Two years ago, I left my full time Visual Design job in order to take on a 4-month User Experience Design apprenticeship program with the well-known design agency, Fresh Tilled Soil. The apprenticeship was an amazing opportunity and experience, and after completing it – I began interviewing for full time UX/UI roles. Becoming a UX/UI Designer had been a longtime dream for me at that point, and I was so excited to enter this new phase in my career.
While interviewing for my first opportunity, I completed the standard phone screen and then met the team in-person at their downtown Boston office. The company was a small startup (actually backed by Shark Tank) and working on a brand new product. I met with the team (design team as well at the CEO and CFO), answered lots of questions, and did a white-boarding session with the CEO. We white-boarded the on-boarding experience for a new product they were working on. The interview went great, and they asked me to complete a take-home project as part of the next phase in the interviewing process.
I was asked to redesign the marketing homepage for the new product that they would be launching, and they asked me to spend around 4-6 hours on it. At the time, it was the middle of winter and I was unemployed with lots of time on my hands. And because I was very excited about this particular opportunity, I decided to go above and beyond and not only design the homepage but take a stab at designing the onboarding flow for the actual product itself (the same one that I had whiteboarded with the CEO.)
A week later, I returned to the company’s office in order to present my work to the team. I walked them through my high fidelity Invision prototype – answering lots of questions throughout the presentation and defending my design choices (typical UX interviewing stuff!) The team seemed interested in my process, but from what I remember, they overall seemed a little apathetic towards the immense amount of time and effort I had put into the project. The design lead let me know that my direction was “interesting” but that they were “going in a very different direction.” I remember the CEO commented that he “hated” serif fonts, which I had used throughout the prototype, and asked why I had chosen them. I of course had my reason and explained it to him.
I left the meeting feeling a little disappointed but knew that I had put 110% into the interview and project and felt good about that. A week later, I hadn’t heard back from anyone at the company – so I sent I follow up email with a link to my Invision prototype (in case they wanted to take a second look at my work.) And then a week after I sent the email, I got a phone call at 8pm from the lead designer, thanking me for my time but letting me know that they were going to look for a different candidate with more experience. I was bummed but quickly moved on to interviewing with other companies and ended up with several other offers a few weeks later.
Fast forward 6 months, I decided to take a look at the company’s website to see what they had decided to launch. To my surprise, as I clicked through the website – what I saw was incredibly similar to the design that I myself had presented during my interview. Actually, many of the screens were almost identical. My immediate reaction was fury – I was angry. I sent the lead designer and CEO an email, asking for an explanation, and further asking them to compensate me fairly for the “free consultation” work that I clearly had completed for them during my interview. The company denied the plagiarism and exclaimed that they had been working on this specific design for almost a year. Its very difficult for me to believe this, looking back on the team’s reaction to my designs. No one exclaimed, “Wow! You designed an extremely similar product to ours! We are totally on the same page.” And of course, the company launched the product with the serif fonts that the CEO claimed to hate so much.
I ended up seeking the advice of my uncle who is the managing partner of a large Boston law firm. He advised that pursuing the company for fair compensation was going to be costly and stressful. Furthermore, as a new designer I was very worried about making enemies in my own city and industry. So ultimately, I am choosing to just share this story with others but leaving out any indicating names.
I asked Trish Glei, the Senior Designer on my current team for her advice on what to do if a potential employer asks you to solve an industry-related problem during the interview. Here’s what she recommends:
1. Don’t be afraid to ASK if this problem is currently on their product roadmap
2. If it is (in any way), ask if there is a different problem you can solve, or other portfolio work you can showcase instead
3. Don’t be afraid to walk away. If something feels wrong – it probably is. Don’t be afraid to say, thank you – but no thank you. A professional design team should never be asking candidates to solve their existing problems. It’s just unethical.
Now that I am 2 years into my UX/UI career, I KNOW that companies should never ask a candidate to work on their product-related problems. When I interview a candidate, I ask them to work on a problem that is totally unrelated to the industry I am working in. It’s only fair to the candidate, and also ensures that as an employer, my company avoids any sticky situations.
Sometimes, we just learn from experience. And in the end, I am choosing to be flattered that very senior designers, a CEO, and a CFO decided to be incredibly inspired by the work of an entry-level experience designer.
Special thank you to Trish Glei for giving the advice on this blog post!