Mirela Ignat

The UX Design Challenge with Mirela Ignat

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Mirela Ignat, UX Lead at Provably Fair, describes what to look for in a successful design challenge. An ideal candidate takes advantage of storytelling when presenting work and has emotional maturity to accept feedback. In order to stand out, the solution should be simple and realistic, unlike the work seen on Dribbble or Behance. Mirela also addresses how to approach challenges directly related to the company.

Because, let’s be honest, most of our daily challenges like documentation, meetings, convincing clients, presenting a concept after the 17th iteration – those are not out shown there. We don’t talk about them. We just talk about the nice and shiny things that happen in the design world.


Mirela Ignat

UX Lead at Provably Fair, Mentor at Springboard and ADPList


00:00Introduction 02:52Why would you give an at home challenge? 05:41Speed or accuracy? 06:56Being able to receive feedback 09:26What’s wrong with Dribbble? 12:45What makes home challenges stand out? 15:15What hiring managers look for 18:13Should you complete projects related to the company? 23:39What being passionate means 26:58Should designers code? 28:07 Contact Mirela

Behind the mic

Mirela Ignat

Mirela Ignat

I help find, train and mentor the next generation of designers by providing them with the necessary context to develop technical and soft skills.

Extremely passionate about creating a safe space where designers can feel empowered to take action, inspire change within the company and feel comfortable to be their authentic selves at work.

I use storytelling to inspire action and to communicate complex ideas to various audiences to ensure that we create tangible value for our end users and stakeholders.

Filippo Lovotti's with an intrigued look

Filippo Lovotti

In case you missed my barely audible accent, I was born and raised in northern Italy, near the Milano area, and moved to the USA a decade ago. I started venturing in the realm of pixels and websites during high-school, but at the time, I had no idea design would become my career, my biggest passion, and such a vital part of my life. Nowadays, UX design, strategy, and mentoring take up most of my days. And I love that. When I’m not behind a screen or recording podcasts, you’ll find me drawing with pen and ink or training at a local park for my next Highland Games competition.

Show notes

As a hiring manager, Mirela knows what she’s looking for in design challenges. She wants to see how people think, how they spot improvement areas, and if they take advantage of storytelling when presenting their work. But Mirela points out that she also wants people to use words that are easily understandable, not only UX vocabulary. Be able to approach issues and explain solutions in a simple way.

In a design challenge, Mirela looks at neither speed or accuracy. In fact, an ideal candidate should have good emotional maturity in order to accept feedback because there are no perfect projects. When it comes to comparing designers with each other, Mirela expresses how design is not beautiful, that it is not work as seen on Dribbble or Behance. Those designs are unrealistic, complex and set up false expectations. What matters is how the design ends up helping people in the end. 

What happens when a candidate is asked to complete a project directly related to the company? Should you complete it? According to Mirela, no, because it’s ethically wrong and they can recycle the work into their own company. A design challenge should never be about the company! And should a designer code? No, because the focus should be solely on UX. Writing code deters from that.

In order to stand out, Mirela wants to see passion beyond the job itself. She says if you really like design, take it upon yourself to education people and increase maturity level about UX. Educate developers, QA, product managers, and help pave a path for future designers. Strive to get people to come to you with a usability issue, meaning they actually understood the value of your help.


Watch with Closed Captions


Filippo Lovotti 0:00

Hi, Filippo here. Before we start with the episode, I wanted to let you know about a great UX mentoring and career prep opportunity. We at the Industry of UX started our own UX career prep service. We go from portfolio and resume review to whiteboarding and interview prepping, and short term to long term mentoring. If you want to get ready for your first or next UX job, we got you. Check us out at school.theindustryofux.com

Mirela Ignat 0:31

and they might get trapped into doing the latest asymmetrical layout out there just to fall in line with the trends. And I'm actually want to see how they think and how they solve problems and how they're creative within constraints. This is the main key what they want to see, I want to see how you're creative within constraints.

Filippo Lovotti 0:50

This is the Industry of UX Season Two, inside the UX hiring journey. We talk to the experts to bring you the strategies, the thinking process and the reasoning behind the hiring decisions in the UX job market. Let's dive into the episode.

