Every night across Australia, 105,237 people are experiencing homelessness. 60% are under the age of 35, these are people in the prime of their life.
On Thursday 22nd June 2017, our Talentpool Directors have chosen to make a difference and will be taking part in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout.
We are asking you to support us in this challenge by giving generously and help us reach our fundraising goal.
There are over 1,300 homeless assistance services across Australia and each year, the homeless service system provides almost 3 million nights of accommodation.
We would like to help fund some of that accommodation and in turn, help get those less fortunate off the streets and rehabilitated into a better way of life.
We will be making a personal contribution and we ask you kindly to do the same. Visit here for our Talentpool donation page
Together we can make a difference.
Interviewing designers? For God’s sake, don’t give them homework
Last year I interviewed with a promising startup in Manhattan. I had a great conversation with the hiring director over the phone, and it felt like we clicked. At the end of the conversation he said the next step was to do a “small assignment”. I then got an email with the assignment.
Oh. It’s one of those things, I thought.
This “small assignment” asked me to redesign this startup’s home page. The redesign should include the strategy, the UX design (wireframes, prototypes), and the visual design. They kindly asked me to let them know when I would be able to hand this back to them.
Convenient, I thought. How many free home page redesigns are they going to get this month?
Perhaps I was being cynical. I considered devoting myself completely to it and making something amazing. But that would take time. And while I got a great first impression from the company, I hadn’t even been to their office yet. Was it really worth it to devote all that time and energy for a company I was not that familiar with?
Doing a half-baked job was out of the question. I’m a designer. You don’t ask a baker to bake half of a beautiful pie. I either do my 100% best, or I don’t even start.
Then I thought, what happens if they decide not to hire me, but they like aspects of my design solution? Are they going to use my ideas without my permission or any sort of remuneration?
What do you think? If you were them, would you use my ideas?
If you were me, would you feel comfortable with that?
As I continued to interview, I was surprised by how many companies asked me to do complex and time-consuming at-home design exercises, especially compared to the last time I was on the market back in 2012. I now have 6 years of experience as a designer in-house and in agency, and a robust portfolio to go along with it. I received a lot more requests for at-home design assignments than back in 2012. This is because more and more companies are building design teams in-house (add link?). The need for a methodology to vet design talent is at an all-time high.
I understand why companies want to do this. They want to assess the candidate’s abilities to think creatively on a project. There is nothing inherently wrong with that.
Of course, it is questionable to ask people to work for free. And interviews are supposed to be mutual. Unless the company is going to create a mini product for me, I don’t see how they can reciprocate this ask (aside from payment, which has never been offered in my experience).
In addition to these concerns, there’s also another problem. The way these homework assignments are prescribed tends to be, well, poorly designed. I know you’re trying to test the candidates, but you might actually be pissing off potential talent before they even get a chance to get to know you and to want to work with you.
A Caveat or two
Are you Google? Or Tesla? Or *insert your favorite design company here*? If so, stop reading this article. You should do whatever the hell you want in your interviewing process. If you are known as a design mecca, or have an in-site amusement park, who am I to tell you how to recruit?
At the same time, don’t assume that because you’re well-known (as an agency, studio, or company) designers want to work for you. Tons of good designers don’t particularly want to work for Amazon or Uber because of their reputations as places to work. And especially if you are a startup — or really any company whose name designers may not recognize — the last thing you want to do is turn off talent with a poorly crafted (read: laughably ridiculous) design exercise.
At-home assignments are not necessarily always a bad idea (contrary to what the title of this article may indicate). Of course, each case is different. But often they are a bad idea. If you must do them, consider the tips below.
Note 1: throughout this article, I use the terms “at-home assignment” and “homework assignment” interchangeably to refer to design tasks given to the candidate to be completed at home during the interviewing phase.
Note 2: This article refers only to designers that fall within the digital design spectrum: UXUI designers, interaction designers, visual designers, experience designers, graphic designers (if there is still such a thing), and it could be relevant to service designers as well. It may not, however, apply to other kinds of design outside of the digital space, such as industrial design or fashion design.
