The product design interview process

Update: As of February 2022 Gem’s design interview process no longer includes a design exercise or design critique. We believe expedited and superficial test environments are no longer the best ways to get signal on how someone thinks through problems or collaborates. We instead rely on a values conversation and past collaborations.

What does a modern interview process look like for digital designers? Design leaders building their design team, and individual designers looking to join one, can get incredible value from knowing what a typical interview process looks like today.

Knowing what to avoid (like bias in the process or toxic culture signals) and what to invest a lot into (like interviewing for thinking rather than solely outputs), can help make the interview process more rewarding and effective.

There aren't many readily-available resources out there to help new design leaders and designers get a peek into the hiring process. When I first built the design team at Gem back in 2020, I had to connect with other design leaders and hiring managers at companies like Dropbox, Airbnb, Slack, Outreach, Stripe, and more to understand their hiring process.

Today our design interview process takes shape over six stages, spanning anywhere from two to six weeks depending on candidate availability.

  1. Application review
  2. Recruiter phone interview
  3. Optional coffee chat with the hiring manager
  4. Hiring manager phone screen
  5. Past work review
  6. Onsite product demo, past work presentation, design exercise, design critique, and often a lunch break with some of the team

1. Application review

The hiring manager and recruiter will evaluate applications for the job once it's open. Up until this point, the job has existed as a series of conversations and documents internally with the finance team, product and engineering leaders, and more.

Collectively the team will have created a set of needs in the business and mapped them to the job requisition. These needs are hopefully apparent in the job post where candidates submit their applications and resume.

The hiring manager and recruiter will look through resumes and portfolios to see if signals indicate the candidate may match the needs of the business. If there seems to be a good fit, the recruiter or hiring manager will reach out to the candidate to set up a phone call.

2. Recruiter phone interview

Once the recruiter identifies a potential candidate, they will initiate a phone call to chat with that candidate.

The initial recruiter interview is casual in nature, creating space for everyone involved to get any critical questions out of the way. This 30-minute video or phone call with the recruiter ensures the candidate aligns with the role as needed. It's also a great chance to build relationships and start the process of getting on each other's radar.

The candidate and recruiter will typically discuss location (remote or location-dependent roles), career ambitions, and interviewing timelines.

3. Optional coffee chat with the hiring manager

In some cases, the hiring manager will initiate the first call with a candidate. A hiring manager will initiate contact with a candidate when the role is senior or a level of connection exists between the team and the candidate.

This optional, 30-minute "coffee" chat is an informal part of the interview process and is not considered an interview in the strict sense. Instead, the coffee chat is a chance for the hiring manager and candidate to connect more casually with each other on a personal level.

What we look for during a coffee chat:

  • Company experience: does the candidate have relevant experience in similar companies of our size and shape? Do they have a known, established design process? Have they worked on a cross-functional team? Are they interested in doing so?
  • Types of product experience: has the candidate worked on business tools or complex platforms like ours? Are they familiar with products of similar shapes and sizes as to what we're building? Do they want to?
  • Candidate ambitions: how does the candidate want to learn and grow in their career? Will this opportunity give them a chance to do that or not? If not, it might not be worth continuing the process.
  • Visible design skills related to craft and impact. Does the candidate demonstrate clear articulation of design abilities? Do they have a clear portfolio of work?

4. Hiring manager phone screen

If the hiring manager's coffee chat goes well, the candidate enters the first part of the formal interview process: the phone screen.

In this 45-minute conversation, candidates will discuss experience, projects, and processes with the hiring manager or another design team member (depending on scheduling). This interview requires no screens, as the candidate should focus entirely on higher-level reflection and process. The conversation can be casual but must still be "on the books." The interviewer will ask four or five questions related to what the team is looking for in the role.

What we look for in the phone screen:

  • Motivations: what is the candidate looking for in their next job? Do their incentives align with our company and design team?
  • Overall design experience and level: does the candidate show vital skill in one or more areas of our design interviewing rubric? How do they work with other designers? Do their skills meet our quality bar?
  • Passion for types of work: does the candidate demonstrate an ability to work independently? Can they tackle small tasks as well as complete goal-driven projects? Will they thrive in a startup environment where they will wear multiple hats on the design team?
  • Prioritization: How does the candidate weigh trade-offs when it comes to their work? How do they ensure their work is essential for the business but also customers? Do they have a knack for work that will scale design's impact in the industry? Are they able to create momentum through their work?

5. Past work review

If the candidate has made it this far, it's time to dig deeper into their experiences and abilities. A past work review with a hiring team member can spotlight the actual work the candidate has done and how they speak to the job.

Candidates should expect to show one project from their portfolio of work, walking through a high-level overview of their process and outcomes.

The hour-long past work review can take shape as a website walkthrough (or Dribbble/Behance) or other presentation, including a live product demo if applicable. However, preparing a presentation is not encouraged as we want to discuss the work organically, not through prepared notes.

