of ATS technology at the beginning? For a user-centered resume approach to work, you HAVE to do networking. You might see some improvement from this process if you happen to make it into the hands of a human. We don’t want to leave that to chance though.

This approach has been phenomenally successful for me as soon as I decided to stop just applying blindly and started working on my personal brand & networking. I’ll leave the discussion of what is networking and what isn’t for another day except to say that networking is NOT just adding a connection on LinkedIn and asking for a referral. You have to be adding value to others. You have to get your name out there. You have to be genuinely interested in others. You have to add more value to people than you take from them. This is a large part of why I write these articles. It is my attempt at giving back and helping others so when I need the help, my name is out there and I have the rapport to ask for something in return.

But I digress. Back to getting your resume in front of a hiring manager. It should always be your goal to get your resume/portfolio into the hands of a hiring manager. They know good UX best. They know when someone genuinely knows how to problem solve and can tell when they’re stretching the truth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been rejected by a recruiter only to be immediately interviewed when my profile got in front of the hiring manager.

If you can get your resume/portfolio in front of a hiring manager, often they’ll still have a recruiter contact you. The key, though, is that it is a very different conversation when the hiring manager says, “Hey, I came across this candidate who looks to be a good fit. Can you give them a call?”. The recruiter is still running the process but the guesswork is removed. They already know the hiring manager wants to speak with the person. That is much different than the recruiter searching through an ATS trying to weed out candidates that will be a good fit from those who will not.

Naturally, it is better if you have worked with someone in the past that works for the company who can give you a glowing referral. At least for me, that has been rare. So what do I do? I find someone that I know or have interacted with at the company (maybe it’s a neighbor, maybe someone I know from the local meetup community) and send them a quick request along the lines of:

“Hey. I saw you guys are hiring for X position and I’m really interested in it. I know we haven’t worked together before so you might not be able to give me a referral per se, but would you mind forwarding my resume/portfolio to the hiring manager so I at least know it got in front of a human?”

The vast majority of times the person has readily agreed. There’s very little commitment on their part. They’re not really even putting themselves out there saying I’d be a good employee. They’re just getting my profile in front of a human (ideally the hiring manager). My human-centered resume and portfolio do the rest. Plus, many companies offer referral bonuses if someone you refer is hired. So they might even end up making some extra money off of it. It’s a win-win.

What about personalization?

You might be thinking, but Jeremy, what about the overwhelmingly common advice to personalize your resume? Good question. As we have already discussed, if you do personal branding correctly, then you should NOT be personalizing your resume before applying to a particular company. That being said, sometimes I will personalize my resume for a particular role. For example, in the past I was thinking of giving Product Management a try. So I created a PM-specific resume that highlighted the skills important to a PM more than those important for a designer.

Also, there IS power in letting a hiring manager or recruiter know what specific skills on their job description you possess and why you’d be the best fit. I tend to leave that for a short, succinct cover letter. I’ll write a paragraph or two on the application form or in an email to a network contact who will be forwarding my resume addressing those things. That way my resume is still consistent with my personal brand, but I’m also addressing any company or role-specific skills they might be looking for.

It’s also becoming more and more common on job applications to have a section for “skills”. If they do it’s great to fill that out if you would like to. (Hint: in more modern ATS technology, that’s where they do their keyword matching from instead of parsing your resume).

Conclusion

I’m not saying this will work 100% of the time and I’m not saying it’s not hard work. (Networking can be very hard work). But ever since I started using this approach, my application to interview ratio has gone drastically up. I now get interviews from companies or positions I used to think were out of my league. I don’t always land those jobs, but I at least get the interview which often is the hardest part.

It is my desire that this approach will help you land more interviews or at least spark some ideas for something different that will help you land more interviews.

I’d also love to hear from you. What has worked well for you? What challenges have you faced? I’m always experimenting and trying new things. I’m still on my journey of learning how to find and be found. If you have any advice, I’d love to hear it.

Have something to add? Please leave a comment on the article or hit me up on LinkedIn or Twitter. Need a UX Leader to help guide your company’s UX Maturity? Need a speaker for your event? Check out my portfolio or contact me.

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Jeremy Bird

People-focused UX leader, designer, mentor, & problem-solver.