Hello, you wonderful UXers. Welcome back to another episode of the Industry of UX. I'm your host, Filippo Lovotti. I hope you're having a great day. And I'm glad to be here with you today. So one of the hot topics when it comes to UX hiring is the design challenge. This is what I refer to as the at home challenge, because it's given to the candidates to complete at a later date, unlike a whiteboard challenge, where it's happening right during the interview. And there are some great resources about design challenges out there. But we wanted to get the perspective of a seasoned hiring manager. So we brought Mirela Ignat. On the show. Mirela is a UX Lead at Provably Fair, a Design Mentor at both Springboard and ADP list. And a design leader forum member at InVision. If you want to learn how to ace a design challenge, keep listening. Mirella covers her expectations as a hiring manager, how to successfully complete the challenge and how to avoid spec work. Let me know what you think about the episode by tweeting @IndustryUX, no offense to Android users. But if you have an iPhone, give us a five star rating and review on Apple podcasts. It helps us produce a better show and bring the podcast to a bigger audience. Okay, on to the conversation with me rather, as a hiring manager, why would you give an at home challenge to a candidate? What are you trying to do? What are you trying to test? As a hiring manager? What are you trying to see?

Mirela Ignat 3:11

So I really want to see how people think, how they spot improvement areas? Why do they consider those areas? Where do you have improvements, just because all of the work that we do as designers, at least 95% of it is under NDA. And the work that we put in our portfolio is carefully crafted over months and constantly improved. And I really want to see how designers do in a real life situation. With boundaries set in place with things missing, I really want to see how they do in a real life scenario. So this is why we kind of give design challenges for them at home. And I really want to see basically how they take advantage of storytelling when they present their work. I want to see why did they take those decisions? Why do they suggest those improvements. And what I really appreciate in whenever someone's presenting their work afterwards, I really want to see people who take advantage of storytelling. And they use words people can understand and they don't get trapped in that UX vocabulary in order to just sound smart and more professional. Because when you have to present a concept will know you x maturity clients, you will have to adapt your language so that person will understand because if you get into too many semantics and you x terminology, you might not get the client. So I'm really testing for that as well. And something that I've been doing lately in the past few years is a few candidates, we kind of ask them to estimate your work. So we give them a challenge. For example I can be okay do a heuristic analysis to this website. Let's see if we design if it's a if it's a Y position, and I really want to see how people estimate and work as in we don't i don't give them a deadline. I don't tell them bring it back to me in 10 days. So then the work and I asked them, okay, I want you to look at it, and estimate based on your free time and your current workload, how much would it take for you. And they can say 10 days, or they can send, say, 10 days because this and this and this, and I will be taken away to have surgery because you don't know what people have at home, you might be caring for a loved one, or they might be having two jobs at the moment. So I ran a kind of relieve some of that pressure from the hiring process, because it's stressful by default. And there's no sense in making it more stressful for the candidate.

Filippo Lovotti 5:41

So when you're doing this type of exercise, what is more important to you? speed or accuracy of estimate?

Mirela Ignat 5:48

Oh, no, I don't want i do want them to kind of cram 10 days of work into two. That's inhumane, and accuracy and fine to get them as accurate as possible. But I'm not expecting perfection, right? Because that would be foolish of me to kind of expect perfection. And even if they send something which might not be, let's see ideal. If the candidate has the emotional maturity in order to accept feedback, I always send them feedback, hey, these are your strong points, these are areas that I consider you should improve or would benefit you for the future. Some of them appreciate it. Right when some of them take it personally. But I do it from a place where I'm kind of wanting to help, because I always have a fresh pair of eyes or something is really good. And it's not a sign of weakness, like some people might consider isn't asking for help or getting feedback. No, it's it's just someone knows, placing you in a mirror.

