Why are UX take home tasks so crap?

The UX industry suffers from a delusion: that the take-home task is a good way to understand what each candidate for a job is capable of.

This isn’t 100% wrong, but it sure as hell is flawed!! I’ve written about why I think this is flawed, included some examples of – REAL – good and bad UX take-home tasks, looked at how other industries handle the “maybe I want to hire you” problem, and I have four suggestions for a better way of doing things.

This is a #longread, so go get a cup of tea, or save it to pocket or to instapaper for reading later. I promise it’s worth it.

The permie job song & dance

One of the reasons I am not looking for a permanent job is the fact that companies adore dragging out interviews across weeks and months, and include a series of songs and dances that a candidate has to perform. Conversations with future bosses. Conversations with future colleagues. Conversations with HR. Live tasks with competing candidates. Live tasks with future colleagues. And, most often in UX, the dreaded take-home task to return and do a presentation on!

I’m not solving your problem for nothing!

My dislike of take-home tasks fundamentally comes from the fact that all the shit ones are of the “solve my problem for free and if I like your idea, I’ll hire you” variety.
This is bad for three reasons:

  1. It is unremunerated labour, and by definition unfair.
  2. Because it is not founded on real research or data (there is no time), it cannot be of real use to the company.
  3. Because it is the company’s niche little problem, it cannot be shared on a portfolio or blog by the candidate.

Everybody loses.
If you add in the fact that you are in great part judging the candidate on their ability to present their entire design and development process as a story, as well as on how much you personally, subjectively, find their ideas appealing… Just stop it, stop it now.

Some BAD examples

The three most hideous tasks I have ever encountered were all of the “solve MY problem for free” variety. I only stayed in the interview process for ONE of these companies. I quit the process with the other two, because I felt it wasn’t worth my time.

Lead UX position in R&D company – 2016

You need to create an open source app-store website for Apple. Apple administrators need to be able to review the apps uploaded by the open source community and approve them. Some apps may have the same name and logo, but different Author. Apps have top level categories and each of these has hundreds of subcategories.
You are the UX designer in charge. Show a plan with the key steps you would take to deliver this and list the deliverables for each step. Design two IA options for a good navigation and home screen. Design the main journey of searching, finding, buying, installing. Please take your time and choose any tool, you decide how detailed you want to be to communicate your proposal. You can use Axure or hand drawing.

So only a bit of research, analysis, personas, TWO versions each of the IA and home screen, journeys, and dozens of wireframes and mockups, to make a hyper-bloated prototype, and a presentation to put together. No biggie. It’s at least TWO WEEKS OF FULL TIME WORK, you jerks! The recruiter was also under the impression I’d met the person I’d be working for. Alas, she’d not had the courtesy to be at the office for my interview. I pulled out of the process as soon as I saw the task.

Lead UX position in travel company – 2015

I was given login details for a fictitious person on their current app, as released on the app store, as well as a link to a prototype they had built for the next version.

1) Please comment and critique on the new app design against the current app: what’s better about it? What’s not good enough, and what would you do differently?
2) Come up with your tablet solution for the new app design: how would you bring this new experience onto the tablet app? You can either use wireframe, prototype, visual designs, or hand sketches – whatever you feel comfortable with.
Think about how you would drive a coherent customer experience across devices, but at the same time how to leverage the larger real estate of tablets and enhance the experience on them.
We’ll invite you for a next interview to walk through your design and thinking.

I looked at everything, realised I had zero appetite to use this app (the priorities and content of the app were so out of sync with what a real traveller wants, in both the current and future version, that I was put off), and pulled out of the interview process. I think they’re still recruiting…

Senior UX in British Luxury fashion company – 2013

The sales associates in our stores have recently been trained to contact customers for personalised services, like notifying customers of new product arrivals or when alterations are complete. They contact customers by either telephone or text message.
The store managers have a problem keeping track of which customers are being contacted, and by whom and they need a solution. The sales associates also need to know if a customer has already been contacted by another sales associate, so that they can determine whether or not they should call or text that customer.
Every customer has a customer profile, a record that keeps all their information, like their name and contact details. All sales associates have their own iPads that they carry in store.
Expected deliverables:
As the sales associates will be performing these tasks on their iPad a solution is required for that particular device. You are expected to provide whatever deliverables you feel are necessary for conceptualising the solution and presenting it to both the stakeholders (store managers) and the developers so that they can build the solution.

