That unpleasant job posting from Nielsen Norman Group

How a job posting communicates culture and values. Are you ready to join the elite?

That unpleasant job posting from Nielsen Norman Group

A recent job posting made the rounds on Twitter. It's a general job advertisment hoping to attract entry-level (0-2 years experience) as well as experienced UX specialists to Nielsen Norman Group. The reason it was talked about is because of its elitist and ableist language. I read it, felt deeply disturbed by it and could not leave it uncommented. These are my reactions and thoughts.

You can read the job posting before you continue if you want. It was posted on the Nielsen Norman website but has since been removed, after the end of the application period. Thanks to the Internet Archive it's still available in all of its original wording:

Job Openings: UX Specialists (experienced or entry-level, remote) - Deadline April 4
Nielsen Norman Group is hiring User Experience Specialists: deadline to apply is April 4, 2022. Openings for both entry-level and experienced applicants; all remote.

As Karen McGrane pointed out to me, very similar variants of this listing have been used for years. The intro about intelligence was part of their standard listing as early as March, 2015.

The 3 main requirements

It starts off bad and gets progressively worse from there. So let's look at this baffling opening, which was enough to rattle many readers:

The 3 main requirements are:

1. Super smart: able to figure anything out quickly, in the top 1-2% of the population in intelligence.

2. Compelling public speaking, charismatic on-stage performance, fearless in front of any size audience. An audience favorite whether by video or in person.

3. Excellent and persuasive writer of anything from short articles to full client reports: can explain complicated topics so that average readers can easily understand them and will find the exposition captivating.

It is a main requirement to be able to figure out anything quickly. Anything. It is a requirement to be a persuasive writer of anything from short to long. Anything. You must be an audience favorite wherever you speak, whatever the audience.

And then to top it off, you must be "in the top 1-2% of the population in intelligence".

Not only is this description of requirements bizarre and delirious (figure out anything quickly and write persuasively in any form), it's ableist and elitist in requiring an extremely specific intelligence level without disclosing how that would be measured or judged. All of the fine markers of a welcoming UX profession on display. Not.

And measure intelligence they will have to, because as the text moves into educational requirements, it emphasises that these really don't matter if you meet the first requirements of being able to figure out anything while being "super smart".

We are less concerned with educational background or specific degrees, because if you meet the above 3 criteria, then anything you need to know we can teach you quickly.

This first section with requirements rounds off with another interesting choice of words:

Also, in our company the UX people are the most important part of the organization, not an oppressed minority.

I don't think I've ever imagined UX teams at the mention of oppressed minority.

The remote argument

The job posting moves into arguing why Nielsen Norman Group is one of the only true remote organisations, and while other companies may promise a remote job you can't really trust them. And if companies offer flexibility there is a problem according to NN/g:

At NN/g, since we’re 100% remote, there is no risk that in-office employees get preferential treatment, such as plum assignments or advancement, while remote employees fall behind. When everybody is remote, everybody gets treated the same. Also next year and next decade.

It's nice to see they are committed to everyone being treated the same. But it is rather presumtious to assume that the key to being treated the same is that everyone is 100% remote. No mention of how invisible this can make people's issues and struggles. Of course all this "equal treatment" should certainly be easier if one recruits people who are as alike each other as possible, charismatic and "fearless in front of any size audience".

Sidenote: If you know anything about my work in ethics you may also know that I sometimes take issue with a declaration of "everyone being treated the same". We are all individuals with different needs in different contexts at different stages in life. Assuming a "one-size fits all" situation can do more harm than good. But that's another story.

Skills

The first two words in the Skills section are "Extremely smart", in case you weren't cunning enough to understand "Super smart" in the very first requirement.

This point left me a bit perplexed though:

  • Keen analytical ability, particularly for conceptualizing and abstracting insights into observed human behavior

Do they want people who can abstract insights into observed human behavior? Neat. Get the insights first and then make sure that is what you observe? A Freudian slip? Or perhaps a clue as to why the next skill requested is

  • Excellent writer, superb written-English communications skills

Am I being nitpicky? Of course. This is a job posting looking for people who are in the top 1-2% of the population in intelligence. I'm naturally hoping to understand more on how Nielsen Norman group, as "the world’s most prestigious user experience firm", have designed their content to attract these particular people.

I did find it precious that they felt the need to explain to these "extremely smart" people why we make things easy to use, in this section's final bullet point:

  • Passion for user experience and making things easy to use: technology should adapt to the way humans actually are, not the other way around

Personality profile

Based on the “OCEAN” model of the five big personality traits this part of the ad intends to help you understand who you need to be as a person. It's entertaining in some of the details, sometimes a bit too revealing about company culture, but also: peddling prejudice in an alarming fashion.

  • Openness to new experiences: high, but not extremely high. Reason: "you will find yourself explaining the same UX principles again and again" . This made me laugh. Sorry.
  • Conscientiousness: very high. Here the term "Extreme autonomy" jumps out at me. It's your own personal drive that must serve as your motivation at work. Extreme autonomy, they call it.
  • Extraversion: low, but not extremely low. "You must be able to work on your own" but "you can’t be a total recluse because of frequent meetings with clients and colleagues, as well as interaction with a live audience." Don't you just love sprinkles of endearment like "total recluse"? Because that's what Nielsen Norman Group believe an introvert is?
  • Agreeableness: high. You don't only have to be high-IQ, you also have to rank high on a "nice" rating. "If you are smart but nasty, you won’t last." Wait, what, did they really write that? Why yes, yes they did. And, yes they do use "high-IQ" as a descriptor of intelligence. In case you're not aware, IQ tests have historically been widely used to exclude and control marginalised communities using empirical and scientific language. In Nazi Germany, the government authorized the murder of children based on low IQ. Researchers have pointed out that the “cultural specificity” of intelligence makes IQ tests biased towards the environments in which they were developed – that is white, Western society. Bringing in a term with strong attachments to eugenist and racist beliefs should not be done this lightly.
  • Neuroticism: low. "If you stress out easily, you will be depressed here. If you need a regimented environment, you will be confused here." "A few conference attendees will write nasty comments on your feedback form (though most will be very complimentary)." As it's already a requirement to be an "audience favorite" it's interesting they bring this up. "Sometimes clients are unreasonable." without a word on what support (if any) is available in these situations. But don't fret. If this sounds bad there are other places that are much worse: "our work environment is not nearly as stressful as a startup or the typical Silicon Valley company, so you don’t need to be super-tough; just resilient".

