getting-ready-for-the-on-site-product-design-interview

Grab your essentials to the interview: your interview packet, portfolio, and backup. Photo by Anete

You’ve passed the phone screen and you’ve done the take home design exercise. Now you’ve got an on-site on your hands. Congrats on making it this far! So what’s next? By now you should have received an email from the company with an interviewing schedule. Generally it’ll look like this,

Your July 30th itinerary with Company A

1:00pm portfolio presentation with product, engineering, and design

2:00pm app critique with Marla Katie and Andrea Gartner

2:30pm whiteboard collaboration with Kim Donahue and Bailey Danny

3:30pm 1:1 with Sarah Greene, product manager

4:00pm 1:1 with Cathy Yang, product designer

4:30pm 1:1 with Andrew O’Connor, engineer

5:00pm 1:1 with Mariko Katie, head of design

5:30pm interview wrap up with Richard Richards, recruiting

If you haven’t received the schedule — now’s a great time to ask for it. In my experience, smaller companies or startups sometimes forget or gloss over these. By asking for the schedule in advance you show initiative but most importantly you’ll know what to expect, which in turn will help you prepare in advance.

After learning the schedule, now’s the opportunity to learn more about your interviewers, if this company has already invested time in getting to know you — it’s only fair that you should get to know them too.

Start with LinkedIn and look at each interviewer’s profile: their experience, common connections, and recent posts. Look for their other online social networks or sites were they were mentioned or shared their work. If you’re applying to a startup or a smaller company be sure to research the leadership team too.

This info will be useful during the interview itself as it helps you,

  • Anticipate types of questions you’ll get asked
  • Select relevant portfolio pieces to address potential concerns
  • Ask specific questions to each person given their role and experience
  • Build rapport with the interviewers based on common organizations or connections

Having a schedule isn’t a guarantee the interviewer will be there. One time I was researching a product manager who had a fascinating design and search background. I agonized over which questions to ask him only to learn the day of that all PMs are having a last minute off-site.

Despite this, research will still make you stand out. To the interviewers it’s a signal that you’re interested in the job and the team. This goes for all levels — from new designers to experienced design leaders. If, as a candidate, you don’t have any questions or don’t show curiosity when given the chance to ask questions, it’s a strong red flag you’re unsure. Luckily this isn’t hard to do, nor is it time consuming as you can get this info in less than half an hour of online searching.

Your on-site packet

My deliverable at the of this exercise is an on-site packet composed of:

  • Summary page with the name of the company, schedule, street address, point person for the interview and their phone number in case I need to call when I arrive or get lost
  • Pages for each interviewing event with any interesting facts and questions I want to follow-up with for each person
  • Extra pages for note-taking

This packet makes it easy to keep track of interviews, take notes, and cross reference information all in one place.

For the day of the on-site, it’s important to have the basics covered. That means eating well a few hours before and getting proper rest. Think of this as a test. You have the knowledge and skills, now it’s important to demonstrate your major skills and accomplishments in one go.

Gather your belongings

If this is a full or a half day of interviews, it will probably be demanding so be sure to bring your:

  • Laptop (even if you’re presenting on an iPad, have it as a backup) with a charger
  • Notebook, sketching kit (or at the very least pen and paper)
  • On-site packet
  • Excitement

Now you might scoff at some of these above. Getting rest? Excitement? Who cares! I’ve been doing design for years. While it’s important to bring your whole self to the interview, it’s also important to show interest — after all you’ve selected this company to interview with and if at all goes well, you’ll be working with these folks everyday.

Show your excitement

And what about excitement? One time, after a friendly chat with a head of product I got passed for the role due to my lack of passion. I thought the interview went well but I was later told that I didn’t come off enthusiastic and was too professional. I took that lesson in stride and applied it to all of my on-sites since.

Tom Cruise demonstrates the upper bounds of excitement

I knew I mastered it when a founder at another company sympathized with my passion for design and the team, “I can see how excited you are about design and this opportunity that it must be draining at the of the day so please take some time to rest afterwards”.

Rethink stress

Lastly, if you’re starting to feel stressed out — you’re actually excited. As professor Jamie Jamieson’s research on stress suggests (as recounted in Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress), it’s not that high performers don’t feel stress, it’s that they ascribe this stress to be a positive force that helps them reach peak level performance.

In one of the studies participants who were asked to think of stress as a positive force, were rated as better speakers and appeared more confident (as opposed to those who were told to ignore stress).

Get there on time

When it’s time for the interview I usually figure out when my transportation options are so that I can get there at a comfortable time, about 30 minutes before the start. This leaves you a 10 minute buffer in case something goes wrong, 10 minutes to sign-in, with 10 minutes to settle in or get a quick office tour before you start. You definitely want to leave yourself enough buffer so as not to shortchange yourself by being late.

Have a backup plan ready

Finally, It helps to have a backup plan in case technology fails — maybe your laptop dies, maybe there’s no internet connection. It’s surprising how often simple things that should work fail during moments that matter. To prepare, aside having your portfolio downloaded locally to your laptop, have it as a backup on a thumb drive, or a private online link that you can access.


Interviews can be grueling but if you’ve done all this work upfront you’ll thank yourself later. With prep done you’ll arrive with confidence on time and will have a process in place when facing the unexpected.

What’s next?

In the next article we’ll dive into the most important interview event — the in-person portfolio presentation. Don’t make the mistake of presenting your online portfolio that got you here, this presentation should be deep dive into one or two case studies showing your process, deliverables and outcomes.

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