How to run remote design interviews

As teams become increasingly distributed, all the processes associated with hiring, onboarding, building new teams and evaluating their results change. The interview process is no exception. Instead of flying candidates to their HQ for an onsite session, modern collaboration tools allow companies to interview remotely. Check out our conversation with Jordan Staniscia, Designer at Abstract, who created a guide to remote design interviews in Miro.

Scaling a design team at Abstract

At first, our design team was mainly in San Francisco. Then, as we started to look at candidates outside of California to build a remote team, we began flying people out for interviews. That was costly, but we felt it was important to be able to build something together during the interview. We would do whiteboard challenges and go through prompts, then assess their design process and product intuition.

Now that we’re scaling our design team, we’ve adjusted our process to interview candidates remotely. Our main challenge is understanding how someone works in a collaborative environment within a short period of time, without going too deep in the weeds with a complicated tool. We were already using Miro internally, so we tried it out for interviews. Here’s our process.


PROFILE


Abstract

A design workflow system, built by designers for designers. Abstract provides one place for design teams to version, manage, and collaborate on design files.

HQ: San Francisco, CA

Team: 100 people

Founded in: 2016

Founders: Josh Brewer, Kevin Smith

Getting ready for an
‘onsite interview’

Ahead of time, we always tell the candidate exactly what they’re going to be doing at each stage, so they know their schedule and who they’re talking to. We answer a lot of questions. Nothing should be a surprise. You could have the most talented designer, but if you don’t give them the right context, they can fail at an interview. We don’t automate everything – the interview process needs to feel human.

Usually, we set up all of a candidate’s interviews in a single day, to make it as convenient as possible for them. The final step is to see how we feel working together as a team. That’s where a Miro whiteboarding session comes in.

At least 24 hours ahead of time, we send some basic instructions on how to use the tool and a link to the board we’ll be using, so they can get accustomed if they’re not familiar with it. We’ve had people jump on to the board for the session, and it will be their first time using it. Luckily, Miro is pretty intuitive.

During the session, we limit what designers can do, so they aren’t overwhelmed. Candidates can only use the pen tool. You can’t draw rectangles, or you can’t use text – we just want to a reasonable speed so we can take part in the session. In Miro, we can see where everyone’s pointer is, and we can draw together. That being said, a candidate could draw the ugliest boxes in the world, and they will be hired – it really has to do with the thought behind it and the process, and how well a person collaborates.

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How to run remote design interviews:

  • Define a clear goal (for example, understanding how someone works in a collaborative environment)
  • Set a candidate up for success by telling them exactly what they’re going to be doing
  • Choose an intuitive collaborative tool and limit what a candidate can do, so they aren’t overwhelmed
  • Time-box everything
  • Agree on evaluation criteria

A collaborative session

We start our ‘onsite’ interview day by asking a candidate to set up a presentation about their work in whatever format they’re most comfortable with. They create a slide deck, and they go through their projects. Some people use Miro to show their work and their process, but we don’t mind if a candidate uses another tool.

We have a pretty small product design team – four product designers and our Design Director – so typically, the whole team is reviewing the presentation and participating in a whiteboarding session. Our CEO, who is also a designer, is sometimes also involved. In the collaboration session, we typically have two product designers and our Design Director.

When we start collaborating in Miro, we come up with a hypothetical project for a fictional company. So it’s not something we would actually do at Abstract, but it helps us to see how a candidate solves problems. During the session, we don’t want to sit back and watch someone else draw. Otherwise, we could have told them to screen record in Microsoft Paint. We need to be there, drawing together. The candidate is leading and facilitating the session. We’re definitely secondary, but we do throw out ideas and work alongside them. So we’re trying to get as close as we can to being in one room with an actual whiteboard in front of us, with three or four people around it.

This collaborative session lasts for about one hour. We typically explain the problem first, work together for most of it, and then ask questions to reflect on the result. We often have Zoom running in the background. But because Miro is already serving the purpose of a video feed, Zoom recedes and just becomes the audio layer during that stage.


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Evaluating the candidate’s work

How do they consider users? When we evaluate the exercise, we’re looking at how much a candidate thinks about the user persona upfront. Some people jump right into the work without thinking about who they’re designing for, and that’s not great. Others spend 45 minutes defining a persona, and it’s also a red flag. It’s always good when a designer asks you a question about a persona that you haven’t heard before. I think that’s a good clue to that person being a critical thinker.

Are they realistic? Another important factor is avoiding magical solutions. Sometimes we get candidates who are doing an exercise on a whiteboard and say something like, “What if every day, you woke up and there was a dashboard that knew everything about you and could tell you the answer to anything?” That’s magic; that’s not realistic. We like when designers have reasoning behind what they’re showing in their designs.

How do they communicate? It all comes down to clarity and communication skills. Those are important qualities for someone who’s working remotely, since no one is looking over your shoulder and no one knows what you’re doing on a daily basis. We’re communicating both verbally and textually, so we need clear communication.

How can they bring value to the company? We’ve had candidates who come in for a very structured role, like a product designer, and what we end up actually interviewing them for may be a hybrid of different roles. We want people who have strong skill sets to be able to work here, and sometimes they don’t always fit a mold that’s given. If you find someone talented, don’t be afraid to break molds. We strive to make space for them in our company.

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