Debug your design interview journey, stage 2: Screening

Catt Small
6 min readSep 23, 2023

This post is part of a series about the design interview journey. You can learn more here.

After you submit your application for a role, the hiring team must evaluate and narrow down the pool of interested talent. Candidates who are noted to be a good fit on paper will be invited to schedule a time to speak with someone at the company. This is usually done by either a recruiter assigned to the role, the hiring manager, or an IC designer.

If you make it to this stage, congratulations! You’re being screened. Now that you have a foot in the door, you’ve got to kick it wide open.

What to expect

Most screening calls are relatively short; you can generally expect to be done in 30 minutes. The agenda is usually as follows:

  • Introductions (who you are, how you got into design, what you’re excited about)
  • An explanation of the role
  • Questions from the screener (how you think, past projects, relevant experience)
  • Questions from you to the screener about the position
  • Wrap up (next steps)

Preparing to be screened

Avoid going into a screening call without doing some prep work. Outline your talking points-what the person should take away from your conversation-and practice them until they feel natural. Many people swear by the STAR framework for talking about past projects since it focuses on problem-solving and impact. How might you integrate that framework into your storytelling?

A great screen interview will feel like a friendly, two-way conversation. Bad ones feel like interrogations, and you might even leave the call with a weird vibe. The goal is to make sure both you and the hiring team are excited to move forward, so trust your gut if something feels off (especially if you spoke directly with the hiring manager).

Some companies require multiple phone screens before moving to the onsite phase. For example, I’ve spoken to a recruiter, then an IC designer, and then the hiring manager in one screening loop. The first person you speak with should explain the company’s interview process while talking to you live, and you may also receive a timeline via email.

All in all, screening calls are an energy check. Even in a competitive market, you should be able to move forward if you can:

  • Be respectful to the person you’re speaking with
  • Confidently talk through your career highlights
  • Clearly discuss your design process
  • Show why you’re a great fit for the role

But sometimes you might find yourself constantly getting rejected after screening interviews. Not sure what’s going wrong? Time to debug!

Debugging the screening phase

If you don’t get moved from screening calls to an onsite, the person you spoke to likely didn’t see you as a good fit for the role. There are many reasons why that might be the case. Let’s dig into some of the most common ones!

Show your interest

Some interviewers may reject you due to bad chemistry. Maybe they thought you weren’t engaged, or maybe something you said didn’t hit the mark. Sometimes this can veer into discriminatory territory — especially for neurodivergent folks.

You shouldn’t need to be a manic pixie or corporate cheerleader to get hired. But showing interest in the role and the company can affect interviewers’ perception of you. So, let’s talk about ways you can show interest while still being you!

If you struggle to explain why you want to work at a specific company, you might need to clarify your own goals more. Try writing down qualities you want your next job to have. If the company or team you want to join has any of those qualities, you can reference them in the conversation.

Reviewing the job description and company career page can also give you fodder for topics to discuss on the call. For example, I might bring up a project that matches requirements in the job description. If the company’s business model has an impact on how design works at the company, I might also mention that. Or, maybe I’ll ask how the vision shared in a recent blog post might affect plans for the design team.

It’s a bit corny, but people appreciate the engagement. That being said, sometimes you do the best you can to show interest and still get rejected. Maybe the company culture would’ve been a bad fit and you dodged a bullet!

Learn to talk about yourself

Interviews are not normal conversations. You are fully allowed-encouraged, even-to humble brag in an interview. If this sounds intimidating, you likely need to improve at talking about yourself confidently.

You don’t have to be a jerk; no one wants to work with someone who puts others down! But you do need to show self-awareness, pride, and an interest in your career path. After all, if you’re not excited about yourself and your work, why would the hiring manager advocate for you?

It’s unfortunate to say, but presence does make an impact. Try writing 5–10 bullet points that walk through your career history highlights, then practice talking about them out loud until you sound natural. The added composure you’ll get from some practice can go a long way.

Focus on clarity

The person you’re speaking to doesn’t have the time or energy to look for reasons you might be the best fit. Many interviewers need to be spoon-fed what you might think is obvious! Show them how everything connects and you’ll have a strong chance of moving to the next stage.

Read through the job description before every call and identify any potential matches with your work experience. Practice explaining how past projects and employers, even if tangential, can be tied to your potential at the company. This was especially helpful for me when I switched industries-there were some surprising parallels between music streaming and eCommerce, for example!

Lots of interviewing advice talks about this already, but I’ll mention it here too: please make your contributions to a project as clear as possible. If you didn’t work on something alone, it’s okay to give credit to your collaborators as well! But your impact is what employers care about; don’t let that information get lost in an attempt to be humble.

Show your best work

If you do go through designs during a screening call, try to show the best match for the employer you’re talking to. And just like with the application process, don’t be afraid to show messy thinking. This is your chance to show what an amazing problem solver and member of the team you’ll be!

One common issue with design share-outs at this stage is a lack of attention to detail. Please use spell check and ensure you won’t be surprised by the contents of your presentation. It should be the best representation of your work possible.

Sometimes recruiters will sneak in a question about your expected salary range. This question doesn’t benefit you at all. It helps them narrow the pool down to whom they perceive as more affordable candidates.

This practice is going out of fashion since it can reinforce pay discrimination, and it’s also illegal in certain US states. You don’t have to directly answer this question. And recruiters should know not to ask-it’s a huge red flag!

The company should have salary bands in their job description. If they don’t and a recruiter starts a discussion about pay during your screening call, turn the tables on them. Ask them about their design career ladder and pay bands.

If they keep digging (another red flag), say you expect to be compensated at the level that is commensurate with your years of experience. Never say a number before the offer stage.

Next up: Onsite

Did you have a really good conversation? Congrats! Next up is the gauntlet known as onsite meetings.

Originally published at https://cattsmall.com on September 23, 2023.

--

--

Catt Small

Product Designer, Programmer, Game Developer, Artist, & karaoke ♥er. Bronx-born & raised. She.