Fixing the worst online job application

Earlier, I wrote about what may be one of the worst online job applications I’ve ever experienced (I’d suggest reading that article first; otherwise, this one might not make sense). It got me thinking: what if I had an opportunity to fix this horror show of an experience?

Here’s what I would do.

My first instinct would be to shut down this monstrosity of a system. However, it likely wouldn’t be a good idea to shut down what might be the only means for an applicant to contact the human resources department. That said, this system is so badly designed that it’s likely to deter anyone trying to apply for positions, anyway. That gives me two options: either leave it as is, or implement a simple temporary replacement. Personally, I wouldn’t want anyone else to experience the horror show that I experienced, so I would opt for a simple replacement. The simplest option would be “send your resume, cover letter, and the position to which you want to apply to <such and such email address>.” Or, if I wanted to kick it up slightly, I’d make it a simple form: name, email, and a place to upload your resume.

If I opted for the form option, that would preclude some back-end mechanism to handle it. The simplest option would be to take that form data and put it together into an email that would format it, attach the resume, and send it to an email address. Of course, this opens another can of worms. First, there’s the matter of security. Who knows what viruses or Trojan horses are lurking in an attachment? Most forms like these ask for specific file types — usually a Word doc or a PDF — so I’d only allow those formats. I would also make sure that all security and antivirus functions are up-to-date; if a message does include a virus, at least it can be caught at the email application level, and it would be a matter of the cybersecurity team to investigate it further.

Once the temporary option is in place, and the horrendous system is shut down, I’d look into whether it’d be better to implement a new system out of the box, or roll my own.

Let’s start with rolling my own. I’d likely look into something using a SQL Server or Azure back-end (probably the latter, since everyone seems to be moving to the cloud, although that would require some brushing up on my part, since I don’t have a lot of cloud development experience). I’d probably put together a .NET front-end. Security, of course, would be a major issue to address, since we’d be dealing with applicant data. I would make sure that applicant data can be saved and pulled whenever an applicant applies for positions, eliminating the need for the applicant to continually re-entering his or her information, other than his or her login information. Again, the point is to make it easier, not harder, to apply for positions.

That said, there are a number of turnkey options that might be able to do the job better than I can. ICIMS is a popular SaaS product used by a number of employers. I would also look into other CMS systems that might exist. Other than ICIMS, I’m not sure of other applicant systems that can do what is required, but I don’t doubt that other systems exist that can maintain applicant data quite well. In this case, I’d switch my role from that of a developer to one of an analyst or consultant; what steps would I take to implement such a system? It would depend on the system and the environment.

Regardless of what system is used and how it’s implemented, any of these solutions would be better than the disaster of an application that I experienced.

The worst online job application #JobHunt

In my job hunt experience, I might have come across what may be the worst online job application I’ve ever experienced — so bad that I felt a need to write about it. I will not identify the institution, other than it is a well-known institution in the Albany Capital District. Maybe if a representative from this institution is reading this article and recognizes that it is theirs, they’ll realize what a horrible experience this is, and takes steps to fix this problem — and yes, it is a BIG problem. I consider this a case study in how NOT to set up an online job application.

In my job search, I started looking into specific companies to which I could apply, so I went to this institution’s web site. I went to their careers section, found a few positions that I thought were interesting, and started applying for them. This is where the horror show begins.

Most online applications that I’ve experienced generally have an option for you to create a profile that includes your identifying information, resume, background, and so on. Indeed, I had applied to this particular employer years ago, and they had such a system in place back then. I poked around to see if I could find my previous profile, but I couldn’t find any such link. I figured, no matter; they probably had my old email address back then, so I’d probably have to create a new one.

As it turned out, this was a red flag.

Throughout my past several months of filling job applications, I’ve gotten used to ATS systems that read your resume or LinkedIn profile and autofilled job applications based on your resume and profile. I’ve had mixed success with these systems with varying levels of frustration, but for the most part, they’ve saved me a great deal of time and effort with applying for positions.

Unfortunately, for this employer, there was no such system. I clicked the button marked “Click Here To Apply.” It took me to a page that had this interface.

(At this point, I want to point out the part that says “You may add additional positions to this application.” I’ll come back to this later, but let me say that [1] during this first run-through, I wasn’t thinking about other positions yet, although there were others that interested me, and [2] I did not see this on the first go-round. Those of you who follow my post regularly know how much I emphasize that “reading is work!!!” Again, hold this thought; I’ll come back to this.)

Okay. I clicked Continue. The next screen was the standard HR-ese about EEO and code of conduct. I clicked the requisite box and clicked Continue again.

The next screen asked me to fill out my name, address, email, and various other boxes (“have you ever worked for [name of employer] before,” etc.).

