Time to Kill the Take-Home Design Test

Susan K Rits
Dec 11, 2017 · 4 min read

It’s happened again, another designer, another design challenge, another squandered 10 hours. Isn’t it about time we put an end to this useless time-waster?

To clarify, I’m not talking about whiteboard challenges, which as a hiring manager I find invaluable for understanding how candidates think through design problems.

Whiteboard challenges happen during an interview, without outside preparation, and are interactive. Me and the candidate talking through the design thinking, working out options, coming up with solutions. That’s the collaborative process I want to see and experience with any candidate for my teams.

But the take-home challenge is a mini-design assignment that is done at home, in the evening after work, and is purported to take 2–3 hours but actually requires a week of research, testing and iteration to do it well. Which is why it is completely pointless.

It’s a tool that was invented by non-designers who don’t know what they’re looking for when hiring design talent.

“If you can’t suss out someone’s capability and skills in an interview and portfolio review, how are you going to with a design challenge?” — Mitch Malone, UX Designer at Sharethrough

I’ve taken plenty of take-home design tests in the past, and given one or two before I finally gave up on them. Each time I came to the same conclusion. They are a colossal miss-use of time for the manager and the designer because:

  • Nothing good can be designed in 2–3 hours, so managers don’t get to see the quality of work a candidate can do.
  • Most designers “cheat” and spend days working on the challenge, so you’re not seeing what he can do in just 2 hours anyway…
  • But even if the designer cheats, you won’t see well thought through, researched, tested and refined designs because no good design is the product of a single designer.

Here are 5 reasons hiring managers give for assigning design tests, and why they’re all bunk.

No, it isn’t. The portfolio is how to tell if the designer has the skills.

Whatever you ask about the results of the challenge will be similar to what you could have asked about a portfolio piece. Except with the portfolio, the designer has spent days or weeks researching, testing, working with engineers and refining the details, and should be able to confidently communicate them to you.

With a design challenge, it’s hard to get to the details because there’s usually so little time to make anything worthwhile. It’s just a mad scramble to invent a product one night after a long day at work.

With no engineers, marketing or biz dev to give feedback, the designs will lack depth or sophistication. Meaning emphasis will be on the visual design alone.

Good luck. Design is not magic and you get what you pay for. We don’t pull brilliant ideas fully formed out of our heads. Design is an iterative process which takes time. All those brilliant designs you see online now took days and weeks and months of ideating, iterating, testing and redesigning.

Maybe you’re looking for a Themeforest template instead?

If design thinking, process and ideation is really what you’re looking for, then the whiteboard challenge is the appropriate tool.

Yes, we know all about you people who do that, and you’re the lowest of the low.

Take-home challenges that ask for a solution to a problem the product team is working on are unethical. Nobody should be coerced or tricked into giving away their work as part of the interview process.

If you want to hire the designer for a few days and spend it working through your new feature, that’s a great way to solve your design problem and learn a lot about how that designer works.

And it’s not sleezy.

A take-home challenge requires enormous effort — most designers I know spend 10+ hours on a challenge even if they’re told to only spend 2–3 hours. Nothing good can be designed in 2–3 hours, and no designer worth his salt wants to turn in crap work.

Design challenges that are used to screen candidates or prove that they’re desperate for the job are exploitative. Assuming a candidate is interviewing at more than just your job, plus working full time, it is unfair to demand this amount of work as proof of his enthusiasm.

The tried and true portfolio review

Now that we’ve killed that old waste of time, how do we evaluate a design candidate?

If you take the time to look at the designer’s portfolio, you’ll see work you like — or you don’t. It’s as simple as that.

If you do like the work, bring the candidate in for a face to face interview. Over the phone won’t work when you’re hiring for a visual role. You need to see the candidate and the designs she’s describing.

Then ask her about the work in her portfolio. Ask about her process, design decisions, how she dealt with feedback, and what she could have done better. That’s how you find out if the designer has the skills you need.

If you need to see her working through a problem, then do a whiteboard challenge.

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