Dig deep, avoid traps and find green pastures
🗓 20th January, 2020
The big shots say that a great deal of design is about story telling and pitching; never is that more true than when going through an interview process.
Interviews are tricky because so much goes on simultaneously. The company tries to assess you, but you too have assessments to make. You try to be swift at asking the right questions at the right time and give responses carefully - all whilst analysing if you can see yourself working with the person on the other side.
Gut feeling plays a part too, and whilst there's no doubt that such feelings should reserve their seat, a good set of questions and answers are a better yard stick when analysing opportunities.
This article looks at some core areas product designers should be concerned about when considering an opportunity. Each area is broken down into template questions that may be selected to kick start conversations or reveal mysteries that are best discovered ahead of time.
Of course there's no such thing as a perfect plan so take the liberty to go with the flow when you're on to something. I hope these questions help land you land where you intend to.
Be clear on your expectations
It’s worth mentioning that you ought to be clear on what you’re looking for when you’re actively seeking an opportunity. List your must have’s and won’t have’s ahead of time and let them shepherd you to green pastures. This will help you identify good fits, avoid booby traps and negotiate favourable terms.
Some discussions are best left for following interviews
Most companies (or serious ones at least) will pass applicants through a number of interviews; there’s no need to discuss all affairs during round one — nope. You’re more likely to negotiate favourable terms after making it further down the line and convincing the powers that be that you’re the right fit.
Choose your questions wisely in the first interview and avoid asking about conference budgets, time off or whether you may bring your poodle to work. List conversations you’re not prepared to take on during the first interview, should those conversations come up, dodge the bullets by stating that you need time to think and that you’ll get back with a response via email.
So without any further adieu, let’s dive into some questions.
Company purpose and culture
Why does the company exist?
Some companies will pull out growth forecasts, others will enthusiastically tell you a captivating origin story. Ultimately, you need to decide if you want to work with a purpose driven company that you’re onboard with or just any one that pays the bills.
What are the company values?
Some companies are built on values that have been established during their infancy, others may think this is all fluffy talk. If the company you’re applying for does have explicit values, find out what they are to get a sense of their mindset and what it might be like to be around the team there.
What do you like most, and least about working there?
Ask this question to find out what some good reasons to join may be. Also, try to find out what’s less glamorous about being there. A caveat to the second part of the question is that the interviewer is trying to sell the opportunity and may avoid negative talk. However, they’ll often give a tiny snippet of what they think could be improved.
Product challenges and aspirations
What are some product challenges you’re facing currently and how are you solving them?
Ask this question to asses current pain points and whether they would make interesting cases for you to work on or not. Moreover, ask this to assess the company’s approach to problem solving. An added bonus to this question is that it may unearth company dysfunction.
What are the main short and long term aspirations for the product?
Some interviewers may focus on trivial details, others will have game changing aspirations. Whatever the case, ask this to get an idea of what’s coming your way over the short and long term.
What are some recent product accomplishments the company’s proud of?
The response to this question may shed light on whether the company is passing through the renaissance or a period of drought. There are opportunities in both scenarios however as a general rule, you’re more likely to feel exhilarated joining during a renaissance.
Who does the company directly and indirectly compete against?
You may figure this one out with some research however you may leave some stones unturned. Some companies may be challenging large institutions or competing against the offline world; others are ‘me to companies’ and just want to offer the same old. Whatever the case, find out who you’ll be up against to get an idea of how far the product may go.
How is the company structured?
Some companies are flat and organic (such as startups) whilst others are highly structured. This will help you understand what teams exist and how they collaborate and effect one another.
What third parties, if any, make an integral part of the business?
Some companies have partners, use third party software or call in the occasional contractor. It’s good to know what’s done outside in advance as it might be the case that you won’t get to work on that. Moreover, you may also have little or no influence on anything third party.
Where does the company get its direction from?
Some companies push direction from the top down. Others encourage people to proactively make sensible calls then have a bias to action. Do you need someone to inform your schedule or do you thrive on ambiguity and autonomy?
Are designers assigned a domain or do they work in a centralised team?
Larger companies typically assign designers a domain. Medium sized companies may have a centralised design team or may have some people assigned to domains. Smaller companies and startups expect designers to take ownership of the entire customer journey. What kind of experience are you after at this time?
How large is the product team? How many of them are designers?
This will help you gauge the amount of raw power needed to maintain the product but also the emphasis the company places on product development. Large product teams are often victims of bureaucracy but you’ll also get to work with and learn from more people. Small teams are usually fast moving and multidisciplinary but you’ll learn from a handful of people.
Process and day to day work
How is work generated and distributed?
Does the product manager or the designer write issues? Are issues assigned to designers or do they pick them from a backlog? Do the designers get to discuss and work on the backlog as a team or not? This will give you a heads up on your level of influence on what gets done and what you’ll get to do.
What are some daily, weekly and monthly rituals that take place?
Some companies follow SCRUM religiously, others have no formalities and then there are hybrid companies. This will help you understand the level of transparency, collaboration and accountability that goes on. Are you one who needs to follow the news daily or do you thrive on ample focus time?
What’s typically on a designer’s plate each month?
