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.


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.