I’m increasingly troubled by stories from young Designers and UXers about UX interview “exercises” potential employers are asking them to do. Specifically, I’m seeing too many instances where, to my eyes, it looks like these organizations are asking interviewees to do real project work — for free.

I personally believe that these exercises are a waste of everyone’s time, but I get it. Organizations want a sure thing; they’re trying to minimize risk and vet a candidate as thoroughly as possible. But here’s what nearly three decades have taught me:

No matter how much evidence you ask a candidate to produce, there is still no way to tell by the first kiss.

Thinking you’ll eliminate the possibility that this hire will be a bust is an outright fallacy. There’s just no way to truly know for sure. And if you can’t get a sense of a candidate’s qualifications by checking out his/her employment history plus portfolio plus interview…the problem lies with you, not the candidate.

There’s a fine line between evidence and exploitation.

I’d like to walk through an example of what I’m talking about. A young man recently emailed me with a scenario he found troubling (I did as well). Here’s the generalized version of what the company was asking this young man to do:

Mary is a recruitment specialist. She is actively involved in sourcing and recruiting UX designers. She has to spend lot of time to find candidates who may be the right fit for available jobs. She is looking for a software application that will help her quickly scan through applicant profiles and schedule email campaigns to notify these candidates about job opportunities.

Design Problem:
Design an application for recruitment specialist who should be able to do the following tasks.

  • View list of job seekers.
  • Get important information about the Job seekers on the list page.
  • See details of a particular job seeker.
  • Add notes and tags to the job seekers details.

The Recruitment specialist should be able to select UX designers from the list of candidates who have 2 years of experience and set an email campaign to send jobs alerts on weekly basis.

  • Pick what you feel is a relevant platform (web/mobile) to design for (and why?).
  • Create scenarios for your user’s needs.
  • Design usable, relevant and engaging solutions for those requirements.
  • Present your solutions in terms of flows, wireframes and screen mocks.
  • Visual Design may be additional

I’m not even going to touch how poorly conceived this is, because we’ll be here forever.

My first reaction, upon seeing this, was that this is an extraordinary amount of work to expect someone to do for free. Which, to me, is exploitation.

My second thought was that this organization is getting candidates to do their project work for them. Which is exploitation on a grand scale.

This trend of having designers or UXers do in-depth design or UX work to get hired is a slippery slope to begin with — and when it veers into “here’s actual work for an actual client,” that’s a red flag in my book.

That’s what’s known as “spec work” in the advertising/design agency world, and it’s something I am 1000% against. And you should be as well.

If it feels wrong, there’s a reason.

That gnawing in the pit of your stomach when you’re asked to do something like this is your body’s warning system in action. It’s your heart, mind and soul working together to tell you that you are about to act from a place of fear — which is never good for anyone.

Here’s what I’ve told every college student I’ve ever taught, along with young designers and UXers entering the field, for the last 20 years:

Do not ever work for free, unless the client is a charity organization (and sometimes not even then).

And as a side note, if you’re a freelancer or just starting out, don’t ever believe the trap of “it’ll be great for your portfolio” or “you’ll gain valuable experience.” Any potential client parroting these classics is one you’ll regret taking on. Trust me on this.

Your time is your value, and you deserve to be compensated for that. Charging a nominal fee to keep them honest (e.g. $45/hr) makes sense to me. It’s fair, and it shows respect on both sides of the fence.

Any prospective employer who balks at that is someone you don’t want to work for in the first place — because they have every intention of exploiting you.

My friend Doug Collins puts it this way:

“Especially when we’re young and getting into the industry, the temptation to do ‘whatever you need to’ to get the job is high. The truth is that sometimes it’s better to pass on work or a position than to be miserable all day working for someone who doesn’t value your time and skills.”

Sarah Hawk, community manager at UX Mastery, works for a company that takes a respectful approach to this situation:

“We have a policy of paying people a competitive salary to do a 1 month trial (or longer if they need to do it part time while they work another job). At the end of the month we either employ them or not – if it’s a not then we’ve compensated them fairly for their time.”

This is something I’d love to see every organization mirror. It’s the right thing to do and the right way to do it — because it works to promote respect for our time, our skills and our profession as a whole.

If you’re interviewing right now, please remember this:

If it feels like exploitation to you, it probably is.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

If you’d like to learn how to create the kind of UX portfolio that gets the attention of recruiters and hiring managers, check out my Build a Powerful UX Portfolio (That Gets You Hired) course; it’s part of my new UX 365 Academy. Preview the curriculum and see what some of my 160,000 students have to say about it!