Marketing, Sales & Design

Interviewing UX candidates (5/7)

By Irene Au on

The Phone Screen

The phone screen is an opportunity to make sure the designer and opportunity are potentially a good fit for each other, based on obvious criteria: salary expectations, role and responsibilities, skills required, potential interest, and communication skills. Ask questions that help you get to know the person and gauge what their superpowers are and what they’re passionate about. Some example questions:

  • Why are you interested in this [opportunity / company]? (Or, if you’re trying to sell them on it, tell them why this opportunity is exciting and worth considering.)
  • What are you working on these days?
  • What kinds of projects and problems do you enjoy working on?
  • What do you consider are your strengths/superpowers?
  • What skills and applications do you use daily?
  • How have you collaborated with other members of your team?
  • What do you not enjoy doing?
  • Is there anything about your current job or previous jobs that you don’t want to do again?
  • (If the opportunity is a leadership role in which they would be hiring and leading others) How do you feel about hiring and managing a team? How much time would you want to spend on design leadership vs. hands on design?

In addition to asking candidates questions, give them a chance to ask you questions as well; this is especially important if you are in “sell” mode and are working hard to get the best talent on board. Tell them what inspired you to start (or join) this company, what the opportunity is, what is the problem you’re trying to solve (from a user’s perspective), who has funded you, and who your advisors are.

The Site Interview

Because you’ll have UX candidates meeting with several people from your team, plan to have the candidate have all (or as many) interviews in one day after your initial phone screen. This way, you can set aside an hour at the beginning of the day for the candidate to review his/her portfolio with the team. Giving the candidate an opportunity to present and show their work is a great way to assess experience, level of taste and sensibilities, problem solving approach, and how he/she thinks. It gives everyone on your interview panel a chance to see what the candidate is done, without burning time in 1:1 interviews where the candidate may not have the opportunity to share, or ends up having to repeat himself / herself over and over again to interviewers.

Preparing candidates for the portfolio presentation

It’s important to set the right expectations for the candidate for the portfolio presentation, otherwise you may find the candidate comes in completely unprepared to share anything meaningful enough for you to make a hiring decision.

Here is an example of what you can tell/send the candidate before they come in for the interview:

The portfolio presentation is a chance for us to get to know your process and your design accomplishments.  You will have one hour to talk about one or two specific projects you have worked on.  An ideal project is one that best illustrates your design capabilities.  Ideally we'd like to see how your experience is relevant to the challenges you would face at our company. 

The presentation can be as informal or as formal as you would like. Some logistical details for the presentation:

  • There will be about 4-5 people present. The group will be comprised of the founder/CEO, engineers and product managers.
  • You will have 45 minutes for your presentation followed by 15 minutes of Q&A.
  • You will have access to a projector.  We expect you to bring your own laptop, but please let us know if you need a laptop for the presentation before you arrive.


  • Assume that everyone present will already be familiar with your resume.
  • Show us your work along with your process. Use specific examples to walk us through your design journey from the beginning to the end of your involvement.
  • If you were working as part of a team, clearly identify your contributions to the process and the final product.
  • Include examples that best illustrate your unique skills, interests, and abilities, and best exemplify your approach as a designer.
  • If you have a particular passion or interest outside of your professional work, feel free to spend the last 5 minutes talking about it.


  • Please don't show any work that is confidential.  Usually, projects you have worked on in the past that have launched are acceptable to show.
  • Don’t go over your work history in this presentation, since people will already be familiar with your resume.
  • Don’t speak in vague, general terms. The more specific you can be, the better we can understand what you potentially bring to the table.

For user research candidates, you might change the language to be more about the research:

The portfolio presentation is a chance for us to get to know your process and your research accomplishments. You will have half an hour to talk about one or two specific projects you have worked on (including time for Q&A). An ideal project is one that best illustrates your abilities to plan, design, and conduct user research, as well as your ability to communicate insights and demonstrate how that impacted the product or service being developed. Ideally we'd like to see how your experience is relevant to the challenges you would face at our company.


Things to look for during a portfolio presentation

When attending a candidate’s presentation, here are some things to look for (the Four P’s):

