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Design challenges at Zendesk: As a designer, how would you approach this?

over 4 years ago from , founder | product design

I was given this design exercise for a role at Zendesk. I have my opinions, but I was curious how other designers think this assignment fairs with their hiring experience.

How would you approach it or would you at all? What's problematic about it? What expectation does it set for you as a potential new hire? How would you respond if this was assigned to you? Does this raise any flags for you?

Please, be thoughtful in your replies. I'm really curious what others here think. Thank you.

Product Design Exercise Choose one of the following problems to solve:

Zendesk Voice

A phone conversation is a powerful way to solve a problem, even in the age of email and social media. When customers get help over the phone, agents can resolve complex issues faster and deliver personalised support. Design a mobile app that allows agents use Zendesk Voice features on their mobile device. Agents should be able to set their availability, accept incoming phone calls or route them to different teams or users.

Zendesk Chat

Zendesk offers live chat for customers to communicate with agents in real time. Design a mobile app that allows agents to provide support for customers in a conversational environment. Agents should be able to reassign conversations to other team members and set their availability for live chat within the app. Feel free to reference our existing apps. More information on Zendesk voice, and our mobile apps are at:

https://www.zendesk.com/voice/https://itunes.apple.com/ie/app/zendesk/https://www.zendesk.com/inbox/https://www.zendesk.com/live-chat-software/

Please provide the following:

An outline of your thought process and how you arrived at your solution. Any sketches of rejected ideas could help show your thought process. A description of your solution, with any sketches or wireframes that were used to arrive at that design. At least one high fidelity UI mockup showing the important pieces of your solution. Anything else you think is important to include.

You’re not expected to spend more than four hours on the exercise. We’d love to see an interesting design that shows off your approach to design problems and your personal style. Feel free to push the boundaries of what Zendesk currently is today.

29 comments

  • Fran RosaFran Rosa, over 4 years ago

    Asking job applicants to work on a real problem is common practice. And it's wrong.

    It shows two things: laziness and lack of trust.

    Laziness because instead of narrowing the list of applicants to a short list, and looking at their work to see what they have done, they just ask for an assigment so they can easily compare the output. It's common — and insulting — to have an interview where the interviewer hasn't even take a look at the applicant portfolio and ask her/him to ‘walk her/him through it’.

    And lack of trust because they usually argue that they can't know exactly what role you played on any project on your portfolio, but force you to trust them they won't use that work in case you don't get the job.

    The only way to let them know you won't do spec work without withdrawing your application is to tell them what your rate is and ask them to pay for the job. In most cases they will try to convince you to do it for free, and I don't think there is any scenario where they would pay for it or keep you into consideration.

    My recommendation: unless you want to do the assignment — because you think is an interesting exercise and you can learn something doing it — and they let you publish your solution anywhere as a study case, don't do it.

    12 points
    • , over 4 years ago

      Thank you, mate. Very thoughtful response.

      0 points
    • Ian GoodeIan Goode, over 4 years ago

      Fran has already voiced my main complaints better than I could have!

      I'm not 100% against design exercises, but I think this is a bad one. They're asking for four hours of your time, which is a lot, and in this case what information are they really expecting to get that they couldn't get from another project in your portfolio.

      The 'problems' they ask you to solve are too broad and unspecific, especially for a product design role. They'd be better off choosing one specific problem (that they've already solved themselves) and getting you to spend 60 mins tops focused on that. That would give them more valuable information to analyse. In my opinion asking a designer to knock out an app in a few hours is setting a bad precedent.

      6 points
      • , over 4 years ago

        Hey Ian, thank you.

        One of the thoughts that crossed my mind was whether or not the exercise had been tested internally before it was assigned to me. For me, I was curious if these expectations had in fact been assessed by the lead him/herself and validated.

        We're in an time where designers are asked to consider how they will measure the effectiveness of their work. It in some ways made me wonder whether or not this was how design functioned internally within the org.

        It also had me wondering what is meant by 'an app?' Sketched, wire-framed and or prototyped? Again and to you and other's mention, it was definitely a bit broad and left me wondering where to start (or stop for that matter).

        Thanks for taking time to think and comment.

        0 points
    • P GBP GB, over 4 years ago

      Couldn't disagree with this more. It massively depends on the company. If this is some unknown startup doing stuff on the cheap then I'd avoid it, but with companies like Zendesk it's fine.

      Asking job applicants to work on a real problem is common practice. And it's wrong.

      No it's not. It's sensible. Your 4 hours worth of App design isn't going to be the solution a company like Zendesk uses, it's literally an exercise to try and asses how you approach a problem.

