Our Answers to the Most Popular Interview Questions from Product Designers

Like we mentioned in last week’s post, over the last two years we’ve more than tripled Thumbtack’s Product Design team from 8 to 28. Along the way, I’ve run 600+ interviews and a handful of questions come up time and time again. I figured, “Why not just publish the answers?”. So here are my answers to the most frequently asked interview questions — in plain English, the way I’d answer someone in person.

What’s the team size and makeup?

As of May 2018, the product design team consists of 16 product designers, 3 content strategists, 3 user researchers, 2 UI developers, and 4 managers. It’s roughly split 50/50 customer-side and pro-side. Additionally, we have a team of ~12 designers, writers, producers, and photographers focused on the brand and marketing side of design. So all in, Design at Thumbtack is about 40 people in a company of ~650.

How do designers work with their teams?

Designers embed within a cross-functional product team. A product team typically consists of: 1 product manager, 2–3 product designers, 1 engineering manager, 8–16 engineers, 1-2 analysts, 1 content strategist, 1 user researcher, 1 data scientist, and 1 product marketing manager. The designers plan on a quarterly basis with their team and own all the design projects related to their area of focus within that team.

If you were to ask a product designer what team they’re on, they’ll tell you “Growth” or “Pro Storefront” because their tight bonds and daily collaborators are their product teams. Their loose bond and second team is their functional team, Product Design.

How do designers work with Product Managers?

In addition to planning together, a PM and a designer align on priorities: what’s the most important thing to be working on and why. They often work through the early stages of problem definition and solution-generation together. To collaborate early on, they typically whiteboard together and work on the framing of the project or problems in a doc or presentation. Product Managers help inform design timelines by working with Engineering to determine when designs will be needed. PMs and PDs work together to build alignment about the design work by communicating up and across the org.

How does a typical project run end-to-end?

I’ll describe a small project in order to keep things relatively simple. This is a fairly common process:

  1. Designer, content strategist, and PM align on the user problem, goals, success criteria, and initial ideas. This is usually informal and entails white boarding or collaborating on a doc together.
  2. The designer goes off and works through the problem at a low fidelity. We also often conduct some early research like generative studies, competitive analysis, collecting feedback from customer support, going through prior research, etc.
  3. The designer gathers feedback from the other designers on her product team, her PM, and her Eng. Lead. She brings the project to a formal design crit, if she wants to.
  4. The designer goes high fidelity and addresses the feedback from earlier.
  5. She starts to add in the Content Strategist’s copy.
  6. She may decide to do some user testing if she has open questions that could benefit from a user’s input.
  7. She iterates on the designs after getting feedback from her full product team and design leadership. Content strategy iterates on the content as well.
  8. When the designer, content strategist, and PM all feel generally aligned about the work, they start to ramp up the engineers more fully. By now, all the key use cases should be designed and there should be mocks for mobile and desktop.
  9. Engineers review the designs and help to negotiate the scope. Designs are updated if the scope needs to be reduced.
  10. Designs are handed off via InVision. Engineers start building (utilizing Thumbprint, our design system).
  11. When the build is ready for QA, the engineers lets the designer know. She logs a bunch of bugs.
  12. The bugs get addressed, and it ships as an experiment.
  13. Experiment runs for 1 to 3 weeks.
  14. At the end of the experiment, the designer works with PM and Analytics to understand the experiment results and determine next steps.
  15. They decide to ship the experiment to 100% if successful, iterate to address why it lost, or abandon the experiment and move on to the next thing.

What are you working on? What are the big priorities for the coming year?

Instant Match, Instant Results, and becoming the go-to brand for whenever someone needs to hire a local pro. This recent Fast Company article describes our work on Instant Match very well–essentially we’re creating the system for pros to instantly be able to quote on projects even while they’re working, sleeping, or relaxing on the weekend. Instant Results is the new customer experience now that we have a large supply of instant quotes. It makes hiring a pro akin to booking an Airbnb, calling an Uber, or buying on Amazon — instantaneous. And we recently launched our new brand but haven’t even scratched the surface of how to best express that brand in all our product and marketing touchpoints yet.

How do you keep designers aligned?

  • Design management helps identify areas of misalignment and gets the relevant designers talking to each other.
  • Every two weeks, we do a full team show-n-tell session quickly demoing what each designer has been working on. This helps increase visibility and let designers know when they need to follow up later to discuss something.
  • Designer regularly utilize our Product Design Crits to get feedback from fellow product designers.
  • When a feature affects both pros and customers, we pair the relevant designers on each team and have them formalize a process to stay in sync with each other.
  • The latest version of every project gets shared in our weekly Design List email. That way everyone in the company always knows what work is in progress and where to see it.

What makes design at Thumbtack different than other companies?

