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Why it’s time to take a look at how tech companies define and conduct their design interviews.

a person sitting down to draw out prototypes
Photo by Amélie Mourichon on Unsplash

Ignorance is bliss

When I started my design journey back in 2016, I made the most of every free resource, blog, article, and online class available. I was unable to afford college in addition to the necessity of working full time throughout life, so I spent a ton of time on the web researching every corner of UX/UI.

After spending 10 months educating myself and crafting a passable portfolio, I started applying to open roles. To brace myself for interviews, I immersed myself in relevant content before any screening.

Despite certain skills being weaker at the time, I navigated interviews adeptly by emphasizing the design process (how/why/what)

I sent out applications to over 200 jobs, receiving responses from maybe 10. Regrettably, I faced rejection in every case but one, which was the opportunity that became the stepping stone to my design career.

During those interviews, I was unaware of the signs or red flags to watch for in potential employers. I didn’t see myself on an equal playing field when evaluating fit, a realization that only dawned on me much later.

I never thought to ask questions that could give me insights into how the company works, both within the team and as a whole. It didn’t cross my mind to dig into how they treat their people or what they think about their hires. You know, stuff like, ‘Do you see this hire as a long-term investment?’, or ‘What kind of impact are you hoping this designer will make in the organization?’

I didn’t realize at the time how important it is to work for someone you genuinely want to work with, even if you like the company. After all, they say people quit managers, not jobs.

I used to think that just scoring an interview was a massive win. So, when it came to asking questions, I held back on anything that might make them “uncomfortable” (you know, like trying to get the vibe on company culture). I was worried they’d see me as a problem or kick me out of the candidate pool.

And if I was clueless about what questions to throw out there or what to watch for, you can bet I had no idea what was normal versus a red flag during the whole design challenge and assessment phase.

I did a lot of “take home challenges”… like, a lot.

Even worse, I found myself doing these ‘test’ case studies. I’d dive into UX research and ideation exercises, crafting a few screens to go along with them. The kicker? They were eerily similar, if not identical, to the existing products of those companies.

I thought it was a smart move. I figured if I replicated their product styling and information architecture, employers could see I paid attention to the details and did just the right amount of product research.

I mean, who knows their product better than the company itself, right? I thought it made more sense than some random project that might not showcase my skills properly


Note: If you’re familiar with the design interview process, you can skip ahead to the next section.

Design interviews: What to expect

Before I get started, it’s important to note that these have been my personal experiences, encounters, or stories shared with me by other designers regarding their own experiences. My opinion is not meant to represent every single interview process, how every single company might conduct them, or how every single company thinks about design.

The challenges to expect during an interview process:

  • Whiteboard challenges
  • Take-home challenges
  • Re-design an app
  • App critiques
  • Portfolio reviews

Interviewers are assessing a broad range of skills during these challenges that answer questions such as:

  • How do you collaborate with others?
  • What is your design process?
  • How and where do you consider the user within your design?
  • Can you talk through problems both logically, and critically?
  • How do you ask for or incorporate feedback?
  • How do you handle stress?
  • How do you prioritize solutions or features?
  • and more I’m sure

Your challenge prompt could be:

  • Redesigning an existing feature in our app/software
  • Designing a feature or experience for x use case in our app/software
  • Designing a feature, experience, or app based on this made-up use case
  • Redesigning an existing product feature or experience that you think could be/should be improved
  • Walking through an app or product of the interviewers choice while you openly share your thoughts and dialogue on design patterns, decisions, and more.

Regardless of which task you’ve been given, the interviewer is most likely looking to gauge your product thinking, design strategy, communication skills, and user empathy.

Where did the “design” in design interviews go?

Product design, UX, and other user-involved design roles always, to some extent, I hope(!?), consider the end-user.

It is our responsibility to prioritize user considerations at every stage of the design process, from ideation to implementation. When kicking off a UX initiative, the ideal starting point for discovery is likely:

How/what might a user feel/think when going through this experience/process/flow?

If your statement looks different, it’s likely still anchored in understanding the how, why, and what of user interactions.

