by Bohdan Kit
Questions to ask when hiring a product designer for a startup
A how-to guide on finding hidden gems in the crowd
Finding the right person for a startup can be hard, but finding the first product designer to strengthen your product in terms of aesthetics and usability may be even harder. From the very beginning, you want someone who is capable of leading the design process. You want someone who will do everything they can to solve the problems of your users and will make the product lovable and easy to use.
We had this hiring challenge recently at Kepler, because we were trying to find a design rockstar for our new product. While we were interviewing a bunch of product designers, I came up with a list of questions that now helps us scan potential hires like an X-Ray.
As Facebook’s Director of Product Design Julie Zhuo once said,
At a startup, you need your first one or two designers to be versatile — great jacks-of-all-trades… Not only do they need to deeply understand and think through product strategy, they also need to have good interaction chops and decent visual sense, since they’ll be doing everything from designing the UX to thinking about the brand to designing icons — they need to have a diverse skill set.
Pro Tip: Always remember that you should judge an artist by their work. Don’t just blindly rely on a simple conversation to reveal their true personality and skillset.
However, the information you’ll get out of asking the below questions will help you understand whether you are interested in seeing this potential hire’s work.
Afterwards, some form of test task relating to your product design challenges would be a perfect next step.
Here are my favorite questions to ask. I’ll discuss why you want to ask them, and what kinds of information you’d hope to hear in response.
1. In your opinion, what is a product design?
Why you should ask: Product Design is an extremely interdisciplinary domain connecting business, psychology, technical skills, and so on. Not only do you want a potential hire to understand that, but you also want them to explain how they’ve applied this knowledge in their previous work.
What you want to hear: One of the candidates I interviewed delivered a good answer:
Product design is a mix of business needs, visual appearance, and leadership. That’s why it is so hard, because you have to be good at all three things at the same time if you want your product to be successful…
This showed he really knew what he was doing.
2. Tell us about the newest thing you’ve learned that has improved your design work. What was it? Why did you decide to invest time in it? How did you apply it afterwards?
Why you should ask: Product Design is a constantly evolving field. Learning how to learn is a must for everyone striving for success in this domain. A practical approach is what distinguishes a good product designer from a mediocre one.
You want someone who’s been there and gotten their hands dirty many times before they truly learned how it really works. Moreover, you need a balance. You don’t want someone conducting endless user research without any visible value for the product.
What you want to hear: Try to spot good cause-effect relationships. If a designer has learned something new to excel at their work, has carefully evaluated the time-effort ratio, and then applied this knowledge practically, they’re a rock star of learning.
Here is an example of what I’d consider a major red flag in this area:
Candidate: Recently, I got myself on good terms with [name of software] that helps you create those beautifully designed icons.
Me: Could you show us them?
Candidate: My superior decided that we didn’t need them…
3. In your opinion, how should a good design process start? Why?
Why you should ask: As Simon Sinek notes, everything we do should start with “why?” Despite the type of methodology a potential hire uses, design is a human-oriented type of job. Thus, having a decent level of empathy and a willingness to relate to the problems of others are indispensable skills in this creative field.
What you want to hear: Prick up your ears for any signs/behaviors that would help you describe this person as caring about the needs of others. A good answer might include something like this:
I start with the problem of a user first and then frame it as a design challenge. A good challenge is not too broad but leaves you enough ground for a creative approach to solutions…
4. What’s the most important aspect of your job?
Why you should ask: It’s basically a self-awareness test. Folks must understand why they decided to be designers for life. In my opinion, designers and product designers are problem-solvers who thrive on the balance between what the user wants and what the business needs.
What you want to hear: There’s no one answer fits all. In my hiring experience, one of the candidates responded as follows:
The empowerment of people is what drives me here. Helping them to do their job better, be more productive and happy at the end of the day. It was amazing when users wrote stories how [product name] has helped them get promotion or increase income. That’s something definitely worth working for…
5. What should come first — product or style-guide?
Why you should ask: It’s one of those chicken and egg problems. In 99% of cases, the answer shows whether a person is capable of defending their point of view. Designers, like entrepreneurs, should have strong convictions, loosely held.