At-home assignments are best suited for junior candidates
The thinking here is best summarized with a question: what talented, seasoned designer with 5+ years of experienced and a solid portfolio wants to do free work for a company they’ve never heard of? (Since you’re still reading this article, I assume you’re not Google or Tesla).
The market is pretty good for UXUI design jobs out there these days. Good designers who live in metropolitan areas like NYC and Seattle have a lot of options to choose from. We are not desperate. If your company is located in Wilton, Connecticut, then you might be desperate for talent.
For junior talent, homework design assignments make sense. Junior designers may not have many good projects in their portfolio yet. They often have limited work experience in their resume. An at-home assignment can help to assess this candidate’s true potential.
Junior candidates may well embrace an opportunity to do additional work, because they may view it as their chance to show their skills. This is especially true for designers straight out of college, who lack the years of experience most roles require.
The design assignment should be complementary to, and not a substitute for, the portfolio review
If you want to do this for mid level and above (that is, someone with at least a few years of experience as a designer as well as a robust portfolio), you should really consider why. What do you get out of this assignment that you cannot get from a portfolio review combined with in-person interviewing?
Ultimately, what you are looking for is the quality of their thought and craftsmanship. Are they thorough and creative thinkers? Do they explain their ideas articulately and persuasively? Are they collaborative? Do they make experiences that are beautiful and user-centered? Are they logical, smart, and clear-minded? Are they team players?
If the design exercise is meant to answer all of the above questions, it will be too open-ended. It will end up being something like “redesign our homepage and show wireframes, prototypes, visual mockups, a snapchat story, and a video deck documenting your process in English, Aramaic, and Braille.” A little too time-consuming for most designers.
Believe me, we designers spend a ton of time working on our portfolio. By giving designer candidates a new project to complete, you’re essentially adding a new project to their book. Like the other projects, it will be presented in a PDF or webpage, as well as via a verbal walkthrough. What do you get from this new project that you cannot get from the other projects in their portfolio?
The at-home assignment should fill in where the traditional interview materials leave off. This requires some careful deliberation on your part. Don’t be the guys who give out a ridiculous task, i.e. “redesign our homepage”. Instead, target specific skills that you feel for whatever reason are not measured effectively by the portfolio review and the in-person interview. This means that it should never be broad, vague, or open-ended.
If you are asking for every possible type of design deliverable, ranging from wireframes to high-fidelity mockups, that is a big red flag in my book.
If you’re looking to test the candidates’ visual design skills, ask only for high-fidelity mockups. If you want to assess their information architecture skills, ask for a sitemap. If you want to test their prototyping skills, ask for a prototype. If the role requires them to be extremely detail-oriented in their problem-solving, you can provide a problem and evaluate how they go about solving it. In coming to the solution the candidate will probably create other design artifacts than the one you’re requesting, but they don’t have to spend a lot of time polishing it if you’re not requesting it.
Constraints and Specifics Lessen the Execution Time
If you are keen on giving out at-home design assignments, a smart approach would be to make them low on execution time but intensive on thinking. You can craft a design assignment that will test creative and strategic thinking without requiring a lot of execution time (time spent in front of the computer moving pixels around). You should examine their portfolio of work for their execution skills or craftsmanship. Besides, what’s that saying? Anyone can execute (or learn to). It’s the thought behind it that makes the difference.
What you want to do is create guardrails or restrictions on the task that will keep it narrow and focused.
For example, it is better to ask them to design a component instead of a system. It is much less time-consuming to design a sign-in modal than the entire authentication experience.
This is also about being considerate of other people’s time. Consider the experience I had, where I was asked to redesign the company’s home page. A design team could easily spend a month on the home page. Side note horror story: I once worked in a team that spent 3 months on the redesign of a single page (within a large organization). Insert terror face emoji here.
