Thoughts on hiring designers

A behind the scenes at how we are doing our hiring process at Nubank.

Over the last three years, our design team has grown from three to ten designers. During this time, we have gone through multiple cycles of our hiring process every time we opened a position and received hundreds of applications. Unsurprisingly, it is always a hard job to compare impressive candidates and find the right person.

Every time we reach out to the local and often global design community, we are motivated by how rich and diverse it is, and excitedly peruse large portfolios and impressive CVs. But with every new search, no matter how hard we probe candidates with phone screens and other assessment tools, we are also plagued by the fundamental issue of any hiring process: how do we truly visualize this person as a member of our team?

We believe we should treat hiring like dating. In other words, it has to work for both sides. You are not simply adding extra hands and skills to your team, you are inviting a person to be part of your team’s everyday life, and that will have an impact on how your team works and live as a family. Moving to a new company can have a huge impact on a person’s life and should be treated with responsibility.

So here is the process we came up with.

Profile analysis and phone screen

To start, we look for a sign of a good fit with our culture by analyzing everything publicly available about a candidate, not just their portfolio or CV. It can be a mix of portfolio, educational and professional history, blog articles, twitter feed, talks, side projects, hobbies, or anything else. Whenever we find someone who catches our attention, we make a quick phone screen to understand the person a little better.

Going deeper than CVs and chitchat

Even after this first screen, we gain only a glimpse of this person’s capabilities and interests. Perhaps some basic notion of their values based on companies with whom they’ve associated. What we are missing is how they would add to and fit with our team. Typically, at this juncture, we have the following key questions:

1. Does this person think holistically?

At Nubank, we get involved in all project phases: from the inception of an idea to the rollout to the entire customer base. It means we tend to lean towards more “T-shaped” people on our team, who can think holistically and do a broader scope of work, which may include interviews, flows, prototypes, visual work, and so on.

This holistic view can be hard to assess from portfolios, as many portfolios focus more on the visual aspect of design. What we want to know is the story behind the end product: How does this person think about this problem? What specific issues did they solve with this particular design?

You can take a look at this materials:

(See also The dribbblisation of design – Inside Intercom.)

2. What part of the project are they responsible for?

A lot of projects have more than one owner. It is common for multiple designers to contribute to a single project.

from Behance — Multiple Owners

We understand large projects are a team effort, as we work in the same way. The difficulty from a hiring perspective, however, is that we are trying to assess how this potential designer will add value to our team, so it is important to understand the role they played in their projects.

3. What things do they pursue?

Everyone has life objectives, and we believe work is a big part of one’s life, not just a job. What we want to know is how Nubank fits as their next endeavor.

Design exercise: a way to answer those questions

Requiring a design exercise is nothing new: many companies such as Apple have used this technique when selecting new hires. For Nubank, a design exercise serves as a useful tool to gain a deeper window into how a potential designer thinks holistically and contributes to a team.

We have also found that the exercise itself acts as a screening of a candidate’s motivation to work at Nubank. Doing the exercise requires time, and if the person doesn’t want to work here badly enough, probably they just won’t do the exercise.

Like any good design process, we are always experimenting and iterating on our design exercise. Currently, we have found the following components to be effective:

Theme — We always look for a theme that is not finance-related. We are immersed too deeply in this field, and we believe it can affect our judgment. It also prevents candidates from submitting ideas for something we might build in the future, to which we may already have opinions or biases.

Problem — We look for a current, relevant problem. That way, we can evaluate how deep the person went to understand the problem and what methods they used in the process.

Deadline — In the real world, we have limited time to do pretty much anything. We want people who understand that working in a business environment means working within constraints. More than once, we had to discard someone we thought was really good from the process because they didn’t meet the deadline or other requirements. We also value designers who communicate proactively about their own constraints, be them other competing projects or personal commitments.

Deliverables — Having a clear set of deliverables provides us with a baseline with which we can compare candidates.

Number of Slides — We define the number of slides, generally six. By limiting the space to communicate your idea, we can evaluate how effective you are at communicating it succinctly (again, operating within constraints).

Here is an example of one of our exercises:

Using a bicycle in São Paulo

In the last years, as a consequence of the traffic of São Paulo, many people are changing the comfort of their cars or the collectivity of public transport for a more active alternative: the bicycle.

In addition to not finding the adequate infrastructure in the city, cyclists can’t find digital services that have the same quality as the digital services offered to people who use a car, bus, metro, or even pedestrians. As a consequence, most information on the best routes, maintenance shops, parking spots, and danger zones still comes from word-of-mouth.

Concerned about the situation, São Paulo’s mayor hired you to develop a product that helps cyclists’ in their day-to-day activities across the city.

The primary users of this product will be:

People who think of buying a bicycle, but are not convinced yet.

Beginner cyclists, who need help to navigate and know the city.

Experienced cyclists, who want a reliable navigation tool.

The solution needs to be mobile and can include integrations with existing services (geolocation, maps, etc.). But you don’t need to be limited to these suggestions. The idea is to encourage the use of bicycles, so be creative and remember: the product has to be simple and easy to use.

You have until the end of September 15th to send us the presentation via email.

The project has to be presented in 6 slides or less. (Keynote or PDF)

If you make a prototype and/or video, you can consider it as an extra part of the presentation — but all items of the prototype should be on the main presentation as well.

Remember to create a visual identity for your concept — including name and logo.

Evaluating criteria:

Innovation, storytelling, solution quality, thinking process, concept presentation, and briefing rules.

These are some of the exercises sent by our current team members

Presentation

Upon submitting the exercise, candidates will schedule a presentation to our design team so we can hear a more detailed version of the process and get a feel of how the person communicates and explains their ideas.

In general, we try to grasp the following:

  • Did they search for available information about the topic and try to understand the problem first, or did they jump right into making screens?
  • If desk research was insufficient, did they try other research methods to complement their limited data?
  • Did they actually use the information gathered in their process?
  • Did they make it clear what assumptions they had to make to develop the concept?
  • Did they explain the decisions they made and why?
  • Does the proposed flow make sense and tie back to the original issue?

In addition to understanding the designer’s thinking process, an exercise presentation is also an excellent opportunity to see how they receive and respond to feedback, as this can be a window into how the person works in teams:

  • Do they react defensively, or accept suggestions too quickly?
  • Do they try to think deeper about the received feedback before responding?
  • Do they try to brainstorm with the team to come to a better solution?
  • Are they honest when the team finds weak spots in their process or solution? Do they value learning or try to blame something/ someone?

Getting to a decision

After the exercise presentation, the design team may make an immediate decision, or we might schedule quick meetings with other members of the team. The most important thing for us is that before making the decision, there should be no assumptions or unanswered questions left from both sides.

Next steps

We believe everything can be improved, and we are continually rethinking our methods to do pretty much anything. Given our team does significant amounts of whiteboarding in our day to day, in the next cycle, we are thinking of trying out a live exercise similar to the one in this article by Braden Kowitz, either to replace our current one or to add it to the process. We think that comparing the results of both approaches will give us insights into how we can improve our hiring process.

(See also How to evaluate a designer with a design exercise.)

What are the challenges you face when hiring designers for your team? Also, what do you think of design exercises for hiring? Have you ever done a live exercise? Do you use any other methods to assess candidates? Or have you participated in a process involving exercises? What did you think of it?

Feel free to use this framework to come up with an exercise or even use this one to evaluate design candidates. And if you do, please tell us how it went so we can learn from each other.

Thanks to Seiji Sato, Hugh Strange and Mateus Peixoto. 

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