By Andy Budd, Designer and Expert in Residence at Seedcamp
So far in this series we’ve discussed why a good designer should be one of your first hires, and how to go about sourcing potential candidates. In this article we’re going to be looking at how to judge which applicants might be a good fit. The most logical place to start is with the application itself.
What Does Their CV Say About Them?
A typical application includes a cover letter explaining why the applicant thinks they’re suitable for the role, a link to a portfolio outlining their work, and some sort of CV. When hiring designers, the portfolio tends to be the main point of focus, followed by the cover letter. CVs tend to be used as a tool to whittle down a large number of candidates into a more manageable pool. As such most hiring managers tend to give them a cursory glance at best, in order to spot trends and identify red flags. However there are some things I look out for.
When it comes to designers CVs I’m perfectly happy with something minimal and text based. However, if the applicant has decided to “design” their CV, I’m looking for a clean layout with good information hierarchy and a readable typeface. There have been a few occasions where a CV was so well designed that it immediately went on the top of the “Interested” pile, but that’s kind of rare. It’s more common to come across badly designed CVs that immediately put the candidate at a disadvantage.
Assessing Their Career Background
In terms of content I’m generally looking for a few different things. First and foremost I’m looking for their job history to tell a story of how they got to where they currently are, and how the role we’re advertising makes a logical next step. If people have jumped around a little, that’s fine. They just need to put a bit more work into their cover letter explaining the journey, their skills and how this role fits in. I also don’t mind if the role they’re applying for is a bit of a stretch as I’m usually hiring for potential rather than experience. This is especially true if their portfolio looks good. However you can usually tell from their career journey if the role is going to be too big a leap.
For your first design hire this may be as simple as noting that the designer has always worked as part of a larger team, with an already well established design system, on a fairly constrained part of the product. While it’s tempting to hire a designer with experience working for a much larger brand, you may find that they struggle with the slightly scrappy nature of early stage work. So it’s a good idea to see whether they have the pragmatism and flexibility required to take a product from zero to one, or whether they’d be a better hire a little later down the line once things are more established.
As well as the ability and experience to develop new products from scratch, your founding designer will probably find themselves leading a team before too long. As such you’re probably looking for somebody with leadership potential, so is there anything in their career journey that talks about leading projects, mentoring peers or being involved in the recruitment process. Not vital, but all helpful indicators.
Skills and Capabilities
It’s really common for designers to include a list of skills they claim to have on their CVs. This will usually be a mix of software tools (Figma, Sketch etc) along with a list of activities (usability testing, prototyping, customer journey mapping etc). I say “claim”, as it’s really easy—and annoyingly common—to create a list of things you’re aware of based on reading a few Medium posts, but that you’ve never actually done yourself. As such, when I’m talking to the candidate and reviewing their portfolio, I’m often looking for evidence that they’ve actually done the things they claim to be able to do. For instance it’s super easy to claim you’ve done “usability testing” having sat in on a study somebody else organized. However, can you demonstrate that you’ve written a screener, done candidate recruitment, created a script, moderated a test, and written up your findings? Have you done this once or multiple times? Have you done it in a cafe or meeting room? How about in somebody’s home, in a lab setting or online?
Sometimes these lists will include a scale, claiming that they’re an 8 out of 10 when it comes to “prototyping”. I’m not a huge fan of these ratings as the best people tend to know what they don’t know and under score themselves, while less experienced practitioners turn everything up to eleven. So if I do see ratings here, I’ll want to dig into these in the interview stage. What does 8 out of 10 really mean? Why have you given yourself an 8 rather than a 6 or 7? What would you need to learn in order to push it to a 9 or a 10?
On the tools front, I generally don’t mind what tools they’ve used, as this is generally set by the companies they’ve worked for. However I do like to see a range of tools being used, as this tells me they’re comfortable exploring new tool sets and aren’t using something as a crutch. Tools change regularly and I’m looking for designers rather than Figma operators.
The Cover Letter
I think a good cover letter can really pique a hiring manager’s interest. Especially if it tells a story. So I’m generally looking to see whether the candidate has read the job spec, understands what we’re looking for, and has been able to explain why their particular set of skills and interests fit the role. I’m also looking for somebody who has done their research and seems to care about the role, rather than sending off a pro-forma application full of [Insert company name here] fields.
I also think personality is important, especially in small teams. So I’m looking for somebody me and the rest of the team will enjoy working alongside, and will add to the culture of the company. As such I’m often actively looking for people with different backgrounds and life experiences than my own.
That all being said, a good portfolio can cover a multitude of sins, so this is where I focus the bulk of my time.
What to Look for in a Good Portfolio
A lot of portfolios—especially from less experienced designers or those working on smaller projects—rely heavily on finished visuals. While these can give you a good sense of the designer’s visual range and craft skills, they often leave me wanting more.