      Laziness because instead of narrowing the list of applicants to a short list, and looking at their work to see what they have done, they just ask for an assigment so they can easily compare the output. It's common — and insulting — to have an interview where the interviewer hasn't even take a look at the applicant portfolio and ask her/him to ‘walk her/him through it’.

      Thats a massive assumption - and I'm not sure why you think anyone would interview like that. It's much harder to ask every applicant to do the design exercise and have to trawl through the submissions than it is to make a shortlist and ask those people do do the task.

      I always ask a candidate to walk though a couple of projects in their folio. That doesn't ever mean I've not looked myself. It means I want to hear about it from their point of view, the why and the how.

      And lack of trust because they usually argue that they can't know exactly what role you played on any project on your portfolio, but force you to trust them they won't use that work in case you don't get the job.

      How insulting do you want to be to their design team? Do you think you can solve the problem in 4 hours from the outside with minimal context in a better way than their team can?

      My recommendation: unless you want to do the assignment — because you think is an interesting exercise and you can learn something doing it — and they let you publish your solution anywhere as a study case, don't do it.

      Unless you want to work for them, obviously.

      13 points
      • Thomas RawcliffeThomas Rawcliffe, over 4 years ago

        Could not agree more!

        Assignments like this help filter out those who aren't fully invested in the role. For me, there have been countless times whilst reviewing applicants; where the portfolio looks great but when presented with an assignment they either don't complete, or the output isn't what we were looking for.

        2 points
      • Fran RosaFran Rosa, over 4 years ago

        As I already told him — in the only part you didn't quote from my answer — ‘I don't think there is any scenario where they would pay for it or keep you into consideration’.

        And that's why usually companies get away with it. But it's wrong, no matter if they use your work or not. It's spec work.

        1 point
      • , over 4 years ago

        Hey Ben,

        I think there are some assumptions that have coupled the exercise and Fran's comment. Not being condescending, but have you viewed the design exercise in the original post? Tried to walk through it or put yourself in the same situation?

        Would you be privy to completing it for the sake of substantiating your comment?

        If I were to reiterate the initial post, I'm curious how feasible this is for a designer to complete. I'm curious if this exercise is valuable to not only the company, but for the designer. What can be learned about the designer except that they are willing to make sacrifices to prove they have grit and can 'get the job done?' What does this particular exercise say to a designer about how the organization values its talent?

        Since it (may seem) seems fair to you, how would you approach the exercise? If you run into any stumbling blocks, given a four day time frame, how would you complete it? Given all this, if it raises any flags for you, what are they?

        After viewing the assignment, and if you find it to be unfair or unfeasible, how would you have replied?

        Definitely not trying to be cynical here, but I think it's key to dial in on the initial post as a matter of practice and fact, weighing the situation of both designer and organization.

        Definitely appreciate different points of view, so thanks for taking the time to engage the original post and other comments in a comment-reply.

        0 points
    • Radley MarxRadley Marx, over 4 years ago

      My recommendation: unless you want to do the assignment — because you think is an interesting exercise and you can learn something doing it — and they let you publish your solution anywhere as a study case, don't do it.

      It's not work for hire, so the design is still owned by the designer.

      But honestly, what designer is going to highlight a 4-hour concept design in their portfolio?

      0 points
  • Lee Williams, over 4 years ago

    There are many issues with this sort of interview requirement and they mostly center around not valuing the interviewees time.

    This exercise mostly measure how much time someone is willing to spend on the interview. They may say that they only want 4 hours worth of work but a candidate who spends more than the stated time will only benefit. A designer may create a perfect solution to this issue but if they spent a full week arriving at it then that may not be a designer you actually want to hire. So this method benefits designers with a lot of time on their hands. A middling designer who's currently unemployed and doesn't have kids might be able to knock it out of the park, but an amazing designer who's currently employed and works 70 hours a week with kids may appear weaker.

    This could also weed out a fantastic applicant who's just sort of looking to see what's available, but is actually fine with the job they currently have. Will that applicant bother with homework? Probably not.

    The truth is hiring is difficult and the time required for due diligence is the employers responsibility not the interviewee.

    6 points
    • , over 4 years ago

      The truth is hiring is difficult and the time required for due diligence is the employers responsibility not the interviewee.

      Thanks for your comment, Lee.

      I think your comment raises the same concerns I had. This seemed like an exercise that less than four hours was invested to put together. To me, it says that the org values their time more than the designer's, therefore sending the wrong message as to how they value their talent.

      Overall, it just is without regard or empathy for the person they are considering to hire.

      I've been a part teams where the product owner commits so little to the scope or product definition (or general context) that it puts the responsibility on others to do more than their role requires. It can lead to the appearance of over-stepping boundaries and overall set a bad precedent within teams when others begin to pull up unnecessary slack.