Sadly for my sanity, I actually did this. I spent every single evening of a week working on it, and that was after I’d spent many hours on my holiday sketching out personas and workflows and talking to sales associates IN THEIR OWN OVERSEAS SHOPS!!
When I went to present, the person I’d be working for didn’t even have the courtesy to show up (because their sample sale was on. Not a joke.). And given what I’ve heard about the brand since, I’m glad I didn’t get the gig.

Some GOOD examples

UI designer position in R&D company – 2008

The actual brief they gave me is too verbose to include here. Basically, it was “Design a multi-device remote control”, and included presenting my design process and various sketches, as well as filling out a typical Design Document with use cases, scenarios, and functional requirements.

It was brilliant to work on, because it was immediately relatable (everyone has at least a tv!!), easy to research (talk to friends, go to an electronics store), and easy to sketch for on paper.

Oh. I got rave reviews from the principal developer who was at my final presentation, and I got the job.

Lead UX Architect in Digital agency – 2014

Bluewater are in need of our help, they have heard of this thing called UX but are not convinced of the value it can add to their business. We need to convince them of its value and look at a simple task that would demonstrate what UX can do for their business and users experience. We would like you to look at http://www.bluewater.co.uk/stores and improve how users currently find stores / shops / brands that they are looking for.
For example – the user would like to buy a paul smith shirt. We would like to see your thought processes, sketches, scamps and wireframes to show your work process. This is a responsive project so we will need to see how this works on the mobile device. For this task – there are no technical limitations, so just make this best and usable experience as possible.

This was great fun to work on, again because it was immediately relatable to anyone who’s shopped in a great mall before. I did a lot of sketching over a weekend, came up with many new ideas (which went well beyond “how do we improve the navigation of the shop catalogue”) and basically blue it out of the water! (sorry, I couldn’t help myself!) My solution included Augmented reality (in 2014), Bluetooth Low Energy, a store index with a map and indoor positioning, and product lookup across all stores. They did say there were no technical limitations!!
Unfortunately they changed their mind about hiring people. But because it was such a relatable task, I could write about it on my blog.

So which ones would you like to work on?

The bad take-home tasks are horrible, as mentioned above. The good ones have the redeeming element of being inspiring and reusable-ish.

My problem with all this, is that a critical element, the practitioner’s personality, isn’t a part of it. Their ability to think on their feet, which, in agencies and consultancies in particular, is very useful, doesn’t come into play. And will you know how they collaborate with others? Nope!

There must be a better way, right?

How do other industries do it?

  • Special occasion cakes – You would never ask the pâtissier to make the cake you want to your spec so you can check they can do it and not pay right? You can try samples of cakes they’ve made on the day of, say, another wedding, and see a portfolio of previous work. You then discuss what you would like, and the pâtissier talks you through some similar things they’ve done, and tells you a bit about how they would go about creating yours. At that point, it’s your turn to decide if you’d like to have this person work on your project to your brief.
    At no point did they make you a full product for free.
  • Handbags – When you’re new in the handbag design industry and you have a new design to produce, you need to find a manufacturer. You can see various manufacturers’ past products, and choose a few to try things out with. You would send them your specification, and agree a price for producing a prototype (often around £1000), based around the complexity of your spec and the materials required. After you receive all your samples (which you have paid for), you choose the best one and that company becomes your manufacturer.
    You got a bespoke product, and you paid for it.
  • Hiring an Architect – Maybe you’ve had a loft extension done, and worked with an Architect before. Architects do offer some consultancy services for free, in the sense that they will sit down with you and understand what you need, and give you a rough estimate of what the design and build will cost, and how long everything will take. At that point, you also agree when revisions to designs can be done, and generally what work the Architect needs to do for you (do designs, apply for permits, coordinate the builders, …). Each of those elements is payable. Then they go away and produce a real blueprint (that they are paid for), and come back to you for approval or edits. Once there are no more changes to do, building can begin.
    You got a bespoke design, and you paid for it.

Notice a trend here? Nobody – in their right mind – does work for free. It is not expected, or required, or a good idea (many consultancies have tanked because they wasted resources on pitching against competition).

A discussion always – always – happens, to ensure that the two parties who need to collaborate can communicate what they want and what they can do, respectively. Past work always comes into play, because it’s the easiest way to demonstrate capabilities.

So how can UX do it better?

I strongly believe that we need a better way to do interviews in our industry, and as a starting point, I suggest we look around us and do these four things.

