Homework Sucks

Homework Sucks: Why At-Home Design Challenges Are Useless

It’s no secret that I Love UXMastery.com.  I spend a lot of time at the forums there, and many of my UX-related posts originate from my responses to topics posted by others over there.

Today I was reading through one post in particular from a new-to-UX professional who was challenged to complete an at-home design task as part of a job interview.  Here’s how the candidate, misaif20, described the process:

“…This was a UX designer full time position at a saas company, their product was a recruitment software. I applied, the recruiter called and said that my profile was selected and explained me that there would be three phases : 1. Phone interview 2. Design Task (Which is given a time frame of 3 days) 3. Onsite interview with the hiring manager where I had to present the task and talk about design and UX decisions I took.

  1. Phone interview: Was good and the manager informed me that I have to focus on explaining more of a psychological approach. The recruiter got back to me saying that I had passed the first round of the interview.
  2. Design Task (To be performed at home) : As you can see in the document the task was given to me and was informed that I can work on the task for 3 days and send the links to the recruiter/manager via email. I did the task and got a reply from the hiring manager that I have unfortunately failed in the task.”

misaif20 was only asking for feedback on what was wrong with his design (shown here, for what it’s worth).  From what I could tell, he did a solid job working with limited information to come up with a valid response.

This post, however, is not about his design or response.  It’s about the fundamental flaws in this type of interview process.

To put it blatantly, take-home interview challenges for UX designers suck.

To understand why, we need to have a good understanding of what makes a UX designer truly good at what they do.  To be an effective UX professional, one needs a very particular set of base skills:

  • The ability to work on a deadline.
  • The ability to effectively communicate with stakeholders, both internal and external.
  • The ability collaborate and build a consensus by collecting and synthesizing data from multiple sources into a coherent design approach.
  • The ability to consistently apply a defined and tried design process to create great work.

The truth about take-home design challenges is that, apart from perhaps evaluating a candidate’s ability to work on a deadline, these challenges do very little to evaluate a candidate’s relevant skill set.

In a worst-case scenario, for the employer, what’s to stop someone from farming out the work to someone else and landing a job they are wholly unprepared for, on the basis of someone else’s work?

In a best case scenario, the work is a reflection of the candidate’s ability to work in the dark, with poorly-defined business requirements, unable to ask clarifying questions and unable to work with stakeholders.  The candidate ends up providing a best-guess solution based not on solving the problem, but what’s likely to allow them to compete with other candidates and cater the interviewer’s own biases.

Unless a business is wholly dysfunctional, this is a pretty useless test of skills.

Furthermore, putting a candidate through this rigorous process and then simply replying with a “Sorry, you weren’t selected” is completely unfair to someone who spent three days working on spec.  Each candidate that invests that much time deserves the respect to be given feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of their designs.

From the perspective of the growth of the UX industry as a whole, it would be great if feedback happened.  In reality, it never does, unless a candidate asks for it, and sometimes not even then.

UX Interviewing Best Practices

I’m not against design challenges, per-se, but in my opinion they need to conform to a specific set of rules to give useful results:

Design challenges should be done in-person.

This helps the interviewers gain real perspective into a candidate’s interpersonal interactions and communication skills. It also helps interviewers visualize how a candidates synthesizes information from different sources to gain specific design direction.

Design challenges should not focus on the company’s existing or future products.

There’s too much bias built in for candidates to be truly successful on the existing product, and it’s patently unethical to ask candidates to complete work for free on the basis of the possibility of employment.  Additionally, could you honestly say that you wouldn’t use an awesome design by a candidate that you decided not to hire on the basis of personality or fit?  You’d have to be a stronger man than me, and personally that’s an ethical temptation that I would never want.

Design challenges should be done on a whiteboard.

A lot has been said about whiteboard interviews, both good and bad. Certainly it has its drawbacks, but they do allow for clear communication and invite collaboration. Additionally, the ability to effectively whiteboard ideas with stakeholders is paramount to the success of any UX designer. Now’s the time to find out just how good they are at it.

Design challenges should be done with a fixed time limit.

Apart from evaluating their ability to work on a deadline, setting a time limit helps to ensure that the candidate doesn’t get tied up too much in nitty-gritty details and focuses on achieving their goal. It also helps move things along in the event of multiple interviews being scheduled on the same day.

Each candidate needs to address a unique challenge of relatively equal difficulty.

This helps avoid biases against specific design solutions and focuses the interview on how candidates think and interact with business stakeholders.

Speaking of stakeholders, business stakeholders should be represented at the interview by the interviewers.

The candidate should be able to ask clarifying questions across business units. This helps evaluate the candidate’s ability to ask appropriate questions, to work across business lines, and build a consensus before diving into a project.

There should be some sort of monkey wrench or two thrown into the works – a requirement that changes mid-design, a stakeholder that gets replaced with a new individual with new ideas, or an increase/decrease in time to deliver a design.

This helps evaluate how candidates react to a changing design environment, an important aspect of their overall ability as designers.

Feedback should be the rule, not the exception.

Dealing with feedback is an important part of being an effective designer.  Receiving and synthesizing feedback into improved designs and self-improvement is imperative.

What’s more, anyone who’s spent significant time doing design work for you deserves your honest assessment.  It helps them grow, it helps the industry grow, and it helps your team grow.

For what it’s worth, you can find a wealth of simple UX challenges all over the internet, but some of my favorites are here.

As designers, we all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity; to be evaluated for our relevant skills when applying for a job; and to be placed on a level playing field.  Take-home design challenges don’t deliver on these basic privileges.

That’s why homework sucks.

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