How to get that first product design job:
Building your portfolio, getting noticed, and interviewing successfully at tech companies
I recently spoke to a group of students who wanted advice on how to build their portfolios, to stand out to recruiters, and successfully interview at tech companies. Below is the advice I gave which I hope is useful to other designers out there as well. I know it can be hard to build experience and get noticed, especially early in your career.
How should I design my online portfolio?
Make it simple
When I was in my first years as a designer I spent a lot of time thinking about the design of my portfolio website. I thought of it as a design project in itself. I agonized over color schemes, icon styles and complex navigation structures. Today I realize that was a mistake. Now that I look at hundreds of portfolios a month, I realize it’s best to be clean and simple. Here is my point of view on the ideal layout:
- A homepage with tiled images showing your portfolio and a link to an about me page.
- When I click into any of the tiles, I go to a case study for that design project (more on this later).
- Neutral/minimal design for the portfolio site itself. White background, black or grey text. The site should function as a canvas for your work; the design of it should not distract from your work.
- Show your most recent work and best work above the fold.
Show portfolio projects as case studies
The best way to show your product design work is to present it as a set of separate case studies that are easy to scan. Case study format contains the following elements:
- State the user problem you are solving & goals of the project.
- Your role and who you worked with on the project.
- Early sketches / wires of your ideas.
- Any research insights that informed your solution.
- The metrics that you used to measure success.
- The refined solution (a before/after is usually really nice to show).
- Results of your design project. What were the business results or user outcomes?
Using a case study format conveys the process behind your design solution in a logical way. Setting your site up this way works well in showing your work during an initial phone screen with recruiters and hiring managers.
Include an “about me” page
We want to see your work, but we also want to get a brief overview of your background. My perspective is that a good “about me” page has:
- A brief 1–2 paragraph bio.
- A photo of you in a work setting.
- Links to your social network pages, articles you have written, & sites where your work is visible.
- A list of your professional experience (basically a high-level summary of your resume content).
- A way to contact you directly via email.
What if I don’t have many projects to share?
If you have only 3–4 projects and are feeling concerned that your site looks relatively empty you can do one of three things:
- You can invent an app or product that you wish existed and design it. This is a nice option in that it shows your entrepreneurial and innovative side.
- Reach out to a local non-profit to see if you can do some design work for them donating your time to a worthy cause. This is good in that you can work with real design constraints and see your work go into production.
- Find an app that you feel could be improved and redesign it as a personal exercise (labeling it as such on your website). This is nice in that you can show what you see as a problem with an app that hiring managers may be familiar with, and you can fix the problem(s) showing a before/after designs.
What can I do to stand out from other candidates?
Be where hiring managers are looking
When I am looking for designers (which is always), I typically go to LinkedIn or dribbble and search for keywords relating to the type of talent I’m looking for. I scroll through dozens of names looking for relevant experience or work that catches my eye. It’s usually only after I find someone on a social network or design site that I end up clicking into their portfolio website.
What this means is that it’s really important to not only have a website, but also a presence on the other sites that hiring managers are searching on. Make sure your information and project work is current and complete on LinkedIn, Dribbble, Behance, Medium, Twitter, Facebook, etc.
Don’t use passwords on your website
I often see portfolios where there isn’t any work on the homepage but there is a link to view portfolio. When I click on it I’m presented with a password prompt. This is a big bummer. Even if a recruiter gave me your portfolio and included the password in the email they sent, I now have to go back into email, find the password and type it in. Given that I’m looking at a lot of websites, this is a lot of friction to see your work. If your projects are public, there should be no reason to hide the work behind a password. If the work is not yet launched and can’t be shared, it really shouldn’t even be published behind a password. I think it’s much better to show only launched work, and to skip the password so your work is more accessible.
Include interactive demos
Animation & demos are more engaging and descriptive than static mocks. I’ll get a better sense of your work if I can click to play demo of your design and watch the movement/interactions.
Show Android work
You may have an iPhone but most of the world is on Android phones. Many tech companies design Andrioid first, and want to know that designers are designing for those users, not for themselves. It’s always great to see designers with Android designs on their site.