  • Project / Product
    • What was the opportunity? Do they understand how this project fits into the larger strategic vision? What user problems were they trying to solve?
    • What was the complexity of the project? The scope of the problem being solved?
    • How is the domain, device, platform, etc relevant to your company? (It’s OK if it isn’t, as long as the designer is a good problem solver and is eager and willing to learn.)
    • Did they initiate the project or was it initiated by someone else? If initiated by them, how did they champion the project and get buy-in?
  • People
    • Who were the target users?
    • What understanding of the users did the designer have, and how did he/she gather insights?
    • Who were the designer’s peers? Stakeholders?
    • Did the designer work as part of a larger design team and if so, what role did he/she play relative to other people on the team?
  • Process
    • How did the designer approach solving the design problem? (For example, did it start with insights about the target users, and if so, how did they gather those insights? Did the designer create several different concepts to test the edges of different points of view? How did the designer iterate and refine the concepts? What role did the designer play during concept and execution? Do the deliverables help stakeholders understand what the tradeoffs are and what should be built?)
    • What role did data have in making design decisions? (In some companies, design decisions are data-driven, and in other places, decisions are more intuitive, or there is no data available. Either is OK; just know what their attitude towards data is and how that fits into how decisions are made at your company. Ideally you have a balance; recognize that some things that count the most cannot be counted.)
  • Problems
    • What kinds of challenges and constraints did they have to deal with, and how did they negotiate that? (Do they take ownership of the problems and proactively try to address them, or are they resigned to play the role of victim?)
    • Is there anything they wish had been done differently? (Look for self-awareness and introspection)
    • What would they do if they had more time? (Good designers think about how things could be better.)
    • What impact did this design have on key metrics (for the product, for the business, etc)?

Including a design exercise

A design exercise is often a useful tool for seeing how an interaction / product / user experience designer thinks and approaches problem solving. It is especially helpful to include this as part of your interview process when recruiting junior designers who don’t have many work samples to show, and/or candidates whose past work is still confidential and can’t be shared with others.

Write the problem statement so that it’s clear what needs to be designed, with some room for interpretation. This is a tricky balance to strike but when done well, you’ll quickly see how they think and approach problem solving. For example, do they take requirements and constraints given to them at face value, or do they think outside the box? Do they expand the scope and think strategically, or are they focused on tactical details? Neither is “better” than the other; the intention of the design exercise is to understand how the candidate thinks, approaches problem solving, and whether their focus is a fit for your needs and culture.

Be aware of some common pitfalls with design exercises:

  • The problem is too big. Thoughtful design takes time, and there is only so much one can do with 1-3 hours of time.
  • The problem is too small. Keep the scope small and specific, but not so specific that there is little room for interpretation. You want to be able to see how the designer interprets the problem, and how broadly they define it before narrowing back down to a particular solution.
  • The problem is too familiar to you. No one has thought about your product more than you have. It may be difficult for anyone to impress you because you’ve already thought about all the reasons why something can or cannot be done.
  • The problem is too unfamiliar to them. If explaining the problem requires a long explanation of what the product is, what it does, and all the requirements and constraints, it’s too big of a problem. Create an exercise that is just familiar enough so the designer can get their head around the problem in a short amount of time. Don’t create a problem that will give some designers an unfair advantage because they are familiar with the domain.
  • The problem isn’t appropriate for assessing what you need. If what you need is a visual designer, don’t give the design candidate a problem that tests their product design skills. On the other hand, if you need a product designer, make the exercise more about the product concept, flow, and interaction model, and less about giving a UI a facelift.

Here are some examples of design exercises that have worked well for me:

For visual design candidates:

Pick any website (or mobile app) you use and redesign it to improve the aesthetics and experience.

  • Describe your observations with the original design: what works well, what doesn’t work well?
  • Specify the scope of what problems you’re trying to solve.
  • Walk through your new design and describe your rationale for design changes you’d like to make.

For interaction design and product design candidates:

Company Y offers a directory of people that users can search and browse to discover other people who share their interests. People can be found based on name, email, location, and interests.


Company X has determined how to find gas prices at all gas stations in the US. Design a product / user interface that allows users to find gas at the best price.

For either problem:

  • Sketch wireframes that illustrate how users would get from the start page of this offering to meeting their goals.
  • Clearly articulate user goals and tasks that need to be supported in the UI and how you would move users through the site to help them achieve their goals.
  • What constraints, requirements, and assumptions are you making with your design? What are the tradeoffs you’re making with the design and why?

There are several ways to include a design exercise in your interview process: 

  • At-home design exercise (for interaction / product designers OR visual designers): At-home design exercises give designers more of a chance to think about the design problem and create deliverables that are higher fidelity than pencil and whiteboard sketches. I recommend giving a suggested time limit (e.g. 3 hours) so time-bound the effort -- some candidates will take more time, but at least there is some expectation set. The downside with at-home exercises is that it may be hard to elicit interest from designers to apply to your company if this is required. Carve out time during the portfolio presentation for the candidate to walk through their work on the exercise.
  • Onsite design exercise (for interaction / product designers): An onsite design exercise is given to candidates when they come in for in-person interviews. Give them the written problem, leave them in a quiet conference room for an hour with a whiteboard and markers or paper and pencil, and have them walk through their design. At this level of fidelity, their work is limited to conceptual and flow diagrams and wireframes.
  • Whiteboarding session (for interaction / product designers): For a more interactive design exercise, consider working on a problem together at the whiteboard. This is a good way to gauge rapport and collaboration. The downside is that some designers work better alone, with time to think and incubate their ideas quietly. If you choose to do a whiteboarding session, pick a problem that can be solvable in no more than 30 minutes. Some examples:
    • Design an elevator control pad for a 1000-story building
    • Design an alarm clock for kids
    • Design an ATM for kids

