Sunday, December 2, 2012

Attacking Automated Job Application System Annoyances

Dear reader,

Today, I applied for a job.  We've all been there, and many of us are pretty familiar with the process.  First, we re-vamp the resume...

Wanna hire me?  I take consulting/promotional work!

Then we write up a cover-letter that tries to make us seem skilled without sounding self-centered.  Then we just hit ctrl+p, grab an envelope and a stamp, and...

No, wait, that's not how most companies handle resumes anymore.  And why should they?  There are trees to protect!  And not to mention that there are, like, tons of people applying for each job.  Let's start by looking at the education field:  I've competed against 800 people for a single, one-year-long job as a teacher.  Assuming one can even keep one's resume down to one page (is that one too many ones?), that's two sheets for each person.  Forget a "stack" of resumes, we're talking about an entire crate, easy.  So, naturally, my area devised an automated resume-handling system called "On-Line Application System," or OLAS.  If you think this article is going to complain about OLAS, you're wrong.


The essence of an application system.

OLAS is actually a pretty well set up service, and corporations like Best Buy, Petco, and even the infamous McDonalds sport similar systems.  I'm familiar with one of the three I've just mentioned, as well as plenty of others representing smaller and more specialized entities, but they all have some key things in mind....

 - They allow applicants to create individual log-in names.
 - Under their log-in name, an applicant can upload, store, and edit their resumes.  Cover letters are standard fare.
 - Search functions allow a job browser to look in their area for jobs they are qualified for.  With new jobs being added all the time, employment seekers can check in every month or so to see if something has opened up!  Eventually, that 97 year old janitor has to retire, right?
 - Once an appropriate job posting is found, all the user has to do is check a box and hit "apply!"  Any necessary questions can be asked of the applicant at that time, and the resume/cover letter are automatically attached.  Confirmation is sent directly to the applicant's e-mail address, so you know it wasn't "lost in the mail," and any future correspondence is handled privately.

For obvious reasons, this is a tremendous advantage to the job-seeker.  I can't tell you how many publication packets, job applications, and other documents I've sent to an employer, only to have no idea whether it all made it to it's destination, or if they ended up taking a vacation in Aruba, instead.  Having knowledge that your application was received is relieving.  That doesn't mean it'll be seen, and it doesn't give you a clue of how many people are applying for the same position, but at least you know it's there.  The point isn't to make your odds better, it's to make your life - and the employer's life - a little easier.

With all of these advantages, and with all of the features that a relatively old model like OLAS has built into it, how can an application system be built wrong?  And, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean to the applicant?


How to mess up simple things.

Let's start with resume storage.  OLAS is going to serve as my "go to" example of a well-designed service.  On OLAS, you've got a resume and a profile all your own.  It's practically part of the signing up process, and all you need to do to update your resume is to upload a new .doc (or other acceptable format) document.  From there, any job you select and hit the "apply" button to?  Your resume is instantly sent.  This is pretty self-explanatory.  Yet today, as I was trying to upload my resume, the system I was working with worked on the premise of making you create a profile without an attached resume.  Each job you apply for? You upload your resume again and again.

Okay, so that's annoying, but what about cover letters themselves?  Well, with the business I applied to work at today, cover letters had to be attached to the same document you were attaching your resume to.  This means that you need to create a unique file just for that job.  If six positions exist, each one just a bit different than the other, you need to make six files.  Is it any different than the old days?  Maybe not, but it's frustrating.  It's easy to forget to include your resume, or to send the wrong file.  OLAS, on the other hand, allows you to attach "Job-specific cover letters," as well as a "generic" model.  You can do this independently of uploading your resume.

Let's move on to the actual job search interface.  What I was working with today might as well have never heard of Google.  It instantly spit out 190+ jobs, with no easily-found way to narrow the search down.  When you're looking to work at a specific location, it's pretty ludicrous to have to flip through ten-job-per-page listings which aren't even in alphabetical order.  OLAS?  It organizes by region, and once you select the region you need it goes to alphabetical order.  Simple, if not perfect.

