On Design Tests

Should you take them?

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