Wait a minute. It’s asking for my name. Shouldn’t it ask to upload my resume or connect to my LinkedIn account? I looked around, and there was no such button or link. Okay. I filled the requisite fields and clicked Save & Continue.

The next screen asked questions such as date available to work, salary requirements, relatives that work for (name of employer), and so on. Again, I answered what they asked, and once again, clicked Save & Continue.

The next screen displayed the following.

I took issue with this question, particularly with the “highest graduate education year completed.” I have a Masters degree, I went to school part-time, and it took me 4½ years to get it, taking a class per semester (and a summer session) as my schedule allowed. So does that mean I click 4 (as in it took me 4+ years), or do I click 1 or 2 (as it typically takes to get a Masters degree full-time)? It did not specify, and there were no instructions. I don’t remember what I answered (I think it was 2), so I went with my best guess as to what they wanted.

Directly under that question was this.

Wait a minute. You haven’t asked me to attach a resume. I suppose it’ll ask me later (I still don’t understand why it didn’t ask me to attach one at the very beginning). I clicked Save & Continue.

The next screen asked about job history.

I already have my employment history on my resume (which you still haven’t yet asked me to attach, upload, or link). You really want me to take the time to fill this in? This screen frustrated me; I’ve been working professionally for thirty years. You really want me to fill all of that in? And why aren’t you autofilling it from my resume (that you still haven’t asked for yet), like everyone else using ATS is doing? The application only asks for at least four years of employment history, but I’ve only worked for a few companies over four years, and it doesn’t tell the entire story of who I am or my professional history.

Nevertheless, the application system had me over a barrel, so I had no choice but to fill it all out. Let me emphasize that the form is not easy to fill out; all dates are drop-down selections (which, I should add, don’t work very well), they don’t auto-format fields such as phone numbers (e.g. they don’t limit area codes to three digits), and you have to fill out the fields for employer, title, job description, and so on.

I don’t know how long it took me to fill it all out. I’ll estimate that it took between fifteen and thirty minutes. It felt like several hours.

It next asked for personal references, if I had fewer than two employers. Since I definitely had more than two employers, and I didn’t feel like filling out more than I had to, I skipped this step. (And I should note: what if I worked ten years for only one employer? Yet another problem with how this application was put together. Whomever it was that put this together was obviously not thinking.) Again, I clicked Save & Continue.

At this point (step 8 of 12, according to the application), it asked to upload documents (resume, cover letter, etc.). It only allowed up to two documents (most other applications I’ve filed allowed for more than two). Okay. I added my resume and cover letter, and clicked Save & Continue.

Finally, it got to the point to review everything I’d filled out (very painfully, I should add). I clicked Save & Continue. Subsequent screens displayed the requisite EEO questions — race, veteran status, and so on. I clicked through the screens. My application was submitted.

At this point, I went back to apply for other positions that interested me. It was here where the employer’s application went from being frustrating to downright infuriating.

Almost all automated job applications send an email acknowledgement, so I looked for one after I finished the arduous procedure. I didn’t see one. After waiting for several minutes and poking around my email, I finally found this sitting in my spam folder.

It sent it as an attachment? No wonder why it was flagged by my spam filter. Since I trusted the sender (or, more accurately, I knew from where it had been sent), I went in and followed the instructions. Okay, fine. I downloaded it and followed the sign-in instructions. It had me sign into their system, where I found this message.

Granted, there was no identifying information (other than my email and the employer, which I blacked out in this screen capture). Now, I am all for data security and ensuring data is protected, but did this message warrant sending a secure attachment and requiring a login? I don’t think it was. I’ve gotten other emails from job applications that included more information that was sent less securely. One other thing I found infuriating was that there was absolutely no reference to the position that I had applied. I’ve been using my email to keep track of applications. How am I supposed to know to what position this refers? In my opinion, this message was not worth sending in a super-secure email. I felt that the mechanism they used to send this message was overkill.

I had seen other positions on the list that interested me, so I went back to apply for them. I figured that the system would take my information from the previous application and use it for the new application.

I figured wrong.

There was absolutely NO mechanism to refill all the information from the previous application. There was no applicant account function, no resume or LinkedIn ATS autofill function, nothing. If I wanted to apply for another position, I had to refill the ENTIRE application manually. Did I mention how painful and tedious it was to fill the application? It might as well have taken several hours to do so.

Now, remember earlier how I mentioned that there was a link to “add other positions to your application”? I did not see that the first time around. The next time, I tried it. The link brought me back to the ORIGINAL job search page. There was NO function to add any other jobs to an existing application. Nothing like that was anywhere to be seen. And if it did exist (and I’m not sure that it does), it is not obvious.

This application system design is so horrendous that it’s saying “f**k you” to applicants. It is doing more to drive applicants away than it is to make them want to apply for positions.

