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What an interviewer thinks of mock design projects

By Vlad Zinculescu on 11 Mar 2022

You're at the start of your UX career and don't have much to show in your portfolio. Maybe you haven't landed your first gig yet. What can you do? A lot of designers go to mock projects.

I get it. You want to show you got what it takes, so you come up with an exciting project that will showcase just how good you are. What would I do if a prestigious museum of modern art reaches out to me to build them a website? You follow the well-established design process you learned in school. Following every neatly laid out step, you go from research and mood boards to wireframes, high fidelity mockups, and maybe even prototypes. And the result: an beautiful design showcased on dribbble, Behance, and your portfolio. But there's a problem with this approach.

Things don't go according to plan

In real life, things don't go so smoothly and I'm interested in how you deal with the challenges. First of all, the requirements are not always well defined, and they will likely change once the project is underway and the depth of the problem becomes obvious. You could also jump in projects pressed by a tight deadline. Most times, you're probably working in a multi-disciplinary team with many opinions and personal goals. And even after you navigate all of this, the users might reject your solution. What do you do then?

What I look for in a candidate

In an interview, I look for three things in a candidate:

When I look at a mock design, I can adequately assess craftsmanship but struggle with the other two. How can I determine how well you understood the requirements if you created them? What skills do you have to advocate for the user when a PM or Dev wants to simplify, remove, or add features? There's no time pressure to tempt you into taking shortcuts. No stakes if you mess it up. And more importantly, no feedback from the user to know if your solution actually worked. Not all is lost, don't worry.

Mock projects done right

I once interviewed a designer with a lot of experience but couldn't show his work due to a contract clause. To prove that he could do the job, he created an app for booking bus tickets in his hometown. But there's a catch: the bus company doesn't offer this functionality yet. Still, he built a landing page asking people to sign up for a waiting list to get the product. He even spent $100 on ads promoting the page. There was some interest, and people signed up. With a list of email addresses, he reached out to all of them, mentioned what he was doing, and asked if they wanted to participate in interviews. Some said yes, and after talking to his actual prospective users, he got a list of their needs. Using this as his foundation, he built a prototype of how the app could work and again reached out to the same people. The feedback was not so great, so he refined the app, brought it to them one last time, and confirmed they liked the third iteration.

Though the project was never shipped, it was enough to convince us to make him an offer. Obviously, we appreciate his ingenuity, but we loved that he was willing to do the work and find actual users, not just test it on his friends who want to support him but would never use such an app. And we valued that when users rejected his first approach, he didn't give up. Instead, he incorporated their feedback, put in the work, and eventually came up with a better solution.

With this story in mind and knowing what interviewers like me look for in a candidate, I would like to pick a mock project you enjoyed creating. What step could you take to show interviewers, and yourself, the value of your work?

Posted in Interview