      If it becomes common practice, it can waste a ton of time attempting to arrive at some level of actionable clarity.

      0 points
  • Mark Otto, over 4 years ago

    While this doesn't answer your questions directly, I hope it can provide an alternative for you to weigh the exercise and it's merit against.

    Asking folks to design something from scratch feels antithetical to how this person will actually work with your team if hired. If you already work at a company, you have access to a team, general context, actionable data, a product roadmap, and more to make informed decisions. This kind of approach often (but not always) leads to a limited, surface level output from candidates and an abbreviated review from the hiring team.

    Given exercises like this tend to lead to the same output a hiring manager can discern from a portfolio, we emphasize design critique at GitHub. After phone/video screens, we pass along a design exercise asking you to identify problems instead of solving them. We use this to gain a better understanding of how you think and write about design; whether you can code, design UI, etc comes from a portfolio.

    If we like what we read in the critique, we bring you in for an on-site interview that includes a one hour work session with two designers (in addition to a portfolio review and 1:1 talks). We workshop your critique, share insights, push ideas, give feedback, and provide answers. This all comes together to give us an idea of how you'll work with our team.

    I don't think asking folks to design something from scratch is completely wrong, but I do think that approach focuses on the wrong problems (though likely not from a place of malice or distrust).

    5 points
    • Alberto Medea, over 4 years ago

      This is a great process!

      0 points
    • Peter Assentorp, over 4 years ago

      This seems like a really good process, thanks for sharing.

      0 points
    • , over 4 years ago

      After phone/video screens, we pass along a design exercise asking you to identify problems instead of solving them. We use this to gain a better understanding of how you think and write about design; whether you can code, design UI, etc comes from a portfolio.

      Thank you for the thoughtful reply and hiring process note.

      "Design is as much about finding problems as it is solving them." is a quote I've used to define what we do.

      Really excited to see what Github has been up to given the recent scaling of the design team. Side-note question: what do you think about Zenhub?

      0 points
  • Ray SensebachRay Sensebach, over 4 years ago

    Pretty standard practice. Fine by me so long as they pay you for your time and give a ton of freedom around deadline because you likely are already working 40+ hours per week.

    I always find it's more beneficial to present the designs yourself instead of just handing them off. That's the one other point that sticks out to me with this particular exercise.

    You want to validate the applicants teamwork, communication and other soft skills with an exercise like this. Hard skills can be taught on the job, if needed. For quality of work, just look at my portfolio/case studies.

    3 points
    • Scott HurffScott Hurff, over 4 years ago

      Well said, good sir.

      1 point
    • , over 4 years ago

      Ray, thank you for chiming in.

      I always find it's more beneficial to present the designs yourself instead of just handing them off.

      I don't know of a designer who doesn't or would prefer to given such a tight window to complete this in.

      Like yourself, I prefer to present my work instead of handing it off in a PDF or by way of a link. Presenting I think is an extremely important skill to have and get better at, for it's how you'll be relating to your teammates more than the aforementioned methods.

      As a design lead, I want to know how you present your work, especially in the case that I may not have heard you go through your portfolio.

      In the context of an interview, it's how designers assess those s/he'll be working with in terms of design critique within a working culture.

      0 points
  • P GBP GB, over 4 years ago

    It's a pretty open brief, the time constraint is probably added to try and keep your scope narrow on a brief that could go really wide.

    It's not the best exercise I've seen, but it's not the worst. I'd take it as a chance to have some design fun and show a bit about how you think and approach things.

    It would raise flags if it was some unknown company with no live products basically asking you to design their app, I'd run a mile from that. A company like Zendesk though, should be fine. Your 4 hour solution isn't going to cut it in their real world.

    It's slightly under the time suggestion and complexity of a Google design exercise, for example, but it's not far off.

    2 points
  • Brian A.Brian A., over 4 years ago

    I’m not opposed to completing a design exercise so long as the request is appropriate and reasonable. In my opinion,wildly open-ended requests like Zendesk’s (“design us a mobile app that supports voice calling”) are far too vague to result in any meaningful solution. Instead, something more focused—and potentially supported by real data and business objectives—would be more likely to answer any questions that the design team might have.

    Additionally, I agree with what others have said about the time commitment. Last year I was interviewing at a software company for a product design role. I was asked to do a phone screen, then complete a design exercise, then go on-site for a two hour interview. I went through all of that only to be told that wanted to consider me for a different role, and that I would have to all of that over again. I told them that I was no longer interested in the position because I could not dedicate any more time to the interview process. I’m not opposed to completing design exercises if it seems like a good fit, but they need to be respectful of my time and not burden me with unreasonable requests.

    1 point
    • Cory MalnarickCory Malnarick, over 4 years ago

      In hindsight, if they have a solution already in mind, it's a good way for talent acq to measure an applicants way of thinking to compare their solution to their internal solutions.