  1. Test communication skills – All good collaborations rely on good communication. So stress test this. Talk, ask for the practitioner to do something for you on a whiteboard. Communicate a query to them, and watch them solve it and communicate it back to you. If this works, and there are creative sparks flying, you’ve got a good apple.
  2. Look at past work – Every industry in the world relies on past accomplishments. Even politics. So have a closer look at the projects your candidate has been involved in, what their role really was (backstage or front stage, narrow focus or whole-project view, a workhorse or a driver).
  3. Have a conversation – The world is human. Some people we get along with, others not so much. So go out, have a coffee or lunch (yes, food or drink is necessary here), and learn about each other. It’s only half an hour, but in that short time you’ll be able to tell if you want to work with each other or not. And in today’s work environment, this is very important.
  4. If you must, agree on a task. And pay for it. – If you have a high risk project on your hands, or really want to see what your candidate is capable of, give him or her a task to do. Agree on what the goal is, discuss hypotheses and scope, as well as deliverables, and set a price for the work to be done. My recommendation for these tasks would be to keep them as relatable as possible (like the remote control or the mall navigation), and remove any technical constraints. We never really get to work without constraints, or within everyday environments (at least I don’t… qualification design, corporate banking and steel manufacturing sure as hell aren’t accessible to everyone). This would be something your candidate could use elsewhere instead and might enjoy working on, and happy people do good work; so it’s a win-win. And yes, you should pay for it.

Conclusion

Obviously, these are my personal thoughts. They are based on more than ten years of interviewing, during which I have met all sorts of people.
My favourite jobs, when I got them, adhered to the four (ok, three, nobody ever suggested they pay me! But also not everyone asked me for a task!!) points I made above.
I hope that we’ll start trying them out, and end up hiring better candidates as a result. Oh. And have fewer people curse our recruitment processes too.

  1. Test communication skills
  2. Look at past work
  3. Have a conversation
  4. If you must, agree on a task. And pay for it.

How BA failed at maths, humanity, and service design

I’ve been on FOUR BA flights since 27th December 2016. This only matters because the last one was a VERY different experience from the first three.
The first two were First Class (we used avios, sit back down), and awesome.

On my last and fourth one, however, I discovered BA’s new policy of not serving ANYTHING complimentary – not even WATER – on European flights. 

This was a FOUR hour flight…

The premise of the new service is “choose what you eat”. But it looks like BA did not put any work into designing this offering. Here are the four things that BA does not seem to have put any work into, and which aggravate me.

Let’s set the scene. It’s 18:30, I’m hungry and tired, and carrying a backpack and a heavy laptop-laden leather holdall, and I turn right as I step onto the plane. 

Plane looks old, dusty TVs hanging from the ceiling every 4 rows (how very 80s), and a narrow aisle where my holdall bumped into every single armrest! Some men were already taking their seats, being Executive Club members of high status. (Yep, all men. I have the lowly Bronze status so was first in queue of common mortals)

When I got to my seat in row 35, my tray table had a sticky purple-red red dribble across the back of it. Yuck!!

Anyone walking in there wouldn’t be impressed. 

Now to look at what they did and how they could have done it better.

BA could be more humane

The new catering offering of BA in economy flights within Europe (even FOUR HOUR ones), is to not serve anything to anyone at all. 

You can request the usual thimble-fulls of water. And they will attempt to sell you cold sandwiches. (yum) But that’s it. No more water, no more tea, no more coffee. It’s all pre-packaged, refrigerated, FOR SALE ONLY “hospitality”.

Although… at some point during the flight I smelled food, and happened to go see several cabin crew having dinner in the economy galley. They were not feasting on the cold sandwiches they were selling us, but on hot Business Class food trays with real plates and real cutlery… I’ve never resented cabin crew before. I did this time, because the smell was making me hungry again!!

BA could listen to customers; for real this time

Apparently the catering team did a survey, and people WANT to buy their own food on board.

If I were to ask “would you like to choose your meal, perhaps at a small cost, instead of being served a standard thing?” I’d have said yes too!!

Try asking “Would you like to buy a cold sandwich and a drink on board, if we haven’t run out, and you need to pay at that time in british pounds cash or by credit card; and we won’t serve water or tea or coffee unless you buy some; or would you rather be served a courtesy drink and meal?”.

The cabin crew know that customers hate this new proposition, but the catering team are not listening to them.

BA is being handed customer comments directly by their most valuable customer-facing staff!! 

And they are ignoring this!

BA could do some basic maths

When the stewardess from Business who was “helping out because it’s too slow otherwise” came to ask me if I wanted something, I borrowed her catalogue (there wasn’t one in my seat) while she ran off to do something.
After I chose, she left again and then came back to tell me they were out of crisps. She then went off a third time, got my salad, returned with a big tablet, and I then had to pay.
So I got up, took down my backpack, extracted my wallet and credit card, and stood in the aisle with the stewardess to put my pin into the big enhanced-tablet device she was carrying to take payments on. Then I put my card back into the wallet, back into the bag, back into the overhead compartment.

