Designing a user-centered cover letter and resume
You’ve been applying to jobs and not getting any responses. You know you’re qualified for most of them and it’s driving you mad. Why aren’t you hearing back?
Time and time again, I’ve chatted with smart, qualified folks who’ve experienced this problem. One of them was my partner (now a Director of Consumer Insights). He’s a smart guy, but he was struggling with the same thing I was in 2008 as a college grad: a poorly designed cover letter and resume.
In 2008, I squatted for three months in my sister Margot’s Bay Area apartment while I was applying for jobs. I wrote whatever I wanted in my resumes and cover letters. I talked about how great I thought I was with no structure. Almost no one responded to my applications. If I remember correctly, I think I had two interviews in three months.
Just as I was about to move home to the Midwest and throw in the towel, my sister stepped in and showed me a different way of writing resumes and cover letters. She took a more user-focused approach to my job search materials. She told me that hiring managers wanted to see clear evidence that my experience matched their needs in an easily scannable form. It was as simple as that. The lack of response wasn’t due to my lack of ability. It was because I designed cover letters and resumes for myself, and didn’t solve for my audience.
So who was my audience and what mindset were they in when they looked at my cover letter and resume? Recruiters and hiring managers are extremely busy. Sometimes they look at hundreds of applications a week. They have little brain space to pare down verbose language or to find crucial information in a cover letter or resume. They’re like a bouncer reviewing hundreds of IDs at an international club. So many colors. So many different layouts. So many different fonts. A lot of context switching that makes them slow down, get confused, and have to work harder.
My sister edited my cover letters and resumes so they helped these busy, overtaxed users. So they only included what mattered. So they were consistent. Simple. Scannable. No extraneous fonts, colors, icons, or pictures. Just the information they needed to know.
My career started because of Margot’s user-centric cover letter and resume approach, and it grew because of them, too. I’ve used her method for my friends, my partner, and people who have reached out to me on LinkedIn. I thought you, the world, might want to know about it, too. (Hello, world!)
Design your cover letter
The purpose of a cover letter is to quickly highlight the key reasons you qualify for this particular role at this particular company. Align your cover letter directly to what your audience — the reader — is looking for and keep it short. This is not a story. This is a snapshot.
Here’s how I’d break it down:
- Introduce yourself and say you’re excited about the role. Say you’re interested for three reasons.
- List out those reasons in bullet-point form, then follow up each reason with evidence from your work history and the impact you had. The reasons you choose should match some of the main job description requirements or desired qualifications in the job listing.
- Choose your top reasons carefully. They should be areas in which you truly shine, things you have a great example to allude to, and an area that is a top priority for the role you’re targeting.
- Mention any referrals or connections you may have to the company at the end.
Here’s an example. For the Product Designer role at HubSpot, we’re looking for people who have:
- A deep understanding of usability principles and practices applied to interaction and visual design.
- Experience working in a dynamic, user-centered design process, where we let quantitative and qualitative customer data guide but not make our decisions.
- Examples of work that include: initial concepting sessions, user flows, wireframes, UI patterns, and high fidelity screens highlighting your design process.
That’s all right there in the job description below.
So I’ve focused on those requirements in my sample cover letter. For the purposes of this blog post, I’ve bolded the requirements I’ve taken directly from the job description, but I wouldn’t actually bold them in the cover letter I send. Here is a documented example of a cover letter for this specific role in addition to the text above.
To Whom it May Concern,
My name is [First name] [Last name] and I’m really excited about the Product Designer role at HubSpot. I think I’d be a great fit for these three reasons:
1. I have a deep understanding of usability principles and practices applied to interaction and visual design. As a UX designer at [company], I maintain our design quality by leading weekly design reviews across teams to ensure that we follow usability heuristics.
2. I’m used to working in a dynamic user-centered design process where we let quantitative and qualitative customer data guide but not make our decisions. As a designer at [company], I document success metrics with our product teams, holding retros to ensure we’re analyzing data critically and meeting our measured goals.
3. I have experience with initial concepting sessions, user flows, wireframes, UI patterns, and high fidelity screens highlighting my design process. At [company], I leverage these tools to ensure we build product efficiently and thoughtfully-increasing stakeholder buy in and ensuring we make product in the most scientific, lean way.
I heard about this role through my mentor Loe Lee, a Design Lead at HubSpot. Thank you for considering me for the Product Designer role. I hope to hear from you soon.
[First name] [Last name]
Design your resume
A resume is the story of your career. It tells recruiters and hiring managers how you make a meaningful impact in each role and how you have grown and developed that impact over time. Your resume sheds light on the relationships you’ve built over the course of your career. Have you stayed somewhere for a short time or a long time? Why? How quickly were you given additional responsibility and promotions in previous roles?
Here’s how I’d approach writing a new resume:
- Follow a simple, easy-to-scan format. Leave room for lots of white space. Indent new sections. Bold headings. Don’t include colors, icons, or photos. Use just one font.
- Include no more than six bullet points under each role. Start each line with a strong action verb, a summary of what you did, and the impact it had, along with any supporting data or metrics you might have.
- Keep it under two pages long.
- Showcase things that make you unique — outside interests, accomplishments, hobbies, etc. — in a section at the end. Keep it short, but throw some personality in here.
Here’s an example of my resume. Like my sample cover letter, it’s tailored to the needs of the user: the busy recruiter or hiring manager. That’s why it works.
User-centered design isn’t just for creating experiences and impact through software, it’s for cover letters and resumes too. My sister (now a CEO and mom of three) was smart enough to know this back in 2008. I’m lucky to have had access to that wisdom when I was struggling and unemployed. I hope it can be of use to you, too. Thanks, Margot. And thanks for the use of your couch.
We’re always looking for great people to join us in our mission to help millions of organizations grow better. Explore our open positions, or just find out more about how our team works.