Oh, Ahoy there, fair recruiter and or designer that has been through the hellish process that has now come to be known as a Design Challenge, Design Test, Design Thinking Project, or just a general and blatant distrust in your resume and qualifications. These are a real hot spot for me and seem to be a polarizing topic for designers and hiring managers. Thank you for taking interest in my review of you and your recruiter/creative director/product VP/art director’s god awful design tests.
We’ve all been there. You get a few calls with a company you can imagine dedicating the majority of your waking hours to, and then the next steps are outlined for you. You knew it was coming, but you’re really not looking forward to this as the recruiter explains more…
“We’re going to send you a short design project just to see how you think, and to asses if we’re a good match for working styles. Don’t worry, we hate asking for free work, this is totally not what this is. We only ask you spend about 30 personal hours on this over the next week and send it back to us, and then in about 3–12 weeks we’ll gloss over this as a group in about 2–3 minutes before we make a sweeping judgement on your worth and value as a human being. We might send you a 2 sentence, canned summary about how you weren’t for us this time, but you should definitely apply to other positions in the future!”
I’ve gone through quite a few of these exercises (probably more than I’d like to admit), so I’ll sum up the failings of each one into 4 distinctly different categories of design tests. Maybe you can recognize some of your unique tactics, and then stop doing them immediately.
Here we go.
#1 The Open-ender
What it is: This takes as long as you want to put into it, AKA your best guess as to how many hours other candidates are jamming into this throw-away project. You can just take about 18–20 hours of your weekend and draft us an entire new application and product that can solve crypto market onboarding. Give us whatever file format you think is good.
What it means: Congrats, you’re the first person to even proofread this design test. Look out, this is probably a startup founded by a developer, and that same developer is someone who is not ready to be CEO, but alas they already are — because when you’re the founder, you’re more than qualified to be the CEO, damn it. You will be the first design hire, they have no design team and no idea what they are doing. You will be tasked with ‘growing the design team’ and basically doing all of the business development for the entire company.
Why you’re a terrible recruiter for doing this to people: Please don’t make me guess how much work I want to put into this start up company, and rebuild an entire company strategy in a weekend, complete with new branding. I want this job, that’s why I applied. Let’s talk about your needs and my experience, first.
What you can do better: Just give a time frame and a clear task. Don’t give me ‘2–3 days’ because I will take all 8 hours of the day, for 2–3 days doing this at my current job that I am unhappy with, because I am coasting by while casually filling out 30 resumes a day. Give hours, set the expectation for what you want to see delivered, and level everyone’s playing field.
Bonus: Don’t hide the obvious. If you’re looking for someone who knows how to use Sketch, just say it. You’ll be able to tell if they are great at it when you look at it, I promise.
#2 The Toll-Gate
What it is: The Project you get sent to you after one 30 minute conversation with a recruiter. “I really like you, I want to show your portfolio to the hiring team and get their feedback, and then once you complete this design project we will get back to you with some next steps.”
What it means: You are not getting this job, they are having 300 other people do this project. They don’t trust your resume or your portfolio, or they were just too lazy to read it.
Why you’re a terrible recruiter for doing this to people: Don’t make me go above and beyond with my personal time to prove myself to you before you’ve even tried to prove yourself to me. I get it, your benefits are great and it’s a true blessing in my life to even score a 30 minute chat with you as a recruiter of this ground breaking tech company. It’s me that will give 40 hours of my week to your company for the next several years. Try and sell me a little more than free coffee in the morning, plus your birthday is a paid day off. Give me a quality conversation with the person I will report to. Meet me half way, here.
What you can do better: Give me a quick chat with someone on the product team before you have me invest my personal time in your company’s long drawn-out project.
#3 The Time Trial
What it is: The ‘Real Project’ . It’s the ‘This is what you would work on right away if you were hired, and this should not take you more than 2 hours’ assignment. You’ve spoken with the recruiter, some team members, and feel like you’ve generally gotten a sense of what they’re all about. You have a 2 hour assignment that will assess how you approach projects and think about them.