Why work at Nielsen Norman group?

It's interesting that the first indication of having any attention to diversity comes when talking about learning opportunities and the ability to interact with "a hugely diverse worldwide audience of fans".

"You’ll achieve much more here than in normal companies." and "Spend time producing, not stuck on the freeway commuting to a nasty cubicle." There's that word again. Nasty. Also: normal. Because we all know how problematic "normal" companies can be?

Anyway,  in this role you definitely will get to play the superstar:

  • Massive reach: your articles get millions of page views, you present to thousands of business professionals every year.
  • Become a role model for young people who admire your achievements and polish when presenting.

What a troubling world-view I do find it to be, this expectation that others should  admire people's polish and marvel at their high IQ.

Bringing it home

Am I fair to call the ad elitist? Well, if you're not in agreement with me then the posting does its best to bring home this point by leading their final paragraphs with: "Are you ready to join the elite?"

And in case you were wondering if the human reviewing your application is alive, the ad makes sure there is no doubt: "We do you the courtesy of having a live human read your application". Phew.

Does the ad work?

The success rate of an ad like this I could not possibly assume to know anything about. I also know nothing of the NN/g workforce, and this is not a criticism of any person. All I know is that I was upset by this posting. I wanted to bring attention to it as a warning (as did many on Twitter) of how not to produce an ad if you want to promote a culture of caring and attention to employee wellbeing.

You'll have to remember that I have no personal experience of US work culture whatsoever, and I'm also self-employed and not the target group. I'm certainly not in the top 1-2% of the population in intelligence because I can't begin to understand how that even plays a role in determining capability and relevance for a UX position. Instead I'm not afraid to say I can not figure everything out quickly and I honestly believe that's a good thing.

In this case I'm just describing what I'm seeing from my point of view.

To me the text oozes of values that are contrarian to UX principles. I also did not see anything along the lines of empathy or communication skills with regards to understanding human needs, desires and fears, other than related to a knowledge of "design principles". The word "interview" is not even in the ad. Neither is "listening".

Does Nielsen Norman Group perhaps recruit in other ways to achieve a more diverse workforce? No, they make it super clear that they really only recruit every two years, and this is the only chance for a long time to come "to belong to the world’s leading UX group".

You'd imagine that if they recruit once every two years that Nielsen Norman Group have spent a lot of time getting this ad "right". On the other hand, this could also have been an exercise in extreme autonomy.


Added commentary

Addendum April 17: I was asked on LinkedIn why I care so much. This was my response:

The reason I personally care is because of the enormous influence Nielsen Norman Group has in the digital design industry. It is my conviction that if we fail to shed light on ableist and unhealthy behavior, including the promotion of monoculture, it is silently endorsed and allowed to grow.

When this culture grows and is enabled, it negatively influences the products and services we make, and has a huge adverse impact on many of my peers in the industry.

I believe that many who are most affected negatively by content like this (i.e. not me) either struggle to be heard or are fearful of repercussions (which also hit them harder).

Speaking out even when I am not the one primarily affected is important to thwarting ableist and prejudiced behavior. I know I am no role model; I fail in this regularly and circumstances don’t always allow me to do it. But when capability and energy allows, I try to make time for voicing my objections.

This type of criticism should have been voiced many years ago. Caring for the struggles of others has for me been a primary reason for becoming engaged in the UX/usability industry. It’s good to remind myself of that from time to time.


TED Education has a video on the disturbing history of IQ tests. The video is called "The dark history of IQ tests". I would propose that disturbing, or upsetting, is a better word choice than "dark".

If you'd rather read I can recommend the article IQ Tests: A Dark Story With an Often Fatal Result.


Comments

Tiziana. April 19, 2022:

Thank you for posting this article.

I am a UXer, living and working in USA. His position does not represent UX world here. I am still amazed at how Don Norman, now retired, wanted to start a company with him

For some really strange reason, too many in US believe Jacob Nielsen to be a Demi-god and THE EXPERT in usability. Maybe in 1990, but when a “ usability expert” tells you in 2014, that aesthetic is not important and that a huge list of links in a webpage is the epitome of usability, you must wonder. One thing he is the master of is marketing. His ego is so inflated that he created a “ux law”, Jacob’s law, that says that “ users spend most of their time on other websites”. Like we say in California, “ no s##t, Sherlock”. And what about “Nielsen”s 10 heuristics”? Originally 9, and created in collaboration with Danish designer Rolf Molich, now forgotten. He rewrote them in a much more complex terminology, added a redundant one, and was able to push it through as the standard.

I will make sure to share the job posting with my UX student, so they can avoid companies like these.

Shanae. May 1, 2022:

Thank you for highlighting the harmful language from the job posting and your perspective. Hope others are encouraged to be intentional with the language they use in job postings for UX roles.

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