The flaw of Design Tests

Some thoughts on finding a designer to join your team

Josh Lee
Josh Lee
Aug 21, 2013 · 4 min read

I have been looking for designers to join our team at mfoundry. Admittedly this was the first time I had to try and hire someone I didn't know.

I looked around at different blogs and searches. Fell into the deep crap pool that is LinkedIn posts about finding the “right” people.

From my journeys in trying to find my own job I had become relentless to clarify the questions and responsibilities section of the job description.

I too had been asked to do design: challenges, tests and homework only to be disappointed with an email from the recruiter saying that “Unfortunately, you are not a fit”.

A fit for what? Who the hell knows. I was never given the chance to debrief and go over how I was solving the problem they had tasked me with.

Here’s a sample:

What We Are Looking For:

Killer Portfolio: If you aren't on Dribbble, you better have a good reason.

Quirky Hobby: Whether it is writing fan fiction, being the Guild Master

Excellent Social Skills: You've mastered becoming part of a community. You never retweet things that reference your handle. You don't bleed the feed. Basically, you know how to play nice with others. You wear deodorant.

Ready to Rumble: You know what you are doing. When you get CS6 you uncheck Fireworks and Dreamweaver. Your pulse quickens when you see a new device you haven’t designed on.

Wisdom of a Highlander: 4-5 Years experience, we will be able to tell.

Which is better?

Knight Rider or Airwolf?

Rdio or Spotify?

Eric bana as the Hulk or Ed Norton as the Hulk?

Who said “Design must be honest”?

If you had only one choice of reading LoTR or Game of Thrones, which one would you read?

*Writers notes: Don’t do what I just did above. I leave it for posterity but there are far better ways to break the ice than the ones I did above.

What I did not know how to do was assess skill levels. So I gave each person that made it to the first onsite interview a little design test.

I had them do two things:

  1. Draw a button, any kind of button and then be able to tell me the story behind what the user is doing or will do by pressing that button.
  2. Draw out a flow that allows the user to create and complete a task. For my purposes I used the idea that a user wanted to transfer money from one account to another.

I found that this worked really well. I was able to hear them give a reason for why they did what they did and also ask them deeper questions about their designs that would give me a greater understanding of their thought process.

I should have stopped there with the test. It gave me everything I needed to know and put a face to the design.

But since I didn't know what I didn't know I would then give them a take home test to be done in Photoshop asking them to design a screen for a feature we already had in our app. They would do one for iOS and one for Android.

The spirit of this test was to give me a ground level view of their skills.

It ended up being horrible in that no matter how many times we said to them that they could email us or chat with us about the designs before they even turned them in, they inevitably ignored this and just blazed ahead trying to design something without that collaboration.

We would then have them in a week later to review their designs, totally blind on our end, and more often than not I was disappointed with the outcome.

I found that over and over the designs didn’t meet my standards of “great” design and that when pushed the designers themselves rarely had a good reason for doing something. It just fell to preference.

I thought I was doing the right thing, a thing that people would enjoy and not feel taken advantage of. Something that could allow them to get their feet wet with the team.

It never worked.

Tests are flawed if not done collaboratively.

What I have since learned is to give a design challenge but in the the same day and time that the person is interviewing with us. No more sending them home and hoping they make something good. But allowing them to sit and use our computer with tools they know how to use and then we all go over it together right afterward.

You see it is this that you should want to know about them, not if they can make some cool thing in photoshop but rather can they work with you and confidently share their ideas with passion and humility.

Can you as a leader be humble enough to get/give critique on the fly.

Design should not be done in a hole or an island but out in the open so that the collaboration can win and the interviewee can feel valued.

Stop using take home tests for designers.

It’s fruitless. Instead make it a thing you all take part in and grow together. It is much easier that way and offers an interviewee a better experience with your company.

Also if they come and meet with you and their interview time is over the lunch period, buy them freaking lunch. Geez.

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