Design Interviewing: Ask Me Anything

Kurt Varner
21 min readFeb 28, 2019

A few months ago, I tweeted asking if people had questions about design interviewing. The interview and evaluation process can often feel like a black box, so I wanted to offer some transparency and advice based on my experience being an interviewer and hiring manager at Dropbox.

I answered a lot of questions, and Zack suggested turning the thread into a blog post so that the Q&A was easier to peruse. While the character limit was a nice constraint, an AMA thread on Twitter is kind of hard to browse.

So here we are. Better late than never.

I’ve copied most of the questions and answers, as well as removed duplicates and all of the Twitter noise. I hope this can be a helpful resource for you.

Q: I’m interested in the evaluation framework that you have. A sneak peek into yours would be awesome!

We have 5 craft attributes we evaluate: product thinking, interaction design, visual design, prototyping/technical, and design process. For each of the 5, we have specific criteria to measure skill level. The whole team uses this framework to ensure consistency for candidates.

We also have a set of soft-skills that we evaluate: humility, self-awareness, motivation, and communication.

Q: What do you like to see in a portfolio?

We want to see two project deep dives. Tell us the story of your work in a narrative format — from start to finish. Focus on the underlying why behind a project. Why did the project exist in the first place? Why was it important to the business? Why was it important to users?

Show us how you worked through the problem — decisions you made, how you made the decisions, and the tradeoffs along the way. Then, bring us home with the final solution. What was the outcome/impact of it? How did you measure success? Why was it successful (or not)?

Q: What is the ultimate no-no during an interview?

Red flags: ego and lack of self-awareness. Those are automatic no-hire qualities for us. More tactically — not preparing a portfolio presentation. Some designers come underprepared and just scroll through their website. It kills the ability to tell a good story about their work.

Q: What are some key questions to ask as an interviewer that you think are obvious to you, but not everybody else?

Tell me about a time when you made a mistake. What was the impact? What would you do differently? (humility, attitude, and do they take responsibility)

Tell me about a time when a teammate made a mistake. (do they speak highly of teammate and recognize the role they also played)

I’m also honest and upfront about the challenges we face on the Paper team. How do they respond to knowing that this isn’t the Garden of Eden? Are they excited to help us and be a part of it?

Q: Do you require consensus from all interviewers to make an offer? How do you resolve conflicting interview feedback?

No, we don’t require consensus, but try our best to get there during the interview debrief. Conflicting feedback is why having a consistent evaluation framework is super helpful. The debrief moderator will ask for specific, observable examples and compare to the framework.

Q: Curious about what sort of pre-screening happens before the onsite interview? I imagine there’s a certain amount of vetting that happens before bringing a candidate in to interview. How does that fit into the evaluation framework?

We have 3 stages:

  1. Recruiter screen. Our design recruiting team will do the first screening call (super casual).
  2. First portfolio interview. It’s a 1:1 with one of our designers where you review past work together.
  3. Full onsite interview. ~5 hours meeting with the team.

Q: Do you ask the people you interview about their salary expectations? I’ve had that happen many times and it’s a little dance every time. What if the interviewee pushes back?

Yes, we ask about compensation expectations. I’d recommend just being sincere about what you expect. And this is totally optional. It doesn’t reflect poorly on you if you prefer not to answer. We just want to provide people with the opportunity to have the discussion.

Q: How do you feel about design exercises? Do you do that at Dropbox?

A design exercise is a part of our interview process — but maybe for reasons that are less obvious. We use it to get signal on a designer’s natural areas of comfort and their collaboration (do they take feedback well, are they open to new ideas).

We don’t, however, place much weight on the actual solution that is created. It’s more about understanding how someone approaches a problem.

[Follow-on from above response] Another related thing: have you ever experienced someone refusing to do that kind of exercises, arguing that it was unpaid work? How do you deal with that?

Oh, I think we may be talking about different things. I should have clarified. Our design exercise is a 1hr long whiteboarding session with the candidate and they aren’t working on a Dropbox problem. We are *not* asking people to do actual take-home design projects.