Sweat the visual design details
You might be more of an interaction designer than a visual designer, but web portfolios are highly visual. Be sure that you are very proud of all the visuals in your portfolio. Quality of craft matters. Many product design roles are going to require that you are strong in both interaction and visual design.
How can I ensure that I do my best in an interview?
At most tech companies, the interview day format usually starts with 30–45 minute presentation, followed by 3–5 one-on-one interviews. Often times one of the interviews is an interactive white boarding session or design exercise.
The great thing about having organized your website in the above format is that you can pull directly from your website content to build your presentation.
Start your presentation with a brief intro about yourself. Be very very brief in this section. One to two minutes is enough. You’ll want 95% of the time to be used to go into detail on 2–3 projects.
A few other recommendations:
- Show your presentation to the recruiter prior to your interview and invite them to give you feedback on it. They might have valuable tips for you on how to improve it.
- It’s important to rehearse several times so that you stay on time, and so that you don’t have to read from your notes. Give your presentation to a friend or roommate and ask for feedback from them. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many presenters run long on their presentation and have to stop before they have finished. Your viewers will not be able to stay late if you run long, as they have other meetings to attend. Ask your recruiter whether it’s a norm for there to be questions asked throughout the presentation, so that you can add a time affordance for that if needed.
- If the room is small (less than 20 viewers) I think it’s better to sit and share your work vs. standing in front of the room. It feels more intimate & comfortable to both the presenter and those of us watching the presentation.
What should I convey in interviews?
Show your passion for product design. As you answer questions about things you have done, challenges you have faced, and how you have executed on projects let your passion for great design show through. Your interviewers are looking to feel that you absolutely love being a designer, that you geek out about minor design details, and that you think about this stuff all the time.
Show product awareness. Take the time to look at the product you would be designing and at their competitor’s apps so that hiring managers know you have interest in the product space.
Give examples of collaboration. Make sure that the people who interview you feel that you are a collaborative partner who would welcome their ideas. Mention your co-workers, clients and other partners, and how they helped in the design process. Show respect for the people you work with.
Show self-awareness & humility. When asked, talk openly about mistakes you have made and what you have learned so that your team can see that you are self-aware. This is really hard to do in a setting where you are trying to present yourself in the most positive light possible. I’ll include a few examples of responses to questions about failure/mistakes and explain why I each works (or doesn’t work) as a response.
Interview question: “Tell me about a mistake you made and what you would have done differently?”
Example response that works well:
“On one project I was initially getting feedback from the research team that my designs weren’t working. I kept wanting to move forward because the deadline was approaching. Eventually I realized that I failed to bring researchers in early on to validate my designs, and that I needed to take the time to listen to their concerns. I followed up with the researchers to apologize, and to do a collaborative design session with them to figure out how best to fix the problems. In the end, what we ended up with was way better than my original design. I did miss my deadline by a couple of days which felt bad, but the improvements were worth it. I learned a good lesson about how important it is to work with research to define the problem you are solving before diving into solutions.”
Why this works well: I can see that you are able to admit that you have made mistakes in your career, as we all do. You see clearly how your mistakes impacted others, and the project timeline. Even better, you show me that you have respect for your co-workers, and that you know how to fix collaboration issues when they arise by taking 100% responsibility. I get a strong sense that you are someone who learns and grows quickly from this example.
Example that doesn’t work as well:
“One mistake I made in designing this app is that the icons aren’t good enough I feel. The illustrator I worked with really wanted this outline style which is becoming dated and looks like every other app out there. I tried talking with him about it and showed them several other options but he was just really difficult. If I could do it over I’d try to work with a different illustrator or just do the icons myself.”
Why this doesn’t work well: In this answer I can see that the designer has as strong design eye and knows current trends, which is good. But I also feel that they are blaming others for the design outcome rather than taking 100% responsibility. I don’t get a sense that this candidate is able to really see how their behavior affects others. They seem to like working alone more than collaborating. Avoid blaming your PM partner, your client, or design partners for mistakes in talking about your work.
