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Advice to Candidates on Successful UX Interview Loops

January 9, 2017

There are many great articles with advice to UX designers and researchers for creating effective portfolios and resumes. In our experience, however, there is far less advice for UX professionals who are going through an interview process—an incredibly important part of any UX professional’s career. After all, that interview—and your work—will ultimately determine whether you get the job. UX interview loops are highly specialized and, as a candidate, it can be difficult to know what’s expected of you. This article is an attempt to illuminate what candidates should keep in mind when preparing for and undertaking a UX interview loop—whether you’re a recent college graduate or a new or an experienced UX professional.

As UX leaders, we’ve reviewed thousands of UX designer and researcher resumes and portfolios and conducted hundreds of interview loops. We’ve seen what tends to work and not work during UX professionals’ interviews, and we’ve seen similar processes for UX interviews at companies large and small. With this in mind, we want to share some advice to help UX candidates land the job they deserve.

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The Interview Process in a Nutshell

While every company has some variations in the way they interview UX candidates, the UX interview process generally works like this:

  1. A candidate submits a resume—and a portfolio, if a designer.
  2. A phone interview is the first step of the interview process.
  3. Optional: A candidate performs an at-home task.
  4. An on-site interview—called an interview loop—includes
    • a 30-minute portfolio review, in which a UX professional shares his or her work
    • one-on-one interviews with designers, researchers, product managers, engineers, and managers

As a candidate, your objective, throughout the process, is to demonstrate your technical and interpersonal skills. Overall, the chief questions in interviewers’ minds are:

  • Is this person skilled enough to do the work we need him or her to do?
  • Can I see myself working on a team with this person?

Advice for Each Phase

Now, let’s consider things to keep in mind at each phase of the interview process. Because appropriate advice sometimes varies for experienced UX professionals versus people who are new to the industry, we’ll clarify whether certain advice applies to a specific candidate population.

Phone Interviews or Screens

If you’ve submitted your resume to a company and they want to set up an introductory phone call, this is a phone screen. The purpose of a phone screen is to screen people out of the candidate pool who are not qualified for the role. Therefore, phone screens dive into a candidate’s work and educational history to ensure the candidate has the right background, qualifications, and skillsets to justify doing an on-site interview loop. Here is our advice for more effective phone screens:

  • For candidates at all levels of experience:
    • Practice providing a two-minute overview of your work history—and keep the history pertinent to the job for which you’ve applied.
    • Have a couple of projects that you can speak about in depth if you’re asked about work you’ve done. It’s very important to talk about what you personally contributed to these projects. (Apply this advice to the entire interview process.)
    • Be ready to answer questions about why you’re interested in the company with which you’re interviewing. Make sure you do your homework to understand the company and its products so you can give a well-educated answer.
    • Find a quiet environment in which to take the call, make yourself comfortable, and be prepared to take notes.
  • For experienced UX professionals:
    • Describe how your work history demonstrates growing responsibility and influence.
    • Be ready to answer questions about each career choice you have made—such as why you joined or left a company or position.
  • For recent college graduates and new UX professionals:
    • If you do not yet have professional UX experience, describe past school projects, internships, or volunteer UX work.
    • If you’re unfamiliar with phone interviews, have a friend call and do a mock phone interview with you to improve your ability to describe your work history and answer questions over the phone.
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At-Home Assignments

The purpose of an at-home assignment is to ensure a candidate can do reasonably good work on their own. Not all companies or managers assign at-home work to candidates, but if a candidate is given an at-home assignment, the process will not proceed until the assignment is complete. While hiring managers are looking for a reasonably good proposal, they are also interested in seeing a candidate’s process for arriving at that proposal.

Here is our advice for doing more effective at-home assignments, for candidates at all levels of experience:

  • For designers:
    • Show your process, not just the final outcome.
    • Explain your rationale for decisions.
    • Describe what research or data-gathering process you’d include to iterate your designs or measure success. Include a mix of near-term and long-term solutions.
    • Unless you are interviewing for a specialist role—for example, a UI designer—show your breadth as a designer, in terms of different design disciplines such as information architecture, interaction design, and visual design.
  • For researchers: You’ll likely be asked to design a study to answer a specific research question or resolve a particular problem.
    • Include a short study protocol and a rationale for each method you choose to employ.
    • Describe lightweight, scrappy research methods, as well as more involved research approaches you’d use if you had plenty of resources.

Portfolio Review

A portfolio review is usually the starting point for an on-site interview loop. It is often the first chance you’ll get to meet a team in person. It’s also your chance to show and describe your work. Your presentation skills are very important because the portfolio review demonstrates how effectively a candidate can present his or her work to stakeholders. Therefore, poor performance in a portfolio review would likely translate to poor presentations on the job. Here is our advice for more effective portfolio reviews:

  • For candidates at all levels of experience:
    • Practice delivering your overview in the allotted time, but keep in mind that you’re likely to start a few minutes late because interviewers are not always on time and technology may not work as expected.
    • Briefly introduce yourself—your background, your interests, why you chose to interview at the company—before going into your projects.
    • Present one or two projects in depth to demonstrate your process and skills, then briefly describe a few other projects to show the breadth of your experience. Clarify what projects you’ll cover in depth and why.
    • As you describe your projects, describe your process, as well as how you worked with people in other roles to see a project through to completion.
    • Start each overview with the problem you were trying to solve—particularly if it included a measurable business goal.
    • Designers: Emphasize how you incorporated user feedback into your designs.
    • Researchers: Emphasize how you worked with stakeholders and what changes your research drove.
    • Emphasize your specific contributions throughout your review. “We redesigned this experience” isn’t helpful because interviewers don’t know your contribution to that effort.
    • Demonstrate your impact. How did you know you were successful? How did you measure it?
    • Bring several copies of your resume to hand out during your presentation. If you’ve brought printed samples of your work, distribute those as well.
  • For experienced UX professionals:
    • If you’re interviewing for a senior role, make sure the projects you share in your portfolio review are impactful and complex.
  • For recent college graduates and new UX professionals:
    • Share whatever work you’ve done. It’s okay to share student projects, personal projects, intern projects, and projects you’ve done as a volunteer. Interviewers will not expect you to have a large body of professional work if you are just starting your career. (We all have to start somewhere!)