Filippo Lovotti 6:56

I mean, to me, it's the opposite of a sign of weakness, if anything is a sign of strength, if you have to point to either one or the other. Because if you think about it in a way, like you're actually opening up, you becoming vulnerable, right? And you basically saying, hey, you can criticize my work, you can give me criticize my, I have no control about what you're going to say about my work. But I know that I can take it because it's my work. That's your critique. First off, it's my work that you're criticizing, not myself as a person. So that's, that's where I feel a lot of the issues come about because you give feedback to someone, and they take it Oh, I am incapable or my UX skills are not that good. So I am deficient as a person in this area. No, no, no, it's the work that gets critiqued is the work that gets the feedback. And that's one thing. The other thing is it, there are a lot of folks that are not used to receiving feedback on their work, because maybe they work in isolation. I was talking to one of my colleagues, as opposed about this the other day, he comes like myself from visual design from graphic design. And in that field, you don't necessarily look for feedback here you have your clients, your clients give you all the feedback that you need, but you're not necessarily surrounded by others that are the care for you enough, they want to give you feedback, at least in the scenarios where myself and my colleague, were brought up into design. So when you join UX, and when you get to know about UX designers, that is where it's a field where it's the exact opposite, you actually want the feedback, you actually constantly seek that feedback to understand, what can you do better? How can you How can your design be better, right? Then it really opens you up. And at first, you're feeling vulnerable, but that's just the way it is you're going to become much stronger designer. And also I will argue, a stronger person when you can decouple the feedback and the critique that is given to something that you have done versus the one that is directed at you almost as a ad hominem. So it's really important, and it definitely makes you a better designer. So yeah, that's why I think that being able to receive feedback, and being able to, you know, make decisions based on that, based on the feedback is not a sign of weakness, if anything is a sign of I can you know, this is, yeah. If you have to take one or the other, it's probably a sign of strength. You know, you're like, I can take it, they work in taken I can do better work.

Mirela Ignat 9:26

Yeah, totally. I mean, when we work with projects, they have constraints, technical or acquiring constraints or budget. So when we say good designers do in their belief is that they kind of confuse their wordiness with their work. They're not the same thing. We can we do what's within the project, but that doesn't mean we can do better, right? We can all do all the eye candy, dribble faults or behance shots, but maybe we work on a project, but that's not the case. That doesn't mean you're not good enough. And we're kind of trapped in this situation where we compare our work with Dribbble And behance, just because it's eye candy, and it looks good, and we don't compare it with impact, we don't compare raters and nobody kind of asked themselves when they look at Dribbble. Okay, this is a nice shot. What's the context? How do I get here? How do I get back out of here? And for me, it's painful to see designers coming to all that trouble with themselves with imposter syndrome, where they compare with something that is not realistic. Yeah, this is the field.

Filippo Lovotti 10:28

Yeah, we have no idea what the context was, we have no idea who the users of that particular design are. And as more senior I mean, I've been in the field for quite a few years now. But sometimes when you go to dribble, you see some great interfaces, but you can actually start pointing out accessibility and usability issues of designers that look to the eye. Very, very appealing. Yes. And I do have, I had mentees in the past, I went on dribble. And if they then they, you know, they came back to me saying, Oh, I feel I feel bad, because I'm not at this level, you know, these people are great. And I had to tell them exactly what you just mentioned, you know, this is designing in a vacuum, which does not mimic the real world, you and I we can or anyone you know, you can do your design project. It's not accountable to anyone, you can look great. And then you post it on dribble, but you have not solved the problem. Other than yours, as in, I want to design, that's my problem, I have a solution and design something and post it on dribble. That's the problem that you solve with your design. It's like social media in a way, like the larger conversation about social media, like if I only post photos of things that go well, you think that my life is perfect, but there's so much stuff that people don't post in social media about like failures, and rainy days, and all of that stuff. And so it's really, really similar.

Mirela Ignat 11:56

What they used to tell my mentees always is that when they get into imposter syndrome, that design is not beautiful, or it's not I can do now is I always ask them. So did you help someone with your work? Or will your work? help someone at the end of the day? Will there make their workflow easier? Or faster? Would they be less frustrated? If the answer is yes, then yes, you're a good designer, you did the best you could in the given situation. So I kinda want them to be allies, that how things look doesn't necessarily mean that you're helping less people. Right, exactly. So you might be working with a design system, which might not look very new and, and cool and shiny, but it helps people in the end. And that's the restriction from the business working with their design system.

