Looking for a job is a stress­ful af­fair. Filtering through hun­dreds of job de­scrip­tions re­quires stel­lar skim­ming skills. After all, you want to min­i­mize wasted time on ones that don’t meet your per­sonal re­quire­ments. Postings with lit­tle to no de­tails about salary, ben­e­fits, and the day to day of the po­si­tion are sur­pris­ingly preva­lent.

Then there are those ap­pli­ca­tions with the Tell us some­thing unique about you in 150 words” to re­mind you that your in­ter­ests are pretty typ­i­cal. I watch shows mil­lions of other peo­ple watch, I read comic books, and love Star Wars like most nerds do. I’m just me, and I was happy with that un­til I had to an­swer this ques­tion.

The ac­tual in­ter­view we’ll skip be­cause we all know that in­ter­views are stress­ful and that you feel ab­solutely pow­er­less as some­one de­cides whether you’re good enough” af­ter know­ing you for 30 min­utes. Let’s just as­sume that went well and now they say the in­fa­mous words, We like you! Can you do a de­sign test for us?”

This is the mo­ment I panic. I’ve never passed a de­sign test. Never. And I’ve been work­ing as a de­sign pro­fes­sional for 8 years. In those eight years, I’ve had 6 jobs. Still, any job de­pen­dent on me do­ing one of these tests has al­ways de­cided to pass on me.

To pre­vent you from sim­i­lar pain, here are some red flags to look out for and how to de­cline if need be in a po­lite and re­spect­ful man­ner.

Red Flags #

Let’s talk about some red flags when it comes to de­sign tests. If you’re in the po­si­tion of hir­ing peo­ple, and you’re do­ing any of these things, you might want to re­con­sider why you’re do­ing it this way.

Asking for a re­design of a full page #

This is ridicu­lous. The fac­tors taken into con­sid­er­a­tion for one com­po­nent on a page are many; it’s im­pos­si­ble to have all the in­for­ma­tion nec­es­sary to re­design the en­tire page. You’ll end up do­ing a lot of guess work.

Especially in prod­uct work, you never re­design the whole page at once. You’ll most likely re­design com­po­nents one by one. Ask for the scope of the test to be re­duced. If you’re the one hir­ing, pick a com­po­nent that could be re­designed and try to give the per­son as much in­for­ma­tion as you can about it.

This gives you some in­sight into the com­pany though. If the test does­n’t match their day to day process, what could that com­mu­ni­cate about them?

Not of­fer­ing com­pen­sa­tion #

Do not do any test that takes more than an hour with­out com­pen­sa­tion. This is called spec work. No!Spec can give you more in­for­ma­tion about what spec work is if you need clar­i­fi­ca­tion. I love this sen­tence un­der why it’s un­eth­i­cal:

The de­sign­ers work for free and with an of­ten falsely ad­ver­tised, over­in­flated promise for fu­ture em­ploy­ment; or are given other in­suf­fi­cient forms of com­pen­sa­tion.

Ask for your reg­u­lar hourly rate. This is scary, and I’ve failed to do it many times. But if you don’t re­spect your­self, you’re invit­ing oth­ers not to ei­ther.

Unfortunately, peo­ple will say any­thing to get out of pay­ing you. Don’t al­low your­self to be in­tim­i­dated. They’re tak­ing time away from pay­ing pro­jects, or evening and week­end time that you could be spend­ing with fam­ily, friends, Netflix—whatever it is you like to do on your free time. Also, ask your­self, would they pro­vide free work for one of their clients?

We want to see how you per­form un­der pres­sure” #

Run. Run as fast as you can. Looking for a job is pres­sure enough! What the hell are they think­ing? If they want to see how you perform un­der pres­sure”, they are likely work­ing un­der un­re­al­is­tic dead­lines and don’t scope prop­erly for the time al­lot­ted.

Obviously, there is no per­fect place. People make mis­takes and every­one works a lit­tle more to meet a dead­line every once in a while, but it should­n’t be the norm. These words not only in­di­cate it’s a pat­tern, it’s a re­quire­ment. You don’t need the stress. Ain’t no­body got time for that.

Giving lit­tle to no di­rec­tion #

Instructions should be in writ­ing. The task may be given to you over the phone or video chat, but ask for an email with the in­for­ma­tion, or send an email con­firm­ing the in­struc­tions given to you. Ask for more in­for­ma­tion if you need it.

Questions like:

  • What ex­actly do you want made or re­designed?
  • What are the prob­lems with the cur­rent de­sign?
  • Why is this a pri­or­ity and how was that dis­cov­ered? Is there any user data you can make avail­able to me?
  • How do we mea­sure suc­cess for this?

Keep in mind that these ques­tions will not only give you more in­for­ma­tion about the as­sign­ment, but will also give them in­sight into how you ap­proach a de­sign prob­lem.

