As part of our recruitment process at inUse, we give a design task to applicants to carry out at home and in their own time. Afterward, they present their analysis and solution to us.
In part 1 of this series, I explained why we give people homework. The short answer is that it benefits us both. The long answer, well that is covered in part 1.
In this second part of the series, I share all the tricks in the book for how to ace our design task.
The basic structure of the design task
With minor variations, our home assignment has had the same general structure for a long while. It looks something like this:
You are presented with a fictive brief from a client.
You are asked to identify the relevant target groups for the client’s offering and to think about their needs.
You are asked to create a high-level design concept that would serve those needs.
You are asked to pick a key use case and design a detailed flow for that use case.
Finally, you prepare a presentation of your work and present it to us as if you were meeting with the client and not with inUse.
What we are looking for in your work
We have met with a lot of designers. We have seen some outstanding work through the years. We have also seen a number of similar mistakes being made by a lot of people. Some of that is our fault. Our instructions and expectations are not always as clear as they could be. This blog post is one way of addressing that issue.
The following is a guide for what we are looking for in an applicant’s design work and presentation. Along the way, I will mention some common mistakes to avoid.
Read and follow the instructions properly. If we ask you to do five things, then do all of those five things. When you are done with your work, go through the instructions and check that you have delivered all parts asked for and have answered all of our questions. If you have a good reason to skip something, then, by all means, do so; just make sure that you have a compelling argument for doing so.
You might be pleased with one part of your work and hope that it will compensate for parts you feel to be weaker. It might, but rarely does. We need to see a complete design task; otherwise, it is hard for us to gauge your potential as a consultant.
There is a risk of getting stuck in the first part of the task, where you identify and reason about target groups. Some people get stuck here because they enjoy this part. Others because they didn’t plan their time properly. We really need to see all sides of your work: your analysis as well as your solution.
Obviously, you shouldn’t skip the first part. It is incredibly important to find a good framing for the problem, to figure out who the solution is for, and what the key attributes of that solution should be. But more important than an all-encompassing analysis is a good and plausible analysis. It doesn’t need to be a huge analysis. Identify the key target groups, prioritize them, and be clear about what the value is that you need to provide them with.
As you do the task, you will feel that you have to make a lot of assumptions and simplifications. As well as having to heavily limit the scope of your work. As designers, we all hate doing this. But do it. Do it a lot more than you would in an actual project. Just make sure to share your assumptions and reasoning with us. We hope to have a stimulating conversation with you when you come to present. The thinking behind (and about) your work is as important as what’s on the page.
Sometimes people conduct an adequate analysis but fail to properly translate that analysis into a design solution. There is a design, but it is too detached from the analysis. Ensure that the two parts tell a complete story and that you can explain your design decision by relating them to your analysis. You should be able to explain which need a particular part of your design is serving, and how it is serving that need. Some of your answers will concern how people handle the design (e.g. how they navigate, search, filter, sort, check, and select stuff), and some of your answers will address things like people’s expectations, preconceptions, motivations, and knowledge (or lack of), as well as their fears and hesitations.
The final part of our design task requires you to design a detailed flow for one key use case. Make sure that the use case that you select really is a key one. It should be important to the main target group, and not being able to complete the flow should have dire consequences for the product or service that you are designing.
We want to see a flow where you have worked out all the details. That means that you should, in principle, be able to prototype it. You don’t need to make a prototype (unless that is what you wish to do), but it should be possible to build one from your wireframes and explanations.
The design should guide the users through every step, giving them sufficient clues to work out what they can do, how to do it, and what is happening at every stage of the interaction. This is the part of the design task where you convince us that you could be put into a team with developers and that you would be able to provide them with concrete, realistic, workable and elegant solutions. We need to see that you can handle the nitty-gritty details.
A thing to look out for here is over-complicating things. Aim for the simplest and most direct solutions, using common design patterns.
You probably know of Nielsen’s usability heuristics. Those are the sorts of things that you need to demonstrate that you master. We don’t want you necessarily to talk about them, just to apply them in the detailed flow.
We really appreciate you having creative ideas and thinking about broader aspects of the design problem. Share those ideas with us. They are a welcome addition. Just be sure to solve the core problem and deliver on all parts of the task. After all, the purpose of our design task is to gauge your practical ability as a designer.
When you present to us we will have a lot of questions. Lots and lots of them. Some of them will be to better understand what you are presenting. Many of them will be to better understand you. Take our questions as an opportunity to share your thinking and to explore your design further, perhaps further than you had time to before presenting to us. Don’t worry if we ask about some part you didn’t do or something you hadn’t thought about before coming to us. How you engage with our questions is as important as the stuff you brought with you. If you give only short answers to our questions or are overly defensive, we won’t have the opportunity to discover how you think.
Having a good conversation about the design task – each of us learning something that we didn’t know before – is what makes the experience enjoyable and meaningful for both of us.
The point of the exercise
Your CV and cover letter are for getting an interview. The interview was for convincing us to give you the design task. The design task is for showing us that you can do all parts of the job. You will be focused on solving the task. At the same time, this is how you provide us with a picture of what you can do, what you like doing, and how you might fit in at inUse.
I hope this guide is useful. I hope it is useful regardless of which company you are applying to. I have tried to be as transparent as possible about how to do the task well. The text is long and I hope you don’t feel lectured to or intimidated by our expectations. I have tried to give you frank advice and warn you of some common pitfalls. These pitfalls are real. I have seen dozens and dozens of people fall into them. You shouldn’t have to.
We don’t want you to have to guess what we are looking for. We want you to have the best possible chance of doing well at the task. If you were to work for us, it would be the same, we would do our utmost to help you succeed in every way.