What it means: 2 hours is not a lot of time. What can someone really come up with in 2 hours that will result in a tangible, review-able document or file that has any kind of a good idea. Maybe I’m slow, but it takes me a little longer than two hours to impress someone with a new idea and approach. If you want me to regurgitate the same exact thing every other candidate is going to give you, then what is the point? Unless I already work directly in your industry, I have no idea what your company, product, or service is or how you approach problems, or what your problem is, or who your customer is. That’s basically why you need to hire someone. What they are really saying is, we want you to do this, and we want you to spend way more than 2 hours on this.
Why you’re a terrible recruiter for doing this to people: This is a false hope and set up for failure. What are you getting out of a 2 hour project you couldn’t get from reading my resume and going through my very robust and carefully tailored portfolio site? Have questions? Write them down and ask me. Stop wasting everyone’s time with sending and reviewing a fake design project, even if it is for one of your very real company problems.
What you can do better: Just be honest in what you are looking for. “We want a userflow for fixing this absurd mess we have built, and a sketch file with 3 digital campaign ideas in it.”
#4 The unicorn test
What it is: The ‘Little Bit of Everything’ project. Please deliver to us by Thursday a new business plan, complete user personas, roadmap of how you would accomplish this, rebrand of the company, UI assets and final mock ups, UX research project, and a video reel we can show to clients. You know, we always joke that we’re just looking for a unicorn LOL!
What it means: They literally have no one and want you to do everything.
Why you’re a terrible recruiter for doing this to people: This is a ridiculous task, and you’re going to get a generalist who is kind of okay at doing a lot of things, and in 6 months to one year realize that what you really need is a few specialists who can do some key things really really well. While most designers can all do these things to some degree, putting the pressure on to deliver all of it for a new project within one week is not cool.
What you can do better: Write an actual job description for your designer. Don’t blend product manager, product designer, ux designer, motion designer, and business analyst into one role. I get it, you’re small and scrappy. Just calm down with the whole Unicorn thing and sit down and make an actual roadmap, devote design hours to each project and light requirements so you don’t over estimate the ability of your team. See where you’re light on resources and then hire someone with those skills. Stop trying to get it all in one role, it’s confusing.
#5 BONUS: The Acceptable Design Challenge
Recruiters and Hiring Managers and Product People: You probably had best intentions when you designed these tests. You’ve thought of a million ways to soften the blow. Something like … This design challenge will take way less than the other recruiter’s design challenges, so don’t worry. This is going to just assess how you think about things, so only put in as much time as you think you need to. We just want to see how you respond. You can use any format you like. This is going to be a real life project we want to work on, so it’s not like a waste of time.
The acceptable design challenge: It’s going to be shockingly simple. While interviewing the person either in person or via screen share, ask these questions, and write down the answers the candidate gives. Walk me through an example in your current portfolio of a process that worked with designers, developers, and marketing to deliver a great user experience. What worked? What didn’t? What were you in charge of?
The semi-acceptable design challenge: If you literally have only 2 or 3 candidates that have gotten very far in the process, and this role is integral to your organization at this point that you CAN NOT SCREW THIS UP, then go ahead and send over a design test that is as minimal and painless as possible.
The unacceptable design challenge: Asking anyone other than junior level candidates to complete design tasks when they have a perfectly good portfolio, resume, and years of experience to speak to.
I know you’re talking to other candidates, and I know there is a sea of people who just got their first and only 3 day UX workshop under their belt and are ready to apply for your senior product designer role. I get it, your job is difficult and there is a lot of weeding out to do and only so much time. But STOP making me take hours and hours out of my week to stay afloat in the competition. It’s unfair, and can wait to the last step of the interview process if you truly can not decide if the candidate is a best fit.
Let us ask ourselves, “Why are we not satisfied with a portfolio of work that someone can speak to in detail and with pride?”
Having been a product manager for the past several years, it would be absolutely ridiculous to get a product management test before starting a job. I have never heard of it before. I am asked to talk about past projects and initiatives while other people listen to me and ask more questions to gain more insight.
So please, let us spare the conversation of ‘it will only take 2 hours of your time, this is a real project, don’t worry we don’t ask for free work,…’ etc. It took me my entire life and career to get to this 2 hours. I worked my way up from a customer service job into design. I designed emails and web forms, micro sites, landing pages, brochures, power points, and all the other things I didn’t want to design before I got to the fun UI part of my career. I’ve put in my blood sweat and tears into hand building and designing a killer portfolio. I redo said portfolio on an annual basis, and I have other way more important things I like to think about and do for free for others.