Q: What was your deciding factor in hiring someone with no agency or corporate experience? How did that person stand out?

It’s all about their body of work. In an extreme case, we’ve hired someone straight out of high school because he had such a strong portfolio of freelance projects.

Hiring people with past internships also helps. They get some real-world experience while building their portfolio.

Q: Do you use a standardized judging criteria when judging the candidates? Do you let the candidates know upfront about the criteria you will actually be looking for? Or is it all subjective?

Yes, for all our interview types we have very specific and standardized rubrics for both conducting the interview and evaluating the interview. The whole team uses them to ensure consistency across candidates.

Q: What questions should I ask them especially with respect to culture?

What matters to you most in your work culture and environment? Ask direct questions about those things :)

Q: How much value do you place on candidates who show process (e.g., sketches, brainstorm photos, early explorations)?

Yep, it matters. But it’s not just about showing some sketches, etc. Help us understand how you worked through the project from start to finish. How did you think through problems? How did you make decisions? What were the tradeoffs you made?

Q: Let’s saying the candidate did not passed the interview process, perhaps after the design exercise stage, do you/hiring team practice providing feedback to the candidate upon rejection? thanks in advanced!

Yep, we give feedback to every candidate who interviews with us.

Q: I’d love to hear about how you’ve infused your interviewing process to accommodate for people with unorthodox backgrounds (like me). Factors like being self-taught, coming from engineering/dev roles, low income, having no degree, working in different countries, etc.

Some of the best designers we have are self-taught and come from untraditional backgrounds. We care very little about your formal “credentials” like school or even if you have a degree. I’ve literally never heard anyone on our team raise this as a concern.

But I do think we need to continue to work hard to find these candidates. People who have worked in the “traditional” path are much easier to find, and that’s a problem we work to overcome.

Q: What would you like to see for someone who’s new to the field (career change), coming out of a UX/UI bootcamp/school?

At least one project that meets our evaluation bar, self-awareness about personal growth areas and skill gaps, and a hunger and drive to learn.

Q: Assuming one candidate is much more advanced in the soft-skills department but is lacking in the hard-skills by some points, would you generally always go with the person excelling in the soft-skills? Hard-skills can be skilled up quicker.

That’s kinda tough to answer as it will vary so much by individual designer and depends highly on the needs of the team. There is definitely a threshold of hard-skills that we expect to be met in order to set the designer up for success. But there’s lots of nuance here.

Q: What should you prepare before an interview?

We care a whole lot about the work you’ve done in the past. Spend a meaningful amount of time preparing a presentation to tell the story of your work.

[Follow-on from above response] What makes portfolio review that important for your process?

We’ve found it to be the best mechanism for us to get signal on a designer’s abilities. We actually look at past work during three separate interviews — that’s how much it matters to us.

[Follow-on from above response] How do you consider the fact that people change and the person in the past was different from who he/she is at the moment of interview?

In the way they reflect on their past work. What were lessons learned, what would they do differently now?

[Follow-on from above response] Whom would you choose the one who is proud of past design and thinks there is nothing to do differently or the one who admits that past works could be better?

Well, I hope in both cases the designer could be proud of their work. But I’d definitely choose the latter — someone who recognizes their work is imperfect and would adjust to make things better in the future.

Q: Might not be relevant for Dropbox at this stage, but in initial stages — how did you get people excited about the kind of work that you are doing?

I actually think this is relevant at any company stage. I worked at a startup before Dropbox, and I do almost as much “selling” here as I did there.

To answer your question — I cannot understate the importance of meeting in-person. You can’t get people excited over an email.

Set up a casual coffee and genuinely put the relationship first (not recruiting). Get to know the designer, what their motivations are, what makes them tick. Then align the role to what matters to them. Recruiting is a long-game, so I don’t often hard-sell, unless they ask for it.

Q: When doing a deep dive for a portfolio review, how deep do we dive?

