Onboarding: The Ecosystem, not the Afterthought
Russ Unger, Experience Design Director at 18F
Submitted by Natalie Hanson (Official Tripnoter)

From the Design Operations Summit website:
Onboarding new employees to your team is all too often treated as an afterthought, or best case, as an at-the-moment-thought. Employees deserve a well-thought out experience that includes them from the very beginning–from the creation of the position description—to that time after they’ve become integrated into our teams and organizations. We can trace some of these imperfect scenarios all the way back to the creation our performance profiles or position descriptions, and how they were created. When we understand the entire journey from candidate to employee we see the value of treating onboarding as an ending of a particular process instead of a solitary event in time.

18F is a user-centered Agile consultancy in the US government. Russ is an author, and is currently working on a design leadership book for Rosenfeld Media, which is due out soon.

The Museum of the Moving Image had a Jim Henson exhibit running during the conference, which many people said was terrific. Following the pre-conference speaker dinner, it leaked that he would be talking about The Muppets. He wasn’t planning to talk about the Muppets today! But he has incorporated some material into his talk for us.


Russ built a few Muppets at FAO Schwartz a few years ago. When he did that, he realized that Henson was a creator of design patterns. The Whatnots enabled you to choose a body, hair, eyes, and a nose, and you could choose any combination of those to make your own Muppet. There is also an online tool, so his kids designed their own and then he was able to make them a physical version of what they had designed.


Russ also mapped characters from the Fraggle Rock Universe into roles we have in our project teams today. Bobo was a practical leader – like a Product Manager, Mokey is depicted above – she was sort of artistic (designer), Red was full of energy (Marketing), and Wembley was really nervous and indecisive (QA). Doozers built things for others to consumer (Developers). The Gorvs were 22 feet tall. Maybe clients?

Russ asked for our help to sing The Rainbow Connection. I really wish I had had the presence of mind to capture it on video … it was pretty cool that he got so many of us in the audience singing along with Kermit. Because who doesn’t love Kermit?

And now, on to Russ’ official conference presentation …

How do we bring people into our organizations. Has anyone here had or currently have a job? You are the target audience!

When we are looking for a new person to join our organization – they have the right years of experience, the right tool skills, they say they have the interpersonal communication skills. So they submit an application and wait. And wait. Then maybe they get a call from a recruiter – an informational interview, and then they wait some more. And then they talk to the hiring manager. They are probably the only person who reads your company’s About Us page, and they may be LinkedIn stalking. They may be wondering what kinds of crazy questions they will be asked if they get an interview.

So they finally get a half day interview, or worse, several phases of interviews. That person has to call in sick or get out of work. They may be wondering about their portfolio, or what the design exercise will entail.

So they finish the interviews and the design exercise, and then they send a thank you note, and they wait some more. They email the recruiter because they want to work for you. Ultimately they complete all the paperwork, and they wait some more.

That first day, the sky is bluer, the commute is better, or they are in good spirits walking up the stairs to their home office. But the receptionist is not always as excited, or welcoming. And then they get more forms. Then they go to another room, they spend 30 mins to three and a half hours learning about company history – the founders, etc. (that was was on About Us page they’ve already read). In the middle we might take them out to eat for free at the company cafeteria. And then hopefully there is a computer for them after that. And more paperwork, corporate training videos.

The new employee wants to know now what? Russ spent three months wondering that at one of his prior companies. It makes for a very long eight hours, and your new hire starts to wonder if they made a mistake.

The truth is that Hiring Managers have it tough here too. They secured a requisition, they had to move fast. They wanted as many resumes as possible, and they hand-picked candidates. When the interview is over, they assume they are done. That person is passed into a new product team. But Mondays are a tough day to start. So that more reasonable representation of the process might look something like this:


Diving right in can slow the system down, be disruptive. In contrast, proper planning for onboarding can bring about something much more fluid and more productive for employees and teams.

We need to learn and improve so we can give our new employees the best possible experience. Onboarding people is hard, but it’s not something that happens in a single day. That is an easy way out. We have to be aware of all the interactions with a candidate. It’s not a process, an event … it’s really an ecosystem. At the very center of it all are people. If we are designing amazing things, then we should be designing amazing experiences for people who join our organizations, too. How do we make the transition from candidate experience to employee experience?

Parts of the whole:

  • Performance Profiles
  • Interview Guide
  • Structured Interviews
  • Stay in touch post offer
  • Pre-boarding

And then you graduate from being a candidate to being an employee, and you should get:

  • Buddy system
  • Internal projects
  • First project
  • Feedback

Performance profiles are about outcomes you expect from an individual. This is not the job description. It’s not about 3 or 5 years of experience.

Lou Adler wrote a book called Hire with your Head. What does the person need to do to be successful. Here is the difference between job description and a performance profile:


Writing good performance profiles should involve the team. They know what skills and what success looks like in their environment. Why would a new person resign? Why would they get fired? Why did they get promoted? Vote / prioritize the top reasons why people would get promoted. Use dot-voting, because we love that. 🙂 And then write detailed descriptions of the top 5 reasons for promotions.

The interview guide is also something you build with the team. You have to map the performance profiles to the interview framework. You provide the interviewer with some good signs and some warnings, for example:


That makes a better interview experience both for the team and for the candidate.

What do you hope to learn from the design exercise? Are you compensating them for the effort? Imagine the effort required for a single working mom. Are we biasing our process, excluding people who could be amazing because you’re not thinking what their world is like?

How Russ approaches interviews:


Following that they have 3 parts of the interview which focus on the head, hands, and heart. Technical skills (hands), problem solving abilities (head), identify if driven by the right values (heart). If at the end of that there is any doubt, he facilitates the team to a decision. If you can’t get a roaring yes, that tells you plenty. And the recruiter has to communicate that back in a constructive way.

Post-offer staying in touch. One of the mistakes we make in the hiring process is the big gap in communication / contact between the final round interview and the first day of work. During that period, go out of your way to ensure they have the right contacts, that they feel comfortable about being in touch. Be available and approachable, help them feel comfortable joining your organization.

Before they begin, discuss all the right things. What happens on Day 1, points of contact, general work expectations, systems of support, all the culture – especially the quirks! As much as possible, let someone besides you / hiring manager answer the questions, so there can be an honest discussion.

Day 1 is Commencement. They make the shift from candidate to employee, and they are an active part of our world(s). Let’s make sure they have that fresh, new job smell. Make sure you take the time to welcome them, let them know they can leave early once HR processes are done. Graduate, welcome them. Make it comfortable, make it not suck.

The buddy system, the buddy should have a checklist. Getting the bio ahead of time, planning a team orientation (different than the official company orientation). Learning about team meetings, help with internal systems. And do daily check-ins at first. Show them the Buddy Handbook (you should have one) – you can use a university one as a starting point.

Let them work on an internal project for 2-3 weeks to learn more about how we work in a very safe way. Then you can give them their first real project.

Take the opportunity to collect onboarding feedback. And there is always more we can do across the organization. In summary:



All the artwork in his presentation was created by his 13 year old daughter.