What we look for in the past work review:

  • Design quality and candidate behaviors: evidence matches aspects of our internal design rubric with what the candidate shares.
  • The material output of the design work as it rates across visual design, interaction design, and product thinking expectations.
  • The behaviors of the designer as they speak to experiences: how they talk about past collaboration, communication, and aligning with the business values.
  • Attention to detail and top-tier design craft, visual design, and interaction design best practices.

6. Onsite

Finally, we invite candidates to join us for a three-to-four-hour virtual "onsite" interview. The onsite stage is made up of four to five individual steps, starting with a product demo.

6.1 Product demo

A 30-minute overview of our business and product. Before we start the day of interviews, we want to help the candidate become more comfortable and familiar with things like our business model, product vocabulary, and value propositions. The product demo will be the candidate's first honest look at the actual product for many people, outside of marketing materials and conversations.

6.2 Past work presentation

After the product demo, the candidate goes straight into a 60-minute review of portfolio work. A panel of cross-functional peers at the company will attend the presentation, including an engineer or engineering manager, a product manager, and two to three design team members.

The past work presentation, or portfolio review, is time for the candidate to present two or three projects they feel demonstrate their work best. Presentations should highlight the core competencies as well as highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate.

The candidate should make a formal presentation for this stage of the process and plan to present for 45 minutes, making space for 15 minutes of questions from and to the interview panel.

6.3 Design exercise

After the past work presentation, the candidate will move on to a 60-minute exercise.

I’ve written more in-depth details about design exercises here.

In the design exercise part of our onsite interview, the candidate will work through a made-up design problem to work toward a solution. The goal of the design exercise is not to solve the problem presented. The candidate should demonstrate how they might work toward a solution in collaboration with a partner (the interviewer), and that's it.

Candidates are encouraged to use a virtual whiteboard or sheet of paper as they work through the problem. The interviewer's role in the design exercise is not to solve the problem for the candidate, nor is it to serve as a moderator or strict evaluator. Instead, the interview is there to help the candidate stay on track and make progress in the allotted time. The interviewer can ask questions or chime in with their ideas and feedback as the exercise progresses. The interviewer is a collaborator for this exercise, not just an interviewer.

What we look for from the design exercise:

  • The candidate's ambition and process for approaching and tackling an ambiguous problem. Do they dive right into solving the problem or hesitate? Are they optimistic about coming to the problem? Do they have energy surrounding the process of solving it? Or do they start paralyzed with indecision or doubt?
  • Collaboration: does the candidate engage the interviewer as a partner in ideation and feedback? Do they employ the interviewer with questions, prompts, and ideas? Do they solicit feedback actively at each step of the process? Do they ask for clarity, or do they specifically act as though they need coaching to progress?
  • Design process (if you need help here, refer to this guide by Discover Design): does the candidate start by identifying the problem that needs to be solved, or do they jump immediately to solutions? Do they speak to or document open questions? Are they transparent in their intentionality as they move through decisions? Do they try to innovate and push boundaries or go toward the most straightforward solution?
  • Time management and prioritization, is the candidate able to manage their time and prioritize their work? Do they make progress in the exercise or dilly-dally in any specific step?

6.4 Lunch or other breaks

At Gem, we always like to include a mid-day break in the formal part of our interview process. A good break is typically lunch or a light snack, anything where the candidate can sit down with a few company members outside the interview panel.

These casual conversations over lunch allow the candidate to know more about the company and team while also giving them a break from doing most of the talking. Ensure every candidate has a lunch break or multiple breaks scattered across the day if they participate in an onsite interview.

6.5 Design critique

The last part of the onsite interview is a design critique.

Critique is a 30-minute product discussion, where the candidate is presented with a mobile or desktop application (always the same app) to review with an interviewer. The interviewer is typically a member of the design team, though a member of the product management or engineering team could also fill in.

The critique is another type of casual conversation wherein the candidate and interviewer talk about the design of the presented app.

Interviewers should engage the candidate by asking what they like and don't like about the product. Let them know it's an open discussion with no right or wrong answers.

What we look for from the design critique:

  • Levels of thought: how does the candidate think about the product at-a-glance? What do they speak to, user experience, visual design, brand presence, usability, marketing? Are they passionate about one element of design more than others?
  • Does the candidate speak about how the product might benefit others? Or do they talk exclusively in terms of their preferences? Do they say things like: "I could see how this would be helpful for someone…" or "This might be designed for people who..."?
  • Does the candidate speak about visual design in terms of consistency, hierarchy, weight, balance, contrast, legibility, accessibility?
  • Does the candidate understand what problems the product is trying to solve?
  • Does the candidate understand how product decisions might impact a business?
  • Is the candidate aware of their intrinsic biases and assumptions during the critique process?