We ask candidates to do two project deep dives. Typically taking about 25 minutes each. We hope to hear the story of a project from start to finish — from the first kernel of an idea, to shipping and measuring its success.

Q: Are projects where you worked in a team with another designer worth diving into, or preferably ones where you’ve taken most of the lead on the design?

Regarding multiple designers — totally fine. Design is a team sport anyway. Just be clear about what your role was and your specific contributions.

Q: What’s the most common mishap you’ve seen in candidates during an interview?

Hmm… most common I think is not communicating the why behind their projects during the portfolio review. Why did the project exist in the first place? Why was it important to the business? Why was it important to users?

Q: What do you do to help you discern what someone’s values are? (how they treat people, what they care about, etc.)

Great question — I’d say it’s a collection of the entire interview experience with a candidate. In every touchpoint, this stuff is pretty likely to shine through. But we do have a behavioral interview where we asked pointed questions to help more directly build our understanding.

Q: Do you typically seek out design generalists or specialists?

We hire almost all generalists (for product design).

Q: Coming from visual/brand experience, are self-initiated projects enough to make the switch to product design?

I think self-initiated projects are totally fine — but they should be real projects, not unsolicited redesigns. Find a client who needs some design help and build your skills as you go.

Q: How do you feel about the question “Why are you interested in working with us?” Do you ask that question? If so, what are you looking for in the answer?

I do ask the question, but this is one that I don’t put much weight on. I think it’s our job to sell the opportunity to you, not the other way around.

Q: After conducting hundreds of interviews, what qualities or traits help a candidate stand out in your memory?

Humility, self-awareness, and authenticity and candor in their communication.

Q: What do you look for in design directors and leads?

Manager candidates are a pretty different beast. We still evaluate craft skills (they should be able to walk-the-walk), but we focus much more on developing talent, setting strategy, elevating a team’s work, and people management.

[Follow-on from above response] What kind questions do you ask that gets to the heart of this?

We have a series of interviews that gets signal across this stuff. Too much for one tweet, but they are set up as behavioral interviews (examples of how they’ve done things in the past). We also have them do a portfolio presentation where they present a number of projects.

Q: How do you evaluate a concept before you launch the product into the market?

For projects that haven’t yet shipped, we typically ask the designer how they would *anticipate* measuring the success — what would they measure and why would they measure it?

And most of the other attributes we evaluate still hold true, regardless if something has shipped.

Q: Advice for new UXers. What is most impactful in an interview to be noticed without a significant portfolio to show?

It only takes one strong project, so I’d still stress the importance of having previous work to demonstrate your abilities.

In addition to past work: self-awareness of skills and a clear hunger to grow.

Q: Top three things you look in addition to craft?

Humility, self-awareness, motivation to grow

Q: I was asked by one firm to do an “exercise” as part of the job interview. It was to take place over a period of 2 weeks where I was to work full time on their team. I refused because I felt like I should be paid for work. Was this incorrect of me?

Oh hell no! It’s ridiculous for a company to ask you to work for two weeks without paying you. I would *never* recommend doing that. You don’t want to work for a company that operates that way.

Q: Any advice for student designers interviewing for product design internships? What characteristics or skills have stood out to you from a strong internship candidate, given the lack of experience compared to senior designers?

I admittedly don’t have experience interviewing interns. Dropbox is starting our very first intern program for summer 2019.

That said, I’d assume we’d be evaluating “potential” instead of needing to see hard evidence of skills. We would still anchor to the 5 skill attributes.

Q: Presentation decks?

A must-have for our interview :)

Q: How do you evaluate someone who never had a proper design job before?

It’s honestly pretty tough. In those cases, we’ll be evaluating for potential. This is a rare scenario when I feel like a take-home design project would be justified.

Q: I’ve transitioned from Senior Graphic Designer to Creative Director. So often I manage the direction of other people’s work now. I don’t know how, or if, I should include their work in my portfolio.

