Cookie preferences
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
We and selected third parties use cookies or similar technologies for technical purposes and, with your consent, for other purposes as specified in the privacy policy.
 min read

Fixing The Broken Product Design Recruitment Process

It’s no secret that the hiring and recruitment process in Design is broken. Discussion often revolves around the most effective methods for evaluating the talent of Product Designers, particularly between a take-home task or a live whiteboard exercise as the optimal approach. But what we don’t always think about is:

  • WHY are we choosing these particular stages?
  • WHAT do we want to get out of the Product Design interview?

Does the interview process actually make sense? Or are we just throwing these stages in because we assume they might work? OR have we seen other companies do this when hiring, so we just copy and paste?

There are multiple ways through an interview process to test different UX design skill sets, but there are also factors to keep in mind such as:

  • Candidates who are actively looking are usually going through multiple processes and won't have the time to do multiple tasks or whiteboard exercises.. and sometimes companies are asking for BOTH!!
  • Every candidate is looking for the most seamless and streamlined process - after all, if you give a great experience to a candidate you’re more likely to buy into your team.

To address this broken process, we contacted three expert Product Designers in our network, James Ferguson, Steve 'Buzz' Pearce and Orly Golan, to create a Design Interview Process Cheat Sheet. This cheat sheet will help hiring teams of all sizes to make the UX Design Interview process more straightforward.

Through this Cheat Sheet, we will assess effective frameworks for testing UX Design skills and look at best practices for recruiting Product Designers :

  1. Portfolio Review
  2. Take-home Design Task
  3. Live Whiteboard Exercise 

Portfolio Review 🔎

Portfolios are crucial for designers, serving as an initial evaluation tool. Each portfolio is unique and with no two portfolios being the same, how can you effectively assess them to make sure you’re speaking to the right candidates? 

Steve 'Buzz' Pearce, VP Design at TravelPerk says:

A portfolio review has two key dimensions. Initially, it serves as a preemptive litmus test, a quick evaluation of fundamental skills before meeting the candidate. This phase gauges their "full stack" capabilities—testing strategy, writing, narrative articulation, scope understanding, and execution quality. However, due to the internet's copy-and-paste nature, this is considered a quick sensor check, not a definitive assessment.
The second aspect involves a more in-depth folio review during the interview. Candidates are asked to present their most impactful case study, offering a unique perspective and real-time inquiry. This phase aims to assess the candidate's actual involvement, eloquence in discussing the project, and depth of understanding. It provides a more nuanced evaluation beyond the initial litmus test.

Orly Golan, Senior Design Manager at Contentful says:

In design, the unique expectation of having portfolios distinguishes it from other roles in the industry like engineering or product management. While portfolios are essential for assessing a candidate's process, style, and achievements, they raise questions about the fairness of this industry standard. Although portfolios reflect a candidate's ability to adhere to guidelines, judging them solely on this can be debatable. 

Fergo (James Ferguson), Head of Design at OVO says:

Designers often face the temptation to showcase an exhaustive array of projects in their portfolio. However, I advocate for a more curated approach, emphasising depth over breadth. A meticulously prepared case study, elucidating the intricacies of a few select projects, is far more impactful than a plethora of superficial examples. It is the narrative—the challenges encountered, the collaborative dynamics, and the journey to the solution—that truly captivates. This narrative enables me to gauge not only the candidate's technical prowess but also their storytelling ability and adeptness at navigating complex problem spaces. Rushing towards solutions is a common pitfall; thus, it is crucial to assess the candidate's comprehension of the problem space, considering both the customer's and the business's viewpoints.

Product Design Take-Home Design Task 🏠

The take-home design task has been a hot topic of debate for some time. I’d personally say that they are the ‘less-favoured’ approach for the majority of designers. Of course, the take-home task can be beneficial in certain situations but let’s explore what the experts think:

Steve / Buzz says: 

For most, a Design Task in the interview process is a significant time investment that they don’t have (especially parents) often leading to a negative outcome for the applicant. This burden isn't particularly fair, given the high likelihood of a fictitious result. Additionally, assessing the authenticity of their work is challenging, considering the potential for copying or seeking assistance from others. Personally, I prioritise other evaluation methods over a design task.
For senior roles like Senior Director or VP levels, I’d utilise the design task to assess executive skills—condensing thoughts and opinions on the company and product they’ll be working on, leaders want to know how motivated they are by seeing how well they know the product and business. I prefer the candidate to do a quick Loom video or just a simple doc / deck for this, where candidates share thoughts on specific topics, showcasing different aspects of leadership, such as org structures, what they think the team needs to be successful, etc.

Orly says:

Design tasks offer an opportunity for candidates to showcase not only their thought process but also their presentation skills. The ability to present ideas clearly is crucial for designers and researchers. Assigning a time frame allows assessing how candidates prioritise, focus, and manage time, reflecting their maturity and awareness. However, it's essential to strike a balance in the task's openness, avoiding topics requiring extensive company-specific context. 