No clear process for feed­back, cri­tique, and dis­cus­sion #

Getting a sense for their feed­back and cri­tique process is im­por­tant. If they don’t of­fer a time to pre­sent, ask for it. You should be given the op­por­tu­nity to talk about your de­sign, ex­plain why you did what you did, and re­ceive feed­back on whether the de­sign met their re­quire­ments.

I’ve messed up here in the past. I sent a mockup via email with some bul­let points to ex­plain what I did and later re­ceived an email with a no. No feed­back; no cri­tique; no dis­cus­sion. It’s un­for­tu­nate for both par­ties, and ul­ti­mately in­di­cates a lack of ex­pe­ri­ence from their de­sign team.

If you’re a hir­ing man­ager, this next part is for you. Look, every­one will make some­thing crappy one day. If your process is to look at the crappy thing and dis­card it, you train de­sign­ers to be afraid of push­ing bound­aries and mak­ing mis­takes. Doesn’t mat­ter how many prob­lems you may have with the de­sign test, you should al­ways talk about them. You de­cided af­ter look­ing at this per­son’s re­sume and port­fo­lio that you were in­ter­ested enough to in­ter­view them. Give them the re­spect they de­serve by giv­ing con­struc­tive crit­i­cism. Not to men­tion, de­sign­ers aren’t mind read­ers, we can’t mag­i­cally know what cri­te­ria you are judg­ing the de­sign on.

Your Response #

Finding a way to re­spond has been dif­fi­cult. I’ve been suck­ered into do­ing things I know won’t end well be­cause I ei­ther re­ally liked the com­pany or needed the job so badly that I com­pro­mised my val­ues. It’s why I’ve failed no less than five de­sign tests.

Here’s a re­sponse that not only says no in a re­spect­ful man­ner, but in­tro­duces an al­ter­na­tive:

Hi [Hiring Manger],

Thank you so much for tak­ing the time to chat with me! I hope you un­der­stand why I have to push back on [name of test]. They’re of­ten big tasks with quite a bit of in­vest­ment that go un­com­pen­sated. However, I’d love to do some­thing else to prove to you I can do the job. I can do a pre­sen­ta­tion of some­thing I’ve made so that you can get a sense of the way I think about de­sign and de­vel­op­ment.

If that’s a deal breaker, I to­tally un­der­stand. I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate you con­sid­er­ing me, and best of wishes in find­ing your ideal can­di­date.

Timothy B. Smith

Design Engineer

A Meaningful Alternative #

An al­ter­na­tive I like posed by Matt Crest has worked well to find great de­sign­ers. Matt asks can­di­dates to pre­sent an app that’s de­signed well and one that is­n’t. We’ve used this task suc­cess­fully where I cur­rently work to hire some re­ally smart de­sign­ers.

On the sur­face, this may seem as a sim­ple enough task, but in prac­tice it of­fers in­sight into how the de­signer thinks. In a small amount of time, you get a feel for what they look for in a de­sign, what rea­son­ing they have for dis­lik­ing some­thing, why they think a par­tic­u­lar app works, and even why some­thing may look bad, but still works as an ex­pe­ri­ence.

It’s ef­fec­tive be­cause it reaches the core of what we as de­sign­ers do. While aes­thet­ics are im­por­tant, it should­n’t be the first pri­or­ity. The think­ing be­hind a de­sign—a per­son’s thought process—is what makes a great de­signer.

It’s why I think de­sign tests are mis­guided, and it’s mis­taken to think these tests help find qual­ity de­sign­ers. When the de­liv­er­able is a sta­tic mockup, the only thing you’re test­ing is vi­sual taste. You fail to test the per­sons think­ing abil­ity, prob­lem solv­ing, sell­ing of their idea, and whether the per­son com­pro­mises when their opin­ions are chal­lenged by rea­son­able ar­gu­ments. Consequently, you miss out on amaz­ing peo­ple who might just need some re­fine­ment of their vi­sual skills.

Parting Thoughts #

Though the fo­cus of this blog post is to ar­gue against de­sign tests, the big­ger prob­lem I see is our hir­ing prac­tices in tech­nol­ogy. Companies in­creas­ingly make prospec­tive can­di­dates jump through all sorts of hoops that at times bor­der and even cross over into un­eth­i­cal.

I get it, hir­ing is a huge in­vest­ment and re­ally tough. Companies in­vest the time of their em­ploy­ees, money to work with re­cruiters, post the job on job boards, and even of­fer a re­fer­ral bonus. And even with that huge in­vest­ment, there is still the pos­si­bil­ity the per­son does­n’t work out.

It does­n’t ex­cuse the fact that many processes em­ployed, deny peo­ple their dig­nity and show lack of re­spect for them as pro­fes­sion­als. We need to fix that, and it all starts with ad­mit­ting there is a prob­lem.

Further Reading #