Every single manager candidate we interview includes the work from their team. So it’s definitely fair game. But what you say about the work should be at the altitude of your specific influence — what role did you play? If you didn’t play a role, then you shouldn’t include it :)

Q: How have you seen handing questions in advance influence the conversation?

We prep candidates with a lot of information prior to the interview. They’re definitely walking in with a clear idea of what to expect. It’s hard to fake this stuff, so setting expectations up front hasn’t hurt our ability to get accurate signal.

Q: How do you provide feedback to applicants when you’ve loads of them waiting for you.

Our design recruiting team is responsible for reviewing our applicant pool. I personally don’t see the top-of-funnel applications.

Q: What’s the first thing you check about any designer?

Past experience and a quick look at their work (if it was provided).

Q: Is just a Dribbble profile enough? I have seen many good designs on Dribbble but when it comes to implementation they are not even possible.

I almost never use Dribbble as an evaluation of a product designer’s work.

Q: What is your definition of an Insight? What characteristics have promising Insights? When do I know I found a promising insight?

I think a good insight is something that is based on objectivity — data or research. Then, it is used to define the product direction and directly helps the team make decisions.

Q: As the person being interviewed, if you don’t get to meet the whole team, how do you gauge the culture fit of your potential employer?

I’d ask to come back again in a casual setting. Ask for lunch, coffee, happy hour. If the company wants to hire you, they will almost always be cool with offering that.

Q: What questions should Product Managers ask designers they’re going to work with?

  • What does a healthy relationship between a PM and designer look like? How do you think about roles & responsibilities.
  • Tell me about the best PM you’ve worked with. What about the worst?
  • Tell me about a time you disagreed with a PM. How do you resolve conflicts together?

Q: I’m not sure whether to publish all my portfolio pieces online to potentially get discovered etc or keep it in say a PDF and send once I apply for a job? Is there any preference to a recruiter?

We don’t care much about public portfolios. A PDF shared with a recruiter is totally fine.

I’d also recommend only highlighting the projects you’re most proud of. No need to include everything.

Q: How to get past the pre-screening when you are a fresher and every company’s minimum requirement is 2 years to say the least. Do companies look at portfolios even if the experience requirement doesn’t match?

Two things:

  1. Your portfolio speaks louder than an arbitrary requirement of experience length. Try your best to build a strong body of work, and the rest should follow.
  2. Don’t screen yourself out! Apply for positions even if you don’t hit every checkbox.

Q: As a fairly new designer breaking into tech and a POC how do you suggest we work around the sometimes big field that is the application process?

I’d recommend reaching out directly to designers at the company. Send them a short note, link to your work, and ask if they’d be comfortable making an intro to a recruiter (or hiring manager). It’ll get you to the front of the line and ensure your application gets more attention.

Q: Is it safe to assume a test project is just that and won’t be used by the company?

We don’t typically do test projects, but I would really hope companies that do would *not* use work you produce. I’d be pretty wary of a company that asks you to do a project related to what they actually do. It should be something wildly different.

Q: Is it a bad idea to ask about it not being used for anything other than for evaluation purposes? There was concern from HR when I asked & wanted to know if I had a trust issue.

That seems like a very reasonable request from you. And I think it’s a strange thing for HR to be involved in. I’d be pretty skeptical of this company (especially if it’s a startup).

Q: How can I best prepare for an interview? Where can I learn what the gold standard is for being an interviewee? I feel like I can prepare all I want but I can tell if I’m actually saying the right things about my work and myself.

I’d highly recommend asking for very specific feedback after you interview with a company. Reach out directly to the hiring manager and ask for candid and direct feedback. Treat the interview as a mechanism to learn, and adjust your approach for future interviews.

Q: Do you factor in potential or give it significant weight as reason for hiring if the applicant is lacking in experience?

Yep, we consider potential and strive to hire high-potential individuals. But we rarely hire on potential alone unless it’s for an internship or entry-level role.

