Product Design Exercises Explained

Chris Meeks
November 5, 2019

Across the tech landscape, designers increasingly have a seat at the table. Good design is good business. And, of course, good design requires good designers. As a result, the process for hiring a product designer has been refined and, in many ways, mimics long-held engineering hiring practices.

Bad hires can damage more than the reputation of the hire themselves, they can undermine confidence in the design team’s hiring process. For that reason, established product design teams are trying to mitigate risk by creating a fool-proof process that will land them the best candidate. Increasingly, they’re leaning on design exercises.

What’s a design exercise?

Design exercises can take many forms. Their primary purpose is to establish skill fit alongside their interviewing practices for assessing culture fit. New Layer has a great podcast episode that describes them in detail.

In this article, we’ll address the take-home design exercise. But first, we need to get the elephant out of the room.

Design exercises are controversial

Product designers are adjusting to a world where design exercises exist and, naturally, are asking good questions (as product designers do!) about whether this hiring practice is negative or positive. There’s no straightforward answer. As with most difficult questions: it depends. Let’s run through a few scenarios.

The different flavors

1. Signing an NDA before completing an exercise

In many large companies, this is common practice. If they’re serious about you as a candidate, the company wants to make sure they can have open discussions with you about their team, design tools, and process, all of which are company information.

Of course, if you aren’t comfortable with an NDA, you’re under no obligation to sign it. You should weigh your options carefully and make sure you read whatever you sign. Some companies have a habit of extremely restrictive language that might be a red flag. This should not be constituted as legal advice.

2. Designing a new feature for their product (Unpaid)

There’s a term for companies that want you to solve their exact problems, unpaid, and it’s called spec-work. Spec(speculative)-work is not the same as a phone interview or other activity that you invest in an opportunity. It’s the literal use of your skill to solve a real problem without compensation, based on the hope that it will result in pay down the road. Simply put, it’s an exploitative practice and one to be avoided.

It can be tempting to take on a challenge like this if you have the time, energy, and aptitude, but be warned—this request is usually a sign that the company doesn’t truly value good design. Even if you’re rewarded with a job offer, you could land in a company culture that isn’t aligned with your values.

3. Designing a new feature for their product (Paid)

This is uncommon but occasionally happens when a product company wants an exercise that’s relevant to their business but understands that asking for spec-work is a negative practice (and will, therefore, yield poorer candidates).

You should assess these opportunities on a case-by-case basis. If you are excited about working for the company, you should charge a rate (either hourly or fixed) that’s appropriate for your experience level. If you do, just remember you may need to pay taxes on that income at the end of the year.

When designing real features for real products, try to set expectations with the company on the outcome. They should know that your solution won’t be perfect, because you’ll have to fill in information gaps, make some (documented) assumptions, and have limited access to relevant metrics. If this is a surprise to them, it’s a company that fundamentally doesn’t understand how good design comes to be.

4. Designing a product that’s not related to their business

Of all the take-home scenarios, this is the most complicated. By asking you to complete an exercise not related to their business, the company isn’t trying to directly profit from your work. In all likelihood, they’re genuinely using this exercise simply to evaluate your skillset in an apples-to-apples scenario against other design candidates.

From the company perspective, this is extremely helpful. As any manager or recruiter knows, navigating portfolio websites, Dribbble, and Behance is an inefficient process that yields inconsistent results. Did Designer A use a beautiful Squarespace template for their portfolio site or did they hand-craft every pixel? Did Designer B think through the ramifications of real content in their beautiful Dribbble shot?

From the designer's perspective, this is ethically appropriate but has some downsides.

First, it can take a lot of time and effort to complete an exercise. Some real features take years to research and design properly while working for that company full-time. How is a designer supposed to invent an effective solution in a fraction of the time and with limited resources? Simply put: they aren’t. The goal of exercises is not to create a perfect solution, it’s to see which questions a designer asks, which paths they follow, which assumptions they’re comfortable making, how creative they try to be within constraints, how focused they are on the user, and how well they craft their written and design execution.

The second drawback is that the exercise itself is usually only used for that one application. After that, if a designer signed an NDA, they usually can’t reuse their exercise or post it as a case study in their portfolio. This disadvantages people with more constraints on their time: like parents, people with disabilities, or those with other obligations outside of working hours.

At ProductDesigners, we’ve built a platform for completing design exercises that remain the intellectual property of the designer and can easily be reused when applying for any jobs on our network. Want to export your design exercise and use it as a case study? Go for it. It’s your design and your property.

When a company reviews your design exercise for their job on ProductDesigners, they’ll only be able to see the content (not your profile) until they’ve left a review of your exercise. As we’ve written about before, we built this feature because we’re focused on removing bias during the hiring process in an effort to reduce monocultures that are harmful to product companies and, by extension, the world. Additionally, this provides the benefit of giving you direct feedback from a potential employer that you can use to improve.

ProductDesigners lets you complete real design exercises and gives you feedback that will help you grow.

You’re ready. You’re informed. Now what?

Start on your path towards the job you’ve always wanted: designing experiences that will enable people to make connections and improve the world through technology.

ProductDesigners is completely free for designers. It’s easy to get started. Review a fantastic example from Pol Kuijken that yielded him a job offer from Google, and simply start a design exercise.

ProductDesigners is releasing more content to train designers every day. Together, we‘ll level-up your design skills and help you find a great job. In the near future, we’ll have more articles and tutorials to guide you on your path. For now, it’s time to do the work.

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