What I Look for in a UX Take-Home
Application exercises are essential — a hiring manager’s perspective
In my last two and a half years as a hiring manager at Indeed, I’ve interviewed close to 150 people. I’ve hired dozens of designers, researchers, copywriters, design technologists, and content strategists for levels ranging from associate up to VP. And I’ve built multidisciplinary teams in our offices in Austin, San Francisco, Seattle, and Tokyo. All along the way, take-home exercises have been essential.
But candidates for user experience jobs often feel frustrated by take-home exercises. That’s understandable. I’ve been through the process myself and I know how it feels. Searching for a job is stressful, and extra “homework” can feel overwhelming — especially if its purpose isn’t clear.
So I want to share my perspective on take-home exercises, why I find them so valuable, and how I evaluate them.
Why does the UX field even have take-homes?
When I was starting out in my design career, take-home exercises were almost unheard of. Now they’re common — according to this survey, around half of tech companies offer them to prospective employees. And if the number of articles about take-homes is any indication, many UX professionals have grappled with them.
What happened? The role of product user experience teams has changed in a big way.
Two decades ago, many design departments had limited influence. Often our bosses didn’t see our work as something that required any real method, let alone data-informed systems thinking. They certainly didn’t think design could substantially influence key business metrics. We just made the artifacts look good.
Today, pairing major technology with strategic design is widely accepted as a recipe for success. And there’s a deep pool of confident UX practitioners who want to make that kind of business impact. They’re big-picture thinkers who seek out the autonomy to plan, build, and test work that can reshape a product experience and make things better for users.
With that great influence comes great responsibility — and more attention to new hires. The take-home exercise comes out of the extra power and attention that our practice has earned. It’s become a reliable way for hiring panels to measure candidates’ competencies objectively.
Answering common critiques
It’s not hard to find articles criticizing or even calling for the end of take-homes. Here are my answers to some of the most common arguments against the exercises.
Critique #1: take-home exercises show that hiring managers don’t respect your time
Believe it or not, the goal of the take-home exercise is to save the time and anguish of needless on-site interviews. These can take time away from your current work and require significant travel and PTO. And they take a big emotional investment, which leads to more disappointment for everyone involved if things don’t pan out.
Critique #2: take-home exercises help companies, not candidates, make decisions
The take-home exercise offers a taste of the work you’d be doing and can help you learn about the company. Consider it a sneak peek into the challenges we’d be tackling together if you joined my team.
Critique #3: take-home exercises are only for junior designers
It’s often through the take-home exercise that I find the level of a candidate in the first place. Presentation skills, user empathy, and business acumen are all part of the equation. These skills evolve over time, and the exercise helps me see exactly how they fit together for the candidate at this moment in their career. There are similar competency exercises for people managers, directors, and even VPs. Nobody gets a pass.
Critique #4: take-home exercises duplicate the work in your portfolio
The portfolio is a valuable tool each of us uses to tell the story of our favorite projects. It’s where we put our best face forward, and rightly so. But UX practitioners often work in teams and it’s hard to read that context or tell how much one person contributed. The take-home exercise gives me a more individual picture of your creative process and how you think.
Finding the right fit
It’s inspiring to look at amazing portfolios and resumes, but it takes more than that to pick the right person at the right level for the right role from the rest of a talented pool of candidates.
The take-home exercise and interview help me find candidates who are fluent in their discipline and passionately user-centered. These are the creatives who will move the company forward and make a real difference in the lives of our users.
Really, the interview process has two goals. Behavioral screening will tell me about the candidate’s conduct, team spirit, and ability to handle stress. The technical assessment focuses on their ability to understand and solve for user problems, be it through copy, content strategy, research, design, or design engineering. The take-home exercise is one of the most effective ways to assess this second part — the ability to scope tasks, prioritize, and think critically.
In evaluating a take-home exercise, first I look at the candidate’s working style in six areas:
- Following directions. Did they solve the problem based on what was asked?
- Building for usability. Is their solution simple and easy to follow?
- Consideration. Did they discover and solve for a wide range of user flows?
- User-centric approach. Did they put user needs above business goals?
- Prioritization. Did they make distinctions between essential features and nice-to-haves?
- Clear presentation. Did they express their ideas in a way that tells a strong story?
Then I evaluate for specific skills. For design candidates, these are:
- Simplification. Did the designer remove clutter and distraction in favor of easy interaction and a clear message?
- Divergence. Did the designer explore and communicate a variety of design directions, interactions, and solutions?
- Fit and Finish. Does the work show attention to detail, strong visual design, quality deliverables, and a thorough spec?
- Elevated Design. Did the designer raise the bar by suggesting and implementing new and improved design patterns, methods, or processes?
- Cohesive Approach. Is the design consistent with the rest of the ecosystem, principles, and tenets?
- Appropriate Process. Did the designer choose an appropriate overall process and deliverable type for the project?
Everyone in UX at Indeed is empowered to make an impact on the business and the experiences of hundreds of millions of monthly users. They have a good degree of autonomy, which comes with responsibility and accountability. I want to make sure that the people I hire will enjoy and thrive in this type of environment. The take-home exercise helps me do that.
While my reasoning might not make your next exercise any easier, I hope it at least makes it more meaningful and useful. Most of all, I hope each candidate’s talents and passions shine — I’m always excited when they do.