Should You Do Design Challenges When Interviewing?

Posted By Debbie on July 14, 2015

A question I get somewhat frequently from up-and-coming UXers has to do with interviews. Although these people are showing up with small portfolios, the company interviewing them wants them to engage in a “design challenge.”

That’s not just for up-and-coming people looking for entry level work. I’ve interviewed for senior-level UX work and at times been asked to do a sample project.

I’ve blogged about this before, but let’s revisit it from another angle. Should you agree to do a sample project in the name of possibly getting the job?

Is The Project Fake Or Real?

Design challenges or sample projects generally fall into two categories. Projects are either totally fake or totally real.

If an agency asks you to design what a supermarket app might look like and they’re not working on a supermarket app, then this is a fake project designed to test you.

If the agency is working on a supermarket app and wants your ideas on this real project, that’s no longer a fake project. If a dating site asks you to mock up how you think a feature might look or work on their dating site, that’s a real project. During an interview, a company once asked me to whiteboard ideas that would be real solutions to their current real problems.

I suggest refusing to do real projects for free. If this company wants your ideas for something real, they should pay for them. At that point, you’re not just auditioning for a job. You are doing real consulting work. How many companies have improved their products from ideas “taken” from unpaid interview candidates’ sample projects?

I recently worked with an agency that was considering me for a long term commitment. How did they “test” me for that? By giving me a real project that was fairly small. I was paid my normal hourly rate and signed a contractor agreement. That let me see how they were run, do I like them, do they like me, etc…

There is no rule that says that a company that wants to try you out gets you for free. You are under no obligation to give away your time.

What If The Project Is Fake?

Despite my extensive resume and portfolio, there are times when companies ask me to do a sample project. So far, I’ve found 100% of those experiences to be frustrating. These fake projects tended to highlight how poorly the other company communicated, which quickly made me not want to work there anyway.

The winner so far was a UX agency that gave me a fake UX project but then rejected me saying that I hadn’t put enough design and polish into it. Whaaaaaa? See the other blog post for navigating the frequent vague nature of these challenges.

If the project is fake, it’s really up to you if you want to burn your time on it. That’s why pushing for more details is important. How many hours do you expect me to spend? How polished should this be? What does this job pay again?

Could You Add It To Your Portfolio?

A fake project can be another opportunity for someone new to UX to add to his or her portfolio. If your portfolio is a bit light and a company asks you to mock up what you think a great to do list app would be, maybe give it a few extra hours. Create something you would be proud to show off in your portfolio.

That way, even if these people don’t hire you, you now have another piece where you can explain a project and your approach to it. If you get hired, then great! If not, at least your time went towards something that might help you get the next job.

I don’t need to add fake projects to my portfolio, so I’m unlikely to say yes to something like this. But if you are starting out and this fake project isn’t under some sort of NDA, it might be worthwhile as artifacts you can add to your portfolio.

Hint: If the fake project needs an NDA, it’s probably a real project. 🙂