Funnel Vision: Viewing the ATS from a Candidate’s POV

If you’re an HR professional, I suspect you’re tired of hearing terrible candidate experience stories. If you’re a candidate, you read these stories nodding your head. Almost every one of these terrible candidate experience stories prominently features a terrible applicant tracking system (ATS).

Candidate Experience or Applicant Experience?

The problem with ATSs is that they focus almost exclusively on the HR experience, which is focused on weeding out unqualified applicants. That’s a vital function, but is your ATS weeding out highly qualified candidates too? As a passive candidate, when I saw the rigmarole many ATSs wanted to put me through, I gave up. I wasn’t willing to go to the trouble.  If your ATS is difficult to impossible to use, you’re going to lose a good share of passive candidates, because they can’t be bothered to fill out the form. However, the highly motivated, completely unqualified candidates will jump through unlimited hoops to get into your inbox.

The next time your ATS is up for review, ask for a demo of the applicant experience. Here’s a list of what to look for:

1.)  Does the ATS time out after 10, 20, or 30 minutes, automatically throwing out the applicants’ hard work?
Look for a feature that allows candidates to leave anywhere in the process and resume later. If a profile isn’t completely filled out, does the ATS send a reminder email to the applicant? It should.

2.)  Does the ATS support mobile browsing?
Are the forms designed to be used on a smartphone or a tablet? How many candidates squeeze in time on their lunch hour to fill out the ATS forms on their mobile phones? Ask your web analytics folks to show you which devices are used to access your ATS. If “Mobile Safari” isn’t the most common browser used in your ATS, it’s getting close. Don’t leave your largest browsing group behind.

Ask the salesperson to show you the candidate application on his or her smartphone. Is it usable? If not, keep looking.

3.)  Does the ATS mangle the candidates’ work?
Many ATSs require the candidate to re-enter their resume in the ATS’s preferred format, or they parse the resume and ask the candidate to fix any errors. The latter experience is preferable. If the ATS requires plain text, make sure that it doesn’t mangle the plain text after the candidate has carefully entered each bullet point with stars, and carefully aligned each paragraph. When I saw my computer-generated application printed out in interviews, I was horrified. I worked so hard to make it look good in plain text, and the ATS brutalized it and made me look sloppy.

Ask the salesperson to show you WYSIWYG editing, or roundtrip plain text. Does it look the same coming out as it went in? If not, you’re doing a disservice to your candidates.

4.)  How does the ATS manage different kinds of notifications?
You should be able to manage all kinds of candidate emails, from a rejection form letter to an interview reminder. Do the emails look professional, or do they contain “DO NOT REPLY TO THIS EMAIL! at the top of every missive? The notification system should work both ways, and emails should come from a person, not from DONOTREPLY@MYCOMPANY.COM.

5.)  Does the ATS throw out qualified candidates?
Applicants hate this, but you simply can’t wade through every unqualified applicant. Most recruiters agree that an ATS must filter applicants. But make sure that the ATSs business rules are flexible enough to showcase unconventional candidates. What if the candidate doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree but has 20 years of experience? What if the candidate mis-entered the BA on his/her resume, but has a Master’s Degree? Do you want to look for experience with certain companies or in certain industries? Make sure the salesperson shows you this flexibility in the demo

6.)  Does the ATS support your company’s brand?
You need more than a cookie cutter approach to branding your ATS. Does it fully support style sheets, workflow customization, HTML email notifications, framing, or consuming from a web service. Uploading your logo isn’t enough.As a web designer to sit in on the demo and ask these hard questions.

Are Hiring Systems Horrible for Candidates?

Applicant Tracking and Hiring Systems do not have to be horrible for candidates, but most of them are. No, I can’t and won’t recommend a particular system, but these six tips should get you a long way toward finding a system that won’t drive away your most qualified candidates.

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Dan Lovejoy

Dan Lovejoy is a User Interface & Experience Architect at OG&E and a self-admitted adorable curmudgeon. The opinions here are his own and not his employer — in case you were wondering.

Reader Interactions


  1. Elliot says

    I blogged about this very topic a couple of weeks ago. I would recommend any HR professional looking at an ATS actually go through the steps of applying for a position or uploading their information so they can experience what a candidate goes through. If it’s painful for the HR pro, it’s going to be painful for the candidate.

    • Jessica Miller-Merrell says


      I absolutely agree with you. Candidate experience is so important and having the HR person who is making the buying decision apply for jobs on their own career site and the career sites of others will help them immensely.


    • Rachel says

      Where this falls down is that most if not all HR people are not qualified to *do* the jobs they are seeking to fill. Which begs the question why you’d put skilled roles and the selection of appropriate candidates for same in their inexperienced and unqualified hands. I’m an expert software developer, and the minute I see a given company that claims to need my skills relegating the reviewing of my CV to some numpty from HR, or worst still an automated CV reader, I know not to waste my time or talent on them. There are plenty of other companies out there that need my skills just as much, but who have the brains not to let some foetus that’s been working in HR for all of five minutes “assess” candidates’ skills. In my experience, there isn’t a talent shortage. What there is, is a shortage of ability to identify talent in some companies. That’s why recruitment agencies exist: because most HR people are glorified filing clerks that are *appalling* at recruitment.

  2. George Nielsen says

    Elliot you hit it on the nose! Ease of use is a must in the hiring process. The HR pro needs to act as customer service in advance for applicants to streamline and improve overall applicant experience.



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