After the Design Interview

21 minutes

After the Design Interview

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Interviewing is a process of continuous learning and self-reflection. Sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of an interview with one company just after having recently wrapped up a final interview with another company. Periodically stepping back, noting down your performance will help you continue improving your interviewing skills and thus increasing your chances of getting that dream role.

When you’re interviewing, inevitably your application will get rejected. Rejection stings but by conducting your own retrospective and by asking for feedback you can use it to your advantage. Instead of repeating the same mistake again, you’ll know what not to do next time. Don’t skip the step of asking for feedback, it may make a difference between getting a job or not in your next interview.

Once you do get the role, don’t stop. Accepting an offer too quickly can be a risk if the company has certain red flags (e.g. poor culture or lack of runway). Be sure to schedule interviews of your own and do the due diligence to make a more informed decision while negotiating the offer.

15-Minute Interview Retro

You’ve wrapped up your final design interview! At this stage, you might have an interview line up right after or you may be early in the interview process with other places. Regardless, it helps to step back and reflect on the day. Also don’t forget to also close strong by thanking your interviewers for their time. Some say that thank yous are passé. I disagree. Sending a specific and thoughtful email is an extra touch that reinforces your interest in the role.

Figure: Post-inteview Retro Review

Post-interview retro review

Do a quick retro after each design on-site interview: celebrate, improve, learn.

To begin, grab a piece of paper and fold it twice to make three columns: celebrate, improve, learn.

Celebrate: What Went Well?

When we’re in the middle of interviews things happen fast. Sometimes there’s little room for thinking and if you’re an introvert you may feel overwhelmed by the constant barrage of questions. So it helps to step back after the interview and celebrate the things that went particularly well,

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  • How did I set myself up for success during the interview?
  • What question(s) did I pass with flying colors? What made it good?
  • How did I closely connect with one of the interviewers?

storyDuring one interview exhausting day of interviews, I bonded with the founder over our mutual love of cooking, enough to exchange tips and recipes (and perhaps also to show that I was serious about it). In the spirit of bringing you whole self to work, it was a small thing that helped us connect.

For interviews that went poorly, look for highlights in specific moments. Capitalizing on things that you already do well helps build confidence in a process that sometimes feels opaque.

Improve: What Could Be Better?

As you step back, try to think with eyes of an outside observer as if you’re watching yourself and the interviewer from the sidelines.

  • How did you come across?
  • What did you miss?
  • What could you have done better?

How you frame your response matters. For example if you’re talking about conflict—make sure you communicate that you’ve learned from it and not blame the other party (even if they were the one’s to blame, it doesn’t matter in an interview setting).

Other times an opportunity for improvement isn’t necessary a mistake but a missed opportunity to put yourself in the best light possible. Perhaps there was a particularly thorny problem that you were able to solve because you made a connection that others didn’t see based on your previous experience or learning outside of work.

The point of this prompt isn’t to beat yourself up over small mistakes. Instead it’s a chance to think about areas of opportunity and what’s in your control. Prioritize and work on those first, your future interviewing self will thank you.

Learn: What Did You Find Out?

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.Maya Angelou

Another thing to note is what you learned and how you felt during the interview.

story“What’s your favorite brand?” asked the hiring manager during an on-site interview. I paused to think as brand wasn’t my forte but gave an explanation for why I thought Airbnb was doing meaningful work in experiences. “I hate Airbnb. What’s your next one?” she shot back. Later she proceeded to tear apart my portfolio.

The interview is a two-way street. You and the interviewer get to know each other and build a shared understanding.

What looks good on paper may not be the reality. Alternatively a seemingly subpar job description can be amazing because of the team. One of my colleagues shared a lesson in how her friends, a husband and wife, optimized their job search. The husband sought out new industries and companies that are on the cusp of making it big. The wife paid more attention to the immediate team members. Both ended up successful but the wife was happier.

At the end of the day it’s about the people you work with so it’s important to ask yourself if after the interview you still want to work there:

  • Does this culture resonate with my values?
  • Can I be successful here?
  • Does the environment set me up for success?
  • Were there any red flags?

Look back on your original job criteria. Now that you’ve applied to jobs, interviewed at companies—was there anything new that you learned about your dream job or yourself?

Learning From Rejection

You’ve wrapped up your product design interviews and are now waiting to hear back. But after a few days later you get that dreaded reply thanking you for your application but it’s “not a good fit at this time.” What happened?

