The Take Home Design Exercise

20 minutes, 12 links

The Take Home Design Exercise

As I mentioned previously, design exercises are not without fault, and as a candidate you always have a choice should you accept to do one or not. Sometimes companies allow you to swap one design exercise for another, e.g. instead of the take home exercise doing a whiteboard challenge.

Or you can choose to forego the design exercise altogether and end the interview—sometimes this is an option if you’re interviewing at other places and this one isn’t worth your time and they’re not budging on pushing back the timeline.

cautionBeware of companies that try to get free work out of you via a design exercise. The design exercise should be different from their business and the deliverable shouldn’t be a fully coded concept that can be implemented.

If you do choose to accept this challenge—you can play to your strengths by highlighting your potential in practice, that is if you weren’t encumbered by constraints, how would your work look like? Maybe your current job didn’t offer you the right environment to prove yourself. Or you think your portfolio isn’t an accurate representation of what you can do now. It happens. Now’s your chance to show off those skills.

Design Exercise Format and Criteria

Typically candidates are given a few days to a week to complete the take home assignment. Usually recruiters warn candidates not to spend more than “a few hours on it” but in reality many candidates spend a fairly significant amount of time on it. After all, if you really want to differentiate yourself, you have to put in the work.

So you got a design exercise on your hands and the clock is ticking. To make sure your solution is adequate you’ll need to make sure you understand the evaluation criteria. Every company will vary but typically they look for:

  1. Process: how you approach and solve ambiguous problems.
  2. Craft: strong interaction design and visual design work delivered in a short amount of time.
  3. Creativity: generating divergent and out of the ordinary ideas quickly.
  4. Prioritization: converging on critical concepts that lead to impact.

Sometimes companies also use different types of design exercise formats when they want to zero in on a particular skill. For example some may focus heavily on visual design aspects, while others may want you to focus more on interaction design.

And yet some companies may not have a rigorous process established (usually in startups) and they may not really know what they’re looking for in an answer. These can be the toughest take homes to crack but usually following the design process to a tee and showing how your process has yielded new and interesting solutions helps put them at ease.

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Nine Principles for a Successful Design Exercise

There are no shortcuts but you can increase your chances by:

  1. Practicing. If you’ve never done a design exercise, practice by finding a problem you’re interested in. Give yourself a deadline, write a prompt, do it in the allotted time, and give yourself an objective evaluation.
  2. Understanding context and questions. Get to know the constraints and how your work will be evaluated.
  3. Going above and beyond. After understanding the baseline requirements, see how you can exceed expectations. As Paul Graham says, “The best protection is always working on hard problems.”
  4. Letting the narrative guide your presentation. It’s not about the technology or the process—it’s about how all the work you’ve done helps the customer lead a better life.
  5. Showing and curating process. Generate lots of ideas and be deliberate in what you focus on. If it doesn’t make your narrative stronger—leave it.
  6. Talking to customers. Actually talk to people. Yes this will be a biased, convenience sample but having rough customer feedback is better than none at all. Scrappiness is a virtue.
  7. Synthesizing findings. Show the meaning you’ve extracted from disparate data sources to frame the problem accurately.
  8. Treating it like work. Imagine you’re already working at this company, how would you approach this challenge?
  9. Delighting the client. When your foundation is solid can you add a cherry on top that leaves interviewers in awe? Or in the words of Ueno, "When someone asks you for a coffee, bring the best one you can, but always add a piece of chocolate.”

Start with Context

Ok, you have your design exercise prompt. What should you do first? Since this is a high-stakes project it’s important to get context upfront to save time executing on the right direction.

What Is the Final Deliverable?

What are they looking for? Is this a mobile app, a sitemap, a research brief or a desktop app? Are they looking for you to show your skills in interaction design, information architecture, research, visual design? This should be clear from the prompt.

importantWhen you’re working through a design exercise, know when to take shortcuts and know when to go bespoke. Creating every asset from scratch may take a long time and may not be necessary.

What’s Unclear?

Even with clear prompts you’re still bound to have questions. That’s a good sign. Generate a list, reread the prompt and think how the answers can help you move faster when you’re heads down on challenge.

How Collaborative Do They Want to Be?

Interviewers might be willing or expect to provide feedback during the course of your work. You should both be on the same page as to how often you can reach out, to who, what feedback you should get and when.

When Is the Deliverable Due?