      For instance, Zendesk could run the same problem to all of their internal designers, and measure applicants' solutions against them.

      0 points
    • , over 4 years ago

      I went through all of that only to be told that wanted to consider me for a different role, and that I would have to all of that over again.

      Thank you for your comment, Brian. A couple things.

      I was referred by a previous designer and my portfolio and CV went along with the referral and application.

      My work was previewed and surveyed by the lead prior to them getting back in touch. I was interviewed by a visual designer, someone in HR and the lead designer there.

      Prior to the design exercise, I'd say about six or so hours were engaged over the course of a week, which one would think is a fair amount of time to know whether or not a candidate will fair for the job.

      But to your point, one does begin to add up their availability and time over the course of several interactions, especially when they feel they've gone well.

      I think design (and coding) exercises are fair when considerate, but I also don't think they are reserved for every person.

      If I'm referred someone, say a developer, by an esteemed colleague whom I can vouch for, I'd like conduct a different style of assessment, especially after viewing and digging their work. I might feel that putting them through a code challenge would be patronizing, especially if I know that they have worked on projects with a similar stack for similar use cases. I would likely probe them along the lines of more specific problems they solved and how they may have worked with others to solve them.

      The key mention in all this is the acknowledgement and respect for other's time. It's valuable, not just to organizations, but especially to people who work in them. And I think if you're hiring a designer, consideration and empathy should be forward in any attempt to bring them on board. It's the lens in which we should be approaching our work.

      Again, thanks for the comment(s).

      1 point
  • Al M, over 4 years ago

    I recently worked on a design exercise as a pre-requisite before an interview. I actually really appreciated having the opportunity to do this as I'm trying to go from more graphic/web design into product design. I have to admit I did put a lot of time into it and if I had kids or any other commitments outside of work I would have struggled. The exercise had me choose any software I wanted.

    I'm a bit on the fence. In my case, it gave me an opportunity to work on a product related task outside of my personal projects. I really did enjoy doing it and later walking through it with someone from the company. I imagine it's useful for applicants who are just starting out and perhaps don't have much to show in their portfolio. However, it was a lot of work to potentially not even get an interview. I'd struggle to do this for every job I applied for.

    1 point
  • Radley MarxRadley Marx, over 4 years ago

    Both problems are pretty simple and can be worked out in < 60 min.

    The main red flag is the high-fidelity mock-up request. That's an obvious no-no. They should know better.

    The other red flag - they can't seem to do it themselves with a full team of designers and developers: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/zendesk/id368796007?mt=8

    1 point
    • , over 4 years ago

      Hey Radley,

      If you're referring to the original post, mind identifying the design problem? Who are you solving the problem for?

      I'm curious how you arrived to your conclusion.

      0 points
  • Hemang Rindani, over 4 years ago

    From my experience at hiring, what I feel is a right candidate is hired if he is been interviewed by the right person.

    Say if you are hiring for some project then your project manager and design lead for that project are the right people and if you hire on a permanent basis, a person who understand designing trends, is innovative and has carried companies vision is the right one to interview a person.

    This is how you hire for a designer. We have been highly successful when it comes to product and app designing. With 500+ resources Cygnet Infotech knows how to deal with these challenges.

    0 points
  • Cory MalnarickCory Malnarick, over 4 years ago

    What is the time between assignment, and due date?

    No one in their right mind will spend only 4 hours on this assignment; if someone is looking for work, and wants this job, they will be wise to spend every available minute on the project.

    That alone fucks up the desired outcome – two very hirable applicants could produce highly different solutions based solely on how they interpret the problem: "Should/Shouldn't I spend only four hours on this problem?" This skews the data and causes talent acquisition more problems than it solves.

    I've heard more bad than good when it comes to design exercises, but thankfully among my dozens and dozens of interviews I've endured over the past several months, I was only asked to perform a design challenge once, and it wasn't a take-home challenge. We walked through my portfolio, then they gave me a short 30 min design challenge. I think this is a much more actionable method for talent acquisition.

    0 points
    • , over 4 years ago

      Hey Cory. I think the assignment made it into my inbox on a Monday and was asked to be delivered by 8am Friday of the same week. So that's about four calendar days, but doesn't take into account any other obligations in flight. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      1 point
      • Cory MalnarickCory Malnarick, over 4 years ago

        Depending on my schedule, I'd have worked on it every available hour from reception to 8am. If they fought against that logic, I'd have said something along the lines of "I treated this like I would treat any deadline – I'd want to take advantage of the time I have to produce the best work for the client as possible."

        This advice comes from my conversation and mock design challenge I produced for a designer at Moment.

        0 points