Figure: A Generic, Cryptic Email

Generic, cryptic email

You might get this generic, cryptic email. 🤔

It’s easy to blame yourself and feel terrible as your thoughts race to think of what you did wrong. Before you get caught up I would encourage you to take a deep breath and step back.

importantYou can choose your reaction. If your friend went through a similar situation, how would you talk to them about it? Approach yourself the same way—self compassion helps you take the learning in and bounce back stronger.

In this section I’ll cover why candidates get rejected. Think of failure as a stepping stone, use it to improve your chances of success next time.

important Rejection along your interviewing journey is inevitable. It means you’re pushing yourself and not settling down. How you handle it determines where you ultimately end up.

First Step—Ask for Feedback

So let’s say you got an email similar to the one above. Now’s a good time to follow-up with the hiring manager or recruiter or both and ask for feedback (thus demonstrating self awareness and a growth mindset in the process).

Here’s a general template to follow:

  1. Thank them for taking their time.
  2. Mention how you’re interested in the role and would like to be kept on the radar even if now’s not the right time.
  3. Ask for feedback. You’d like to improve and it would be helpful to know about your growth areas so that you can be an even stronger candidate the next time around.
  4. Close by thanking them again for the opportunity.

Companies are hesitant to share feedback. In short, it might expose them to litigation if the candidate feels they’ve been rejected unjustly due to discrimination. Unfortunately this incentivizes most companies to avoid feedback altogether.

Most of the times you might get a carefully worded response mentioning an area of concern in no specific terms. You’ll need to read between the lines here. For example if the recruiter said your soft skills need work—think of how you presented yourself or how you came across. It may be beneficial to cross reference this feedback by asking a current or former colleague for their (radically honest) assessment.

The granularity of feedback will vary from non-existent to vague but even then I would still encourage you to ask for it as it may uncover your blind spots—mistakes that you’re completely unaware of.

Framework for Working Through Feedback

Over time you’ll accumulate different and potentially conflicting feedback. This is why it always helps to have a career roadmap for your next step in the journey. Some feedback will be relevant—some won’t be. A roadmap helps your prioritize.

Figure: Breaking Feedback Down
Break feedback down into quadrants

Break the feedback down into quadrants.

Another way to prioritize is looking at feedback through a dual lens of effort and control. Obviously high leverage actions should be done first but on the flip side, let go of things that you can’t control—no need to stress out about things that can’t be changed.

Reasons for Rejection

Although a company really wants to fill that vacant design role—the cost of a bad hire is high. Companies hire conservatively. So even though they need help (and they stretch existing employees to fill the gap), many choose to wait longer to find a perfect match. That’s why it’s important to leave a strong impression and convince your interviewers that you’re the right designer for the job.

To be clear, “a perfect match” doesn’t actually exist. Don’t eliminate yourself by not applying to roles where you meet 70% of the requirements. If you have the skills—you can pick up the other 30%. What’s important is to communicate to your interviewers that in addition to your know-how you have the ability to adapt and learn fast.

“Is there anything that I said or didn’t say that would make me not an ideal fit for this role?”

You can ensure you and your interviewers are on the same page by asking them point blank, “is there anything that I said or didn’t say that would make me not an ideal fit for this role?” This question usually breaks the wall and allows the interviewer to communicate what they’ve seen so far. Then you act on this feedback immediately and set the right impression.

Let’s look at a couple more factors that are in your control that you can use to your advantage.

Interview Performance

Even after having prepared and practiced ahead of time—you will still make some mistakes during interviews. That’s ok. Things don’t go according to plan, so it’s important to take the new learning in. If you haven’t already done the post-interview retro, I recommend you start there.

You might discover areas that you want to practice or improve upon such as the whiteboard exercise or the app critique.

While these articles give you a structure that you can take and adapt—I also recommend practicing with a design friend. This will help you see past your own blind spots and open up new perspectives.

You find and win a great job against a pool of very competitive candidates who may want that job as much, if not more, than you do.Debbie Millman

Interviewing can feel like hard, unthankful work. If you’re good at your work shouldn’t they just hire you already? The truth is, even in our current age of design abundance, competition is high. So don’t forget to practice and put your best self forward.

Few “Real World” Projects

Design is a hands-on discipline, the closer you can get to practice, the more convincing your argument to employers that you can do the work. In other words the more “real” your work is (getting a product fully built, shipped, iterated upon) the more prepared you’ll be compared to “simulated” work environments (e.g. working only with other designers on static mocks).

Figure: Spectrum of Design Project Types

Where in this spectrum do your projects fall?

