Throughout my career, I’ve encountered my fair share of terrible hiring practices.
Anything from from being asked to complete a research project for the company in under forty-eight hours to being completely ghosted after hours at an in-person interview I’ve experienced. At one point, I even got called the wrong name (at least at Starbucks I get coffee when they get my name wrong.)
Since then, interview process has only become more stressful!
When I started interviewing for user research positions (years ago), companies didn't practice take-home tasks and challenges as widely. There were some conversations about solving theoretical problems, but they mainly referred to my portfolio or previous work experience. So I was shocked when whiteboard or take-home challenges came into the scene.
Take-home challenges have had a bad reputation in the past. Often riddled with unrealistic timelines or too large of asks (like an entire research project as a “challenge). But fortunately, candidates have spoken out about unfair expectations in the past few years and companies have tried to create fair but telling tasks.
I can tell these tasks are improving, but that still doesn't demystify how you should approach them. After years of completing (and writing) these tasks, here are some tips I've gained.
Things to consider before completing the take-home challenge
The first time I completed a take-home test, I made the first and biggest mistake: I jumped right into solution mode and never made it past that interview.
The company asked me to assess the software Sketch and recommend potential improvements. Even though I was interviewing for a user research role, the job requirements did require some wireframing and prototypes. I was also coming from learning more about UX design than research.
Somehow, I bumbled through the presentation and, despite the mistakes, I got through to the next round (I don't know how!). However, in years to come, making that same mistake would be detrimental and cause me to lose opportunities.
There is no one correct solution for a take-home (or whiteboard) challenge, but there is a right way to approach it.
It's all about your process
I cannot stress this enough. As a hiring manager, I do not expect you to come up with one amazingly perfect answer to a challenge I give you.
If you just talk about a solution, that is a red flag. The entire point of a take-home challenge is for me to understand your approach to a problem. With this understanding, I can consider how you would approach similar issues at my organization.
So, what does everyone mean when they say, "I want to understand your process?" For a while, I struggled with this very concept. My process? Well, my strategy was to figure out the research, conduct it, and come up with some good ideas. But I knew (after some feedback) that I had to articulate this a bit better than that.
With this, I came up with how I approach a research problem, from start to finish:
Read (and re-read) the problem and determine:
- Who did the request come from?
- Why do they have that request/problem?
- Is it a business problem or a user research problem?
- If it is a viable research problem (can UXR answer this?)
- Has there been previous research done on this topic?
- What questions do I have about the project?
- What is the priority of the project compared to others?
Is it viable?
If it is viable and needs clarity, I meet with stakeholders to get more context. If not doable, I still meet with stakeholders to see what we can do.
Include relevant colleagues, the goals, expected outcomes, timeline, and other project details.
Select a methodology
Determine this based on the research question.
Think about who to recruit and how we will recruit them, including demographics, psychographics, how many people, and incentives.
Create a discussion guide
Make a discussion guide based on the goals and the chosen methodology, including stakeholders (to ensure I didn't miss anything).
Make a schedule
Be sure to include debriefs and notetaker sign-ups.
Conduct the research
Put your ideas into play!
Ideally this will happen with stakeholders including:
- Transcribing the sessions
- Affinity diagrams
This could be a report, presentation, or visualization appropriate for the project, and include recommendations.
Determine next steps
Consider any next steps that you’d take or recommend for this project.
It's okay to have questions
When I have first read take-home challenges, I have sat there with questions filling my head:
- Who are their users? How would I even approach recruitment?
- What resources or tools do I have available?
- How do my colleagues feel about research?
It's okay to have all these questions, and, most importantly, it is okay to make assumptions as long as you acknowledge it is an assumption. So, for instance, if I was trying to figure out who to recruit for a challenge, I might say something along the lines of:
"I'm assuming that your target market is in the United States, primarily in cities, and skews female. So I would focus my recruitment efforts on that segment."
I also always write down all questions I have and ask my interviewees. There is a chance they will say, "I don't know" or "what do you think?" so always be ready to make these assumptions and point them out!
Look for red flags
As I mentioned, I have received several large-scale projects that made me want to run away screaming. Use the challenge to consider how a company might think about research.
Do they expect you to do a generative research project and create seven personas on a two-week timeline? Yeesh! I say it because it's happened! They may expect you to challenge this timeline, but keep this in the back of your mind.
It is also okay to say no. I have declined roles after reading the research timeline. Either it included scary details like above, or they want me to do a lot of work on a tight timeline. If you don't get good vibes, it is alright to walk away. Also, good for you if you give the company this feedback!
How to complete a take-home challenge
I have done (and watched!) what feels like a thousand take-home challenges, honing my process with the practice. So let's say I get the assignment I wrote about here:
Assignment: Imagine the Voice Assistance wants to understand how caregivers interact with the SmartHome devices to keep in touch with and help their clients.