Filippo Lovotti 12:45

So speaking of, we talked a little bit about standing out how dribble some of those designs stand out. And kind of latching on to that concept of standing out and bringing it back to the hiring process, I wanted to ask you, in your role as hiring manager, to your eyes, what makes home challenges stand out.

Mirela Ignat 13:09

So what I really want to say is simplicity and not over complication, especially engineer designers, when they apply for a position, I say that they're trying to be special in every way. So they might end up having a yellow background with a brown font on top just because they want to be different. And they might get trapped into doing the latest asymmetrical layout out there just to fall in line with the trends. And I'm actually want to see how they think and how they solve problems and how they're creative within constraints. This is the main key what they want to see, I want to see how you're creative within constraints, not with the ideal situation. So just keep it simple. Show me the context in which you took those decisions, why you took those decisions. What was the reasoning, show me a picture, maybe a before and after. If it's a UI, you really want to see the impact of a redesign if you have to do it, or you really want to see if it's an accessibility issue. describe why it's a accessibility issue and a proposed solution. So we don't have to overcomplicate it, some of them go a bit more in detail as in they may custom fonts, they may custom icons. Yes, people kind of put their efforts in the wrong direction. Just because this is the mentality given by dribble and behance I'm not saying they're not good platforms for people to learn and to give for inspiration. I use that as well. I'm just saying that it kind of sets false expectations. Because it's there's so much information out there about what you're supposed to do as a designer How would they in your life looks like so that people kind of fall in line with what's what's most visible out there. Because let's be honest, more Most of our daily challenges like documentation meetings, convincing a client presenting a concept during the 17th iteration, there's an app out there don't talk about them, which just about the nice and shiny things that happened in the design world.

Filippo Lovotti 15:15

Absolutely, yeah, I think you've hit the nail on the head. Dribble is a good website to use as a source of inspiration. But not everything that shines is made of gold, if you know what I mean. So dribble definitely has its limitations. Going back to the core of the design challenge, if you had a list called do these things in your design challenge, any make your hiring manager happy? What would that look like?

Mirela Ignat 15:41

Okay, so I, so let's say, for example, that I give you a website, and I want you to do a redesign for it. And I also want you to do heuristic analysis, see, what's wrong there with usability? So first of all, I would want you to briefly describe, for me a bit of desk research, something that you did you browse, what's your initial feeling? Right? Maybe a bit of description about that website? If you chose it yourself, sometimes I let candidates chosen themselves, I don't necessarily give them something. Right, I want to if you let's start with usability, if you're doing your risk analysis, I want to see the metrics of which of your analysis. First of all, what were you aiming for? I want to see a scale of those metrics in terms of impact is this critical? users can still live for this, right? So not necessarily, it needs an immediate attention from a designer, I want to see proposed solutions where those are clear, right? It's fine. If you don't necessarily if it's a specialized industry, you might not know how to deal with that. And it's okay to be curious and ask and say, Hey, I, you know, that I really appreciate when people admit it, that, I don't know that, but I'm willing to learn that that value is a lot for me. And you if you're doing a y challenge, let's say you're doing a redesign, I really want to see a breakdown of your initial issues that you're spotted, right. So it might be the drop shadows, it might be the components, it might be the fonts, which might not be readable at all, it might be the color scheme, right. And I want to see a side to side comparison, either at component level, or at page level. And I want to see some, some text about why you made that challenge. So like, I decided to change the color scheme from green, and yellow, to black and white, just because it improves readability, it's a more minimalistic approach, and so on. It can be simple words, you don't have to tell me a lot of complicated words from all the UX dictionaries that make me understand. Maybe you have to present a stakeholder who has a new UX maturity, he might understand some words, but you might understand them more. So I want people to be able to explain things plainly, because they will have to do that on a daily basis to a developer to a tester to a project manager to VP, you never know.

