Redesigning How We Hire Designers at thoughtbot

Towards the middle of last year, we started to see issues accumulate with our designer hiring process. While it was working, there were problems with efficiency and effectiveness. We weren’t giving the best experience to candidates and interviewers. It was taking a long time for candidates to get through to an offer because we had so many steps. Coordinating and moving people along was a challenge, and the process was time-intensive. Our goal was to shorten the time it takes to make an offer, and create a great experience for everyone involved.

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We tried implementing a variety of fixes and ran experiments across all the studios to address some of these problems. Unfortunately, these experiments weren’t consistent, and instead gave candidates a variety of different experiences that made it difficult to measure success. Issues kept coming up, and our small incremental changes weren’t getting us to our ideal process. Jaclyn Perrone, our Design Director in Boston, and I decided that a more significant change was needed.

The whole process needed a redesign.

Map out the process

Jaclyn and I started by referring back to the skills that we look for, based on expectations for Designers at thoughtbot. We mapped out the current hiring process, looked at the documented issues, and started taking a knife to it. Doing this made it evident that there was a disconnect in how we evaluate Designers and the skills that we ask them to have. For example, we never saw how candidates conducted user interviews or usability tests––which are tasks we expect them to facilitate on projects.

In order to make it clear that each step was intentional, we would have to include at least one evaluation for each Designer expectation. Throughout the interviews, we would evaluate candidates based on the skills that Designers are expected to have in order to be successful at thoughtbot.

We also wanted to highlight the skills that the candidate has now by not relying on past work. Having Designers demonstrate their skills makes us more confident in our evaluations.

Several principal changes to create a better process

One of the first pieces of the process that got cut was the portfolio review. It was the second interview that we had with candidates where they would walk us through their previous work. This portfolio review interview wasn’t helping us evaluate candidates thoroughly, because it didn’t demonstrate how they solve problems today. Therefore, this stage introduced an additional step in the process without an apparent reason behind it. We moved the portfolio review from an in-person interview to a phase of the application review.

Introduce HTML & CSS expectations from the start

Our Designer position is unique; we ask Designers to work alongside Developers in the codebase and implement their designs on the front-end. We weren’t evaluating this technical skill set until they paired with a Designer in our office visit. This led to several candidates spending a full day in the office, that we could have evaluated earlier and disqualified.

We made the following changes to set expectations about HTML & CSS early on in the application process.

  • When applying, we ask what kind of history people have with implementation and tools like Git and BEM.
  • We look at GitHub or CodePen to see their demonstration of implementation when they apply.
  • In our first in-person interview, we run through an HTML & CSS assessment with fundamental questions about their understanding of implementation.
  • Lastly, we moved the pairing exercise to our second interview. Pairing allows us to evaluate their implementation skill set much earlier in our process, rather than at the end during the office visit.

Office visit becomes a full day exercise

When someone comes in for an office visit, we should expect to hire them because the time investment is so high from both our team and from the candidate. We focus the entire day on the design challenge, where we move our focus from presentation to facilitation. The challenge allows us to see how someone would solve a small problem on their toes, in a collaborative way. It also gives us a chance to see how they would conduct a user interview or usability test.

One significant change that we brought to the challenge was changing the prompts where our team would act as fictional clients. The only thing we discovered from that process was that we’re not great actors. We’ve changed the prompts from fictitious client problems to challenges or opportunities we experience at thoughtbot. This enables us to convincingly play the role of the client, and allows us to invite any member of the thoughtbot team into the interview, for we are all familiar with the challenge.

What the full process looks like, from start to finish

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  • Applied: This is where people begin after having submitted an application.
  • Blind Review: Our system strips away any of our applicants’ defining characteristics in an effort to remove biases from our reviews.
  • Internal Portfolio Review: Our Design Directors run an initial review to see if candidates have the visual design, product design, and design implementation skills that we expect.
  • Process Interview: A conversation to make sure that the candidate’s values align with thoughtbot’s values.
  • Skill Interview: A combination of both a product critique and a small design implementation pairing exercise.
  • Office Visit: A full-day design challenge to solve a problem internal to thoughtbot.
  • Offer: Hurray! We think we’d make a good match, do you?

Putting our planning into action

Once we mapped out each of the interviews, Jaclyn was able to fill in the details. She documented the questions in the HTML & CSS assessment and product critique. Jaclyn also put together the small project that we work on during the pairing interview.

Together, we wrote out scorecards to help us frame our thinking about the candidates. These scorecards help our Designers evaluate candidates on a more equal and consistent footing. After conducting an interview, we want Designers filling out the evaluation quickly. Our goal was to have each evaluation take less than 15 minutes.

Iteration. Iteration. Iteration.

Nothing is ever perfect the first time. As we’ve rolled this out, we’ve found issues with the way that we’ve worded emails or questions on scorecards. Small changes have made the candidates’ experience much better. When we make these changes, we have a better idea of how each piece fits into the overall experience, and how each step is helping us get a full picture of the candidate’s skill set.

Through all of this, our goal is to have the best possible experience for for our candidates and interviewers. We want to treat all candidates with the same respect that we would want for ourselves. We want the experience of hiring thoughtbot to be a reflection of working at thoughtbot. It should be demanding yet fair, and above all else, it should be fun.

We’re looking for Designers!

Shocker, right?! Are you looking for a workplace where you feel fulfilled in your work? Take a look at our open Designer positions.