Why don’t all designers and design leaders in the tech industry use this approach to evaluate design talent at every stage of their team’s interview process? It seems like a valuable perspective to consider.

The challenge with challenges

When viewed from a broader perspective, each design ‘challenge’ in the interview process serves a purpose. Each step delineates what employers seek to observe and comprehend in candidates. Depending on the specific skills required for the role, employers select challenges that are most apt for assessing those skills.

Identifying the strongest candidates from a sea of resumes helps minimize any potential hiring risks, such as the time and resources required in the process. Managing costs is crucial, as the wrong investment (aka candidate) can have detrimental consequences.

Challenges are employed to assess the design proficiency of candidates, ensuring that those who advance are well-qualified to meet business needs and expectations so that yes, you guessed it, there is limited risk.

Employers need a way to confirm if:

  1. The designer can/cannot communicate their design process
  2. The designer can/cannot communicate the value, impact, and product-level considerations made

How can a company mitigate risk in the hiring process if design challenges are not incorporated?

I should first ask, why are candidates designing anything for interviews?

“Design x to do y…”

“Redesign x so that it y..”

Aka, can you do free work for us? Please? Don’t spend more than 40 hours on this though. Ideal candidates spend around 20–30 hours on this problem.

It’s either:

A) Design a new flow for ‘customer segment’ looking to ‘job to be done’. Be sure to include all screens that reflect all potential interactions. 😁

B) Re-design ‘some core part’ of ‘app/software name’ that’s supposed to ‘accomplish this job’.

If they weren’t having you redesign their product, they might’ve asked you to work on or ‘critique’ something related to a fully established, highly successful product that already had a massive team of designers behind it.

Interviewer: “If you could, what’s one thing would you improve about the DoorDash app?”.

Do you mean the app that has 150+ designers working on it around the clock? The same one where those designers have likely considered or attempted to address those exact pain points?

This is a great example of “intent versus impact”.

Are they getting at the idea that every product can just keep getting better, all the time? If you’re a savvy designer, you’re always spotting areas that could use a little polish, right? Maybe it’s about the fact that there are so many ways to design things, and interviewers just want to hear how and why you’d tweak stuff.

But doesn’t this shift more towards personal opinion and preference rather than designing with a focus on user needs and a business use case? Some things don’t need to be improved upon just because.

Craigslist hasn’t changed its design since 1995 and revenue has not dried up. Users have not disappeared. Posts have not ceased to exist.

“Well, sometimes you want to do one thing and do it really well. In the computer industry, and maybe everywhere, people get ambitious and screw things up. I figured I started one thing, did it well, and I gave it up when that was the right thing to do.”

Craig Newmark, Partial owner and former CEO of Craigslist.

If interviewers keep recycling the same apps for redesigns or critiques, are they seeking a variety of responses recognized as ‘right answers,’ or are they essentially using a checklist — “Yes, they mentioned this. They also brought this up. They forgot to say this other thing though that most candidates say.”

Can you spot the bias?

Interviews ask us to do what jobs tell us never to do — design for the sake of design.

Interviewers are asking for output but expecting outcomes

It’s hard to make informed decisions when you’re not informed on the product and business goals, and honestly, it’s just poor practice.

Yes, the app or product they choose may be ones you use a lot, like DoorDash, Google Maps, and Yelp.

Yes, designs can be critiqued and discussed regarding decisions made within that product and why you would do it differently.

The challenge is that even if something doesn’t seem logical to us from an outside perspective, it doesn’t necessarily imply that it wasn’t thoroughly considered and intentionally implemented.

Example: I don’t like the UI of DoorDash. It feels really loud. They show way too many things immediately upon opening it. They yell about popular dishes ordered near me, new spots added, sponsored spots, spots I order from most, spots that are popular right now, and a bunch of other categories that make me want to shut down because of how paralyzed I become by it. It makes me think too much.

On the flip side, my partner loves using DoorDash. They love how many categories are shown and see it as guidance when trying to make a decision. So whose experience translates to the “right” design?

No designer at DoorDash sat there and made a solo decision to design it that way because they felt like it. I have a gut feeling that the designs implemented and the categories they chose were tested with users enough to inform their solution. That solution was most likely based on the value users saw/received and the impact it would/could have on business.