One-on-One Interviews

One-on-one interviews represent the bulk of an interview-loop day. Candidates interview with other UX professionals, but probably engineers, product managers, and managers, too. They’ll likely ask you to do a design exercise on the fly.

  • For designers: They may ask you to design an entirely new system—for example, a cafeteria food–reservation system.
  • For researchers: They may want you to design a research protocol—for example, to investigate why customers are abandoning their online shopping cart.

Each interviewer in a one-on-one will take notes on your responses. Then, after the interview loop is complete, all of the interviewers will vote on whether they think the candidate should be hired. Here is our advice for more effective one-on-ones:

  • For candidates at all levels of experience:
    • Listen carefully to the interviewer’s questions. Ask clarifying questions if you don’t understand what they’re asking. It’s better to think about the question for a few seconds before answering rather than quickly providing a poor or incomplete answer.
    • Come prepared to talk about specific projects on which you’ve worked to illustrate your answers, and bring samples of your past work.
    • When describing your work, emphasize the work you did yourself, not the work your team did.
    • Be prepared to whiteboard, brainstorm, or sketch your ideas.
    • If you’re asked to do a design exercise, ask questions to be sure you understand the problem space and the context before jumping in.
    • Review standard interview questions—you can find them online—and practice answering them using examples from your work.
    • If possible, ask for a list of the people with whom you’ll be meeting prior to starting the interview loop. Look them up on LinkedIn beforehand to get a good sense of their background and what questions they might ask.
  • For experienced UX professionals:
    • Senior UX professionals must demonstrate not just strong individual contributor work, but also what they have done to mentor junior UX professionals and build UX standards, processes, and culture.
    • Understand the role of the person with whom you are interviewing and speak about how you’ve worked with people in similar roles in the past.
  • For recent college graduates and new UX professionals:
    • Interviewers may ask you questions that are biased toward experienced UX professionals—for example, “Tell me about a time you convinced a reluctant stakeholder of the need to go in a different direction.” In such cases, cite examples from school and talk about how you’d apply that experience in the workplace.

Some General Tips

Here are some things you should generally keep in mind throughout the process:

  • For candidates at all levels of experience:
    • Be genuine and honest. It doesn’t benefit you or the company with which you’re interviewing if you’re not yourself or don’t answer questions truthfully.
    • The interview loop is for you, too. Use it to learn more about the team. Is this a group you want to work with? Is the company interesting? Is the product interesting? Is this is a place where you can learn?
    • Research the company—or product team—with which you’re interviewing. Come prepared with questions about the business and the user experience, as well as suggestions regarding what you’d want to work on if you were hired.
    • Show how you incorporate customer feedback and data into your process.
    • Cite data or the rationale that supported your decisions on the projects on which you’ve worked. “It just felt right” is not a strong justification for a project decision—whether you’re a candidate or a member of a team.
    • Throughout the process, be specific about your unique contributions to projects. Avoid talking about “we.”
    • If it is not obvious from the job listing, ask the hiring manager what sorts of products or features she or he is hiring for.
    • Make sure someone shows you the products you might work on. This will give you a good sense of what state they are in and the type of work you might be doing.
    • Stay positive and enthusiastic throughout the process. From the candidate’s perspective, interview loops are long and involved, but each interviewer will make his or her judgment based on their specific interaction with you.
  • For experienced UX professionals:
    • As you interview, pay particular attention to organizational culture to ensure it matches the way you prefer to work.
  • For recent college graduates and new UX professionals:
    • If you don’t have a long work history or much experience yet, your enthusiasm is going to be a strong selling point.

Conclusion

UX interviews can be stressful and very involved. Preparing for an interview can greatly improve your likelihood of success. But keep in mind that, as a candidate, an interview loop is also your opportunity to learn more about a company: Is this is a place I’d want to work? Do I like this company’s products and its industry? Can I see myself working with the people who interviewed me? Would I grow in this work context? A successful interview loop means the candidate has gained a strong sense of the work culture and the people with whom they’d work, and the company has gotten a strong sense of the person they’re interviewing. Good luck! 

UX Research Manager at Qualtrics

Seattle, Washington, USA

Jerrod LarsonAt Qualtrics, a software company that develops tools to gather, view, and take action on customer and employee insights, Jerrod leads a team of UX researchers. Prior to joining Qualtrics, Jerrod held UX leadership roles at Alaska Airlines, Amazon, and Boeing. Jerrod has a PhD and a Master’s in Human-Centered Design from the University of Washington.  Read More

Head of UX Design & Research at Qualtrics

Seattle, Washington, USA

Daan LindhoutAt Qualtrics, a software company that develops tools to gather, view, and take action on customer and employee insights, Dan heads the UX team. Prior to joining Qualtrics, Daan held UX leadership positions at Socrata, Moz, F5 Networks, and Sumtotal Systems. Before that Daan spent seven years at Microsoft in various roles involving UX and industrial design. Daan has a MSc in Industrial Design Engineering from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.  Read More

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