Onsite UX Interviews: What They Don’t Teach You in Design School

An interview dates is highlighted on a calendar

Over the past six years I have had the opportunity to review hundreds of candidates as part of my effort to build solid design teams at two different companies. For each offer these companies have extended, I conducted in-person interviews with three or four candidates selected from a pool of seven or eight individuals who made it to the phone screen stage, out of a larger pool of thirty to forty who submitted resumes. As these numbers demonstrate, it takes significant vetting to get to the onsite interview stage. Unfortunately, many highly qualified candidates who make it to the final phase are unable to navigate it effectively.

The goal of this article is to help candidates understand the inner workings of an onsite interview so they can position themselves for success.

Congratulations…What Next?

It takes a lot to be invited to an onsite interview, so congratulate yourself when you get to that stage, but also be prepared to handle the rigors of the process. An onsite interview can last up to six hours and be very demanding. Most Silicon Valley design organizations follow a structured process with three main parts. Typically, an interview begins with a portfolio review, which gives the candidate an opportunity to present his or her body of work. Next comes some type of design exercise to test the candidate’s design thinking chops. The day culminates with face-to-face interviews with key stakeholders.

There is already quite a bit written about one-on-one interviews, and my goal is not to repeat points others have already made. Instead, I will focus on the two design-related phases of an onsite interview: the presentation of a portfolio and the design exercise.

Portfolio Presentation

I firmly believe that a designer is only as good as his or her portfolio, because creating a good portfolio is a design problem in itself. In essence, you are trying to satisfy the needs of various stakeholders while establishing your brand and credibility.

The biggest advantage for a candidate during an onsite interview is being able to control the tempo as well as the storytelling of their work. However, I have seen many candidates unable to understand the power of having a room full of attendees who are waiting to hear their story. This impression is the most important of the day, and oftentimes makes or breaks the rest of the interview.

Based on my experience, candidates interviewing for a design role should follow what I call the “4P” structure of portfolio presentation: Person, Projects, Philosophy, and Process.

Person

The biggest investment an organization makes when hiring is in the person it hires. It is therefore critical for candidates to open up about who they are during an interview. I have seen a wide range of approaches to doing this, from candidates showing collages of their travel pictures to someone who connected their passion for fly-fishing to design.

A good design team is one that has diverse interests and backgrounds, but a common goal. Unfortunately, I have seen many candidates who jump directly into sharing project details, not recognizing the need to say something interesting about themselves, that would allow the audience to relate to them. Design is about empathy, and this is just as true for the interview process.

Projects

Projects typically comprise the bulk of your portfolio presentation, often taking more than half the time allocated. The best project reviews are those in which a candidate leads an interesting and informative tour of their work, revealing both the breadth and depth of his or her experience.

While putting together the project section of a portfolio presentation, consider the following guidelines:

1. Use a “T” strategy. Provide a broad introduction to everything, and then deliver in-depth reviews of a couple of projects.

2. When choosing projects to review in detail, pick those that are relevant to your audience.

3. Devote ten to fifteen minutes to each of these projects, and communicate the following:

  • What was the problem? (Be sure to provide context.)
  • Why was it important? (Explain the relevance of this problem.)
  • How did you go about solving it? (Discuss your process.)
  • How did you know you solved it? (Share your results.)

Philosophy

The CEO of a company where I worked mentioned in a team meeting, “You are paid to give your opinion.” I believe the root of any designer’s opinion is his or her design philosophy. As a hiring manager, my goal is to bring a diverse group of opinions together. The diversity is key to the evolution of any design organization. That said, not all design philosophies are appropriate to every team. For example, a designer who believes good design comes from a designer locking him/herself in a room may not be the best fit for a team that believes in research and collaboration.

Therefore, each candidate should clearly lay out his or her design philosophy during an interview. Doing so will enable the hiring manager to make a decision that is right for the candidate and the team.

Process

Good design is enabled or hindered by the combined action of three factors: individuals, environment, and time. In organizations where design is competing with other priorities, good process can help designers overcome shortcomings in any or all of these areas.

During interviews, candidates should share examples highlighting their command of good design process. They should showcase their ability to deal with challenges that suddenly emerge, during which resources are in short supply. For example, if someone was the first hire on a team and helped build a design thinking culture within that team, he or she should feature this. Other examples might include a candidate’s contributions to a team’s design standards, design reviews, and crafting hiring processes.

Design Exercise

More and more companies give design candidates a design exercise to complete during the on-site interview to see how they think on their feet and handle themselves under pressure. The most common approach seems to be the one we use: a design problem is provided to the candidate right after the portfolio review, then he or she is given forty-five minutes before the hiring panel shows up for the debrief. Some organizations may ask candidates to come prepared with a solution to a design problem that’s given to them beforehand.

The problems themselves run the gamut from the fantastic (“How would you design a time machine?”) to the very specific (“How would you design the checkout flow for ABC company?”). In some cases, the assigned problem is an actual problem the team is currently tackling. In others, a hypothetical problem is provided.

When it comes to the debrief, I suggest candidates adhere to the following guidelines:

1. State the problem. I’ve observed that the candidate and the hiring panel don’t always have the same interpretation of the design problem at hand. That’s why, at the start of the debrief, you should describe what you think the problem is so that everyone can understand why you’ve chosen a particular solution.

2. Provide general thoughts. It’s often worthwhile to provide your general thoughts on the design problem, state where you see opportunities and what issues you’ve identified, and clarify any assumptions that you think are reasonable to make. This will enable the audience to relate to your thought process.

3. Focus. Often candidates get overwhelmed by the opportunities presented by a problem. For the purpose of the exercise, it’s best to identify one or two that are worth focusing on.

4. Show, don’t tell. Make sure that you lead the panel through the entire design process, and leverage design artifacts such as workflows, sketches, and concepts. Unfortunately, I have seen many designers merely describe their solutions, thus causing their audience to lose interest.

5. Reflect. As in any design discussion, new constraints will emerge by the minute. When presented with a new constraint, demonstrate that you can deal with on-the-fly changes, and give a thoughtful explanation of how you’d account for it.

Conclusion

There are many ways to plan and prepare for an onsite interview. My suggested approach will, I hope, be useful to many candidates. I encourage you to modify it as you see fit. Whatever approach you take, be prepared to tell your story using visually interesting artifacts to make your points. And do let me know how it goes. Good luck!

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