How Designers and Developers Can Stand out in a Job Interview

I’ve been part of my design team’s hiring process for the last few years. In that time, I’ve refined my list of go-to questions I ask candidates. I recently wrote about it and summarized the article in this tweet thread:

Afer seeing this, Parcel’s Naomi West and I worked together to turn this into a talk for Parcel’s Unpacked conference.

This the text version of my talk, loosely compiled from my speaker notes and conference video transcript.

When you ask the question “what skills do you think are valuable for this job” what does their answer tell you?

I’ve been involved in my team’s interviewing these past few years. I typically interview folks who’ve made it past the interviewer screen and an intro interview with a hiring manager. So by the time I see them, I know they’re at least pretty good.

I love learning what each candidate values as the important skills to have.

Sometimes it’s generalized skills like being a great listener or presenter, and sometimes they’re specific or technical like automating processes with Figma plugins. I love digging deeper to find out what they’re naturally drawn to or excel at.

Being competent at design or code is table stakes, so I’m listening for what ELSE someone would be bringing to the team. (Hopefully it’s a skill we don’t have yet)

I’ve gotten at least one job as a product designer because I was familiar with HTML emails. It was something the team needed at the time and they noticed that I thought it was important and that I enjoyed working on email.

I’m also listening to see if a candidate mentions growth areas: skills they think are valuable but they aren’t necessarily doing at a high level yet. This demonstrates self awareness, humility, and growth mindset.

For instance, it took me a long time to learn the “product” part of being a product designer. Several years ago, I had decent UI design and front-end skills, but had trouble chatting with my PM about product strategy, contributing to roadmaps, and coming up with ideas for new products and features. Even now, I’m still working on it and mention this as a growth area when I'm interviewing.

There is no right or wrong answer to this question, but how the candidate interprets it tells me a lot about how they view their role and personal growth.

If someone highlights an area of growth, how do you determine if it’s an area that won’t be a weight to the team? What areas of growth opportunity are positives in your opinion?

Highlighting growth areas is usually a good sign. As long as a skill isn't central to their responsbiities, it’s usuallynot a dealbreaker.

A candidate expressed a desire to improve their research skill. A bunch of designers on my team are skilled researchers and it’s super helpful for someone to run their own research, but for us it’s a “nice to have”. Another example was a really strong UX designer who didn’t have the strongest visual design chops. We hired them and are currently working with them on their visual design skills.

But if it’s key to their job, they should at least have the basics down.

I once interviewed someone for a design lead role and they mentioned having trouble rallying people around ideas. This is something I’d expect from a lead, a core competency, and it would take a while to cultivate. Another time I interviewed someone for a design systems position, and while they were a whiz working with design systems and components in Figma, they didn’t know any code. Unfortunately this was a dealbreaker for us in this case.

Most areas of growth are fine if the person does well in the rest of the interview.

Having a strong opinion can be something that sets a candidate out from the crowd. When do you see a strong opinion as a positive, and when does it become detrimental?

It’s good for folks to have opinions and bring them to work. Being opinionated means that you stand for something. You values and principles and know why they’re beneficial. It demonstrates a willingness to take a stand on important issues, to challenge the status quo, which is huge in our line of work.

Done constructively, it’s a vital part of what we do. "Confident in their opinions, but not closed-minded.”

  • I prefer running projects in Trello, but am willing to use another app.
  • I prefer certain ESPs, but will work with others if that’s what the team wants.
  • I have my own development process, but am open to changing it.

It become detrimental when someone becomes arrogant, dogmatic, stubborn, and otherwise difficult to work with. Once I interviewed a product designer who thought visual design “wasn’t that important” because “it’s easy.” I couldn’t imagine hiring someone who’d look down on others like that. I’m weary of people with intense ideologies.

It’s also ok not to have an opinion about everything. It’s ok to confidently say “I don’t have a strong opinion about that” in an interview.

Once I asked a candidate “What’s something you have a strong opinion about?” expecting to hear about one thing, and they responded “Everything”. I could not picture myself working with the kind of person who would constantly be offering up their opinion. It’s good to know which hills are worth dying on.

What’s the best way you’ve seen developers or designers present their work? What’s stood out to you before?

As part of my team’s interview process, we ask candidates to do a case study or portfolio review, where they walk us through one or two recent projects they’re proud of. Someone’s presentation is good indicator of how well they’re organized.

