Design guide for conducting better job interviews
Updated: Aug 23, 2018
How might we design a better system for screening designers?
In the last few weeks I have been attending interviews for the roles of User Experience Designer with some companies in Bangalore. One incident irked me so much to dig deeper about the way design interviews are conducted; some were hilarious to downright atrocious.
Let me begin the story with a good experience. Design firm X saw my application and scheduled a telephone interview. It was a portfolio walkthrough and went fairly well. They called me in for a face-to-face discussion in their beautifully spread out office, during which we discussed more about the projects I have worked on. I was then presented a design problem and asked to come up with solutions for it; old school — just pen and paper(the best!).
I got to discuss with them about the requirements, constraints and then spent some time by myself thinking of various approaches. Once I was ready, we had a discussion about my ideas and the conversation went really well with tweaks and new ideas pitched in. I felt valued and my voice heard.
Another design firm Y decided to assigned me “design exercise homework”right away over email, even before speaking to me on the phone. The fact that the HR said they have no requirements that match “my line of work” a week earlier, changed the tune when I applied through AngelList again. Neither did I get a facelift nor my resume a make-over, I wonder what changed in a week.
After spending 8 hours working on the problem, I sent them the deliverables I created — paper prototype, interactive prototype and a documentation of my design process. After waiting for 2 weeks, I got a reply that “I do not match their design standards”. I asked politely for more clarification and a design critique of what could have been done better but never heard back. And this really ticked me off. I could have flipped a coin or tossed a die to know the outcome. What was the point in spending so much time and effort. I don’t need a fancy PDF, a few bullet points of could have e given me closure.
I wonder if they send design briefs to their clients without any explanation — we used Yellow because it’s Friday and we like it.
In the midst of all this, I got another mail from a different HR asking me to work on a different problem. I had to remind the person, I was already in progress with another exercise. Again no apology, no reply.
I myself agree that it was not the best, polished work I have done. But I did what I could within the time considerations. A candidate cannot spend so much time with every company without even knowing where they stand. And when was the last time, the first iteration of the design was spot on? A candidate who has spent time to work on a problem deserves and has the right to know why he was not selected. It is not nice to know!
Interview is a two way process, it is not just the companies interviewing the candidates, the reverse holds true as well.
In keeping with the company’s culture of not acknowledging faults or responding to emails, the head of the design firm did not reply to my mail stating all of the mishap along with proof of email conversation.
Apparently winning ‘Best UX Design Agency’ gives you the right to have a broken HR system and treat candidates like disposables. I am glad they swiped left on my profile; saves me a ton of time and energy to focus on the good companies out there.
This bitter experience made to curious - was this the case of one rotten apple or was this a problem throughout the industry. Apparently I was not the only one and many more designers came forward with similar situations. Some companies went to the extent of asking for the complete source designs, prototypes for every medium(web, Android, iOS) and forbidding the candidates from using this on their portfolio. Really?
The ones at most risk of being exploited were freshers, less experienced candidates and introverts. I felt like I was in the midst of a #metoo campaign in the design industry.
But no story is complete without hearing both sides. A few senior design managers came forward and shared their experience. They had come across candidates using fake projects in their portfolio and felt that a design exercise is the only way to separate the wheat from the chaff. I totally agree, no one should be taken at face value. As a former software engineer having sat through many interviews, I know the importance of evaluating the coding skills in person. I am not advocating to stop design exercise; rather just a better way of conducting it.
Please don’t give me homework, I am no longer 12.
Even if the candidate were to use fake projects in their portfolio, a telephone discussion should give an idea whether to proceed. Based on that, schedule a in-person interview and then throw a design exercise at the candidate. It allows the candidate to speak up, clarify the doubts and refine the idea. Some argue, they don’t have the time. Then make time. You don’t have to sit in silence while the candidate is thinking or working on a prototype (paper or software). Pop-in and out as required.
If blocking out an entire day is not possible, then split the task into chunks. Have an in-person discussion and get the design spec ironed out. Then the candidate spends less time at home completing the rest of the assignment.
If someone is clever enough to use fake projects in portfolio, would they not hire a freelancer to do the design exercise at home? Having an in-person interview removes this possibility and let the candidate also evaluate the company. Is this the place I want to spend 40 hours a week? Would I be happy working alongside these people?
People never leave companies, they leave their managers and their colleagues.
Another rationale for asking source files was to understand if designers use proper naming, nesting and grouping of controls i.e a design should be clean on the inside as on the outside. Another totally valid concern. This can again be solved by a walkthrough in-person or screen sharing. In this day and age, technology has given many options to collaborate together, it’s time to put it to best use.
Based on my observations these are some of my suggestion for a design interview.For Designers
Read the job description carefully and curate your portfolio accordingly. If the job requires Information Architecture skills and all your project are about logo design, then you will not get called for interview.
When asked to solve a design exercise, ask for an in-person meet-up before you proceed. Check if the problem is a hypothetical one to evaluate your skills or an actual problem the company is facing.
Some people say do not work on actual problems but I think it is actually good to do so. It lets you know the direction the company is headed and what kind of work you are going to do in future. As an ex-programmer, I have written many sorting programs in interviews and I assure you I never used them once in my job. Most of the time I end up copy-pasting stuff and pray the laptop doesn’t crash again.
Just ensure you do not commit too much time or resources. A couple of hours(4–6) of brainstorming and low fidelity prototypes(paper or tools like Balsamiq) is good workout for your creative muscles. Worst case scenario, you get another project to add to your portfolio.
If someone asks you to create new logos, branding, hand over source files and your father’s will, pack your bags and leave. They are never going to hire you. Save your energy for worthy battle.
Have fun; you chose to become a designer to do this.
Rinse, repeat, iterate.
Do ensure to pay a close look at the portfolio to evaluate the fit before starting with a design exercise. If you need clarifications, ask if the designer has other projects with the skills you need to share. Sometimes the designer forgets to include certain projects and sometimes the job description is different from what is actually posted on job boards.
People go through a lot of trouble to create their portfolio, so please give them a fair trial. There will always be few rotten apples and it cannot be avoided.
Innocent until proven guilty is a better stance than guilty until proven innocent.
Have a clear scope about the design problem. Schedule an in-person interview, or if not possible a video call to discuss the problem. For the second round, stick to low-fi prototypes. Evaluate the thinking process and reasoning.
For the third round, competence with tools like InVision, Sketch, etc can be evaluated. A gradual progression such as this would allow trust to develop between both the parties.
At any stage, whether you accept or reject a candidate — always do provide feedback for the decision. Just because someone is not up to the mark right now doesn’t mean, they never shall be in future. The world is a small place and the design community even smaller — people are bound to run into each other at some point of time.