Reimagining the Hiring Process for Designers: Moving Beyond Homework Projects

In the world of design recruitment, a troubling trend has emerged: the use of “homework” projects as part of the hiring process. While companies may call them different names, such as “exercises,” “evaluations,” or “projects,” the underlying concept remains the same. Candidates are expected to invest 5-10 hours of their own time, on top of their full-time jobs, to complete a design project to be presented back to the company.

However, the unfortunate reality is that these homework projects rarely serve their intended purpose. At best, they are flawed indicators of a candidate’s abilities; at worst, they can lead to PR nightmares if accused of generating unpaid work for the company. Moreover, they often drive away top talent, creating a less-than-ideal candidate experience.

The Talent Market: A Competitive Landscape

In a world where top design talent is highly sought after, companies find themselves in a “Talent Market” rather than an “Employer Market.” Top designers hold the power, and they have numerous options for successful companies with great cultures. The recruitment process becomes a challenge as companies compete to attract and retain the best talent.

The Flaws of Design Exercises

Design exercises, despite their popularity, are ineffective at accurately judging a candidate’s ability for several reasons:

  1. Limited Context: Candidates have limited exposure to the company’s business priorities, industry knowledge, and specific user needs, making it challenging to simulate real projects.
  2. Time Constraints: In a rushed exercise, candidates often have to water down their process, compromising the quality and depth of their work.
  3. Lack of Collaboration: Design exercises typically lack the collaborative aspect that is crucial in real-world design projects.
  4. Unreasonable Expectations: Candidates are often judged as if their exercises were full-fledged projects, leading to unfair assessments.

The Driving Forces Behind Design Exercises

Despite their flaws, many companies continue to use design exercises for several reasons:

  1. Risk Assessment: Companies want to assess candidates’ work before hiring them, minimizing the risk of bringing in a designer who might not be the right fit.
  2. Dedication to User Research: Some companies use exercises to gauge a candidate’s dedication to user research and the user-centric design process.
  3. Assessing Design Skills: Hiring managers may believe that design exercises help them evaluate a candidate’s process and skills.

A Better Approach: Comprehensive Portfolio Reviews

To foster an effective and fair hiring process, design managers should focus on comprehensive portfolio reviews. By assessing the following elements, hiring managers can gain valuable insights into a candidate’s abilities:

  1. Problem-Oriented Approach: Candidates who start their projects by understanding the problem and user needs are more likely to excel.
  2. Collaboration: Evaluate a candidate’s ability to work collaboratively with teams and involve product managers and developers in the design process.
  3. User Research: Look for designers who incorporate user research regularly and value its role in the design process.
  4. Diverse Skill Set: Seek candidates who demonstrate proficiency in various aspects of UX, with a specialization or passion in at least one area.
  5. Adaptability: Assess candidates’ self-awareness and ability to learn from mistakes and overcome obstacles.

Creativity Test: Unleashing Innovation

Another effective method to assess creativity, selling skills, and quick thinking is through a creativity test during in-person interviews. Candidates are asked to pitch an unconventional product concept related to famous brands or everyday products, testing their ability to think creatively and sell their ideas effectively.

In-Person Design Problems: Unveiling the Design Process

Replacing design exercises with in-person design problems is a transformative step in the hiring process. During interviews, candidates are presented with a design problem unrelated to the company’s business and are tasked with facilitating the team’s collective problem-solving process. This approach showcases candidates’ creativity, facilitation skills, and team fit, providing a clearer picture of their abilities and potential.

Non-Historical Interview Questions: Revealing Future Potential

Avoiding irrelevant historical questions, hiring managers should ask thought-provoking questions to gauge candidates’ knowledge and future potential. The questions should address problem-solving, passion, collaboration, and innovative thinking, helping to identify top talent that can drive the team and the company forward.

Embracing an Innovative Hiring Approach

In a competitive talent market, design managers must rethink their hiring practices to attract and retain the best designers. Moving away from ineffective and time-consuming design exercises, the focus should be on comprehensive portfolio reviews, creativity tests, in-person design problems, and non-historical interview questions.

By re-imagining the hiring process, companies can identify top talent and create a positive and engaging candidate experience, laying the foundation for a successful and dynamic team of designers. The time has come to evolve the hiring process and embrace innovative methods that align with the ever-changing landscape of design recruitment.

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