That impact? $Revenue!$ 💰

When asked to find flaws in an existing product and “redesign” them, designers are put into a very small box, most likely a box that those interviewers live inside. They are anticipating the answer(s) that they’ve gotten in previous interviews with candidates that did well, or the areas they’ve individually defined as successful.

People have a natural affinity for patterns. Patterns are all around us. They are the art on our walls, in the language we use, the communication we offer, and every other instance of our life. Our habits are formed by creating patterns that form our routines.

Let’s not forget, the people interviewing us are human after all (insert Zuckerberg joke here). These interviewers, being human and all, start noticing patterns that have cropped up from previous interviews. Those patterns end up shaping their expectations when candidates dive into solutions for the ‘insert app,’ whether they realize it or not.

The value of design is measured by outcomes, not output

Definitions for output and outcome, provided by Oxford Languages are:

  1. Output is the amount of something produced by a person, machine, or industry. Example: screen you designed.
  2. Outcomes are the way a thing turns out; a consequence. Example: the result of your design.

An output is a product or service that you create; an outcome is the problem that you solve with that product. For example, for a B2B website, an output could be whitepapers and demonstration videos. The outcome could be knowledge gained by customers. Unless you know what information people need and how they will use this information, it is premature to say whether or not a whitepaper or video is the correct solution

Hoa Loranger, “Minimize Design Risk by Focusing on Outcomes not Features

Rather than being encouraged to apply our critical thinking skills in approaching or solving a theoretical problem, we’re tasked with spontaneously selecting elements on an existing screen that may or may not have a defined use case, without the opportunity to deliberate on the broader context or purpose

We create a paradox.

The paradox

Hi welcome to your interview! Okay, today we’re doing an exercise focused on:

  • Redesigning an app experience
  • A whiteboard challenge with our pre-defined prompt
  • A whiteboard challenge (the nightmare edition!) featuring our pre-defined, yet-to-be-solved product problem within our organization

For our paradox example, let’s opt for the redesign of an existing app, as it is a commonly encountered scenario.

Prompt: What would you change about this [DoorDash] experience and why? Highlight your strategy and talk us through the framework you use.

Details: None. No, we’re not going to give you context on the business goals or user goals that would be applicable here, that’s why we picked such a big app! You probably already know! Oh, you don’t know DoorDash’s business goals and targets? You can assume it’s probably just to get more people to order!

Pause. ⏸️

When I’m designing or talking about a product, my brain naturally envisions multiple approaches to solve problems. I often discuss this in the context of neurodivergence in design, sharing my story with ADHD.

The skill of envisioning multiple pathways for how something can be done becomes a superpower only when you dive into the ‘why’ behind each of those options.

  • What does this path do for users?
  • What value would this path have?
  • What outcome would it create for the team/business/org?
  • Does this path tie back to the company’s goals or North Star?
  • Does this path make sense for what PDE is trying to accomplish?

Now imagine a designer looking at the screen and throwing po*p at the wall to see what sticks.

Going back to the DoorDash prompt, let’s say my improvement is to create a 1-push button that randomly generates a restaurant name. How would the interviewer gauge my product sense?

You might be saying “Well, it’s just to hear how you think about it. You can expand in your interview. Talk about how you’d do that, why you’d do that, and the value it would create”.


A randomizer would be cool because I, and other overwhelmed users, don’t have to do any work. I can just hit a big button.

It would reduce the cognitive load users have when choosing their meals. No one would need to think much at all, it’s KISS! (keep it simple, stupid).

It would end the ping-pong loop of “I don’t know, what do you want?” that friends, families, and partners get stuck in. It would give visibility to restaurants that users might not normally see or find, which would consequently improve their revenue thanks to the added visibility.

Wherever possible, complexity should be avoided in a system — as simplicity guarantees the greatest levels of user acceptance and interaction

Interaction Design Foundation — IxDF. (2016, June 5). What is Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS)?. Interaction Design Foundation — IxDF.

In the moments I had with the interviewer to think of an original solution, I half used myself, then half applied myself to other potential users. It’s niche — because I was thinking of people who might have ADHD and freeze when given too many options, and as mentioned, DoorDash has too many options!

