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The Surefire Way to NOT Hire Good Designers

In the past years I’ve been through my fair share of interviews, both good and bad. It’s interesting to see how different people approach interviews in different ways. I’ve tried the three-hour long marathons and the 20-minute quick chats.

I learned that interviewing practices are old and ineffective. Hiring managers aren't able to make a decision based on an interview, so they ask candidates to come in more times. Candidates waste a lot of time, and so do companies that interview 30-40 people for each role.

It's clear the design industry needs to shift. And we need to start by removing the root of bad interview approaches. That is the design homework; sometimes known as the take-home design exercise. 

When you give a candidate a design exercise to take home, you’re wasting everyone’s energy. Good designers interview for many companies at the same time. Some do it while they are still employed. There’s no time for homework. Especially when homework is a design exercise on your own product.

I’m not trying to defend designers. Not having time is not an excuse, if the thing you’re asked to do is crucial to finding a job. You can’t say that you don’t have enough time to send resumes. It comes with having to find a new role. But design exercises aren't crucial, and they won’t put candidates in a better light.

Stop giving take-home exercises. It's lazy on your part.

Stop giving take-home exercises. It's lazy on your part.

A talk about ethics

Design exercises on your own product are, simply put, unethical. And you're showing you're lazy. You might not think so, but you're asking someone to do free work for you. You’re trying to get someone to improve your product by promising that if they do a good job, you’ll hire them. That’s no way to start a relationship with someone you want to hire.

“But they’re not doing any work for us; we only want to see how they think”. You’re delusional. You will use any great idea a candidate comes up with, but you might not hire that person. And neither will you if a candidate generates an idea that you don’t agree with - although she might be an excellent fit.

In the end, you will choose the candidate who just happens to try solutions that align with your perspective. That’s a matter of chance, not a matter of ability.
— Daniel Burka, Google Ventures

As a company, you have much more information about the problem than the candidate has. You know how your company runs. You know the ins and outs of your product. You know your customers. You know what your team can and can’t do. The candidate can, at best, make an educated guess. Even a good guess won’t be remotely as useful as the information you sit with. It’s impossible for candidates to generate solutions that are fit for the product.

When you hire a designer, she will hopefully not work in a silo by herself. Designers need to collaborate with other team members. If that’s not your plan, do yourself a favour and don’t hire a designer. You have bigger problems to solve first. Before hiring someone, you want to see how that person would fit within your team. Sending a candidate home with a design exercise won’t show you any of that.

Hiring the best of the best

Good designers are in demand. Great designers are a rare find and you’d be lucky to have one over for a chat. If you want to hire them, the worst thing you can do is to give a take-home exercise. They’ll laugh at you and will not return for a second round. Worse, they will tell all their peers not to come work for you. Not a great place to be.

The right thing to do

During an interview, you want to understand if a candidate is a good fit. Of course, you also need to know if her skills are up to date and match what you’re looking for.

If you want to hire a hairdresser, you want to make sure that she knows how to do a perm. You put her on a trial. If you want to hire a pilot, you need to know she can handle the stress of the job, and also knows her way around a 747 cockpit. If you want to hire a chef, you want to know she can cook. You don’t send any of these candidates at home with an exercise, because that doesn't give you an idea of their skills.

You want to see a candidate work together with your team; like she would if hired.

You want to see a candidate work together with your team; like she would if hired.

The best way to interview a designer is to run a simulation. Have her over for 90 minutes. Bring in a PM, an engineer, a strategist, and another designer. Present a real-life challenge and ask the candidate to lead the efforts. Then watch what happens.

Is the designer a natural leader? Do you like the way she thinks? Do you like how the team is being managed? Even better, do the team members feel comfortable with the candidate? Are the results of the simulation satisfying? Was the candidate good at simplifying complex ideas on a whiteboard? Good at communicating her ideas? Do you think of the working environment as something you want to foster in the company? Overall, were you impressed? 

No design exercises to take home. No five-stage interviews, so candidates can talk to five different department heads. No work for free. No coming back for a second, third, or fourth interview. None of that ineffective crap. Real-life simulation is the way to go in interviews. That's how you find the right designer.