Redesigning the Design Interview

As the first designer at a growing startup (Discuss.io) and as a consultant for much larger companies (Liberty Mutual, Humana, USAF), I've seen first hand how difficult it can be to hire designers. Now, as the first designer at another growing startup (Chipper Cash), I have a lot more of a say in how we hire for our design team.

Over the past few months, throughout dozens of interviews, I've reflected on the ways that the design industry creates unnecessary barriers within our hiring practices. Having been on both sides of the table, I'd like to share what problems we've identified in the “standard” design interview loop and how we're working to address these problems at Chipper Cash.

The “standard” design interview loop

Below, I've outlined what most designers go through when they're looking for a new job…

Depiction of current interview loop for designers

Hiring starts with an application screening - where the recruiter or hiring manager takes a look at a large number of candidates’ resumes and portfolios. Based on a rubric (or sometimes just a “gut feel”), these screeners will select a handful of candidates to move onto at least one “screening” call with the recruiter and/or hiring manager.

If this screening goes well, the candidate is usually required to do a portfolio review with all or some of the members of the “interview loop” - the members of the company that are responsible for asking questions of the candidate and helping the hiring manager make their decision.

Then the most time-consuming part of the loop begins. Sometimes combined with the portfolio review, the whiteboard interview is a chance for candidates to solve a problem that they will likely never face in the role they're being hired for. Over the course of an hour, the candidate is asked to “redesign an ATM” or “design an app to coordinate ping-pong games at the office”.

If the whiteboard challenge is overcome, the candidate is then sent home with a “take home assignment”. Sometimes the assignment is just a higher fidelity version of the whiteboard challenge, other times it's a completely new assignment. Either way, the candidate is expected to come back with some polished work to present to the next round of interviewers so that they can defend their design decisions, discuss how they might test them, and answer any number of hypotheticals that the company has written in their interview guide.

Finally, the candidate is allowed to participate in the types of interviews that are more common across all industries. These “culture” and “technical” interviews usually have questions like, “Tell me about a time that you had to settle a dispute” or “Compare the differences between mobile-first and responsive design.” These interviews are usually the first chance that a candidate has to meet the people that they might actually work with on a daily basis, ask about the company itself and how their potential future colleagues feel about their jobs.

At most large companies (like Google), it can take 8-12 weeks from the first interview until the offer is negotiated and signed.

Problems with the “standard” interview loop

For those just entering the field, this process can feel like a lot of new things, all at once. For designers who are looking for a new job, the amount of time required to change jobs can make it difficult (if not impossible) to transition to a new position or company.

But the process outlined above is not just overwhelming. It's also…

  • Inequitable - Not everyone has the time to create/update their portfolio, schedule time off at their existing job or work on “take home” assignments outside of work. By insisting that this amount of work is required to be hired, we're screening out candidates who are working multiple jobs or in hostile work environments, have family to take care of, or have hobbies outside of work.
  • Disrespectful - When a candidate is rejected after 5-10 hours of time dedicated to the process over multiple weeks, it can feel like a complete waste of time. When design challenges are actually representative of a “real world” situation for the company, it can also feel like candidates are being asked to work for free.
  • Focused on the wrong things - Not all design roles are the same. Some roles are more UX-oriented while others focus on visuals. Due to the collaborative nature of design, past work shown in a portfolio review rarely represents the skills required for a given role and is usually judged on a surface level - prioritizing work that “looks good” over the actual design process.

Combined with the fact that many candidates are applying to multiple positions at once, these problems beg the question…

Why do we do this to each other?

After reflecting on all the ways that this hiring process disadvantages diverse applicants, I had to take a step back and ask how we got here. What are we trying to achieve with the current hiring process?

At Chipper, we identified that we were really interested in three things:

  1. Avoiding misalignment
    • Does the candidate share our values?
    • Can they resolve conflicts cross-culturally?
    • Can we afford them?
  2. Strong foundations in the design process
    • Can they break down problems into more accomplishable steps?
    • Can they prioritize problems based on user needs?
    • Do they respond well to feedback?
    • Can they “ship it” (e.g. work with devs, adjust to business constraints, etc.)?
  3. Filling gaps in our team
    • What skills do they have already (UX? Visual? Platform-specific expertise?)
    • What skills do they want to learn/grow in to? (IC? Manager? New design skillsets?)

What we're trying

By listing out these goals, we were able to reframe them in a “how might we” statement:

How might we create a more equitable hiring process that respects candidates’ time while ensuring that we hire designers with the skills, values and interests needed for the roles we're trying to fill?

After a few rounds of experimentation, we came up with a process that requires no “take home” work, combines the “culture”, “technical”, and “whiteboard” interviews into a series of interviews with the minimal number of interviewers…


Interview loop after changes
Interview Loop before changes

First off, the hiring manager decides on the priorities for the role in concert with our Talent team (the “recruiters”). Application materials are reviewed according to the requirements of the job post:

  • For more visual roles, portfolios will be reviewed. Otherwise, they are not.
  • Years of experience are not used to screen candidates in/out of the role.

Then candidates get to talk to a member of the Talent team. The role is discussed in detail and the timing of the interview loop is agreed on. This call is to make sure the candidate understands the scope of the position before they commit to the rest of the interview loop.


For roles with a visual design focus:

The hiring manager call is framed with the prompt, “Show me one project that stands out to you as your best work. Feel free to skip the process, if that's not relevant. There will be a more formal portfolio review in the full-day interview. "

For roles without a visual design focus:

The call with the hiring manager starts with, “Please share one or two projects that you think demonstrate your understanding of research, design and collaboration. You can show these if you want, or speak to them. "


The portfolio review is for visual design roles only

In this panel-style, the candidate shares 2-4 pieces of work that demonstrate their understanding of research, design and collaboration with all members of the interview loop. The graders that are assigned for this interview have an understanding of Chipper's Design Principles and how to look for them within a portfolio.


The “take home” assignment is replaced by two “workshop” style interviews

First, a member of the Product or Growth team presents a business problem framed by data. The candidate can ask questions, discuss options and frame a problem that can be solved by design.

Then, a follow up call with a member of the Design team starts by asking the candidate to introduce the problem in the context of a Design Studio. The candidate and the interviewer must then sketch mutliple possible solutions to the design problem and share their sketches with one another.

At the end, the candidate is asked imagine how the solution(s) might be built and next steps they'd take if it were there project.


There are only two other interviews

One is the “Values” interview. Usually run by a member of our Operations team, this interview focuses on common and unique situations that occur in a remote startup. Candidates are asked how they might deal with them or have dealt with them in the past.

The other interview is with a member of our Engineer team. In this call, the candidate and interviewer discuss tradeoffs between the worlds of design and engineering. Past experiences are compared to ideal situations as the interview focuses on how the two roles are involved in product development.

Conclusions

With less steps and specific goals for each interview, we were easily able to incorporate our company's goals for interviewing designers into this more streamlined process. The recruiter screen up-front gives candidates an opportunity to opt-out early if they feel like the role isn't a good fit for them, or ask for accommodations if the timing/approach doesn't work for them.

We already have a number of plans to modify the “design studio” interview to work for disabled candidates - including a text-only script writing studio that assesses the same skills without the visual element.

What do you think? Do you prefer this approach? Did we miss something totally obvious? Feel free to reach out!