Thanks for your interest in the User Experience designer position at our company. Your resume looks promising. Would you be interested in doing a sample fictional project for us to show us your app wireframing skills?
The fictional app we would like you to think about allows customers to view shoes and then purchase them. Can you make 5–10 screens that bring this concept to life? You can use tools like Omnigraffle, Photoshop, Balsamiq — however you like to work. You can also sketch it on paper and send me a scanned version if you want.
I’ll get right to work.
This was the email exchange that marked the beginning of my career as a designer. I know that spec work is a no-no for potential employers to ask of potential employees, but guys, it’s my story so can we let this one slide for now? Great, let’s move on.
I graduated with an MFA in capital-D-design in 2008. This email exchange did not occur until 2010. I was desperate to find a design job. When I told my dad I was considering work unrelated to design he responded in the most loving and encouraging way he possibly could, “Well…I would prefer if you could get a job that has something to do with your degree.” 😑 It’s fine, there are absolutely no father-issues I’m uncovering in therapy.
I grabbed my notebook, a pen, a pencil, and got to work. I wanted this.
Nothing Beats Pencil and Paper at the Beginning
Here are some images for the fictional shoe buying app. I usually like to start out drawing, but also prefer to refine my work in illustrator/photoshop once more concrete terms are given, but nothing beats pencil and paper at the beginning. If you would like me to do some more refining or expand on what I’ve shown you don’t hesitate to ask.
I wasted no time. Here are the time stamps:
- April 20, 2010, 3:00pm: Initial email with assignment
- April 20, 2010, 3:02pm: Uh yeah, doing it now.
- April 20, 2010, 4:47pm: Swoosh! (That’s me sending an email not sinking a free-throw)
I like to work fast. But don’t hold that against me. I’ve read the articles, I’ve read the fables…working fast is a preference, not a requirement. Ever tried to fit 60 days of estimated user stories into 30? Of course not! Nobody does that right?! You don’t work faster, you work more strategically. For this opportunity my strategy was to communicate that I could think and execute quickly.
I have to communicate a lot of ideas as designer. Early in my career I thought the first step was pencil and paper. Get the thoughts out, make them concrete — I’m a designer, they expect “things”. But I’ve learned that pencil and paper are not a step, they are tools. And they actually serve the designer in what I find to be the actual first step — having a conversation.
Don’t understand the project, the challenge, the goals? Ask. Ask your stakeholders, your potential users, yourself — Find out what’s going on and why. That’s the first step. Every single person involved in a project benefits from starting with a conversation.
We have looked over your wireframes, and we were wondering if you happened to have time to come in and interview today, sometime before 4pm. It is fine if you can’t, seeing as it is short notice, but I thought I would just check and see.
Scheduling conflicts meant I would be interviewing not with my initial design contact, but with one of the company’s co-founders. After arriving to the interview we shook hands and my eyes went immediately to the iPad he was carrying.
Now, I could go into more detail about the interview, but there was nothing exceptional about it…except the iPad. The iPad had just been released and it represented something very interesting to me, a solution to a problem I had been exploring as a grad student:
How do you translate the physical experience of a book into a digital one?
I love books. I think that 80% of my student loan in grad school went to purchasing more of them. So, I’ll be paying off my personal library until I die. The last time I moved I packed 25 boxes of books. When I was a kid my mom would take me to the public library on the weekends and I would check out the maximum number of books allowed. My eyes would dart between the librarian and every step of the lending process: Take a book from the top of the stack, open it (my ears were stimulated by the crinkle of the clear plastic library dust jackets, covers for the covers), like a machine one hand slides the card out of the front cover pocket and the other prepares the stamp, then a firm pounding on the card, the book is swiftly closed and moved to the other side. Then there was that weird rubbing of the spine on a surface worn from the same action over and over. The books were finally ready and I would proudly carry them to the car, settle down in the back seat and begin.
Where does the iPad fit into that?
Do you like to solve problems?
I got the job. But that’s the least exciting part of how I got here. If I could only find that original Craigslist posting that I responded to. Although I do remember the most important bit. And it was that bit that made me think that this was the perfect position for me:
Do you like to solve problems?
Not only do I like to solve problems, I like to uncover ones that no one was even aware of. And the problems never stop coming. As long as people come together to do something, anything…there are problems.
Also, designers don’t own the problem-solving space. We all do. Problem-solvers start companies, work for causes, research, theorize…ask questions. And the world moves forward with some problems solved, some created and some yet to be discovered. It’s beautiful.
Seven years later I’ve still got problems. I still have that notebook with my first mobile wireframes. I still have the pencil and pen I used to draw them. I’m still curious and drowning in books. And now, my dad doesn’t have to tell me what to do.