Filippo Lovotti 18:13

So I wanted to ask you something else that you can. You mentioned in passing, when you talked about the type of challenge that you're giving to you will give to a candidate. You are as you were saying, if you know I have them do a critique of a particular website or app. So question for you, because this comes up a lot. And you probably have seen this a lot with your mentees as well. But there are companies out there, such as Amazon, or Facebook, that they were during the during the interview process, the hiring process, they will stay away from asking you to do critique, or presentations or anything that has anything to do with their properties. So Amazon with amazon.com, or AWS or anything like that, and Facebook, Instagram and Facebook. But then there are other companies that would ask you to maybe work on one of their apps or websites. Normally, these are smaller companies, and they will give you a page or a flow or read route or what have you and ask you, hey, how would you make this better? And before I could go on, but I don't want to bias you too much. Because I feel like you want to say something I can I can tell that you're about to explode. So I'll let you let you do that. But as you elaborate on it, but yeah, my question is, what do you think about these two approaches?

Mirela Ignat 19:34

So let me start with with the last one. So having people do a challenge right at home challenge on your website or in your company. That sounds ethically wrong for me because you can definitely take up work and recycle it into your company. So as a designer, I would ask some questions before starting and doing this sort of assignment. And when I definitely want to give people these FOMO assignments, they're never about the company, that I work that the product or everything else is just a website that I've been on. And I got lost, I got frustrated, and I know three other people got frustrated. Okay, here it is. It has nothing to do with the industry and so on. So yeah, I, it's hard for me to kind of relate to this. And I don't think I will do that in the in the future. And regarding Amazon and Google, oh, this is the first time I heard about it. I think it's interesting. I'm not sure why they do it, maybe, maybe dating, the interviewer would be very overwhelmed. Because you know, that we're very influenced about brands. And the bigger they are, the more important that we think they are, the more important they work within they are. So I'm not sure maybe they consider it hard for designers to do it. right then and there. They can't give them context as well. Because your designer, I'm giving you a task by default, the next question is going to be Why? Why is this here? How is this that? I'm not sure they can answer those questions in an interview without us finding something. So right.

Filippo Lovotti 21:15

So question for you, if if you were applying for a job, and they asked you to do that, they asked you, hey, we were like, Can you go on our website and pick the subscribe, read route? And do a critique of that and tell us what you would change? How would you? How would you respond to that request?

Mirela Ignat 21:38

Well, the first question would be, why would that be on your website? would you use my work afterwards? I mean, that's the first thought that goes through your head as a designer, right? Because we we all know that someone who might have done this, and they don't get paid, or I myself have done interview work that took me two weeks or one week, which is a lot. So I would ask why. If I would have a discussion with the person, and they would clearly explain to me, Hey, we really want to see how you perform on this. We're not going to use your work and so on. If I feel that that person is trustworthy, and you're serious about that, and they take my work seriously, sure, I will do that. I wouldn't necessarily go very much in detail like I would do on a project because of course, we have a time constraint and limitation. And I will make it very clear that the work is not to be used afterwards. But besides Other than that, I don't have any control. So it's just, I'm taking up

Filippo Lovotti 22:50

your word. One of one other thing that you mentioned in the past is that you value a candidate's passion and energy towards design. Yeah, really, really highly. So you're really you prefer that a candidate is excited about UX, and passionate about UX design. So of course, that these are all important things, you wouldn't want someone that comes in and tells you. Yeah, well, whatever. Yeah, I guess that like design? I mean, that will be a red flag. Right off the bat, it will be really easy to reject that candidate. But can you elaborate a little bit more about why? Like, why do you feel that's so important to you look, and how has had designers express that that passion in the past that made you made you say, I would like to see this in other designers in the future.

