10 tips for interviewing designers

Behind the interviewers’ curtain

About a year ago, I published an article, “10 interview tips I share with my designer candidates.” Spurred by the overwhelmingly positive feedback, I decided to share more interviewing tips. This time it’s for the people on the other side of the table — the people conducting the interviews.

The interview is a concerted effort between a candidate and a hiring team. It’s NOT a test for interviewees. It’s a fair two-way evaluation process, and both parties need to mutually put forth the best effort to make the experience truly awesome.

Here are 10 interviewing tips based on my own experience after much trial and error. Some of these tips are specific to designer candidates, but most should be applicable in any types of candidate interviews. Hope you find them useful for your next interviews!

1. Do your due diligence

Make sure to thoroughly study the candidate’s profile (i.e. LinkedIn and resume) and portfolio in advance. By understanding the candidate’s background, you can contextualize the conversation much more efficiently as opposed to burning time covering the basics during the interview. Most qualified designer candidates already have their online portfolio available. This lets you see the work samples in the candidates’ portfolio even before meeting them.

Think of how delighted you were when you met with candidates who did their due diligence in researching your company and interviewers. You can create synergetic delight by doing your own due diligence about the candidate.

2. Use video conferencing for initial screenings

Most screenings are still done over the phone, and I believe it’s a missed opportunity. Unless either party has impossibly low internet bandwidth, you should take advantage of video conferencing. Of course if you’re open to it, an in-person meeting is even better.

Face-to-face conversation makes the interaction much more engaging and personable than just talking on the phone. Video instantly adds multiple dimensions of benefits — including reading body language/facial expressions/mannerisms, and screen-sharing for portfolio walkthroughs. These additional dimensions make your interaction with the candidate richer, which leads to a more thorough assessment.

3. Coordinate the focus areas of the interview team

There should be enough internal coordination so that not everyone in the interview loop asks the same question. Identify areas where interviewers can focus on specifics such as product intuition, communication ability or leadership skill. Nothing drains more energy from a candidate than answering the “what are your strengths and weaknesses?” question five times back to back. Think about dynamic angles that the team can cover collectively not to miss any critical spots. Then strategize on an interview plan.

Assigning areas of focus and setting the right expectation of the position is usually the hiring manager’s job prior to the onsite. If you’re a hiring manager, make sure to socialize the job description and the focus areas at least a couple days beforehand.

4. Assign the design exercise as homework, not a test on the spot

Not all candidates require the design exercise. But if you choose to run one, I recommend assigning it as homework a few days in advance so the candidate can put some thought into it.

Many companies have candidates do brain-teaser types of design exercises on the spot. While these types of exercises may help evaluate how quickly candidates think on their feet, these exercises don’t gauge their ability to choose the right approach and solve the problem. Good design takes time. And so do the design exercises.

The homework can become a part of the presentation. In addition to assessing a candidate’s design and problem-solving capabilities, the homework also gives you insight on the their work ethic, curiosity, and interest level in the position.

5. Be kind and respectful

We’ve all been in the candidate’s seat at one time or another. Being an interviewer doesn’t mean that you’re better or superior to the candidate. It simply means that timing-wise you joined the company earlier than the candidate.

This person may become your life-long colleague at some point. It’s important to show integrity and respect, and make them feel comfortable so they can genuinely be themselves. Here are a few baseline reminders:

  • Give your full attention: The candidate probably spent days and weeks preparing for the onsite interview. It’s your responsibility to be fully engaged at the presentation. Don’t be disrespectful by staring at your laptop or mobile phone.
  • Don’t take notes on a laptop: Your intention of taking notes is good. But there’s nothing more annoying than hearing the click-clack of a keyboard while someone is pouring their heart out during a presentation. This is the time when it’s okay to be analog — bring a pen and paper instead.
  • Be empathetic: Offer help when needed, whether it’s water or bathroom breaks. Also lend a hand with any technical difficulties. Sitting through an all-day interview is extremely exhausting and nerve-wrecking, so empathize and provide support.

6. Keep your antenna up during the portfolio presentation

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that 80% of your interview evaluation can be done during the designer candidate’s presentation if you pay really close attention — in terms of their communication skills, product instinct, design caliber, and even culture fit.

Examine whether the candidate effectively walks through the project progression — from how they defined the problem and use case, their role, design iterations and challenges to how they arrived at the final outcome. Not all designers need to be a charismatic salesperson, but there should be clear logic, cohesiveness and articulation in their story to succeed as a product designer in the cross-functional product org.

As the candidate walks through the design process and some alternative explorations, it’s a great opportunity to evaluate their product instinct and design judgment. Some questions you may ask during the presentation are:

  • What kind of trade-offs did you make in the decision-making process, especially if there was a disagreement?
  • How did you leverage user insights and data to inform the decision?
  • If you were to redo the project now all over again, how would you do it differently?
  • Did you think through the edge cases?

At the end of the day, we should be looking for someone who will raise the bar on the design team. Assess whether they can raise the bar for your team and how they can strengthen the team’s skill dynamics overall. Fit and finish of not only the featured product but also the presentation itself should be carefully looked at.