So far, the research has only been on the device owner's side rather than the experience caregivers have. The team would like to present the results in six weeks.
Review the request and create a research plan to help the team.
My process: Understand the request and meet with stakeholders
This is a relatively nice request because it feels user-centered, trying to understand the caregivers' perspective on this device.
I would have the following remaining questions during my meeting with stakeholders:
Why caregivers? Have we received complaints?
"Caregivers have been complaining about the lack of features and ability to connect with clients between check-ins."
How big of a segment are caregivers?
"They are a significant segment, the majority in the United States and female."
Is there any research we have previously done?
"Very little research."
What priority is this compared to other projects?
What is the expected outcome of the project?
"We want to understand the overall experience and get action items on improvements and opportunity areas"
Overall, if the project is a priority right now, user research could help us understand caregivers. I would also hold a few meetings to gather colleagues' assumptions and hypotheses on how caregivers use the devices and their experience. Then, if possible, I might use this information to create a proto-journey map.
Create a research plan
Based on this request and getting questions answered, I would move forward with an initial research plan, including the research problem/statement, goals, and timeline:
We seek to understand better how caregivers think about and interact with SmartHome devices to improve their experience and identify opportunity areas
- Understand the mental model of caregivers when it comes to SmartHome devices
- Identify pain points when caregivers interact with the SmartHome devices
- Discover how caregivers interact with SmartHome devices and any missing opportunities.
Since this is a generative research project, as they mentioned, I would stick with the timeframe of six weeks
Determine the method
As I already mentioned, this strikes me as generative because we are trying to understand a user's perspective. However, there is an evaluative component regarding interaction and pain points with the devices. So, in this case, I would recommend:
- 1x1 interviews, 90-minutes long, where I talk to caregivers in general about the topic and then have them walk me through several experiences where the device failed them or features that are missing
Since they mentioned our segment is in the United States and skews female, I would focus on this area. I would think about:
- Demographics: is there a certain age or location? Or title?
- Psychographics: they have a certain amount of clients, they use the devices three or more times a week, they have used the device in the past six months
I want to make sure we speak to about 15 people within a segment as this is a generative study. If possible, I would use a recruitment agency (ex: TestingTime, UserTesting) that has this population, or, if not, I would check our CRM and reach out to about 300 users to fulfill those 15 slots.
Because we are conducting a generative study, my questions will be open-ended and focused on obtaining stories from users. I would use the TEDW framework to ask questions such as:
- "Walk me through your general experience with the SmartHome Device."
- "Tell me about the last time you had a problem with the device; what happened?"
- "Describe your last experience with the device."
After I brainstormed the initial questions, I would meet with stakeholders to ensure they aligned with their needs and didn't miss anything.
Over the six weeks, the study would look like this:
Week 1-2: Kick-off and recruitment
Week 3-4: Research sessions and debriefs
Week 5: Synthesis and reporting
Week 6: Presentation, recommendations, and next steps
I synthesize research in a particular process where I love to include stakeholders whenever possible. Here is what I do:
- Step 0: I record each research session (audio or video is fine) and assign a notetaker. If I can't record, I rely on the notetaker more heavily. If no one else can take notes, I will take notes during the session.
- Step 1: I conduct a debrief with stakeholders (or by myself)
- Step 2: I review each interview within 24 hours of the session. During this time, I write a transcript of the session in excel.
- Step 3: I review the transcript and highlight any critical notes or quotes. I then will timestamp these to easily make video/audio clips later on for presentations or reports.
- Step 4: I code the transcript, using codes like goals, needs, pain points, and any project-specific codes (ex: specific tasks)
- Step 5: I do this across all the different transcripts.
- Step 6: I bring the transcripts together and start to highlight the commonalities between them through affinity diagramming (clustering similarities and finding patterns)
- Step 7: I contextualize my findings with the original problem. For instance, if several people have mentioned they want a feature to speak directly to their clients, I pull out the deeper context as the insight. I don't want to offer solutions, just insights.
- Step 8: I write down the most significant problems the users face with video/audio clips to present to the team
Deliverables and outcomes
For this study, I would consider the following deliverables:
- A journey map to highlight the interactions this segment of caregivers have with the device (which will have to be further validated)
- A report with video clips talking through the experience and the pain points
- A visualization of the most significant pain points and opportunity areas
After the presentation, I would sit with the team to discuss the reports in more depth. I would help them prioritize the most prominent pain points and opportunity areas through the RICE model. In addition, based on our findings, I would hold an ideation session for solution-based thinking. Finally, I would conduct further studies to validate our journey map.
Sign-up for some prompts to practice with! Consider my whiteboard challenge course if you want to dive deeper into the process and see me run through an example challenge!
Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs.
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