Mirela Ignat 23:39

So up until this point in my career, I get, I get to work with various people, various designers, so I kind of noticed a pattern in all these people who are passionate and dedicated to their work. So if you're passionate enough about your work, you might be inclined to go that extra mile in convincing the client about the concept in having a discussion with developers and explaining the value of design to them, right. And if people don't value you as a designer, right on a project, if you're one of those people who kind of do the job just for the sake of doing the job, you might be fine with that as in being treated as an accessory. But if you really like design, and you really care about the design team in your company, you might want to take it upon yourself to educate those people, right? Try and increase their maturity level about UX. So this is this is what I see as a consequence of being passionate. Right and being in love with design. And not saying that we were in love with designer day to day basis, we might have a day when we're mad about it or we might not satisfied or we're not at our best. But I say that people who are highly motivated and passionate go that extra mile they have the tendency just because they care it comes from a place of caring about Your impact. So for example, I like to educate other testers, developers, product managers. And even if I don't manage straight to get them fully, right, they might have some reluctancy about UX, it's still going to be easier for the designer that comes afterwards. Right? They won't have to start from zero, they might have to start from 50% 40%. So this is what I'm striving for. Right? I don't want for for developers, testers and product managers to feel like, the designer is here to come into prefectures and copy images. No, I'm here to help. And I really want people to understand when they should request this help, when are those situations when I can help them because if we're in development is really tempting to kind of provide a solution off the bat. Right? If you're a designer, the magic word is I'm gonna get get back to you on data later. Right? Because you really want to analyze the context and all the edge cases and the situations and make sure that you're not breaking other tree flows. Right? So this is one I, I'm really excited when someone comes to me, Hey, I have this usability issue. Yes, that means that they understood what I can help them. And what's the value of my help. This is what I'm striving and this is comes from this energy and passion I have for design. And I see these in other people. And it it multiplies. And sometimes it's contagious, and I'm happy if it's contagious, because designers talk amongst yourselves, developers talk amongst themselves. And you know, it's word of mouth. As in, if one developers were stressed for it to come to you, then if they notice, not a developer struggling, they might say, hey, look, cuz you're a designer, he, he helped me he will help you as well. So this is what this is why I notice, as a consequence of being passionate,

Filippo Lovotti 26:58

picking up developers, this is something that I've seen floating around for ages. But do you think designers should code?

Unknown Speaker 27:09

So I used to write HTML and CSS? It wasn't necessarily my choice. The job kinda required it. So my plain answer would be no, they shouldn't, if they wish to do so that's great. Right? We're not stopping anyone to do something they love. But no one should be pushed into this. Because for me, personally, I really want to focus on UX. Yes. And I feel that writing code kind of deters me from that. And I really want to have someone who specialized I can't be a specialist in four fields. So I really want to have someone who specialized on front end, who can do that better than me. And faster than me, of course. So short answer now, if you really want to do so, for, but I'm never going to ask the designer to write code as mandatory, it should, it should be a choice, he shouldn't be pushed into it.

Filippo Lovotti 28:07

So we really we are getting close to the end of our episode today. I thank you so much for coming on the show. We really appreciate it our chat. Thank you for having me. Of course, of course. Before we leave, I wanted to ask you one more thing, which is a actually two. Okay, number one. Are you open to if someone listens to this episode, and they are really interested in talking to you? Are you open to having a conversation or even mentoring them? And number two, where and how can people find you online?

Mirela Ignat 28:40

Sure. So you can find me on LinkedIn. That's where I'm active professionally. And you can find me on ADPList if you haven't heard about AWS is a platform where a lot of designers around the world mentor for free. And I'm on there, so schedule time with me or give me a message on LinkedIn. And you can find me on Springboard so I mentor for Springboard. And if you're joining the classes, I might be a maybe a mentor during the program,

Filippo Lovotti 29:12

like with way you answer us or answered two questions. By the way, at ADPList, you can also charge I know that some designers actually charge really depends. That's wrong. You go on there. So I'm assuming that you had to set up your calendly on ADPList to for people to be some people charge through their calendly. So when you go there, maybe they have the 15 minute options free, but the 30 minute and the one hour option. I think that when our option is like 150 bucks, so

Mirela Ignat 29:48

no, no, I will never charge an ADPList. I mean, I started this just because I wanted to help out and give back to the community. Because when I started out there was no mentors available. After this skill, and not everyone can afford a program like Springboard, and I really want to be.

Filippo Lovotti 30:10

I hope you enjoyed the episode. If you're interested in any of the resources we mentioned, all the links are on the episode page of our website, theindustryofux.com. Thanks to Mirela for coming on the show. Thanks to Julien at Podcast Edition for the audio engineering work. If you have any feedback about the episode or the show, let us know by tweeting @IndustryUX. If you really want to help or say thank you from the bottom of your heart, please leave a five star rating and a review on Apple podcasts. It helps us climb the charts and bring the show to a bigger audience. Last but not least, thanks for listening, and I'm looking forward to talking to you next week.