editione1.0.2Updated February 27, 2023
You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.
Here is a sample design exercise solution that I completed a few years ago. This presentation (as well as the rest of the interview) helped not only secure my offer but led to a higher design level than I anticipated and a higher salary as well. The prompt asked to design a car dashboard for an autonomous vehicle. For this exercise I didn’t have that much time (about five days) so I had to skip my usual approach of asking many questions up-front and started working right away.
As is usual with any design briefs, I began by reframing the problem. Instead of “designing a car dashboard,” I wanted to think about the experience broadly—from the car’s interior to its exterior and how the car can be part of a larger ecosystem. I sketched a few different directions before settling on one, which I fully fleshed out, and lastly, I sneaked in a surprise at the end of my presentation.
To start this exercise, while riding the train to my next interview, I began typing some thoughts on my phone in the notes app on how to approach the task. The train itself was an inspiration—could public transit be the answer? I pursued the mass transit idea further by looking into Emirates airlines and other luxury transit services, including the new luxury Japanese train. The luxurious interiors looked nice, but what about everyday mass commuters? What are their existing activities and habits when taking the train to work?
I didn’t have time to set up a proper study, so I relied on three 12-minute interviews with friends and asked them about their experience with riding trains, buses, ferries, and so on. From searching online and from the conversations, I identified four major categories of activities on mass transit: productivity, relaxation, social, and health.
When you’re going deep on the design exercise, it helps to periodically step back and remind yourself about the problem you’re trying to solve. In my case the prompt was asking for an in-car UI design for a self-driving car. I decided to take a slightly different approach because many car manufacturers have been addressing this problem for decades. Redesigning the car display would be optimizing for local maxima prematurely.
Manufacturers have spent their attention on the interior display taking eyes away from the road.
What if we could expand the display from a small tablet to include the windshield? And what if the car was smart enough to capture inputs from the outside world and provide contextual info. Technology without an explicit need is like a solution looking for a problem. As designers, it’s our responsibility to take technology’s raw potential, intersect it with customer needs, and build a solution that drives results for the business.
Augmented reality (AR) is a potential solution, but it can also get out of hand. As designer Keiichi Matsuda shows in his explorations, an AR that bombards a city resident with visual noise promotes anxiety. I included this in my presentation as an extreme example to steer away from.
I also considered voice assistants. After all, even Ironman’s advanced AR suit still had an omnipresent assistant. To see how these technologies could work (or collide) together in the customer’s space when they’re taking transportation, I started doing some light synthesis with some simplified diagramming.
Simple diagrams to start synthesizing and modeling how various trends come together.
This led me to a few core principles to evaluate my work against:
Personalized. The assistant should deeply understand the person(s) in the car.
Unobtrusive. The technology should let the customer be in the driver’s seat.
Context aware. It should provide relevant suggestions based on context and customers’ interests.
Although I didn’t explicitly mention these anywhere in my presentation, having these explicitly documented held me accountable by enforcing constraints, which led to a streamlined concept.
With problem discovery done, I did some rough explorations via storyboard sketches showing how a car interior could transform to a suitable activity from an interactive gym inside a car, to a productivity station, to an experience that connects two strangers by showing activities and people they have in common.
Bringing people together based on shared connections and activities.
In the end I converged on an idea I thought was most exciting—tourism; imagine an Airbnb experience guide but in a car. This concept hit on many things from my diagram—interacting with public and private spaces, using sensors, voice, AR, even facial recognition to do complex computation in order to provide the right answer. Here’s an example wireframe of what a smart social table may look like.
Sample wireframe of what a smart social table may look like.
To make the concept come to life, I wrote a story about a fictitious solo business traveler, Sarah, who has a few hours to kill in the evening in San Francisco by doing a tour of the city. The solution is an assistant in an autonomous car that understands Sarah and anticipates her needs. It also has a bit of snark to its personality, something Sarah appreciates.
Writing and rewriting a story is a quick way to prototype. I usually start out almost all of my design work by writing first. I went through a couple of drafts first and later sketched a few screens on paper before quickly turning to mocking up screens (at that time) in Sketch. The digital work in turn helped me refine the story further and add some elements of amusement and delight.
Here are a couple of highlights from the narrative that I’ve put together. Her journey starts on her phone near the place she’s staying.
