How to Interview Product Designers in 2023
A deep dive on how to do high-caliber assessments of product design candidates when you yourself are not a designer. From portfolio review to final steps, we go through what to look for, how to avoid false signals, and how to signal to the best candidates that you understand design.
A stellar product designer can transform your business.. However, finding a perfect match can be daunting, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the technical aspects of design. So, what are the best interview questions for designer roles? And what should you look out for when evaluating design candidates?
The good news is sourcing and interviewing product designers requires a similar process to interviewing candidates for other sorts of roles – although you may need to do some extra preparation. If you’re looking to hire a product designer, we’ve put together a helpful guide to on how to conduct the interview process for a design position.
Before we really get into it, we feel our obligation as founders and startup leaders to ask you to ask yourself: do you need a full time designer?
If you don't have at least 4 full time frontend engineers, it's unlikely you'll need a full time designer. Consider seeking out an external designer instead.
Before the interview: Review the Designer’s Portfolio
Before creating a list of questions to ask a designer, you’ll need an overview of their career to date, taking the following steps:
1. Zoom out: Skim the Whole Design Portfolio
Start by conducting a design portfolio review. Try to identify any common themes throughout the candidate’s work. For example, a product designer who has primarily worked in food and hospitality may not have prior experience designing for fintechs.
However, a lack of experience in your particular industry isn’t necessarily a red flag. You should also consider their general style and sources of inspiration.
Do their previous projects align with your brand goals and aesthetic? Did the type of design that they did, even if for another industry, correspond to the type of design you’re looking to hire for? Have they produced work catering to audiences that are similar to your customers? These can all be places from where your seed of confidence in them might sprout. But the strongest basis from which to form your confidence is their thought process. Does it mirror your thought process? Do you feel like their portfolio showcases rigorous thinking, depth of understanding, and originality?
Look for areas of commonality or excitement you can dig into during your interview with the designer.
2. Zoom in on a Single Portfolio Piece
Next, you should zoom in on a single case study within the designer’s portfolio, choosing either something recent or a project that’s most closely similar to yours. When analyzing this case study, try to come up with some follow-up interview questions for the designer, as well as potential risk spots.
A risk spot is an aspect of the design process that may have presented challenges for the designer. Here are questions you can ask:
- How closely did they collaborate with the people who built their designs?
- How closely did they collaborate with the stakeholders?
- How did they navigate the usual obstacles to shipping great product: (uncertainty about customer need, limited resources, Internal organization politics (especially if there were conflicting messages from stakeholders))
Note - these are hard things to talk about. Nobody will want to bad mouth prior coworkers on their portfolio piece (and if they do, run - that’s a huge red flag!). Your goal is to find hints of where in the case study they ran into a collaboration challenge, how much awareness they have in how they describe it, and how they overcame it. A capable designer won’t blame others for their challnges, but can explain in a level headed way where those challenges came from.
Design Interview Principles
After you’ve conducted the designer portfolio review, write down a comprehensive list of questions based on your research. The questions you ask individual designers will differ depending on their background and the needs of your business. But there are a few principles you should follow to make the most of an interview, including:
1. Ask specific questions
Ask specific questions that engage with the designer’s portfolio and work history.It will produce more insightful answers than overly general questions such as “How do you start designing a product?” or “How do you work with others?”.
Instead, ask questions about how they approached specific situations and interacted with others to produce the best result possible. Tailored questions will give you a detailed idea about the designer’s working style, their design process, work ethic and adaptability.
Showing that you took time to reflect on theirwork will also demonstrate that you appreciates the value of good design. Remember –designers take pride in their craft and don’t want to be treated like they are disposable. .
2. Don’t put the designer on the spot
Avoid asking questions that force the designer to produce quick answers to complex questions. For example, you may feel tempted to ask them how they would solve a specific problem with your product: “Let’s pull up our onboarding and see if you can identify any improvements”.
This approach will create several problems. First off, the design process happens in layers, each of which takes time. A designer is as likely to improve your onboarding flow in an interview as a ceramics potter is to present you a glazed bowl made from scratch.
However, this approach may induce panic and is unlikely to produce enlightening results. It’s a like asking a standup comedian to tell you a joke – awkward and unamusing.
3. Do ask questions about their design process and sources of inspiration
A good product designer often reflects on their design processes and draws from multiple sources of inspiration. Their process and inspirations likely have aspects that are constant, regardless of the project. Other aspects may change in response to the project. Getting a sense of how their process adapts from project to project, in response to the project’s needs and the gaps in the designer’s knowledge, will give crucial detail on how they produce their work.
Importantly, this will also give you the proper expectations should you work together. You may tend to see design as a requisite input that “unblocks” your startup’s engineering to build. If you don’t know the layers through which a designer typically approaches their work, you may be disappointed to find that good designers don’t crank out interfaces on demand. .