Fergo says:

The conventional approach to take-home design tasks often falls short of providing a genuine insight into a designer's capabilities. These tasks, typically set in hypothetical scenarios, lack the essence of collaboration and come across as contrived. At a previous organisation, we acknowledged the effort invested by candidates by offering a nominal remuneration for these tasks, thereby recognising and somewhat compensating for their time. It's important to understand the candidate's perspective, juggling multiple tasks across various interviews, which can be daunting. Ultimately, traditional take-home tasks, with their artificial nature and failure to capture the essence of collaboration, might not represent the most judicious allocation of time for all parties involved.

Live Whiteboard Exercise 👩‍🏫

The live whiteboard exercise is often the favoured approach to a take-home task as it’s a good chance to understand how a designer thinks in real-time and to also gauge how they collaborate. Of course, this approach can also have its downsides if not orchestrated in the best way.

Steve says:

Live whiteboard exercises, in my view, can be valuable, though they come with a double-edged nature. Sometimes they go well, and other times, inexplicably, they don't. The goal is to assess if candidates ask the right questions, challenge assumptions, and push back, indicating a proactive problem-solving approach. Many candidates fail to do so, accepting presuppositions. The task aims to identify individuals who are output-driven and goal-oriented, avoiding extremes of passivity or excessive contrarianism. It provides insights into how well candidates navigate tasks with obvious solutions.
The whiteboard exercise often involves asking candidates to design something unconventional, like a car without a steering wheel or an app, aimed to assess if candidates start by understanding the why behind the task. The key is to unravel the problem and assess if it challenges assumptions hidden in the brief. The best candidates ask questions related to user experience and business outcomes, showcasing a thoughtful and strategic approach to problem-solving.

Orly says:

I appreciate the idea behind incorporating live whiteboard exercises in the interview process as it adds an interactive and dynamic element. However, my perspective is that, despite potentially being engaging for hiring managers, it may not be equally enjoyable for candidates. The pressure and ambiguity inherent in whiteboard exercises can create a stressful environment, possibly hindering a candidate's ability to showcase their true capabilities.
I believe in creating an interview environment that reflects real-life scenarios and allows candidates to perform without unnecessary stress.

Fergo says: 

Live whiteboarding sessions stand out for their collaborative nature, providing a window into the candidate's thought process and their capacity for posing pertinent questions. These exercises prioritise problem-solving abilities, highlighting how candidates navigate through challenges. Despite their strengths, whiteboarding exercises might not fully reveal competencies in finer details, such as micro-interactions, visual design finesse, or technical skills like prototyping.
For candidates, the prospect of performing in such a scrutinised setting can be daunting. To alleviate this pressure, I endeavour to furnish comprehensive context and clarify the evaluation criteria upfront. Designing tasks that are relatable and progressively increase in complexity allows for an assessment of the candidates' adaptability, their skill in discussing trade-offs, and their creativity in proposing alternatives. At its essence, an effectively conceived task should be straightforward and accessible initially, yet evolve in depth and challenge as the session progresses.

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B) 🌐

Steve says:

Achieving  diversity  isn’t  about  quotas; the ultimate goal is a variety of thought and enhanced team productivity. I openly discuss the desire to have a diverse team, of all ages, parents, and ethnicities, as well as all the advantages that neurodiversity gives a creative team. The challenges by their nature are also diverse. I always try and give examples where we're listening and learning,  and the successes of teammates who are thriving,  but also where we have room to improve and support others.

Orly says:

It's essential to recognise the existing flaws in the hiring process and actively work towards making it more open and inclusive for everyone, addressing the unique needs of each candidate.
Ensuring fairness in the interview process, especially for candidates with specific needs like neurodiversity, is a priority for me. Flexibility is crucial; for instance, accommodating requests, such as providing questions in advance for someone with autism, demonstrates an inclusive approach.

Fergo says:

In fostering diversity, equity and inclusion, it's essential to maintain honesty about potential unconscious biases. Inclusivity is a priority. I aim not to exclude any specific diversity aspect. Addressing candidates' specific needs, such as providing reasonable adjustments, is crucial.
Recently, for a neurodiverse candidate, we shared thematic interview topics beforehand to accommodate their preferences. Emphasising continuous learning about diversity, particularly neurodiversity, is a key focus for me.


After recruiting in the Design space for six years, I think the most important part of the Design interview process comes before you even scope out what your interview process looks like. 

I’ll always encourage hiring managers to really deep dive into the role, looking into current business challenges and upcoming projects. Only then do we truly uncover what type of designer they’re actually looking for i.e. strong in the earlier UX stages including research & discovery or a visual-leaning designer with a ‘pixel perfect’ mindset; and that’s when you can really build an interview process!

Once the hiring team has established these key attributes it makes it much easier to build the foundations of an interview process that will test the right skill sets. The more streamlined you can make it, the higher the chances of making the right hire.

It’s critical that as hiring managers you look into ways of ensuring that each candidate is given a fair shot, introducing prompts on what topics will be discussed in each interview and using scoring systems to ensure emotions and unconscious biases are removed. By implementing structured Design interview processes, hiring managers can ensure that they are giving every candidate a fair chance at the job.

Megan Sweeney