Q: What advice do you have for new graduates who have a portfolio full of student work? Many employers tend to want “real” experience and it’s difficult to get past the “do you have any ‘real client work’?” hurdle while interviewing for jobs fresh out of college.

I’d recommend finding ways to do “real” projects. It presents entirely different challenges than student work, and I agree that having real work in your portfolio carries significantly more weight. Try getting some small client work or internships to help build your portfolio.

Q: Do you try tracing a personality profile of the interviewed? Like the Myers Briggs one?

Nope, I haven’t seen us consider personality types at all during an interview. “Personality” is one of those things that can have a whole lot of bias tied up in it.

Q: What do you look to most when considering who to interview? Website, reel, or resume?

Past experience and their portfolio of work. Regarding the portfolio, it doesn’t need to be a website. A PDF or presentation is just as good (sometimes much better). Most of the designers we’re hiring now-a-days don’t maintain public portfolios.

Q: Do we really need to have an updated portfolio when you’re so busy with your current work to add new projects up? In other words Can a designer give actual projects to hiring mngrs/ dsgn teams e.g. web, app UI/UX instead of uploading images of the actual work to your portfolio?

Most designers we interview don’t have public portfolios they actively maintain. If you’re applying, sharing a PDF or presentation of your work would be more than enough. For our interviews, we expect candidates to prepare a presentation (normally Keynote) of two projects.

Q: How do you get experience when no one is giving you an opportunity? (Sidenote I am also doing freelance too, just to keep my skills up.)

I think freelancing is a great way to independently gain experience — great job. You could also considered paid internships as a way to get your foot in the door. It will also be an environment where you can surround yourself with designers you can learn from.

Q: How you come to a conclusion on giving people the 👍

After the interview we have a moderated debrief. We discuss each of the 5 attributes at length as well as soft skills. We’ve put just as much work into our debrief process as our interview process.

Q: What do you brief the recruiters on what to look out for in choosing applicants for the first step of the process?

The hiring managers create role descriptions and requirements that are shared with our recruiters. But the specifics of what we look for is highly dependent on the role we’re hoping to fill.

Q: About portfolios: so many hiring managers prefer a portfolio filled with just enough context and few screens etc with conclusion and final design and some would like to see in-depth case studies. How to juggle between this dilemma and produce something which can work everywhere

I doubt many hiring managers are spending the time to read through super details case studies — so I’d suggest keeping things brief with a focus on the results/impact of the work. But for the portfolio presentation during an interview, that’s a very different story…

We ask candidates to give a 5-minute broad overview of their past work, but then present two deep dive projects. Here we hope to hear the story of the project — from start to finish.

Q: What do you find most helpful in coffee chats or initial intro conversations?

I personally don’t use coffee chats in an evaluative way. I just try to genuinely get to know the person and answer any questions they may have. So what do I find most helpful? Probably just being your authentic self and speaking openly about the things that matter most to you.

Q: Is there a question that you will always ask in every interview?

We’ve built in a lot of consistency for our interview process — so similar questions should be asked regardless of who is running the interview.

For our behavioral interview, I do have questions I think are the most important though. They get signal on humility and self-awareness.

Q: What are some top questions that you have gotten from candidates in interviews that were helpful toward opening further communication about the job/expectations, & also some that just stood out to you?

  • What are some challenges the team is facing? How can I help in this role?
  • What are common attributes of successful designers on your team?
  • What are your top expectations of me in this role?
  • Any feedback for my portfolio presentation — what went well, what could have gone better?

Q: As the first designer hired on the team. Responsible for designing the product from a blank canvas, MVP, and launch. After launch, were only able to measure adoption. After that, by any chance, if that person is no longer with the company. In that case, an interviewer can not talk more about retention and lesson learned. How do you review his or her abilities in solving the problem?

I don’t see that as being problematic. I’ve seen many designers who are leaving their current company before the project ships. In those cases, we ask hypotheticals about the future state — how would they determine success, what risks to they see, what do they expect to happen, etc.

