• By Everett McKay on April 5th, 2010
  • Quizzes and interview questions

How to ask good design interview questions—and why “design a spice rack for blind people” isn’t one of them

I was originally going to present a good interaction design interview question, but soon realized that my rationale for liking the question was as interesting as the question itself.

The key to success in any project is to hire the best talent you can. When it comes to evaluating interaction design skills, the interview questions used are often weak.  How can you identify that best talent by asking poor interview questions?

Stop asking “edgy” design questions

Interviewers often ask what I call “edgy” design questions. You know, something that fills in the template “Design a <useless product> for a <target audience that isn’t you>.” “Design a spice rack for blind people” is a popular one of these, but the possibilities are endless:

  • Design a coffee maker for a car.
  • Design a texting device for toddlers.
  • Design a voting booth for Martians.

As if Useless Japanese Inventions wasn’t comprehensive enough. I gave one of these to a candidate once and I’ve regretted it ever since. I’ve been on the receiving end of these a few times and honestly I’m not impressed. People seem to think these questions are cool and insightful. I find them neither.

Yes, I get it—these questions are about design thinking and process, and realizing that you aren’t the target user. Interviewers want to see candidates working the problem from the target user’s point of view and not designing for themselves, making assumptions, or jumping to solutions. Any candidate that starts off by thinking about possible solutions likely won’t pass the muster.

I think there are many problems with “edgy” design questions. Here’s some:

  • “Correct” answers are too narrowly defined. Interviewers who use these questions often have a predefined notion of the correct answer, and anything else is likely considered incorrect. While candidates that start off with possible solutions aren’t following good processes, they might be demonstrating another valuable skill called “brainstorming.” Who’s to say that applying a design process deserves full credit but brainstorming creative solutions demonstrates lack of competence? And of the two, the creating brainstorming skill is the harder to master. Just because a response is unexpected doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
  • Advanced design skills are penalized. Candidates experienced enough to apply user-centered thinking should also have enough experience to realize the question is silly. The impractical nature of these questions means that the products have no market, don’t solve real problems, have a poor value proposition, are potentially unsafe, are based on questionable assumptions, etc.A good answer to “design a coffee maker for a car” is “I’d rather not—people might get killed. There are too many distractions in cars already. If people are running out of coffee while driving, consider designing larger mugs instead.” Another (snarky) response: “That’s an interesting design challenge. Do you have data that shows there’s a market for such a product? No? …then I’m not sure why you’re asking me to design it.” Those are Level 3 responses, but would the candidate get the job? Seems to me that demonstrating that a product concept is safe and has a viable market requires more advanced design thinking than figuring out how to shoot hot water through a hole.
  • True user-centered design is impossible. Candidates intentionally aren’t part of the target audience, forcing them to design for somebody else. In practice, how do we normally do that? With some sort of user research, right? Can’t do that in an interview. A skilled candidate could work around the problem by asking questions, but if done well that should ultimately lead to a dead end—these impractical products don’t exist for a reason.
  • The interviewer isn’t a target user either. One of the goals of these questions is to reveal if the candidate makes false assumptions about users, but chances are the interviewer is just as likely to have false assumptions. For example, most “blind” people (actually, “vision impaired” is more accurate) can see to some degree, so a good spice rack for blind people is probably a good spice rack for sighted people. The question itself is based on a false assumption.
  • A good response requires answering a different question. To answer the question well, candidates have to realize that the interviewer wants to know about design process, or wants them to ask clarifying questions, or redefine the question into something more practical. But the interview process isn’t exactly a realistic discussion among peers. The interviewer has all the control, and candidates might be reluctant to answer anything other than was literally asked. You asked the question, and candidates shouldn’t be penalized for answering it as asked.
  • Interviewing is a two-way street—and your side of the street now sucks. While your goal is to determine if the candidate is qualified and a good match, the candidate’s goal is to determine if he or she wants to work for you. Do you think highly talented designers want to work for teams that develop impractical products? Do you think highly talented designers want to work for teams that are so clueless about good design? Just as you judge candidates by their responses, candidates judge you and your team by your questions.
  • Ultimately, such questions fail to demonstrate design skills. Interviewing acumen and preparation are as important here as design talent. To do well, it’s not so much what candidates say, but how they say it. Suppose you have Bob, who lacks design skill but has received 10 minutes of coaching on this type question, vs. Alice, who has amazing design skills but spends her time thinking about practical design problems. The impractical nature of the question plus a bit coaching are a great equalizer, so Alice doesn’t necessarily have the clear upper hand.

Yes, a skilled candidate could work around these problems. For example, a candidate might say “It’s not my experience that people with visual impairments would need or want such a product. Still, let’s apply the principle that everyone benefits from accessible design, so instead let’s design a spice rack that’s highly accessible to everyone.” That’s a much better design challenge—a product that might actually sell—but even so it’s more a demonstration of interviewing skills than design skills. I don’t think these interview questions aren’t good enough to deserve redemption.

What to do instead

The solution is simple: ask practical design questions that solve problems people actually have. Choose design problems that candidates have some familiarity with so that they can observe instead of speculate. Choose design problems that you have some familiarity with so that you can use common sense to distinguish good responses from BS. Score the results based on design skills demonstrated instead of interviewing skills required to diplomatically navigate around a poorly conceived question.

If you do only one thing: Make sure your design questions demonstrate design skills instead of interviewing skills. Allow for brilliance—have enough latitude so that insightful responses are recognized as such, even if completely unexpected. And make sure the question is engaging enough so that talented designers will want to work for you.

I’ll post my design question next week. I hope it lives up to my buildup.

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