The journey starts on the phone…
She lets the app know what she’s in the mood for, and as a car arrives the experience seamlessly transitions to her car dashboard.
The car dashboard shows an overview of the trip and destinations.
But the main action is in the tour that Sarah experiences through an AR windshield with a voice-assisted guide.
The windshield takes advantage of the large space and provides the right context.
The assistant is smart enough to make personal recommendations and get out of the way. It gives Sarah enough time to explore the Ferry building on foot so she can find her favorite chocolates there. The car goes to park itself, but the assistant is available a tap away on her phone.
Throughout the journey in the car, the assistant is intelligent enough to anticipate how Sarah feels (like if she’s falling asleep) and provide an appropriate remedy (coffee) with minimal input.
Would you like me to order a $20 Americano for you?
The final presentation came down to 40+ slides in four chapters:
Technology trends. In AR, VUI, and automotive, showing how there’s potential for customer value but also danger in going overboard.
Research synthesis. Show already-existing behaviors of people in relation to semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles.
Contextual scenarios. Show storyboards highlighting divergent exploration, ultimately converging on the final segment of the presentation.
Sarah’s story. Illustrates how technology and people’s needs come together and solve a customer’s problem.
The context of tech and research made the audience understand what solutions are possible, and Sarah’s story illustrated a specific use case.
A couple of years ago I went to an AIGA event where I met the fine folks at Ueno. One of the designers mentioned how if a client asks for coffee, don’t just bring excellent coffee but bring chocolate. Understanding the underlying but unspoken need is key. In my case chocolate was a box.
Sometimes to think outside the box you have to think inside the box.
At the last minute, a few hours before the interview, since I’d already sent the deck for a pre-read, I decided to build a physical prototype of an autonomous vehicle. I spent about an hour cutting up boxes and gluing cardboard together. What if we could have customers co-design the experience by interacting with the physical prototype?
The on-site presentation of this exercise was my third to last interview. I lucked out on the presentation space, as Sarah’s story came to life on a beautiful large display. The box and the rough sketches surprised and delighted the interviewers, as they had never seen anything like it.
This is one way to solve a design exercise but not the only way. I do hope that by showing some of my process behind the work and the deliverables, you can see how I’ve followed (or ignored) the design exercise principles (they’re not set in stone) based on the situation at hand.
The design exercise is an opportunity to leave your personal mark on the work. Take it and have fun with it. Find out what the evaluation criteria will be and use your unique perspective, experience, and knowledge to stand out.
Coming up with a new design proposal from nothing can be a lot of work. Usually, when you’re joining a company you have frameworks already set up for you, be they design systems, brand assets, or just existing processes that can help you stand up a new concept quickly.
important When you are using outside resources for your design exercise be sure to properly attribute and credit the work.
Many of the assets that I’ve used for design exercises (including this one) came from popular, free-shared libraries. Here are some I recommend for the raw materials for your design exercise.
Humaaans. A customizable illustration library by Pablo Stanley. Use is free for personal and commercial use.
Blush. Founded by Pablo Stanley, it’s a customizable illustration resource that allows you to remix, change colors, and find illustrations for different occasions.
Undraw. Similar to illustration libraries already listed but with less focus on the character and more emphasis on staging.
Your project may not require maps, but if it does, spending a little time customizing a map could be another way you can differentiate your design.
Mapbox. Probably one of the most robust APIs out there. With Mapbox studio you can customize tons of things (you have to create an account). The learning curve may be a little steep at the beginning, so I recommend you take a couple of pre-existing Mapbox maps and customize those first to get a feel for it.
Google map styles. You can select a theme or you can come up with a brand-new style, customizing things like buildings, landscapes, points of interest, roads, transit lines, and water.
The app critique is one of the easier interviews you’ll encounter when interviewing for a product design role. Unlike the take-home design exercise or the whiteboard interview, you don’t have to create something from scratch.
Unlike a critique of an app that you’re designing, you’re not encumbered by any internal constraints (tech, business, and so on), giving you an immense amount of freedom. The challenge then lies in how to come up with reasonable constraints to help you navigate the critique.
important As you’re facilitating the app critique, ask yourself—can I work with this team if I was hired? Do they seem like people I can bounce ideas off freely?