Now for something that's a personal pet peeve of any interface design, be it job applications, shopping, or whatever.  Even when you narrow your listing down to the eight jobs you might be interested in, you're only getting the name of the job title, right?  So you want to investigate each one individually, just like you were reading each article in a newspaper.  The standard way to do this is to right-click on the link to the full description, then select "Open in new tab."  Ordinarily, this works just fine, and you get a brand new browser tab with a full description of the job you're planning to apply to.  With the system I worked on today?  It just opened a blank, broken tab.  So the only way to view the job is to effectively close your search out.

That's annoying, but here's where it gets downright frustrating.  Here's where any reasonably intelligent person will get irked that "they" can't get it "right."  Let's say, as happened to me, that you look at the first job and it's not what you were expecting.  Maybe you clicked it by accident, and you really wanted to check out the second one in the list.  Naturally, the site has a "Back" button that takes you back to your search, right?  I mean, that's just basic, right?  But, no, it completely re-sets your search.

So to review:  Somehow, more than ten years into the twenty-first century, these folks have made signing up to the system unnecessarily difficult; they've made searching for a job a frustrating exercise in repeatedly re-executing searches; and they've even managed to make the actual process of applying complicated.  All of this after it's been well proven that you can design a system to handle each of these things with one or two button clicks.  And they aren't alone.


If you aren't hiring, don't solicit.  If you are, do it right.

Now, I'm an honest guy.  In a way, I'm just complaining about simple little nuisances.  Life is about getting through these simple little nuisances.  Certainly a job is about getting through the rough patches in order to enjoy the good ones!  And when you're only looking to apply to one or two jobs, these kind of nuisances really don't seem like a big deal.

But here's why it's just not right.  Let's use our imagination.

You're a job applicant.  You're looking for a new career, and you're serious.  So you are searching high and low, applying wherever you can.  You've spent a couple hours fixing things up on your resume and practicing your cover letter writing.  Now it's time for you to search.  It takes you ten minutes to find a suitable job.  You need another ten minutes to initiate the process of applying.  That's twenty minutes.  You attempt to return to the previous search, but it's cancelled out; you need another ten minutes to find another job to apply to.  Then, because of poor design, you need to repeat the laundry list of application requirements; another ten minutes.

Instead of applying to two jobs in twenty minutes, your pace is now cut to one in twenty; or, two in forty.  Now you want to apply to a third.  Let's assume you're better prepared to face the technical nightmare, so you cut the application and search processes in half.  You've now taken fifty minutes to apply to three jobs.  To apply to a fourth requires another ten - that's 4 jobs in one hour.  That's a lot of time, time you could be spending on your family or a hobby or on taking care of chores.

"So what?  Deal with it!" is the usual response.  "Everyone else has to put up with it, too, so just do it" is the other one.  Here's why that's a bad mindset, both from the applicant's perspective, as well as the businesses'.

As the applicant, you're sitting here dealing with this annoying process that's soaking up your time, right?  Well, you could easily just go...Apply to a different business!  Yes!  After all, if your initial impression of your potential employer is that they are so inept they can't even design a system that's convenient (or pay someone else to do it), how are you going to take them seriously as a place to build a career?  Time Magazine addresses these kinds of issues in an article about "top employees," and is it any wonder that one of the reasons a super-star might not be happy with their employer is "under-utilization?"  Or that another one is "condoning mediocrity?"  If you're a business looking to hire skilled workers, shouldn't your application system demonstrate some skill?


The business of business is good business.

Let's get back to the business' perspective.  You want the best candidates, right?  So you want to make it as convenient and painless as possible for applicants to apply, just like you'd make shopping at your store as simple as you can to make your clients happy!  Yes, you might get eight hundred applications, and you might even get eight hundred well qualified candidates, but isn't that better than getting zero?  Oh, and here's another thing; chances are that if your application system scares off an applicant, they're still looking for a job in the field that you do business in, right?  What happens when your competition starts getting the best recruits?

Imagine if Amazon made it tough to hire visionary designers, and they chose to work at Barnes and Noble instead.  I know, crazy, right?  I mean, given how the website Deadline reports B&N's fiscal results, clearly it's already lost that war, yeah?  But only because Amazon had those designers in the first place.  That edge is not guaranteed.  If Amazon treated its employees like crap, and - as a company reputed to be tech-savvy - made it's employment system look like it was slapped together by a drunk ape, chances are it would stop getting good recruits.

Instead, they'd start getting good competition.  And not in the "friendly chess game" kind of competition.

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