Have the design assignment come later in the interviewing process
One company I spoke to had a very focused and constrained design exercise. They did all of the above. It did not take up a huge amount of execution time, and it tested a specific skill set. But I still didn’t do it. Why?
Because they sent me the assignment after we had only had a 30 minute phone chat, and then specifically requested me to complete this assignment before the in-person interview. This is a company I knew very little about at that point. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to work there.
Maybe they are doing this early on so that they save themselves time from meeting in person with candidates who “fail” the test. But what about my time of doing free work for a company I don’t really know yet?
The candidate should have the opportunity to see your office, meet the potential colleagues, and have a conversation with you before committing to doing extra work for you. They need to decide if they want to work for you, and that’s hard to do without actually having an on-site meeting.
Assume a seasoned and talented designer will only do your at-home assignment if they definitely want to work with you. I asked many of my designer friends — all senior level and above — and they would only do these homework assignments when they really want to work for the company.
But how can they decide if they really want to work for you, if they haven’t even visited the office yet?
The earlier you introduce this step in the interviewing process, the more likely the (experienced) designers will not bother with it.
Don’t Give a Prompt that Conveniently Matches Work You Need Done
This is the most cringe-worthy part of the experience I went through: the company who asked me to redesign their home page provided prompts that happened to match scenarios they are currently going through. I know this because it came up during the phone part of the interview. I don’t believe they purposely meant to be shady. Remember the days of design competitions? There is an ugly history of ethically questionable behavior when it comes to exploiting design work, so just don’t go there.
Give a hypothetical scenario. Don’t give them scenarios that are real situations for your product. For example, if you need to redesign your online TV guide, don’t give out a prompt that says “re-imagine the TV guide experience in 2018”. This means you could potentially use their ideas without them being employed, and it raises all sorts of ethical questions. A smart candidate will question if you are a serious and legitimate.
Take Google, for instance. They give an at-home design assignment which is completely hypothetical. They will not ask you to redesign Gmail or Google Maps. When I interviewed there, my task had to do with pet adoption centers. (I don’t believe Google is planning to open up pet stores.) They also give candidates a choice of 3 different prompts to chose from, which is a nice touch.
What you can do is replace the topic entirely but keep the concept. For example, if the designer’s job would be to redo the TV guide, you should consider what kinds of strengths and skills the designer needs to have, then craft a task that requires the same strengths and skills. Then, make it about puppies. Or amusement parks. You should not be able to re-purpose the designer’s work for your own product.
No matter how tempting it may be to give a real scenario, DON’T. Even if you have the best intentions, they’ll have the feeling someone is trying to take advantage of them. Also, it’s shady.
Beware the Lemon Effect
Used cars are considered “bad lemons” because buyers are suspicious of why they were re-sold. In online dating there has also been a lemon effect (do I need to explain this?). A time-consuming design task might be weeding out the kinds of designers who have lots of viable alternatives which don’t assign homework, leaving you with the lemons.
The whole goal of recruitment is to attract talent. Are you sure you want to introduce a step that could repel talent?
If after reading all this, you still feel confident about your at-home assignment, then by all means follow through. If you do go through with it, make sure that it is for the right reasons and that it’s done in a thoughtful, considerate, and ethical way.
So, how did my interviewing go?
My favorite company of the ones I interviewed with did not send out at-home assignments at all, and it is one of the world’s top design consultancies, and where I ended up.
The company that had asked me to redesign their home page was a startup, and it was clear to me that the assignment was created by non-designers — a CEO and a Product Lead. I don’t think they had any senior designers or design directors yet. A final tip: if you’re not a designer, have an experienced designer look over your design assignment, or, even better, help you create it. If your company doesn’t have a designer yet (meaning that this is the first design hire), maybe you can find a designer friend to give you some feedback.
Of all the companies I had spoken to, 4 had asked me to complete at-home design assignments. I only did one (Google’s). The other companies made one of the above mistakes and I just felt that it was not worth my time. They did inspire me to write this article, so it all worked out in the end.
Read more here from Isabela Carvalho