On Design Tests

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.

Regards, Timothy B. Smith

Design Engineer @smithtimmytim

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