So users think less, order more, find new restaurants, and restaurants benefit from the increase in revenue as a consequence of the added visibility. Great!

No! Designers shouldn’t tackle problems solely through their perspective. Our role is to stay unbiased; otherwise, we risk designing for issues that may not genuinely impact end-users.

But I had like, 5 of those 60 minutes to come up with ideas to focus our exercise on fixing. The interviewer was focused on the solutions I’d come up with (THE OUTPUT) not on how I’d inform those solutions and design around that (FOR OUTCOMES!).

The time spent in re-design or critique challenges has designers look at the UI, translate that into an experience, then guess a solution that is better with…

Yes! Little to no details on end-users or business goals. Now we’ve arrived back at “intent versus impact”.

My proposed solution could also create an equal amount of negative impact:

  • The button eats up the screen so users just close the app.
  • The generator doesn’t serve a core need, users told DoorDash they want to browse and weigh options. Users like thinking when using this app.
  • Users expect to browse by the categories of their choice when they open the app, so removing that as their first-touch experience creates friction. Users don’t feel overwhelmed, they feel informed.
  • People have dietary restrictions, so the generator might not always include them. Users don’t want to gamble with allergies.
  • There might not be enough restaurants in the area to make this feature valuable. DoorDash doesn’t want users to feel the pain of restaurant quantity.

Compelling design narratives that inspire confidence can only emerge through exploration and discovery, whether facilitated by the interviewer for efficiency or integrated into the exercise.

If designers are being evaluated on strategy, thoughtfulness, and communication, it raises the question: Why are we primarily asked about ideas and potential solutions, often with little room to apply real-world strategy?

Design is captivating due to its incredible versatility. In the realm of design, possibilities are boundless, each presenting two sides of the coin to consider and discuss.

Yet designers are still boxed into what someone, or a group of someones, has decided is “right”.

The outcome of that paradox

The interviewer:

  • I’m sorry, you didn’t discuss any of the things we typically expect to hear.”
  • “You didn’t mention the thing that I would do or that I was thinking, so I’m not confident in your abilities.”
  • “You gave us a great list of potential solutions but you didn’t expand on just one of them. We don’t feel confident you’d be able to make decisions as quickly as we need.”
  • “We felt you asked a lot of questions! I know we told you to talk out loud, but we wanted you to know the exact right amount of when to ask things versus when not to.”
  • “We felt you didn’t ask enough questions! I know we didn’t tell you our preference or how we prefer to work with designers, but we feel you’re not a strong collaborator.”
  • “We decided to pursue another candidate after taking anywhere from 8 hours to 3 months of your time without giving a reason” (lol)

Food for thought: Would a company create a product for users centered around heightened emotions and stress levels, with as little guidance as possible, then be disappointed when those users didn’t do exactly what you wanted? No?

So why are design challenges purposefully vague? Are designers meant to solve your intentional mystery? Do you hire employees and then make them guess what makes them successful? Do you hire product managers and then make them guess what the best product metric is?

You don’t?

“No, but we’re trying to see if they can figure it out with their skill and strategy”

Oh. Do you mean the one that shifts on a project-by-project basis depending on the goals and outcomes?

On top of everything, it makes you wonder about inclusivity and accessibility. Are these formats designed to be fair to neurodivergent candidates who are more than capable?

I remember this one big-name interview — by the third hour of a six-hour on-site, I was getting nervous. Keeping constant eye contact was a bit tricky for me, and guess what? That ended up being included in feedback on why I didn’t get the job.

Do you ever think about how some candidates might just freeze when they’re put on the spot? Imagine being given 60 minutes to whip up a full solution for a prompt you just heard for the first time.

Now, picture this: what if that interviewee has been out of a job for months and is just $20 away from a $0 account? In the back of their mind, they’re thinking if they don’t nail it, they might not eat next week.

Does not cranking out extravagant value in 60 minutes automatically make someone a bad designer? An unqualified designer? I mean, are we running sprints in just 60 minutes here?

Aren’t these the questions we approach our product problems with?

How/what might a user feel/think when going through this experience/process/flow?