Based on your current experience, where in this spectrum do your projects fall?

If you’re new to the field getting the first job will be hard as employers might feel like they’re taking a bet on you. But you can alleviate their worries by showing proof that you’ve done this work before. My recommendation is to look at internships, side projects, open source projects, or hackathons—to name a few. If real world experience is a barrier, continue filling your portfolio up, showing that you’re serious about your craft.

Years of Design Experience

Even if you have the “real world” experience… you might not have enough. Everyone wants a senior designer with at least 3+ years of experience. But how do you get experience without experience? The reality is that most design jobs don’t need a senior designer—mid-level or even entry level designers can hit the ground running quickly and deliver impact.

Figure: Unrealistic Design Job Requirements

These design requirements are getting out of control.

These design requirements are getting out of control...

Dig deeper behind the title. What are the responsibilities, what kind of experience are they looking for? Can you deliver on these expectations or rise to the occasion? You can address the experience gap with examples that show how you were able to transfer your skills to solve increasingly complex challenges.

Companies aren’t looking for someone with 5+ years of experience anyway. The “X number of years” is a shorthand for someone who’s done the work, has experienced different environments and is able to do the work without supervision. You can get that experience in 2 years depending on where you work. Or you might stagnate and not reach a level of proficiency even in 10 years—be careful where you work and which environment you choose.

Lack of a Specific Skill

Sometimes you might get rejected due to a lack of a certain skill or the company’s need at this time e.g. they’re strong in UX but need more visual designers. If so, this is an opportunity to get better at a specific aspect of your craft. However maybe you also don’t care about this skill (e.g. visual design) and if that’s the case you might look at opportunities where you can play more to your strengths while finding resources to help you level up your growth areas.

Domain Experience

Sometimes companies may hesitate to bring on designers who don’t have deep domain expertise. For instance your experience was in enterprise design but they want consumer designers. Or a company may want someone with an intimate knowledge of the entertainment space but you don’t have that experience. As a result these companies may discount your non-domain experience heavily.

The thinking goes, if this designer hasn’t done the same thing elsewhere, they won’t be a good fit here. Nothing could be further from the truth. Design is a fluid discipline. Some designers prefer to specialize in one domain but many also expand and grow their skills in different industries.

storyDuring one interview I was preparing for my next stage when I got a call a day before saying it would be a waste of time for both parties if I showed up because they didn’t think I had the skills necessary. The reason? They wanted designers with more consumer experience. This didn’t stop me from getting consumer design offers elsewhere. So don’t let one rejection deter you from applying to roles that may seem like a stretch.

So what does this mean for you? Have the conversation with your interviewers, show examples of where you transferred your learning successfully. These could be different domains (e.g. consumer to enterprise), different platforms (web to mobile), or even different design disciplines (from graphic to service design).

Salary

Occasionally you might price yourself out of the market. When it comes to salary, recruiters ask about this question upfront, usually during the phone screen.

There are a few ways you can answer this but it helps to do your research upfront from multiple sources such as LinkedIn, Hired, or AngelList to give you realistic estimate of what you’re worth and how much you should be thinking about as far as base compensation is concerned (especially when you’re applying for startups who compensate heavily with equity).

Ultimately it’s a personal question. Sometimes it’s worth to sacrifice higher pay for learning. Ideally you can be in a role that gives you maximum learning and compensation but that’s not always possible.

Factors Outside of Your Control

Not everything is under our control. Sometimes the role might get closed due to budgets or other issues.

storyIn one of my roles, after I gave a 2-month notice, I started looking for a replacement by posting on job boards and going to design events. I found someone who, not only had more experience but also had deep domain expertise. She interviewed for the job and things went well. Unfortunately the role was later cut. It happens. You may be the ideal candidate the company isn’t ready for.

Alternatively a company might be in a low design maturity state. Your skills might not be valued enough or the role is scoped down tightly. In that case, the rejection may be in your favor as it allows you to pursue better opportunities where design is valued more.

importantDesigners have more power than they realize. Yes, the field is competitive. Yes, there are many designers out there and according to the latest design twitter—everyone is a designer. But many jobs also go unfilled. Certain markets and metro areas have more roles than designers. To paraphrase William Gibson, we live in the age of design abundance but the roles are not yet evenly distributed.

Some Rejection Is Healthy

Sometimes a lack of a rejections can be a red flag too. You might actually be setting your goals or aspirations too low if you’re not getting a good dose of rejections during your interviews. Think of rejection as inoculation against further rejections, helping you get better over time.

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