You’re a hotshot designer. A cutting-edge tech startup is courting you to come join them to build the future of whatever industry. You’ve been loving the conversations so far—the team seems exciting. After a few chats, the hiring manager sneaks in a request, “as a formality”. They want you to do some for them. For free. For a whole weekend. To assess whether you’re really as good of a designer as you claim to be.

Having been on both sides of the equation—from crafting a challenge to help assess candidates, to completing more than I care to admit—I am sharing my perspective on how we as an industry can best evaluate candidates for hiring. I believe removing the challenge from the hiring process will lead to a more successful screening process, and to discovering better hires for your team.

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The problem with design challenges

There have been enough existing articles citing the issues with design exercises. Here are just a few. I would summarize many of the viewpoints around design exercises as leading to the following issues:

  • You end up learning about how candidates complete specified work—not how they think or solve problems in creative, novel ways.
  • You have an expectation of outcomes, and evaluate based on that expectation rather than the candidate’s ability to solve a problem.
  • You have no sense of how a candidate collaborates and might fit into your team on a day-to-day basis.
  • You are wasting candidate’s time, asking them to do multiple hours of free work, and are essentially exploiting them.

A better solution to the design challenge

Instead of focusing on spec work as take-home exercise, spend your time and energy as a hiring manager focusing on collaboration and innovation. This means investing your time with the candidate, and making sure there’s a good mutual fit.

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Bring a design candidate for a half-day collaborative design session. Run a micro design sprint with them, where you take them through a problem to solve, and work with them on a whiteboard/on paper to solve the problem together. Ideally, bring in a PM, and engineer, and someone from the business.

I suggest focusing on a problem either unrelated to your business, or something which you’ve recently solved as a team. I’ve found that starting with something small is better than something big, as it gives the candidate opportunity to explore the problem and ask thoughtful questions. It’s helpful to treat the session as though you’re a team, to try to collaborate and get everyone in the room talking and working together, with the designer owning the process.

This type of collaborative design gives you a more realistic perspective on working with a candidate, and allows you to gauge how the candidate thinks, and works with a team.

What if you can’t just kill the design challenge?

Okay, so maybe you can’t quite garner the support within the organization you need to totally change your interview and hiring process. Maybe bringing people in for a collaborative design session isn’t in the cards for now.

I would suggest trying to make a few, small modifications to at least make your existing take-home design challenge more mutually beneficial.

Respect candidates’ time and effort

Setting reasonable timing expectations is important. If a designer is expected to work on a take-home exercise for 3 hours, let them know in the brief. It’s unreasonable to expect the same quality of work from someone with 10 hours of time versus 3 hours of time.

Always give feedback, even if the decision is to not move forward with a candidate

If a candidate spent a lot of time and effort into doing work for you to evaluate, it is only fair, kind, and ethical for you to offer something in return. At a minimum, that means making sure you go through the work with the candidate, and share objective, constructive feedback. This is especially for candidates you have decided not to move forward with—how can you expect candidates to do better next time if you’re not offering them any help to get better?

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Focus the problem on something totally unrelated to your core business

You are testing a candidate’s ability to think and unpack problems, not on how well they know the nuances of your particular business domain.

Give candidates a problem which is unrelated to any product or service you are working on. A great example of this is one that I got pretty early in my career, for a now-household-name in the robo-investing space. They asked me to redesign the McDonald’s drive-thru experience, with a set of user-centered goals in mind. This seemingly simple challenge was perfect because it was an activity we all commonly understood, with a multitude of potential paths to go down in order to solve it.

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Let the designer own their work

Make sure candidates know that the work that they do for you is theirs to own and reuse, and that you will not be using it for anything other than evaluation purposes.

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