This is not the first time I’ve written about bad form design. However, this problem isn’t just about the form; it’s also about the entire application process. The design planning was poorly thought out, if it was done at all. There is no mechanism for autofilling fields. There is nothing to save applicant data. The forms are not intuitive. And I’m willing to bet large sums of money that either there was no end user or QA testing done, it was done shoddily, or test criteria were poorly defined.

I could keep going, but to make a long denunciation short: whomever it was that put this together has absolutely no business working on UX/UI projects.

The object of well-designed UX/UI and online forms is to make it easier, not harder, for end users. As an applicant, I found this process to be infuriating, not just frustrating. A process this bad will likely deter qualified applicants from applying to jobs. And if this system is that badly designed, these applicants are likely to question whether they want to work for this employer in the first place.

Bad web forms — how to drive people away from your site

I’ve come across my share of bad design, and I’m sure you have as well. I’ve especially come across some egregious examples as a job applicant.

I came across one that particularly set me off. While poking around Indeed, I found a technical writer position for GitLab that interested me. Of course, most people who work in IT are familiar with GitLab, so they have a reputation. I read through the description, and it sounded interesting, so I clicked the button to “apply on company site.”

The subsequent link took me to this page.

The page talks about the technical writer roles and responsibilities. It talks about the hiring process, it includes a salary calculator, and it even talks about benefits, including stock options.

Nowhere on the page was there any link to actually apply for the position!!!

If you don’t believe me, check out the link and see for yourself. No wonder why they need technical writers. I understand and appreciate GitHub’s reputation in the IT community, but this page is seriously making me question whether or not I really want to work for them.

GitHub is far from being the only offender. I came across another page that, even after they asked me to upload my resume, it still asked me to manually input my work experience. (Even worse, these were required fields; there was no way around this. What if you’re a student with no work experience?) After I hit Submit, it came back and told me there were errors. It had cleared out all the dates I’d entered (I had entered months and years), and it insisted that I entered days. Seriously, raise your hand if you actually remember what day you started or ended a job from years ago. I have enough trouble just remembering the month or year. It made me question how well their automated formatting really worked (if it worked at all). Once I filled those in (with the best guesses for days), it told me there was another error. I clicked the message, expecting it to show me where the error was. Nope. It just told me there was an error. I had to search the entire page to figure out what it was complaining about.

I’ve come across too many forms like this during my job hunt. I also remember coming across some very badly designed forms years ago from previous job hunts — some that were so badly designed that they discouraged me from applying for the jobs.

I’ve talked about making documentation easier for the end user, and this is far from the only article I’ve written about how bad design is a detriment to anyone who needs to follow instructions. UX/UI needs to be as painless as possible for the end user. If you’re a vendor, bad design can drive away customers. If you’re an employer, you run the risk of discouraging qualified applicants.

Like good documentation, good form design needs to be well-thought-out and well-designed. Don’t be the organization that lost customers because your forms were too arduous to use.

For every action, you need a reaction

I came across yet another example of bad interface design this morning.

After I logged into my computer, a pop-up window appeared. It was my Docker application, telling me that an update was available and ready to install. Okay, I said to myself, and clicked the button to proceed.

Except… nothing happened.

I clicked it again. And again. And again. I mashed the mouse button. Nothing. I decided there was a problem with the interface, went on with my work, and forgot all about it. At one point, I saw a Docker window appear, saying updates were being applied. Okay. Again, I went back to what I was doing.

I didn’t think anything of it — until I looked at my taskbar several minutes later. All along the taskbar were several new — and identical — icons that I hadn’t seen before, roughly one for each time that I had hit the mouse button. When I clicked each icon, I was greeted with a window that said “installation failed.” Well, almost all. The second-to-last one I clicked said, “installation succeeded.”

Yet another example of horrible design rears its ugly head.

As an application end user, if I click something where it says “click here,” I expect — and demand — that it does something. It doesn’t matter what it is. Granted, I would prefer that it performs the action that I expect when I click it, but even if all it does is change the mouse pointer, display an “in progress” icon, or display an error message, I expect some kind of response that indicates that my action did something.

An action that results in nothing is a huge pet peeve of mine, and, in my opinion, is extremely horrible design. A click that does nothing tells me that the application is doing exactly that: nothing. Having an action with no response is not only annoying, it can be potentially dangerous. What if — hypothetically — clicking a button resulted in lost data, but there was no indication as such?

A reaction is a form of feedback. If I click a button, a reaction — even if all it is is an in-progress icon — tells me that the application is doing something. If I click a button, and it does nothing, then I expect the application is doing nothing. An action without any reaction results in frustration on the part of the end user, and potentially dangerous side effects if the application performs an action that the user doesn’t expect.

If this is how you design your UX, then you need to rethink your design. When it comes to interfaces, every action must have a reaction.