Sophie Shepherd

March 11, 2022

Interview questions for product designers

I’ve done many initial hiring screen calls over the last couple of years. These calls happen after we have reviewed resumes and portfolios but before we move a candidate into the full interview loop (portfolio presentation and meeting the whole team). The goal is to get to know how a candidate thinks, works, and collaborates. I like to dig into the things that aren’t immediately clear from looking at their resume. At this point, we know their work is good, but we don’t know all of the ingredients that made it good.

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Instead, they reveal to me what the candidate values. By the end of our conversation I usually have a good handle on what they are passionate about, where their strengths lie, and what types of teams they like working with—and from there I can decide if they’d be a good fit in the role we have open.

I have iterated on these questions over time, and have found that there is nuance in the way they are asked—just like good user research. This is the set that I have landed on for giving me the most signal in the least amount of time, while keeping the conversation enjoyable for both me and the candidate.

What was the specific moment you knew you wanted to be a product designer?

This gives me the same data as if I asked generally about their origin story, but asking it in this way encourages specifics and shines a light on what they are passionate about. I’ve heard candidates explain the feeling they had “finding their people” at their first hackathon, the first time they entered a flow state while designing, what it was like to speak to a user for the first time, or the joyous relief of solving a really hard design problem. These stories tell me so much more about a candidate than what they studied in college.

I love asking this as my first question because I often find that it puts the candidate at ease. People light up when they recount this moment.

Tell me about your first design job. What did you learn about people? What did you learn about design?

I enjoy hearing about candidates’ professional foundations because so much of our early experiences stick with us forever. I like framing this through the lens of “first job” rather than most recent or current job, because it allows people to be more forthright.

The way I ask this has evolved over time to get more and more specific. I like separating lessons about design and lessons about people because it helps the candidate to think of specific stories to help demonstrate their answers. Unlike the previous question, this usually bubbles up stories of early challenges and growth.

Being a designer is unique because it requires such a wide range of varying skills. Which parts of being a designer have come naturally to you? Which have you had to put more effort into?

This question because it tells me so much. First, it tells me what the candidate sees as important skills for a designer to have. Sometimes these are generalized skills, like being a great listener or presenter, and sometimes they are very specific, like automating processes with Figma plugins. There is no right or wrong answer here, but how the candidate interprets it tells me a lot about how they view their role as a designer.

Hearing about which pieces come naturally usually overlap with which pieces they enjoy most. Like the first question, people usually really light up when they talk about they things they feel most innately adept at.

The meat of this question is in how they answer the second part: which skills they need to put more effort into. This demonstrates self awareness, humility, and growth mindset. I love to hear how they’ve grown over time, and what steps they have taken to push through discomfort.

What is the best team you’ve ever been on? What made it so great?

This tells me what the candidate values most in working with others. About 80% of candidates answer the second part of this question by saying that the team communicated well. When that’s the answer, I dig deeper and ask what was in place to make that happen. I learn if people care about working with other high performers vs. mentoring/being mentored, if they prefer having clear direction vs. full autonomy, having a lot of process vs. no process, supportive feedback vs. constructive feedback, if they care more about the process or the final product, etc.

If you had a magic wand and could change one thing about GitHub tomorrow, what would it be?

Not only does this one give me an immediate understanding of someone’s experience with our product, but it shows me how they think about product design. Some people are product thinkers. Some people are system thinkers. Some people can’t unsee visual bugs. I love them all. I love working with designers who have outlandish ideas that they aren’t afraid to share. I also love working with people who go crazy over seemingly minor nits (within reason).

Why do you enjoy designing for developers? If you don’t have experience designing for developers, what interests you about it?

Since GitHub is a developer tool, we want candidates who show interest in building for developers. However, this question is admittedly a bit of a red herring. To me, this is less about developers and more about how a candidate thinks about and cares for users. I am interested in seeing candidates with curiosity and empathy more than I am in seeing demonstrable experience.

Some people keep it work related, but others open up about something exciting going on in their life. This lets me get to know a bit about a person without asking the dreaded question: “so what do you like to do outside of work?” I’ve learned about upcoming trips and random hobbies. I never would put a candidate on the spot to talk about these things if they didn’t want to, but I love when they do.

These genuine moments of connection are what make interviews enjoyable for me. Enthusiasm is contagious, and I love ending an interview with the candidate sharing something that makes them happy.


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