One way to structure interviews with is to schedule a half-day interview for the candidate to come in for the exercise, followed by a presentation of his/her portfolio and design exercise. Afterwards, the team can decide whether to pursue a second round of interviews on another day, or if the candidate is not a fit, less time is spent interviewing a candidate that is not a fit. Alternatively, start with the portfolio presentation, followed by 1:1 interviews. After you decide the candidate is worth bringing back and the candidate has also expressed interest in continuing to talk to the company, then assign the design exercise (or skip the exercise if there is such a large body of work or you have previous experience working with the person).

Assessing the design exercise

Some things you want to look for when assessing a design exercise:

  • How do they define the problem? Do they take the exercise at face value and start drawing screens right away, or do they go beyond the interface and think holistically?
  • Do they understand and state user needs and define goals and tasks?
  • Do they uncover constraints and/or make assumptions about requirements and constraints in order to solve the problem?
  • Do they think visually and generate a lot of ideas before narrowing down to a particular solution? Great designers will understand how to engage in a process of divergent thinking, where they generate a lot of ideas, even if they are crazy, and then converge to viable ones based on feasibility, viability, and usability.
  • Can they articulate their design process and advocate for it?
  • Can they critique their own work? What would they do if they had more time? Do they know what they would do next in order to assess how good their designs are, and move the designs into production?

1:1 interviews

For the most complete picture of the candidate, have the candidate meet with 4-5 interviewers. More than 5 gives you diminishing returns and fewer than 4 is not a strong enough signal to know whether to hire someone, unless they are extremely good or extremely bad. All interviewers should attend the portfolio presentation.

The interview panel should include all the stakeholders for the role and the peers who will work most closely with the candidate. For a head of design, for example, you should include the head of engineering, the head of product, the CEO, and other designers and front end engineers. 

Soft skills are as important as hard skills when hiring UX people. The portfolio presentation and design exercise are the best way to assess hard skills: understanding and applying design principles and process; knowing what good design looks like, knowing how to create it, and advocating for a positive outcome successfully; navigating constraints and requirements to create the best outcome for users. The 1:1 interview is your chance to assess soft skills: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management. These are all ingredients for emotional intelligence which are critical for design success.

Here are ways to assess designers in these four dimensions of emotional intelligence:

Self-awareness (Presence):
Look for: ability to be here now; an understanding of oneself

  • What 3 words would you use to describe yourself?
  • What would you describe as your superpowers?
  • What would your coworkers say about you?
  • What have you learned from your mistakes?
  • What negative thing would your boss say about you?

Social awareness (Empathy):
Look for: ability to know how others feel

  • Give me an example of a project where you disagreed with the stakeholder or client’s direction and tell me how you handled it.
  • Suppose you’ve heard through the grapevine that a key stakeholder has rejected your design and hates it. What would you do?
  • Give me an example of a time when you were able to communicate successfully with another person, even when that individual may not have personally liked you?

Self-management (Adaptability):
Look for: flexibility and versatility; ability to brainstorm alternatives; reactions to change; willingness to throw away work

  • Tell me about a deadline you’ve missed and how you handled it.
  • Suppose you are in an environment where the company is iterating quickly and pivoting frequently. How would you handle that? Would you find that energizing or would that stress you out? How would you manage such conditions so that there is a good design outcome?
  • Through the process of designing a solution to a difficult problem, your stakeholders want to go back to a direction you collectively designed and explored a few weeks ago. Since then, you’ve moved on to another solution. How do you handle this situation?
  • Tell me about an assignment that was too difficult for you. How did you resolve the issue?

Relationship management (Influence):
Look for: ability to notice the needs of others and adapt

  • Tell me about a time when you helped resolve a dispute between others.
  • How do you handle a situation where the boss is wrong?
  • Describe a difficult decision you had to make with your managers / leaders in the company?
  • You are working with a coworker who constantly makes mistakes that affect customers and impact your ability to do your own work. You have tried talking to this colleague, but you have seen no improvement so far in the quality of his/her work. What would you do next?
  • Do you prefer working alone or in a team?

In addition to probing for the skills needed to do the job, get to know the designer better, as a person and as a designer:

Look for: passion and interest in solving the problems you’re trying to solve

  • What has been the most interesting project you have worked on and why was it interesting to you?
  • What do you love doing? What kinds of problems do you enjoy working on? What would motivate you to come to work here every day?
  • Who inspires you and why?

Interested in more?