How to create an excellent designer interview process
So, now you know what to look for in a designer and the type of questions to ask, how should you structure the interview process? The minimum viable product designer interview process usually involves three distinct phases. You can complete the phases over two interviews–there’s too much ground to cover in one interview, and three interviews would add unnecessary friction to your funnel. . Here are the phases to cover
1. Portfolio review
As mentioned, you should start by breaking down a recent case study in detail, asking the candidate questions about:
- How they defined the problem: E.g., Did they use facts and figures to identify the problem and prove it was worth addressing?
- How they ideated and explored the solution space: E.g., which axes did they explore along? How did they define the possible space for solutions?
- How they tested and iterated their ideas: , Who did they gather feedback from? What was the process of getting their designs in front of more and more people until they had finally been rolled out to all customers?? How did they incorporate feedback from the previous iteration before presenting an improved version to more customers?
- The impact(s) of their project: What were the north star metrics that their team used to measure the design’s success? Do they know the impact that their work had on those metrics?
If you need further inspiration to come up with portfolio-related questions, this handy article offers in-depth advice from a candidate’s point of view.
2. Design process review
Dedicate a block of your conversation with each candidate to review their thought processes and approaches to specific types of design tasks. You may, for example, want to assess how they navigate trade-offs and challenges, such as:
- Shipping high-quality work against a tight deadline
- Juggling competing priorities throughout the design process
- Creating designs with limited resources
- How do their companies’ north star metrics inform their designs
- How they arrive at the conclusions that inform their designs
This last one is particularly important. A lot of why the best design feels like magic is that comes from insights gathered from the real world. The most senior designers know how to gather these insights from data, observation, and parallel solutions. Or they can identify the rationale behind a certain design from the various constraints that it must satisfy.
3. Soft skills and collaboration review
Next, you’ll want to explore how the candidate works with teammates, especially ones in other functions.. Design is a particularly collaborative discipline, and the best designers know how to synthesize inputs from business stakeholders, product managers, engineers, and even legal as part of their process. This is commonly known as the behavioral interview.
While you should conduct a behavioral interview for every candidate, it’s particularly important fro product design because of how much of the job is gathering feedback and inputs from across the team.
There’s plenty written elsewhere on how to conduct behavioral interviews. Just remember to anchor on a specific episode.
4. Reverse interview
Finally, set aside time for the candidate to grill you! By the end of the interview, a committed and skilled designer will likely have plenty of questions floating around their head regarding your organization. Be prepared to answer a range of queries about your company, its culture, and working style As is the case when interviewing for other roles, be wary of candidates who don’t ask any questions. A candidate who doesn’t jump at the opportunity to reverse the interview may not be bought in to company.
Need more help coming up with questions?
Hopefully, you’re starting to understand the kinds of questions you’ll need to ask to find the perfect candidate. If you’re new to the interviewing designersand struggling to come up with questions to ask, we’ve put together a comprehensive list of questions to get the ball rolling.
After the interview
Once you’ve completed the first round of interviews, it’s time to select which designers demonstrate the most promise and consider your next steps. Ideally, now you’d get better example of their work.
Should you assign a take-home design task?
Nowadays, it’s common practice to assign candidates a take-home task. But asking a designer to complete a take-home task is risky and ill advised.
Here’s why. You can’t expect people to do more than a couple of hours of unpaid work. If you ask them to complete a large-scale project for free, they may feel exploited and look elsewhere for work. Similarly, they may submit work late or produce substandard work due to time constraints.
On the other hand, a two-hour task simply won’t go deep enough to show whether a designer has the full skillset you’ll need, including wireframing, building on feedback, and producing high-fidelity mocks that are aligned with your brand and design guidelines.
A good, senior designer who sees a take home task, especially one that’s unpaid, as a step in the interview process will likely ghost you or decline. They’ll read it as you treating their work as merely output to be cranked out, and seek work with a team that they feel appreciates the full breadth of the design process.
What is the best alternative to a take-home design task?
If you’re set on assigning a task, we recommend offering candidates a small freelance project to assess their capabilities. As well as providing you with valuable deliverables, this approach will ensure the designer demonstrates their full potential, including how well they work with others.
Naturally, you shouldn’t ask the designer to overhaul an entire project at this stage. A perfect project would be something that’s not time sensitive, and has been regularly deferred, with a manageable scope.
Rather, assign a task that allows you to work closely with the designer and involves processing requirements, wireframing, listening to feedback, asking questions based on the feedback, creating variation, and collaborating both syncrhonously and asynchronously.
In doing so, you’ll gain the reassurance you need to hire the best product designer to help your business thrive.
Even if you’ve never interviewed product designers, or don’t have any product design chops yourself, it doesn’t mean you can’t find a great designer for your startup. It will take time and thoughtfulness to get the signal you need. And if you:
- aren’t sure if you’re ready to hire a designer full time
- need a wider range of design work done than a single designer could handle
- don’t want to go through this whole process to recruit a designer
Consider working with NUMI. We’re a full stack design department for startups, and let you get straight to work with vetted, startup-minded designers.