You can also assess the culture fit by a few things such as:

  • Was their specific role clearly explained if the presented work was done in a group setting?
  • Did they mention teamwork and give a proper credit to the team? This is a critical element especially for managerial positions.
  • How does they respond to the impromptu feedback/critique during the presentation?

7. Deep dive during 1:1

While the presentation gives a great perspective on the candidate’s hard skills, I usually deep dive on the situational behaviors during the 1:1. Ask the candidate about challenging scenarios and what they did to resolve them. E.g., in the project the candidate presented earlier, were there instances when they had a point of view that differed from that of the PM? If yes, how did they resolve the conflict? If they have a hard time coming up a past example, you can still guide the question with a hypothetical situation as an interviewer. E.g., let’s say your PM has a very specific design solution that you don’t agree with. How would you handle such situation?

Self-awareness has increasingly become one of the most critical hiring criterion in my management experience. People with high self-awareness tend to be more humble, authentic and flexible. They are more adaptable to changes, open to feedback, and eager to learn new things. To assess this trait, here are some of my favorite questions:

  • How do you think your current manager/peers would describe you?
  • What is your superpower?
  • What is one thing you want to change about yourself?
  • What type of peer feedback have you received?
  • How do you manage stress?

The candidates who have genuine interest usually do due diligence in researching the product, the company and the position. They’re prepared to ask a lot of good contextual questions, and bring some thoughtful suggestions and solutions. Assess whether they’re here to stay or to use this opportunity merely as a stepping stone. A big turn-off is when a candidate hadn’t even tried the product before the interview. It’s a sign that they don’t care enough about this particular position.

The in-person interaction sheds a lot of light on the mutual working chemistry and their fit in the team. Also, do a pressure interview to detect any potential personality issues like victim mentality, defensiveness or ego problem. Ask yourself followings:

  • Is this someone you’ll learn something from?
  • Will this candidate elevate the team to the next level?
  • Would you enjoy collaborating with this person?

8. Thoughtfully raise the bar

Once the interview is done, you should submit your evaluation for the roundtable discussion and assessment as soon as you can. Give your final rating and write a review as thoroughly and thoughtfully as possible so that a third party (i.e., someone not involved in the hiring process) can assess the candidate for not only this particular position — but also future positions. Lay out all the pros and cons clearly.

When you write the review, it’s important to remain objective, removing all personal agendas. Think critically whether this person will raise the bar for the company and the team. It’d be a shame to feel insecure or threatened by a candidate who looks more knowledgeable or talented than you. We can only elevate ourselves by being surrounded by inspiring people who hold a high bar and bring fresh perspectives. If you can equally do everything the candidate can do, they are probably not adding any new value to the team. My goal is to hire someone who I can see myself reporting to someday.

If you’re on the fence, you should default to No Hire. It’s OK that your rating differs from others. And don’t be swayed or discouraged because your constructive vote is as important as the other’s.

9. Join the debrief with your perspective

After the onsite interview, there’s a roundtable for the team debriefs. Not to bias anyone’s perspective, the aggregated evaluation should not be shared until everyone submitted the individual evaluation.

Here are a few different scenarios at the debrief:

  • It’s the easiest debrief when the vote is a landslide one way or the other.
  • If the feedback is all positive, still delve into any potential red flags that might have been overlooked.
  • If the feedback is all negative, discuss with the team why we missed those concerns earlier during the initial screenings, or how we should reset the expectation for candidacy as a team.
  • If the feedback is split, a hiring manager should reiterate the hiring criteria, and all interviewers should weigh in all trade-offs to drive the final decision. If there’s no one who’s willing to champion the candidate, or if everyone’s on the fence overall, you should also default to No Hire.

Even if the collective decision is a green light, I’d highly encourage you to reference check all candidates, regardless of how glowing the team’s evaluation was. Hiring the wrong person is worse than not hiring anyone, and there’s nothing more credible and powerful than hearing from the candidate’s past teams. If there are any critical concerns about the candidate, you probably want to know them now than finding them after the person joined the team.

10. Follow up with the candidate after debrief

Even if the stars didn’t align and the team decided to pass on the candidate, it’s extremely important to close the loop with the candidate kindly. Obviously it’s not the most exciting task for anyone to deliver the rejection news–recruiters and hiring managers alike. However, let’s not forget that the candidates spent a full day with the team onsite and they earned the full right to know the final result of the interview.

For all of my hires, I usually notify them personally of the outcome. Interestingly, I often develop special connections when the rejected candidate reached out for the detailed feedback. There’s something very authentic and sincere about asking for feedback in vulnerable situations like this, and any hiring managers should be more than happy to offer some feedback to help them succeed in the future. This is a privilege of contributing to someone’s career development.

Industry is so small, and you’d never know if we’ll cross paths again. Take every interview as an opportunity to build the relationship and widen the network regardless of the final hiring decision.

What’s your story?

I’d love to hear your wisdom on designer interviews. What steps do you take, and what are the most important criteria and principles for your hiring? Please share your insights in the comments below!

Special thanks to Kevin Mendoza and Tracy Ulin for helping me with this article.

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Helena Seo is a Director of Consumer Experience Design at Groupon. Learn more about our amazing UX team, Groupon Design Union.

P.S. — Thanks for reading! If you found value in this article, please clap! 👏👏👏