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And How to Prepare for it
I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates for product & ux design positions, and by far my favorite question to ask is:
“How would you improve your favorite product?”
It seems like a simple enough question. But beneath the surface it reveals an incredible amount about the candidate’s critical thinking skills, how fast he or she learns as well as his or her experience level. I now realize why so many other design managers use it and why it can be such a powerful indicator of potential in a designer. Let me explain.
In the interview, I’ll typically start by asking “Tell me about your favorite product. What do you love about it?” I tell the candidate it doesn’t have to be digital or even related to technology.
This normally sets the candidate off on a good path as they describe their favorite brand of headphones, ergonomic computer mice, and/or cooking appliance (someone once told me about their favorite toaster. It was a fantastic discussion). They’ll pick really complex products like cars, software, or iPhones and talk at length about how the products look, why they’re more effective than others, and how easy they are to use.
Then I’ll ask the question.
“Great! Thanks for telling me why you love the iPhone. Now let’s imagine you’re the designer, how would you improve it?”
I’ll give the candidate as long as he or she needs to answer as I acknowledge it’s a tough question.
Common Pitfalls of Answers
There’s an enormous amount of complexity and a million variables the candidate typically tries to consider before formulating an answer, which is why it’s a tough question. Common answers usually just address more of why they liked the product in the first place — it’s easy to use, so they’d try and make it easier to use. It helps them accomplish their job more quickly, so they’d try and reduce even more unneeded steps in the workflow.
As with many other interview techniques however, the issue with these answers is they jump straight to addressing solutions and completely forget about the problem they’re trying to solve. Many companies like Facebook will employ other techniques to tease this critical skill out of candidates.
They’ll use techniques like design exercises, app teardowns, and more to see how well you know where to focus your time and energy when trying to design. But the power of this question is the ability to tease out this essential skill in a matter of seconds as opposed to a 45m whiteboarding session.
Why the Ideal Answer is Ideal
As a recruiter, when I ask the question what I’m really looking for is a clear line of thinking tracing back from the product to the problem the product is ultimately here to solve. If you begin with the product, you’ve already started on the wrong foot.
Many designers forget — all products are solutions to problems that people have. However, not all solutions need to be products.
Which means that as someone answering the question “How would you improve the iPhone?” the best answer is to actually trace back to the problem(s) that the iPhone solves for you!
Simply put, when a candidate keeps talking about how the product can be changed, they’re using the wrong unit of analysis. They shouldn’t be analyzing the product — they should be analyzing the problem.
Some of the best answers I’ve heard talk about how the product could actually be replaced by a service or some form of process. For example, to improve a car, you may actually want to negotiate with city hall about a city-wide bike-sharing program. Or to improve your spatula, you may want to hire a live-in professional chef! (For the ultra-rich who probably wouldn’t need the job anyway.)
What This Reveals about the Candidate
At the beginning of this article I said that this question is used to evaluate critical thinking, speed of learning, and experience. Here’s why.
If you design products, you will inevitably have designed a product that at some point has failed. It has failed to be useful to people, failed to meet business goals, or just simply failed to meet your own standards.
What you do next and how fast you do it reveals a significant amount about how far along your skills are.
If you know the product has failed, that means you’ve been critical enough to track and measure performance somehow. If you’ve done that, you’ll have learned quite quickly what causes and contributes to a product’s success. If you’ve done this enough, you’ll know that the quality of a great solution depends almost entirely on how well you understand a given problem.
Therefore, if a candidate has a great answer to the question of “How would you improve your favorite product?” that usually means they’ll have gone through at least a few cycles of the process I mentioned above.
Now that you know the secret, think critically about the products that you love and how you’d improve them. Think of it as an exercise to work out your product design muscle! Then when you’re finally confronted with question…
You’ll ace it!
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