Structure the deadline to your advantage. When I had a lull in work it was easy for me to focus intensely on the design exercise to get it done. Other times I’ve taken a day off or pushed back on the start date of the exercise so I could work on it over the weekend.

importantYou only get to do the design exercise once, so make sure your submission is the best it can be given the timeline. If you are employed but don’t feel like you have enough mental energy to take on a design challenge, take a day or two off. Design exercises are already hard, don’t put yourself in an impossible position of running out of time prematurely.

What Are Your Options?

Design exercises are time intensive—some companies offer the choice of a whiteboard challenge instead. I took this option when I was already doing two design exercises already. This saved me time, while delivering high quality work for the other two plus the interviewers felt they got everything that they needed from the whiteboard.

How Will You Present Your Work?

Usually at the end of the design exercise you’ll present at their office. Typically to save time this will be as part of your final interview. If possible, try to get a sense of what you’ll be working with: their room set up, monitor, seating, etc. It’s always good to know your context and be prepared with backup in case their tech fails.

Real-World Take Home Design Exercise Solution

Here is a sample design exercise solution that I’ve 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 5 days) so I had to skip my usual approach of asking many questions upfront 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 it’s exterior and how the car can be part of a larger ecosystem. I’ve 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.

Looking at Analogous Domains for Inspiration

To start this exercise I began by typing some thoughts on my phone in the notes app on how to approach the exercise while riding the train to my next interview. 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?

Figure: Your Own Private Autonomous Vehicle

Your own private autonomous vehicle

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, busses, ferries, etc. From searching online and from the conversations I identified four major categories of activities on mass transit: productivity, relaxation, social, and health.

Questioning Assumptions

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.

Figure: Interior Displays

Don't take your eyes off the road

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 promoting anxiety. I’ve 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.

Figure: Early Design Diagrams

Early design diagrams

Simple diagrams to start synthesizing and modeling how various trends come together.

This led me to a few core principles for me to evaluate my work against:

  • Personalized: the assistant should deeply understand the person(s) in the car.
  • Unintrusive: the technology should let the customer be in the driver’s seat.
  • Context aware: provide relevant suggestions based on context and customer’s interests.

Although I didn’t explicitly mention these anywhere in my presentation, having these explicitly documented held me be accountable by enforcing constraints which led to a streamlined concept.

Exploring Solutions with Storyboards

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 together by showing activities and people they have in common.

Figure: Common Activities

Bringing people together

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 the diagram above—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 aample wireframe of what a smart social table may look like.

Figure: Social Table Wireframe

Social table wireframe

Sample wireframe of what a smart social table may look like.

Using Storytelling to Make the Concept Come to Life

To make the concept come to life I wrote a story about a fictitious solo business traveler, Sarah, who has a couple of hours to kill in the evening in San Francisco by doing a tour of the city. The solution is an assistant in autonomous car that understands Sarah and anticipates her needs. It also has a bit of a snark personality, something Sarah appreciates.

Figure: Fictitious Personas

Fictitious personas

Meet Sarah.

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.

Showing, Not Telling Sarah’s Journey

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.

Figure: The Beginning

The journey starts on the phone…

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.

Figure: An Overview of the Trip

The car dashboard shows an overview of the trip and destinations

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.

Figure: Space and Context

Windshield takes advantage of the large space and provides the right context

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 from her phone.

Figure: Assistant at the Ready

Assistant at the ready

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.

Figure: Thoughtful Touches

Would you like me to order a $20 Americano for you?

Would you like me to order a $20 Americano for you?

Putting It Together

The final presentation came down to 40+ slides in four chapters:

  1. Research synthesis. Show behaviors that people already do on semi-autonomous and autonomous.
  2. Contextual scenarios. Show storyboards highlighting divergent exploration ultimately converging on,
  3. 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.

Bringing the Chocolate

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.

Figure: Physical Prototypes

Sometimes to think outside the box you have to think inside the box.

Physical prototype to help customers co-design their perfect autonomous experience.

At the last minute a few hours before the interview, since I’ve 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, gluing cardboard together. What if we could have customers co-design the experience by interacting with the physical prototype?

Outcome

The onsite 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 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.

Additional Resources

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.

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:

Photography
  • Pexels—bills itself as a free and inclusive photo and video library.
  • Unsplash—one of my favorite and the go-to resource for high quality photography.
  • Pixabay—over a million of image and videos shared, free for personal or commercial use.
Illustrations
  • 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 above but with less of focus on the character and more empahsis on staging.
Maps

Your project may not require maps but if it does, spending a little bit of 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 there are tons of things you can customize. 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.
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