In my experience, there are a few things unique to Thumbtack:

  1. Designers almost never get briefs or Product Requirement Documents. A lot of responsibility for problem definition falls to the designer, which is great for the sort of designers who want to provide their own structure and framing.
  2. Designers regularly set vision and also ship v1s. Many companies will bias one way or another. It’s often MVPs forever or further out vision stuff that never gets built. Our designers will often find themselves balancing both approaches within the same day. They may be taking a break from a visioning sprint to QA a v1 feature that’s about to ship.
  3. Designers don’t need to advocate for design. Everybody already believes design is important and crucial to creating a great product. We don’t have to waste time fighting about or educating others about the value of design. It’s just understood, and we can move on with trust and respect for one another.

What roles are you hiring for?

As of May 2018, we’re hiring product designers for both the pro and customer sides of our marketplace at all experience levels. We have a lot of work left to do, so we’re flexible about the role. We typically figure out where a designer is best suited through our interview process.

What sort of designer profile are you looking for?

Stealing from Paul Adams, VP of Product at Intercom, we consider the four levels of design: outcome, structure, interaction, and visual.

From The Dribbblisation of Design by Paul Adams

All of our product designers are generalists and need to be able to work across all four levels. But almost no one is excellent at all four levels. So what’s our minimum requirement? It varies. For the customer-side, we’re typically looking for someone shaped like this:

Adapted from How to Hire Designers by Paul Adams

Our customer experience has millions of users that expect an easy-to-use, beautiful, consumer app. Therefore, there’s a high bar for interaction and visual design. However, all customers tend to have relatively similar needs: find a list of great pros, learn more about a few, hire one, book, pay, and leave a review, so the system complexity is relatively low since the users are so similar.

The inverse is true for pro-side. A designer suited to our Pro team, would be shaped like this:

Our pros use the Thumbtack app on a daily basis, it’s an essential productivity tool for their business—so less users than the customer-side but deeper engagement. The pros are also highly varied. What a general contractor wants out of Thumbtack is significantly different than a massage therapist or a wedding photographer. Therefore, the system complexity is quite high. Given that the complexity is high, it’s more important to nail the Outcome and Structure layers of design.

What makes a product designer successful at Thumbtack?

From our What Makes a Great Product Designer article, I’d call out five bullets as particularly important (but the whole thing is worth a read):

  • A track record of delivering highly impactful product and feature launches that contribute significantly to moving core metrics for the company
  • Owns their design process and takes responsibility for building context about the problem
  • Able to synthesize varying user, business, and stakeholder priorities, articulate pros and cons of different approaches and arrive at an elegant solution
  • Embodies a “We, not I” attitude
  • Embraces uncertainty; works collaboratively and iteratively to turn ambiguous, high-level ideas into concrete execution plans and solid deliverables

What’s the company culture like? Design team culture?

It’s hard to describe a culture in its entirety, but a few key things stand out. There are a lot of similarities between the design team culture and the company culture, so I’ll address them together:

  1. A unique blend of ambition, intelligence, and empathy. Most companies in the Bay Area are full of ambitious and highly intelligent people, but not many know how to temper that with compassion for one another and genuine empathy for its users. It’s a big part of why Thumbtack is a Best Place to Work. We’ve worked hard to build a diverse and inclusive team that creates an environment and culture for all types of people to succeed.
  2. Open, honest, approachable communication. Every startup is prone to ups and downs, but you can count on Thumbtack to be transparent about challenges — no sugar-coating or denialism. The team tends to be very low ego, so any and all feedback is received and welcomed — whether it’s about the work or about what a teammate could be doing better.
  3. Long-term focused. Thumbtack is regularly willing to trade off short-term revenue for doing what’s right for our users and building toward our long-term vision. We do a good job of not sacrificing a quality experience for a quick buck.

Why’d you join Thumbtack?

The long answer is here. The short answer is:

  1. When I talked with Marco, Thumbtack’s CEO, about what the biggest challenges were for the company over the next 1–2 years, he described mostly experience challenges. This gave me confidence I wouldn’t have to advocate for Design or fight about headcount, and I’d have interesting, strategic work ahead of me.
  2. The opportunity was enormous. Never before had I seen a company with so much product-market fit, millions of users, and such a rough product experience. There was a compelling before and after story I could help author (versus polishing an already beautiful product at a company like Airbnb, Dropbox, or Slack).
  3. When I thought about what Thumbtack does in the world, it was something I could be proud of. On the customer-side, we’re bringing something that’s been notoriously difficult (hiring a local professional) into the 21st century and making it much, much easier. On the pro-side, we’re helping to create economic opportunity for many people that have been pushed out by the new economy. Maybe their jobs were automated away, but we’re empowering them to find a new career, not merely a new gig, but an actual solid middle-class livelihood. They get to focus on what they’re good at (roofing, painting, tutoring), and we help them with the hardest part — finding customers.

If what you read sounds good to you, then you’d likely be a good fit for our team. We’re hiring designers, content strategists, and user researchers. Join us!