Will you be focused on couple of projects at time? or will you be expected to put out fires daily? This question will reveal a lot as to how organised and disciplined the company is. Moreover it will give you a heads up on the size of the projects you’ll be working on.
How do designers collaborate amongst themselves and other teams?
Some companies understand the value of collaboration and encourage it. Others frown at the sound of it and favour output over outcome. As a rule of thumb, you’ll learn, deliver and achieve more in collaborative environments. However, if you’re a lone wolf, a highly collaborative environment may be over stimulating.
What does the sign off process look like?
Is there a boss with a capital ‘B’ making all the calls? Are designers expected to ship then own their messes? Do peers review each others work before shipping? If you’re starting out in your design career, having a mentor may be beneficial to you. If you’ve got some experience already, autonomy may boost your growth.
What tool set are designers using?
Whilst you may expect companies to move with the times, some companies are set in their ways and resist change. You may not care too much about tools, or perhaps you refuse to throw yourself back in time after all your efforts to keep up. The choice is yours.
Do designers get access to data analytics tools?
Some companies will expose designers to all intelligence gathered whilst others may be secretive. Access to data gives you the ability to make sane design decisions and become more valuable to the tribe. No access will leave you having to trust the direction provided — or your gut.
How do you measure great design?
If your potential employer replies by saying “if it looks good…”, run away — fast. Seriously, that will always be subject to your employer’s mood or perhaps the weather. Great companies are analytical and measure design by the impact it has.
What are some things you do to ensure quality work?
Some companies make it a point to let work fail fast by having critique sessions or by vigorous testing. Others stop when things look okay. If you have a high quality bar (and I’m sure you do), look for companies that will push you to your limits.
How frequently do you ship product?
Some companies take objectives seriously and religiously ship on set dates, other companies may ship when they feel things are ready to go. Whatever the company favours, this question will give you an idea of the pace you’ll be expected to work at. Can you handle it? or are you a stallion and need more?
How do designers collaborate with engineers and data scientists?
Is there a hand off process and if so what does it look like? Or do people work together in an organic ways then present their work as a team? Ask this question to learn who you’ll be interfacing with and in what capacity. Direct exposure to other disciplines will help you learn and grow.
What are some ways you document design and projects in general?
Some companies expect designers to provide extensive documentation around their design whilst others consider this a waste of time. Does documentation keep you sane and help you to help others? Or are you turned off by writing and want to be doing visuals all day?
Do designers get access to customer feedback?
Some large companies do customer support in house and provide a wealth of customer feedback to designers. Other companies may not be able to offer this input yet. Ask this question to gauge what kind of input you’ll receive in-house and what research may have to be conducted alone.
What growth options are available to designers and how explicit are the trajectories?
Some companies establish levels of seniority for designers together with expectations for each level. Some companies have a mentality of hiring internally and give talented people a chance to grow. In other companies you may need to devise your own strategy to pursue growth — you may also be thrown into first gear by company politics.
How does the company actively support designers’ growth?
Some companies send designers to conferences, reimburse them for money spent on their education or perhaps encourage collaborative events. Other companies may not be in a position to invest as much or even worse — don’t prioritise personal development. The irony is that all employers expect their talent to grow — so make growth a priority.
How frequently do designers receive feedback around their personal development?
Some companies will make it a point to catch up with you from time to time to see how you feel, how you’re doing and help you advance. Others will not give you any scheduled feedback even though you may always ask for it. If you thrive on knowing where you stand, ask this question. Lastly, formal and documented feedback sessions may help you negotiate your terms when the time’s right.
Does the company actively encourage mentorship?
In some companies, the team lead will be responsible for on boarding and mentoring new hires. In other companies it could be senior designers or anyone who’s up for it. Mentorship is a great opportunity to obtain experience in helping people more formally.
The ideal candidate
What qualities do you look for in designers?
Some companies will surprise you with a response like “problem solving skills” whilst others will value fast, good looking pixels. This question will reveal how designers are perceived in the company. Are they perceived as problem solvers or factory workers?
What are some things you consider red flags in designers?
Some companies will be turned off by designers with no business acumen or strategic mindset. Others may be turned off by people who cannot collaborate or who don’t articulate their decisions well. Worth finding out before joining as you may need some brushing up.
What are you hoping the next hire will bring to the table?
Sometimes companies hire strong all rounders to join the force. Other times companies may be looking to bring something more specific to their team. Find out in advance to make sure you’re the right person and avoid surprises that will work against you.
What are some things you’d consider a bonus in designers?
Some things are expected and are clearly written in the job description. However there are always additional skills which if possessed will help you stand out, deliver more and grow. Ask what these things are up front to jump onto the growth track.
You won't get to ask all your interview questions so prepare a list you wish to ask in person, then send the leftovers via email as a follow up to ensure all questions were answered. Assess all answers against your must have's and won't haves; is there a match?
During the interview, try read the interviewers' personalities: are they giving you the responses you wish to hear to make a quick and desperate hire or are they willing to do some heavy panning till they strike gold? Are they likeable people? Do you see yourself working with them for the next few years?
I wish you the very best in your product adventures and do hope that these questions help you find those green pastures.