*yawn*

This took more than 3 minutes, possibly 5 with all the back-and-forth, but let’s pretend it was 3.
Not ultra-productive, right?

Can you picture a cabin of TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FOUR PEOPLE, each taking THREE MINUTES to choose and pay for food?

The economy cabin on this flight had 32 rows of 7 people each. That’s 224 people. Assuming that the first and last 20min of the flight are “buckle your seatbelt” times for takeoff and landing, from the four hours, this leaves 3 hours and 20min, which is 200 minutes, to serve everyone and take their money!

With 200 min to serve 224 people, to serve everyone, using one crew member, they would need to process one person every 53 seconds. Far from the 3 minutes (and some) that it is taking them now.

If it does take 3 min per person, and the flight has 200 minutes of free time, using one crew member, only 66 people (200/3 = 66) of the 224 on that flight’s economy cabin can be served something to eat or drink. A success rate of 29.7%.

Using two crew members, that could be 132 people. 

Using four, assuming there are four tablets, and they work flat out through the FOUR HOURS without sitting down, you could manage 264. 

But somehow – I wonder why… – this approach isn’t working.

Did anyone do the maths on this??!! To check how many people can be served? How long it takes in a real environment? To learn buying patterns and stock popular items (hello, predictive modelling, my darling!) so you don’t run out of crisps ten rows in? 

Or print enough M&S food catalogues and put them in seat pockets? 

Or have enough crew members to serve the cabin? 

And enough tablets to take payments? 

Or use some other technology for payments?

BA could hire a service designer or a UXer

Ok, so this is a plane car crash of design and foresight. (Ha. Ha.)

Anyone vaguely familiar with human psychology will tell you that losing £20 is much more painful than winning £20 is pleasant. Somehow, humans are hardwired to feel loss much more strongly. It’s called “loss aversion” and has been the cause of many bad decisions, because losing HURTS. And this is what BA has done. It has hurt us.

They could have improved business class, handing out bottles of water, hot towels, better quality drinks. But no.

They could have warned return trip passengers like me that unlike their flight out, their flight home would be VERY different. But no.

They could have done the maths on whether this is possible. But no.

They could have pre-sold food & drink online before check-in, to make the food service more achievable and easier to plan for, stock-wise. But no.

They could have maintained the complimentary water / tea / coffee service, and taken the opportunity to let passengers know that there would be a different kind of food service and would they like to look at the new catalogues? But no.

They could scan someone’s boarding pass on the plane to identify them, and use it to bill them for their food choices later, to make food service faster. But no.

BA no longer makes sense

The past few years saw the advent of service design and customer-lead enterprises. Of good design. Of thoughtfulness and proactivity.

And here comes BA, lowering their economy cabin standards to below those of Ryanair, while still charging five times the price.

It’s no longer a good travel experience.
I’m not sure it’s even an acceptable travel experience. (wtf was that stain on my tray table? Wine? jello? Raspberry coulis?)

Ironically I’m flying with BA again this week. But I’m using an upgrade voucher and avios to fly Business Class (it’s a 4h30m flight). I will, of course, be popping into the economy cabin to check if anyone is dehydrated.

Because I just don’t get it.

BA, I’ve seen how nice your First Class service is. Frankly I’ve experienced it all, from First Class to standby in a jumpseat!! 

How can you even consider a no-water-served economy cabin worthy of your brand? This was not an experience I will be paying for again. And I hope others reconsider their choice too. 

In any case, for my usual route (LHR-ATH), Aegean has awesome service, competitive prices, and is part of Star Alliance. Guess where my loyalty will be in the future?

Books of 2016

In 2016, I discovered goodreads again (I signed up for it in 2012), and found their “book challenge” section, which I promptly set up with a goal of 30 books. Turns out, 2016 was a good year for books! We got new bookcases to make ours happy.


Our books are happier and we are happier!

In January 2017, I logged in to do some tidying up (ok, to manually migrate my “reads” from evil pinterest to awesome goodreads) and saw a “My year 2016 in books” banner. A cute page with trivia about what you’ve read (I read 12,907 pages!), and photos of all your books.

I loved seeing all my 2016 books again, and was inspired to write a little bit about the ones that I’ve ended up talking about again and again since reading them.


Show your work



I liked this book, because it’s cheerful, and encourages you to, as the title suggests, show your work. It’s a solid reminder that people love to see how things are made, that work in progress is still work – and in the perfect stage for feedback from your client, and that we shouldn’t be scared to share glimpses of unfinished things.


