How to assess product design skills

Your startup decided to hire a product designer, the kind that not only “crafts beautiful interfaces” but also finds user problems and business opportunities and validates design solutions.

On paper, everybody does precisely that, so how do you evaluate the broad product design skillset? Some common ways are portfolio reviews, whiteboard challenges, or take-home tasks.

Though historically, portfolios are the go-to method, they fail to showcase product design skills in many ways. In short, candidates feel forced to produce artifacts they think they need to, rather than tell a story about what actually had happened.

Design process: how it looks in portfolio vs how it actually happened
Design process: how it looks in portfolio vs how it actually happened
Design process: how it looks in portfolio vs how it actually happened

Some pro’s and con’s include:

  • Still the best way to assess visual design
  • The least time-consuming for a hiring manager
  • It is the most time-consuming for candidates, and, not surprisingly, more senior candidates refuse to spend time on it.
  • Though supposedly it reflects real-life experiences, it’s impossible to say what actually happened. People rarely take credit for things they didn’t do, but it is tempting and honestly more practical¹ to show polished design concepts rather than the real-life product that went through all the challenges of dealing with stakeholders, timelines, and technical limitations.
  • It gives an advantage to candidates who were better placed in previous jobs (e.g., someone working on a product from scratch will be struggling to showcase their usage of quantitative data)

From “please redesign an ATM” to a more web- and business-specific design problem, the exercise challenges candidate to come up with a solution on the spot, involving interviewers as stakeholders or team members.

  • Allows to see how the candidate thinks, real-time
  • Works well to assess personality and teamwork
  • The least time commitment from the candidate as they’ll be guaranteed to spend determined upfront couple hours.
  • Though it’s good to evaluate design thinking and generativity, assessing other skills is difficult: from the inability to assess UI design almost entirely to a very speculative evaluation of other skills (“I would talk to customers,” everybody says)
  • Not exactly representative of a designer’s day-to-day job. How often do you really have to come up with a solution on the spot while being watched by people and reasonably stressed?

A candidate is given a problem to solve at home within a defined timeframe². The problem often is related to the business, and the area candidate would work on it.

Depending on their form and shape, take-home tasks can get dangerously close to asking candidates to work for free. Some companies pay for candidates’ time; others base their challenges on purpose on other products.

The task assesses not only thinking and approach but, to some degree, the outcome as well. Candidates’ prioritization skills get highlighted as well — what did they choose to spend time on?

  • It can be designed to assess the most important skills.
  • Gives candidates time to think and research and the ability to demonstrate their approach.
  • Most of the time, it’s impossible to timebox, so candidates who are eager to spend more time will get an advantage.
  • Some companies see this as an opportunity to get people to work for free. Not surprisingly, candidates who’ve had these experiences consider any design challenge evil and refuse to participate.
  • Unethical behavior of some companies gets way more attention than the fact that quite a few candidates would enjoy take-home tasks more than working on their portfolio as an opportunity to learn something new.

Product design gets further from graphic design and closer to other disciplines, so we can learn from their hiring. Most importantly, to shift from evaluating outputs to evaluating skills and attitudes. Thoughtful adaptations of the options above hopefully do that.

¹ This behavior is reinforced by interviewers with “show me the artifacts or didn’t happen” attitude.

² While most coding challenges strictly timebox how much time a candidate had spent, it’s not something that is practiced with design challenges.

Product, data, decision-making, philosophy| Learning from everything that went wrong | Digital Product Designer | elenaborisova.com