Another example that doesn’t work as well:
“One of my biggest failures was in launching our first iPad app. Instead of including all the functionality from the web app, we started with a version that only allowed users to do a few core tasks that were often needed on the go. There was a lot missing, and I really wanted to deliver more in the first version than we did. That said, when we launched in the app store we got great reviews and quickly became a featured app in the app store. It ended up being the most profitable project we launched all year. So in that sense it was still pretty successful.”
Why this doesn’t work well: A lot of candidates try to spin a question about a failure into an opportunity to talk about a big success. In this example I feel that you are deflecting the question and that you are too uncomfortable to candidly admit your mistakes. It’s really hard to work with someone who can’t admit when they have made a mistake. Also, launching with a few features to start seems like a good plan vs. trying to launch all your web functionality in a tablet app, so I worry that this designer has a hard time narrowing a design to only what is needed in a particular context.
What is involved in a design exercise?
Tech companies don’t share these prior to the interview and everyone does these a little differently. I’ll share a personal favorite I used to use. It goes like this:
- I tell the candidate that as a design exercise we are going to improve Amazon wish list. If they are familiar with it we get started, if they aren’t, I open my computer or phone and briefly show them how Amazon wish list works.
- We then think together about ideas that could make the feature better, and they write the ideas on a white board. I’m looking to see how good they are at creative brainstorming, whether they can contribute to my ideas, add new ideas, and leverage ideas by thinking about other products they use. I’m looking to see that they show empathy for the user.
- I then ask the candidate to talk to me about what metrics Amazon might care about for wish list. There are several options here, maybe they want more people creating wish lists, more lists shared, a greater percentage of purchases from wish lists, etc. I’m looking to see that they can think easily about another business and the metrics they might find important.
- We pick one metric we think would be good to improve and then look at our ideas from step 2. We assess the ideas to see which would do the best at improving our chosen metric.
- I then ask the designer to sketch out how the idea might be designed. The candidate whiteboards it out for a few minutes and we talk about some of the areas the design might be improved and refine a bit. Here I’m getting a high-level sense of whether this person can get into the execution details. If they design a solution for web, I might ask how they would change the design for mobile. I’m not judging their sketching abilities just looking at the ideas behind the sketches.
- I then ask the candidate how they would test the idea they have drawn. What is the least expensive way we could validate this design to be sure it’s right before launching?
Again, this only one example, but it gives you a sense of the kind of thinking many tech companies would be looking for. The design exercise helps interviewers have more of a sense of what it would be like to collaborate with you on a project.
I applied but I didn’t get the job. What should I do?
That sucks. There is nothing harder than putting your heart and soul into applying for a job, potentially interviewing, and then not getting the offer. We have all been there, believe me. Building your career takes time, persistence, and faith. At times it’s a lot more challenging than you think it should be. The most important thing to know is that not getting an offer doesn’t mean that you don’t have talent. I’ve seen situations where a role is relocated to a different city, filled internally with an existing employee, or closed due to budget cuts. I’ve seen situations where hiring managers aren’t exactly sure what type of designer they need when they interview, or they need to interview several candidates before they are ready to make an offer. Maybe the role would be nice to fill, but isn’t critical to fill right away. Maybe you have more, less, or different experience than the role requires. A lot of it comes down to internal circumstances and timing.
It’s good to reflect on your interview performance and look for ways to improve, but don’t let yourself get discouraged. Understand that successful designers aren’t always the most talented designers. Successful designers are the designers that kept applying and took the best of what was offered to them at each point in their career. They are the designers that continued to grow their skills, learned what they could from each role, and got a lot of practice interviewing. Be flexible and always be open to conversations about potential roles. The right job doesn’t come exactly when you need it. If you have your heart set on working at a particular company, wait a year and then apply again. After a year of building experience most tech companies will want to give you another look.
Each company is a little different in their interviewing practices, but hopefully there are some good (and fairly universal) pieces of information here to help you on your path. Good luck!