All day long



This book is a collection of journalistic-style articles about people working in various areas and industries of Britain. Given how we each live in a bit of a bubble within our own industry or city, it was very interesting to at least read a little about what other professions face every day.
My love goes out to all the nurses and social care workers. This country isn’t doing enough for later-life care!


Seveneves



Published 2016.
I read this one because it’s a Neal Stephenson and I love his take on the future! This book has come up time and again in random conversations, because the topic of space travel is a hot one, as is the future destruction of planet Earth. (both of which are at the core of Seveneves)
I don’t want to give the plot away, but this book is a must read this year. It’s not cheerful, but it is optimistic, and a mind-blowing view of what the future could hold for humanity. Mr. Stephenson has had a lot of fun writing this one, I can tell. Though I do feel that there’s room for a sequel here, given where he decided to stop his story this time.
Don’t expect poetic prose. Just great characters, a mind-blowing story, and many little glimpses of why humans suck (not necessarily in space-travelling future, but today as well). A bit sci-fi, a bit cautionary tale. Skim parts if you have to, but try reading it. Really. It’s one of those books that changes you.


Quicksilver. Part one of the Baroque Cycle



Published 2004.
Book one of the Baroque Trilogy by Neal Stephenson as well, this book is a multi-character account of the changes in society, politics, science and banking from 1666 (Great Fire of London) until … well I haven’t finished volume THREE of the series, so I can guarantee you’ll read about 1681 at the very least! The characters are amazing, the various intrigues and scenes simply beautiful, the account of how banking and stock markets and non-precious-metal currency are being born is fascinating. If you want to escape into a past of the Sun King, Isaac Newton arguing with Leibniz about The Calculus, Pirates, Whigs and Tories and England having two banks, this is the book for you!


The secret lives of colour



Published October 2016.
I got my hands on this within days of its publication thanks to someone I met at @NotAnotherSalon (of all places!!).
I LOVED reading this, because I love colour and random little stories, and that’s what this book is about! How certain pigments changed colour when exposed to light, or if they touched each other, or how some colours were so expensive as to be bought directly by the noble clients and only to be used by the master painter! Such a lovely read! If you like colour and history and art, this is a book that you need on your bookshelf.


Feminist fight club



Is it a book? Is it a movement? Is it a club? Hell YEAH! 2016 was a big year for women, with a criminally sexist candidate running for President in the USA (and winning. dear god.), pay parity still being an issue, and films finally having women as the main character rather than a love interest : Rey in Star Wars The Force Awakens (I know it came out in 2015, but it was being watched as 2016 rolled in and set the mood!). It’s a start, but we’re snowballing and making noise.
I’d recommend both men and women read this book, because it draws attention to behaviour flaws that it would be useful if we could all help deal with.


Just so you know… I did make my book challenge of reading 30 books in 2016. I read FORTY!



Sketchbook Mondays: Cup sleeve and card holder

One of the problems I’ve always had is that I my hands are hyper-sensitive to heat.

In itself this is small, but in 2017, I decided to stop having milky coffees. I’ve never digested milk very well, and it was time to stop it again. So it would be mostly americanos for me in 2017!

Sadly, too many coffee shops serve a combination of 90C degree hot water, cheap and thin cups, or cups without cardboard sleeves at all!! I even burn myself on milky coffees which are meant to be served at 60C, so I’d be doomed with hot water ones. I needed to do something!

And I thought… I can make a cup sleeve!

Here are the ideas I came up with one day about this cup sleeve.

And the next day I made it.

Handmade leather coffee cup sleeve and loyalty card wallet! (First iteration) My hands are hyper-sensitive to heat, so I always – ALWAYS – need a coffee cup sleeve. And way too many places these days are starting to economise on them… or assume their customers have kevlar hands. I'm also very loyal to many coffee places (oxymoron?) and so I carry quite a few loyalty cards around all the time… and I thought… what if I made myself something to save my hands, carry the cards and smell, look and feel awesome at the same time?! And I made a leather cup sleeve!! There will be more iterations. Maybe a button & strap for keeping the cards in place. We'll see. It's an experiment :) And it also pleases me that I will be responsible for a lot less cardboard in the bins from now on!!! #leatherwork #design #selfdrafted #handmade #memade #leather #seamstressSophie #green #ecofriendly #productDesign #UX #UXisMoreThanInterfaces

A photo posted by Eurydice Sophie Exintaris (@eurydice13) on

I’m using it now.

My first experience with it taught me that the cards are a bit stiff in there and it might be better if there were fewer of them… so I might make a second pocket, split out the cards, and increase the insulation for my hands at the same time!