CareersProduct Design

Designing the product design interview process

The concept of speculative work makes me uneasy. I support AIGA’s stance on spec work. I’ve seen and used Jessica Hische’s famous “Should I Work for Free?” diagram. Contractors and business owners need to protect their time. We all need to advocate for our craft.

Especially at the start of my career, I had so many people ask me to do work for free in exchange for some kind of .01% equity in their t-shirt-for-Tinder-but-like-Pinterest startup idea. This is where I learned to say no, and to only take on side projects that got me up in the morning. It also taught me to collaborate with people who understood the value of my work.

So, it may surprise you that I’m strongly in favor of assigning designers test projects when we interview.

But why, when there are so many downsides to requiring a test project? It takes around 8 hours of the candidate’s time. It occupies a ton of our time internally: scheduling, documenting, following up with phone calls—not to mention the actual interview meetings themselves. As a Director of Product Design, some weeks I spend about half of my time on hiring.

But there’s no way around it; because hiring the right people is so incredibly important to the success of our company and for our clients. Frankly, if you’re interviewing for a full-time role with a firm that doesn’t have an in-depth process, I’d be cautious.

Here’s a typical hiring process for a Product Design candidate:

  • The candidate submits a portfolio and resume
  • The candidate talks to a technical recruiter by phone
  • The candidate gives an hour-long portfolio presentation to design leadership, including time for Q&A
  • The candidate completes a take-home test project over a weekend (with the expectation that the designer spend around 5-8 hours on the project). The test project is intentionally around a brand and industry we do not currently work with.
  • We conduct reference checks
  • The candidate attends a half-day on-site visit which includes a presentation of the test project, a hands-on wireframing session, shorter interview sessions, and lunch.

For every role at WillowTree, not just design, there is some sort of test project during the interview process. Often, the full-day onsite includes compensated travel, hotel stay, and meals. At this point, we are fully invested in seeing this interview through. The interview cost, in terms of time spent, is often much more than the price of a plane flight or hotel.

We invest so much into the process of hiring a product designer because, we want to know how candidates think. How do they work? How do they interact with others? Is the candidate a good fit for the office? Will they be happy here? Will the candidate be able to work directly with our clients, or do they have the potential to do so with reasonable mentorship? Does the candidate have the hands-on skills to back up the work shown in their portfolio?

We definitely aren’t trying to get free ideas or mockups. WillowTree would never use a mockup from a test project in a client project—for one thing, it’s not applicable and doesn’t make sense. The work from a test project happens so quickly that a candidate can’t truly understand business objectives and user needs. It’s simply a test.

When we’re hiring, we are looking out for the long-term career of the candidate, in addition to culture and skill fit. The goal is to have new designers up and running on projects as soon as possible, and we can assess that ability with a test project. When a candidate joins the team for a few months and then ends up leaving because it wasn’t a good fit, it’s jolting and expensive (for us and the candidate). Our interview process isn’t perfect, and is constantly being tweaked. But, it’s the best we’ve come up with to try and limit situations that end poorly.

In the end, we’ve designed our interview process, including the test projects and design tasks, to work for the candidate and for us.

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