Q: When you invite a candidate in for their first interview, how do you set them up for success before they arrive and how do you structure that interview to get the best out of them?

The first interview is a 1-hour portfolio review. We ask the candidate to bring 1–2 projects. We send a bunch of info beforehand to prep them and set expectations on what we’ll be looking for.

Q: What’s more important for a portfolio website? The layout/visuals/responsiveness, or the content telling the right story about a project?

I think both things are important, so I wouldn’t suggest compromising either of them.

Q: Any advice for design students trying to land their first job?

Your body of work will speak louder than anything. Find ways to do “real” design work. Freelancing or internships help a lot.

Q: Do you interview people coming from more client-services backgrounds? If so, what do you look for when they’re presenting past work? Since client services work typically involves shorter engagements, a lot of handoff, and not a ton of iteration on the idea beyond the initial eng.

We interview designers from all backgrounds. Agency work does come with different constraints / limitations, so we pose hypotheticals in place of seeing direct evidence in the portfolio (e.g. if you had more time, what would you do differently? how would you measure success? etc)

Q: How do you think about pre-onsite assignment for designers? And why or why not? Always hear mixed things about trade offs and what teams are trying to get from such assignments

I’m not a fan of take-home design assignments. It’s asking for a lot of time when you can likely get appropriate signal on skills in other ways. The only time where I’d advocate for a design assignment is if the candidate doesn’t have a body of work already (new grads, etc).

Q: Do you ask questions like “tell me about yourself?” If yes then what are you expecting from it?

Just genuinely tell us about yourself (interests, hobbies, etc). This isn’t a trick question — we just want to get to know you as a person in addition to being a designer.

Q: You mentioned that you review candidates filtered by the hiring team, right? Does it mean you see only ones who passed initial screening? What info you have at that point? CV? Feedback from the HR team? Do you read their cover letters?

Yep, that’s true for applicants and candidates who are sourced from our recruiting team. We’re basically reviewing their past experience (resume, linkedin) and portfolio of work.

We don’t ask for CVs, and I personally haven’t read a single CV while at Dropbox.

It’s also worth noting that I sometimes do direct sourcing myself (reaching out to designers, grabbing coffee, etc). And referrals are also another way I see designers. Everything doesn’t necessarily need to get funneled through our recruiters.

[Follow-on from above response] Would you mind to share, about what percent of the candidates comes to you from applications, and what from other sources?

The majority of our hires come from either referrals from existing team members or sourced candidates (meaning our recruiters reach out). Single digit percentage of our hires come from applicants.

[Follow-on from above response] Do you consider this a “blind spot” in the process, where most hires would be people that are already friends or acquaintances of a current employee?

Yes, there is inherent bias in referrals, which is why we heavily source candidates too. we keep a close eye on where our new hires are coming from to ensure a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. For instance, in 2017, 92% of our new hires were from different companies.

Q: What if the portfolio isn’t as rich because of many NDA projects?

There are ways to talk about NDA work in the abstract that still communicates a lot. One of the best new grads I’ve seen spent most of their time talking about an NDA project in the abstract.

And sometimes candidates choose to disclose things that are under NDA 🤷‍♂️

Q: What are some red flaggers in your evaluation framework?

Lack of humility and self-awareness are red flags.

Humility: are they able to admit mistakes, do they speak highly of their teammates, can they take critical feedback?

Self-awareness: do they have an honest view of their areas of strength and areas in need of growth?

Q: How much is about skills vs culture fit when Dropbox is hiring?

We avoid evaluating for “culture fit.” It can have a lot of bias in it and teams that hire for culture fit tend to hire very similar types of people. Instead, we anchor to skill evaluation (both hard and soft skills). It provides a more objective view of someone.

Sheeew. I’m done. If you made it this far, good for you. I hope you learned something along the way.

If you want to continue the conversation, you can find me on Twitter.




Kurt Varner

Design Director at Dropbox. Advisor for startups. Rooting for the underdog.