The best candidates come to an interview with an organized presentation that explains the project background and goals, walks through the process, and showcases the work. It’s good storytelling, clear explanations, some (but not too much) data, and maybe even some lessons learned.

The best presentations I’ve seen are slide-based, but they don’t have to be. I’ve also seen folks walk through their raw files, like a Figma file or live code. It’s a great way to see how a person thinks and what it’d REALLY be like working with them. But I’d only advise this if the file is very well organized and the storytelling is on point.

I really struggle to follow someone finding their way through a messy Figma file or website, especially when there isn’t a well rehearsed story that ties everything together. Or when a whole presentation is held up waiting for code to render or a website to load.

Chaos might be ok during a project, but not during a portfolio presentation. If you show up to a presentation without a plan, it’s gonna get ugly. I’ve turned candidates down on this part alone.

Overall, part of a designer or developer’s job to to rally people around an idea or sell a particular design. If someone can do that in the interview, it’s a good sign they’ll be able to do it on the job too.

What advice do you have for the perfectionist?

I appreciate the perfectionist’s dedication to quality and craft, but I’d want to know how they balance speed and quality. Because in most teams, there’s a constant tension between the two.

I’d want to hear an examples of when it was worth it to get something just right and when “good enough” was good enough. Talk about the differences between those two scenarios.

I’m listening for how someone decides to stick with something a little longer and when they decide their effort is best spent elsewhere. What factors into their thought process? It is impact? It is delight? It is timelines? Is it audience impacted?

There’s a constant tension between shipping faster and shipping better, and I’d want to know how someone would navigate that if they joined the team.

Your mileage may vary depending on the company you’re interviewing for. Startups, for example, may favor speed over perfection, whereas a large enterprise may favor thoroughness and perfection over speed. I’ve worked on medium-sized, mature startups, so that’s where my advice comes from. Take it with a grain of salt.

How important are side projects?

I say this as someone with side projects: side projects are hard. I’m a parent whose had several bouts of burnout (some very recently 😓). And that’s two out of many reasons why side projects are hard for folks to pull off. And let’s face it: Not everyone lives to work, and that’s totally fine.

So side projects aren’t a must, but I’m hoping to hear that someone has enough initiative and product sense to be able to look at a space and identify gaps and opportunities. That someone has the drive to work on something that no one asked them to.

This can happen outside of someone’s day job in the form of side project, but it can also happen at work.

I love hearing about how people are involved in creating their team’s processes or pitched projects for the roadmap. It doesn’t have as big as large as, say, building out an email design system. It could be as small as defining the UX copy guidelines for button text.

I was talking with an email developer who mentioned pitching a project to redesign their product’s email preferences. It was outside of their DIRECT responsibilities and I don’t know if they even ended up doing it, but it displayed initiative and SHOWED how they cared about the whole email experience.

One of the more creative ideas I heard was from someone who set up office hours at their company to teach email. On their team, HTML email was a niche where only a one or two people had the skill while everyone else struggled through it. After seeing this, they set up a repeating calendar invite where people could bring their questions and gradually learn more about HTML email. They saw a problem and solved it creatively without spending a ton of time or resources.

Again, what I’m listening for is initiative. I don’t care if it happens inside or outside of regular working hours.

What’s something you wish you knew that people don’t talk about?

One thing that gets overlooked is the time at the end of an interview where the candidate can ask me questions. Sometimes folks are so focused on answering the interviewer’s questions and forget about this part. Even though I’m the one answering the questions, I’m still judging the candidate!

So it’s good to have some thoughtful questions prepared ahead of time. Not softball questions like “What’s the team like?” or “What’s your design process?”

I’ve been most impressed when someone throws me a curveball. Here are some of the best questions I’ve been asked:

  • I noticed everyone in my interviews has been a white guy. Tell me about the company’s approach to diversity and inclusion.
  • How does the company make decisions?
  • How does the team handle conflict?
  • How does the company think about seniority? Who decides when and how promotions happen? What about firings?

Questions that make me pause and think. Maybe ones that I can’t answer.

It’s good to ask hard questions and challenge the status quo. When I see that someone doesn’t shy away from addressing a difficult or awkward situation in the job interview, there’s a good chance that’d continue if we hire this person.

Check out all the sessions here. Many thanks for Naomi, Avi, and team for inviting me to speak and running a top shelf conference.