What you want to hear: There’s no correct answer to this one either. Look for a reasonable explanation on both sides.
Generally speaking, if you have some sort of brand already, then a style-guide will definitely help to preserve consistency in its visual communication and image.
On the other hand, if you hire someone to start from a blank page, then trying to standardize visuals is like cleaning your shoes right before getting into the mud.
6. Tell us about a time when you simplified a complex situation or problem. What made you seek out a simpler approach?
Why you should ask: I borrowed this one from Dmytro Voloshyn, a good friend of mine. He uses it to test whether a candidate fits his company’s values. And I think it just works perfectly with the whole startup theme.
Good work today is better than a great work tomorrow. So look for any compromises a candidate made for the sake of time and resources. We live in a world of overwhelming uncertainty where time becomes the most expensive currency. Therefore, sometimes making quick mistakes is what makes great products in the long-run.
What you want to hear:
When I started working at [company name], there was a really complex and long user flow requiring a lot of steps from a user to accomplish the task and even more development work to launch the product. I suggested prioritizing one of the customer segments and building a user flow that suited those customers first, realeasing new features for the rest of the segments in cycles afterward. It helped to launch the product faster and avoid high development costs… Finding a simple solution is what design is all about…
7. Recall a situation in which you were asked to do something you did not like or knew was wrong. How did you react?
Why you should ask: Everybody has disagreements from time to time with colleagues, friends, their spouse, and so on. It’s not about who’s wrong or right, it’s all about the right communication.
What you want to hear: The answer that really stood out to me was something as follows:
I have to understand what is the purpose behind a demand first. Once I get to know it, I can offer the solutions that he or she was not even able to realize before asking [about something I personally did not like/thought was wrong]
8. What is your favorite product in terms of design? What do you like and what don’t you like? How would you improve it?
Why you should ask: Good candidates always get prepared for this one beforehand. And that’s a good thing. Product thinking is a skill that gets mastered with constant and deliberate practice. A good product designer won’t have a problem tackling this one.
What you want to hear: One of the candidates I interviewed answered that Medium is her favorite product. I dug a little deeper and asked what she thought of the introduction of the clapping mechanism instead of a simple ‘like,’ which lots of folks considered quite controversial. She said every publication or story published here is a performance, and a good performance should be recognized with a million claps. Such a response is a perfect example of someone with a knack for good product thinking.
9. You start working on a new desktop/mobile/web app. What are your first steps?
Why you should ask: It’s sort of a dual check. People get better in everything they do once they have some systems set up. This is your chance to see whether a candidate is able to own and lead the product design process in your team. On the other side of the spectrum, look for questions rather than answers. Good product design folks always ask a lot of questions that help them deal with uncertainty.
What you want to hear: Who is the user? What is the desired platform? Can those users be found on this platform? An exceptional product designer will definitely ask questions like these.
Once you’ve given some answers, look for a decent explanation of how they’d handle the design process for your type of product. In our case, we’re building a desktop app primarily for macOS. Thus, being familiar with interface guidelines is a crucial element here.
10. How do you keep up with the latest design trends? What resources do you use to inspire yourself?
Why you should ask: This is a rather simple one. Nonetheless, in my experience a lot of people got knocked out here. Either they don’t follow English-speaking resources (which is a huge miss in today’s globalized world), or they simply won’t be able to call any resources to mind. This would be a red flag.
What you want to hear: You just want to hear notable names that produce high-quality content (like Nielsen Norman Group, Invision Blog, UX Pin, IDEO and so on). They should also show a desire to experiment.
One candidate showed me the result of the button colors experiment he did after reading an article in one of the aforementioned blogs. Thus, feel free to prompt candidates if they don’t volunteer to show some examples themselves. At the end of the day, discovering a practical mind is always useful.
I hope this helps you on your next hiring marathon and that you find someone to lead great design in your product.
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