I generally prefer case study based portfolios instead. A good case study will explain what the featured project was trying to accomplish, the process and steps the team took, what the designers role was on the project, some of the challenges they faced along the way, and what the final outcome was. Generally a good case study will include examples of the activities they undertook along the way. For a simple case study this may be limited to a few early “wireframe” sketches, some interface explorations and some low or high fidelity prototypes. For more involved projects this could also include photos of the candidate leading workshops, doing field research or facilitating a usability sesion. It could also include examples of other documents like user journey maps and process flows, user personas and jobs to be done schematics, or anything else they mention in their CV.
By reviewing these case studies, you can get a much better idea of their breadth of experience, the way they approach projects, and how they go about problem solving. Do they have a super limited tool set, or a rich and diverse set of tools they can call upon when necessary? Do they focus on the first solution they come up with, or do they spend time exploring alternatives? Maybe they spend too much time exploring alternatives and end up getting bogged down in the details? Do they actively consider user needs and think through the challenges users are likely to encounter. What about business needs, or technical needs? Do they actively collaborate across disciplines or do they feel more comfortable working in a bubble?
When it comes time to interview candidates, I’ve already made notes on what I perceive to be their various strengths and weaknesses. So I use the interview process as an opportunity for the candidates to fill in some of the gaps. For instance, maybe they claimed on their CV that they were experts at user research, but this was only touched upon in their portfolios. I’ll ask a bunch of questions to understand the depth of their learning. What sort of research activities have they done before, and where do the limits of their experience lie? What tools do they like and dislike using? Are they focussed on formative or summative research? Do they favour qual or quant? If they wanted to understand what features to prioritise next, how would they go about answering that question?
In terms of interview structure, I generally keep things fairly simple. I’ll usually start by giving them an introduction to the company, the role, and what we’re looking for, and then ask them to tell me a little about themselves and their journey. I find people are generally comfortable talking about their work, so this is usually a good time to ask them to walk you through a project or two. Once that’s done we’ll start to talk a little more about their past experience, and how that fits with the role. This is where I’ll usually ask more behavioral questions to understand how they approach their work. Things like “Can you tell me about a time when you missed an important deadline?” or “Can you tell me about a time where you had to convince a stakeholder to do something they disagreed with?” and ask them to explain what happened.
The questions and scenarios you pick will be heavily tailored to your culture and past experiences, so it’s important to know exactly what sort of designer you’re looking for. Are you a company that values speed over quality or vice versa. Are you looking for an independent thinker, or somebody who will ship the CEOs vision? If you are looking for independent thinkers, how do you want to see that manifest?
Be brutally honest here. There’s no point positioning your company as something it’s not in order to hire a great sounding candidate. I know too many start-ups who painted a vision for where the company wanted to be in two years time rather than where it currently was. They hired super senior designers, but gave them too little space and flexibility to execute. As a result, they found themselves having to rehire 6 months later, with a much longer list of what to look for in a candidate and what to avoid.
It’s worth remembering that a good interview is a two way conversation, so I like to see candidates who show an interest in the company and ask insightful questions. After all, they’re judging you as much as you’re judging them. I generally keep my interviews fairly loose and don’t mind if we depart from the core structure if it’s proving useful. The key is to make sure that you give the candidate plenty of options to address any of the gaps, outstanding questions or concerns you may have about them, in order to ensure there is a good fit on both sides.
Dodging the Design Task Bullit
While I’m seeing an increasing number of job ads specify a design task, this practice has largely fallen out of favour amongst the design community. For a start, it requires a significant amount of effort from the part of the applicant. Much more so than hiring for other roles. Often design tasks ask the applicant to solve a real problem that the start-up has. However without the right level of background knowledge, the solution is usually going to be fairly ill-informed. As such, you run the risk of running a beauty contest, where you’re drawn to the solution you personally like, rather than the best solution. This can also feel like designers are asked to do free consultancy. In fact I’ve heard plenty of stories of designers not getting jobs, only to find the thing they designed in the interview go live a few weeks later.
Finally, design tasks are often seen to be discriminatory, as they generally favour people with more free time over those with family commitments, health issues or challenging work schedules. Because of this, many of the better designers out there will avoid applying for any job that asks for a design task out of principle. As such I’d currently advise against using take home design tasks. If you’re adamant about doing some sort of activity, consider doing a collaborative whiteboard exercise or asking them to present a simple product review instead. Ideally something that will take minimal prep.
One last spot of advice around timing. A lot of companies will have their job post live for several months, and interview people in an ad hoc manner. While this may work for seasoned hiring managers, if you’ve never interviewed designers before it’s useful to be able to compare different applicants against each other. As such I’d suggest interviewing people in tranches. So maybe running two or three interviews a day over a couple of days, and then come back together in order to compare and contrast. This is much better than interviewing one person every two weeks, only to find that the very first person you interviewed was the strongest candidate. You just hadn’t realised it yet.
It’s Tough out There
As you’ve seen through this series of articles hiring a good designer early on can really help shape the direction of your company and help you reach product-market fit faster. However it’s a sellers market at the moment, and I’m seeing lots of early stage start-ups struggle to find the necessary level of talent. With roles taking 6 months or more to fill, a lack of design talent can really hinder progress. With speed of execution being a major contributing factor in start-up success, my advice would be to start hiring as soon as possible—and probably sooner than you think.