It might be an inside job

At many organizations, design is a second-class citizen to product and engineering. This makes it increasingly more difficult for designers to tie any of our work to business outcomes.

Ryan Scott, a design leader, teacher, and advisor, provided this design business value framework as part of his “Describing the ROI of Design” course:

  1. Project: work that led to the design outcome(s). →
  2. Customer outcomes: how they were affected. →
  3. Business outcomes: how the customers’ resulting behavior changed key metrics. →
  4. Financial outcome: how everything ultimately affected the company’s health.

I’ve had conversations with countless designers who echo the same narrative. It’s so prevalent that it might even feel like a rite of passage when you’re stepping into the world of design

Designer 1: “I’m struggling at work. I feel like no one wants to consider my input or solutions.”

Designer 2: “Why?”

Designer 1: “Well, most things get de-prioritized because our product manager is focused on their product metrics, and engineers usually side with whatever product says since they make the final call on our decisions.”

Designer 2: “Have you told a strong narrative behind your design decisions and hypothesis? Did you utilize any customer or data insights?”

Designer 1: “Yes. Even with that context, the consensus is that committing to the designs/work required to give end-users (and product) the best chance of success is extra scope to our engineers, which is too risky since the PM needs to show movement ASAP.”

Designer 2: “Did you explain that to your team?”

Designer 1: “Yes, but they told me that they are hyper-focused on the outcome that leadership is pushing for. ”

Designer 2: “Oh. who defined what you’re building or what success looks like?”

Designer 1: “The leadership team”

Designer 2: “Have you considered quitting?”

A couple of things were happening here:

  • Leadership often requests features or instructs the product team on what to build without allowing them the space for independent discovery. This hinders the ability to discern the right solution for customers.
  • Product managers hold the final say and wield the gavel, mainly because they’re the ones in the spotlight, interacting with leadership.
  • Engineering has tight deadlines to hit goals as quickly as possible, even if there’s uncertainty about how what they’re building adds value or aligns with the company’s overarching objectives.
  • Communicating tradeoffs, impact, and even at times insights, doesn’t empower or enable the designer.

If an organization functions similarly to that, how can we anticipate the design teams within that organization to establish an effective interview process? If organizations lack a precise understanding of what design entails or how it generates impact, how can they effectively assess those skills in a design interview?

Internal misalignments often occur without acknowledgment or communication within the organization. Given this, there’s little reason to expect these misalignments to be communicated externally.

It’s as if employers are conducting interviews without really knowing what makes a designer good, great, or even capable at their job.

At times they might not even know how to accurately identify the candidates who are qualified for the role employers want to fill. In this case, it’s not the junior designer striking gold, getting hired at $250k to do a staff product design role.

It’s usually well-informed, competent, designers being told they aren’t a fit because the fix they wanted to make to the DoorDash UI didn’t mention the thing the interviewer was looking for.

It’s time to talk about it

The design process offers numerous frameworks and strategies for designers to choose and implement as needed.

In a role that revolves around understanding users to enable their success, it’s ironic that we aren’t applying the same depth of understanding to the designers we aim to hire.

Why maintain an up-to-date portfolio with exhaustive case studies if organizations insist on having designers demonstrate their capabilities through specific prompts?

Case studies offer insight into our past work and contributions, and as such should suffice, especially considering the extensive multi-hour on-site sessions designers are expected to partake in. During these sessions, the panel and one-on-one discussions delve deeper into process, strategy, design thinking, and hypothetical scenarios.

If companies are still giving candidates take-home challenges or asking them to “hypothetically” solve their product problems, designers should be compensated for their time.

It’s time to challenge the notion that a more elaborate hiring process automatically equates to a company’s prestige based on its perceived ‘hiring bar.’

A two-month process involving multiple stages, including screeners, a hiring manager call, portfolio review, app critique, and an extensive on-site session with numerous individuals, suggests to me that these companies might be uncertain about their hiring criteria, lack confidence in discussing design capabilities openly, or have reservations about their employees’ ability to evaluate candidates without such structured processes.

It’s time to talk about it.

Hot take: Design interviews have become anti-design was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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