Interviewing designers

I’m writing this article not from the perspective of a designer who’s looking to nail their next interview (although you might find this article helpful too), but from the POV of those who are in a position of hiring a designer. If you’re a Founder, Director, or Manager, who’s tasked with finding, attracting, and conducting interviews for design roles in your team and company, then this article is for you.

For context, a few years ago the design industry seemingly changed overnight. All of a sudden design was recognized as a key instrument of success for a 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.

It's not a one-size fits all model

As someone that’s been through the process many times (on both sides of the table as an interviewer and interviewee), and defined the process for others, I can say that it’s not an easy task. It takes dedication, patience, and empathy.

Sometimes the decision to hire one designer over another can come down to a seemingly arbitrary detail in the grand scheme of things. And while I strive to define a clear rubric for design-interviews, I’m the first to admit that there’s no perfect solution nor is what I’m proposing a one-size-fits-all model.

I’ve seen amazing designers miss out on great opportunities because they failed to communicate a specific aspect of their process, and mediocre designers slip through the cracks only to be caught out months later after the damage has already been done. But with perseverance and the right check-gates in place, you’re more likely to succeed.

Understanding Product Design

So, you’ve been asked to hire a designer for your team (congratulations!). The first step is understanding what kind of designer you need which can be a daunting prospect if you’re new to the industry. Designers come in different flavors, shapes, and sizes; some are specialists, others are generalists (I classify myself as a generalist). For simplicity, a Product Designer in the tech world is someone that works alongside Product Managers, Engineers, Researchers, and Data Scientists to design and build your product. The term Product design encapsulates many design disciplines which are common in the industry and include:

  • User Experience Design (UX)
  • User Interface Design (UI)
  • Interaction Design (IxD)
  • Visual Design (VD)

Understand your requirements

Before you start interviewing designers, I recommend defining a clear evaluation process based on your business needs and requirements. This might take some time, but it’s worth doing a little planning upfront. Ask yourself:

  • Do I need a junior or senior designer?(your budget might determine this).
  • What kind of experience would be suitable for the role; 3 years, 5 years, 15 years,
  • What kind of qualifications are most relevant; University degree, or self taught?
  • What kind of product will they need to design; Consumer, business, enterprise, non-profit etc?
  • What type of environment do they need to work in; Agile, lean, scrum etc?
  • What values do they need to communicate; Openness, entrepreneurial, inventive, honesty etc.?
  • What are the diversity requirements for the role; Female, Male, culturally or ethnically diverse etc?

Before the interview

For those who have little experience interacting with designers on a professional level, or might be interviewing a designer for the first time, preparing for the interview and setting yourself up to ask the right questions is vital. You’ll want to prepare in advance and familiarize yourself with their experience and portfolio. Note down questions related to their process, philosophy, principles, inspiration, motivations, and past experiences. Understanding why they want to work for you is just as important as how they will work for you. Here are a few sample questions I ask designers that might help you prepare before the interview:

  • Tell me about a project that you’re 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 and engineering
  • How do you assess the quality of a product before shipping it?
  • 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 not just mocks of their apps or websites they’ve designed. Ask them if there is anything they would do differently, or if they had to compromise on details or functionality.

The interview playbook

After you’ve identified the critical requirements for the role and have a good understanding of the type of designer you need, you can start the interview process! The following six steps outline the most common interview steps used by companies like Airbnb, Pinterest, Facebook, Google, and Apple.

Step 1
— Coffee

This should be informal and an opportunity for you to build rapport and gauge the interest of the candidate. Remember, they’ll be interviewing you just as much you are them.

Step 2
— Phone interviews

Phone interviews are an excellent way for candidates to talk with other team members (designers if possible) without too much overhead. Keep the conversation light, introduce the company and the role, talk about the process and culture, challenges and opportunities, and ask the candidate to talk about a project or two they’re most proud of, what inspires them, and why they’re interested in working for your company.

Step 3
— Design test

A design test helps you understand a candidates skill set in more detail, beyond what you might see on their portfolio or resume. A product designer will be asked to perform a number of different functions under the umbrella of Product design; from UI & UX Design, problem-solving, concept design, interaction design, visual design, and depending on the level of experience, asked to give presentations to stakeholders, define strategy, run workshops, manage or mentor others, and to promote design culture within the company. A design-test is an opportunity for you to see how well a candidate can understand a brief, design a solution, and present it back to stakeholders.

A word of warning though, design-tests are not for every candidate so be sure to use good judgment. Don’t ask your candidate to design something that relates directly to your product (this is generally frowned upon in the industry) and be sure to create a clear design brief that’s short, concise, and covers all the necessary signals you want to gauge. I’ve attached a sample brief to the bottom of this article.

Step 4

Ask the candidate to present the solution from the design test along with two other examples of their work to you and the team (preferably in person). This should take around 45 mins to an hour and give you a good insight into the candidates’ process and their ability to communicate ideas to an audience. Keep the meeting small (no more and 5 or 6 cross-disciplined folk), and be sure to leave time in the end for some Q & A.

Step 5
— One on One’s

After the presentation, 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! Interviewers should be equipped with specific questions that are relative to their discipline, and take notes straight after the interview while its fresh in their mind.

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 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 from the meeting with a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

The design test

Below is a sample brief that I’ve used many times when I’m hiring a designer. I might tweak it from time to time, or ask for specific deliverables based on the role. But in any event, this brief serves as a means to assess a design candidate in particular ways.

For example, if I were to send this brief to a senior designer, I would be asking for some deliverables ranging from research, concept designs, sketches, 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. For a specialist, such as an animator, I would use this brief at all!

The brief has been 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 and be inspired!).

The brief

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

Key user story
As a user, I want to book two movie tickets for my partner and me 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 inspiring!

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

What to look for

This brief has been designed to test the designer on a number of levels. This is what you should be looking when the candidate submits their brief…

  • Breadth of ideas
  • Ability to master both low and hi fidelities
  • Attention to detail
  • Use of data and research to drive decision making
  • Ability to follow the brief in every detail
  • Strong communication and presentation skills

Happy interviewing!