How I interview product designers | by Ted Goas | May, 2024


I’ve been part of the interviewing teams before, but this is my first time being the hiring manager. It’s been quite a learning experience.

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This year my team is hiring product designers.

While I’ve been part of the interviewing teams before, this is my first time being the hiring manager. It’s been quite a learning experience.

Hiring is hard for me because I believe that, given the right environment and support, almost anyone can succeed in a role.

But that’s not how hiring works. Not every candidate is a good match for a team and not every team is a good match for a candidate.

“Just because you’re qualified for a role doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right role for you today.” — Justine Jordan

It’s a big commitment on both sides and we only have a short amount of time to decide if we’ll be able to work well together for several years (ideally). Traditionally I’ve approached candidates with an optimistic attitude and had trouble knowing who to commit to.

During a routine 1:1, my manager dropped this gem:

“The more you talk to someone, the harder it gets to say no.” — Josh Hynes

It spoke directly to my weakness.

The more I talk with someone, the more I root for them and make compromises in their favor. Which isn’t best for either side. Problems arise when we start compromising our own standards.

So I’ve been learning how to be more judicious when interviewing designers, to make sure someone would be set up for success if they joined our team.

Here’s what I’ve been doing at each interview stage.

I’m lucky enough to work with an in-house recruiter, who I work with to define criteria I’m looking for in applicants. I’m not super involved at this point but want to mention that I have help from a dedicated recruiter who helps screen out some applications so I don’t have to look at every one.

The portfolio is usually my first impression of a candidate. I’m looking for folks who will raise our design bar, so I’m looking for work that looks better than what we’re doing now. I might glance at their resume or application, but I’m most interested to see if their portfolio shows the type of design skills and aesthetic we’re looking for.

I want to know:

Can they deliver work we’d be proud of?

Ideally 2–3 projects with a brief background, their approach, and designs the candidate produced. I rely on both subjective (my gut) and objective measures of design to try to asses each portfolio.

I’m not looking for thorough case studies with problem statements, photos of sticky notes, and metrics… just enough to know that they didn’t jump straight into high fidelity screens. For now I just want to know if the person is worth talking to. Detailed case studies come later.

In the past I might look at a portfolio and say “this person seems nice and their work is good enough, let’s set up a chat.”

Nowadays, I remind myself of my manager’s advice.

Their portfolio should make me feel like I need to speak with the person. At minimum I want to feel confident they can do the job without a lot of help. Ideally, they make everyone around them better.

If what I see doesn’t nail the fundamentals and look polished, I’ll vote No. This happens with more than half the portfolios I review.

Portfolio reviews assess mostly hard skills, which are only part of a designer’s job. If a portfolio convinces me the candidate can deliver great work, I’ll set up a 30-minute chat to get to know them a little more.

In the manger screen, I want to learn what it might be like if they joined our team.

  • Do they communicate well?
  • Do they work well with others?
  • Did they actually do the work in their portfolio (not always the case)?
  • Can they work autonomously?
  • Can they sell an idea?
  • Do they have a growth mindset?
  • Would they be a fun hang?

I want to know: Would they have a positive influence on our team?

The more questions I can answer with a Yes, the better. By the end of the manager screen, I want to feel like I have to hire the person.

In the past I might look past someone’s weaknesses because they seemed like nice when we spoke.

Nowadays I remind myself that folks that pass this stage will meet my team, so I’d essentially be vouching for them. What would my team think if I introduced this person as someone we’d want to hire? Would they agree with my judgement or would they wonder why I passed them?

I’m not a “Hell yes!” then I’m a “No”.

Lately I’ve been passing less than half of the candidates I speak to. Admittedly it’s still hard for me to click the big read “❌ No” button after speaking with someone.

By the case study stage, I’m rooting for the candidate. Their portfolio demonstrates skill and I think they’d be a good person to work with. They’ll meet 2–3 folks from my team during the case study presentation, so if someone’s made it this far I’m essentially vouching for them.

For the case study presentation, ideally the candidate chooses a great project, frames the problem well, tells a great story about how it went, and shows some details. Here are a few things I listen for:

  • Why did the company choose the project?
  • How did they approach it?
  • How did they work with others?
  • What bumps in the road did they encounter and what did they do about them?
  • Where did they push the boundaries?
  • Did it ship?

I’m bullish on the candidate, so I want others to check my assumptions. Sort of like a scientist trying to disprove her hypothesis, I’m asking my team:

I think this person should join our team, why am I wrong?

What did my team see that I didn’t? What reservations do they have? Are they a “hell yeah” or are they lukewarm?

In the past, a candidate might pass this stage without a consensus from the panel. Nowadays I remind myself that these people almost never worked out when we brought them aboard.

Everyone on the panel has to be a “yes” for the candidate to move on. If there’s even a single “no”, we discuss it together. I also review everyone’s scorecards, looking for any notes someone flagged that I should follow up on.

For someone who passes the case study presentation, I’m basically going to my manager and my manager’s manager and saying “I want to hire this person.”

I’m sticking my neck out for them, and that’s something I don’t take lightly.

I again remind myself of our past failures that happened when we compromised our standards. This is one of the last steps before extending an offer.

One of our design team’s core values is to establish a high bar for design quality and hold that line. I’ve learned that it also applies to our hiring process. Just as I do with design, I’m trying to be more rigorous with evaluating candidates. Granted we’re dealing with human beings vs. pixels, but many of the same principles apply.

At some point I ask each candidate about the best team they’ve every worked on and what made it so great. Almost 100% say it was the people they worked with that made the team so special. I couldn’t agree more.

It’s the people you work with that make all the difference. And that’s why I’ve been improving my hiring skills to ensure that when someone joins our team, everyone is set up for success.


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