Designing interviews

A framework for interviewing designers

A few years ago the design industry seemingly changed over night. All of a sudden design was recognized as a key instrument of success for any company, especially in tech. Design founders rose up and paved the way for business-minded creatives to demand a seat at the table. The stage was set, and with stakes so high, a new framework for interviewing and hiring designers emerged.

Understanding how to evaluate a designer is one thing, putting it into practice is another. Interviewing is the most crucial part of hiring a designer and will normally require a number of steps to execute well.

Here is a breakdown of interview steps that most established design-led companies (like Airbnb, Pinterest, Google and Apple) apply when hiring Product designers.

Step 1 
 — Coffee

This should be informal and an opportunity for you to build rapport and gauge basic communication skills in the candidate.

Step 2 
 — Phone interviews (optional)

If you can’t meet in person, then get on a call and chat for at least 30 minutes. Keep the conversation light, introduce the company and role, and ask the candidate to talk about a project they are most proud of, and what inspires them.

Step 3 
 — Design test

A design test helps you understand a candidates skill set in more detail — Their strengths and weaknesses. A product designer will be asked to perform many functions under the umbrella of UI & UX Design and range from problem solving, concept design, interaction design, visual design, and depending on the level of experience required, presentations to stakeholders, running workshops, and promoting design culture within the company.

Design tests are not for every candidate, so be sure to use good judgement. Don’t ask your candidate to design something that relates to your company product, as this is generally frowned upon, and the candidate will most likely lessen their opinion of you (remember they are interviewing you too). And be sure to set up a design brief that is short, concise, but covers all the necessary signals you want to gauge. I’ve attached a sample brief to the bottom of this article.

Step 4
 — In person presentation

Ask the candidate to present the solution to you and the team in person. This should take around 30–45 mins and give you a good insight into the candidates process and ability to communicate their ideas to an audience. Keep the meeting small (no more and 5 or 6 cross disciplined folk), and be sure to leave time at the end for some Q & A.

Step 5
 — One on One’s

After the presentation, organize to have members of your team meet with the candidate for 20–30 mins each. This will give you a cross section of perspectives and is a great way to have your team engage with the candidate in a more intimate setting. Be sure to include people from data, research, engineering and product — not just design!

Step 6 
 — Decide

Come together as a team to decide as soon as possible. Share thoughts, strengths, weaknesses, observations, likes and dislikes. Everyone should play a role in the decision making process. Be sure to listen to your instincts just as much as the other data points, and give everyone a chance to have their say. Weigh the responses, debate, and make a decision collectively, ensuring that you come away with a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

As someone that has been through the process a number of times, and defined the process for others, I can definitely say that it’s not an easy job. It takes dedication, patience, and empathy. Sometimes the decision to hire one designer over another can come down to the most seemingly arbitrary detail. I’ve seen some amazing designers miss out on great opportunities, and mediocre designers slip through the interview process only to be caught out months later. But with perseverance, and the right check-gates in place, you are more likely to succeed.

Sample design test

Below is a sample brief that I’ve used a number of times when I’m hiring a designer. I might tweak it from time to time, or ask for certain deliverables based on the role. In any event, the brief should serve as a means for you to assess the candidate in very specific ways. For example if I was to send this brief to a senior designer, I would be asking for a number of deliverables ranging from research, concept designs, sketches, a breadth of ideas, user flows, hi fidelity mockups, prototypes, and a well polished presentation. For a junior, I might only ask for UI design ideas or a basic flow and prototype.

The brief is also designed to be short (because I’m mindful of people’s time), clear (because I want to gauge the candidates ability to follow requirements), and fun (because I want them to have fun!). What I also like about this brief is that in one short user-story, I have captured a number of complex interactions that the candidate will need to convey in the solution. For example, have you ever used an intuitive seat-selection tool when booking tickets at movie theatre? I certainly haven’t!

The Brief

Design a single flow that reflects all the requirements in the user story below. Be as creative as possible!

Key user story
As a user, I want to book 2 movie tickets for my partner and I on Sunday night at a local 3D cinema. I want to use a gift voucher that has $20 credit left on it, and use my credit card for the remaining costs. If possible, I’d also like to select my seats in advance to ensure I get seats in the middle.

Make Booking movie tickets easy, intuitive and fun!

iOS or Android app

Output & Deliverables

  • Sketches to demonstrate initial thinking, functional requirements and example interactions
  • Hi fidelity key screen designs and flow diagrams (Sketch format)
  • Tappable prototype (not required but recommended)
  • Provide a component sticker-sheet or sprite library
  • Provide any research or data points that are relevant to your solution

Interview questions

Asking the right questions at the right time is key too. Here are a few sample questions I always ask designers in conversation and interviews.

  • Tell me about a project that you are most proud of. What was your role and responsibility?
  • What inspires you?
  • What is your preferred design process?
  • How do you involve those around you in your design process?
  • How do you inform your design work and identify the right solution?
  • How does research play a role in your design thinking?
  • What is your relationship like with other designers?
  • How do you resolve conflicts between product, engineering, and user experience?
  • How do you assess the quality of a product before launching?
  • Where is your Comfort zone and where would you like to grow?
  • What excites you about the opportunity at ‘Company X’?
  • Where do you think ‘Company X’ can improve?
  • In your experience, how has design impacted ‘Company Y’
  • And one last tip, ask to see the final working products (apps or websites). Ask them if there is anything they would do differently, or if they had to compromise on details or functionality.

Hi, I’m Shane! Currently, I work on the product design team at VSCO in Oakland California, designing a community of expression for millions of photographers around the world.
Previously, I worked at Airbnb where I solved problems related to trust, empathy, and perception for a global community of travelers and hosts.
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