Unpaid UX Work Disguised As “Design Exercises”: How To Handle It

After a very enjoyable initial call where I had a great rapport with the interviewer, she explained that the next round of interviews was a design exercise: I was to redesign a section of their existing product. If the CEO liked it, I’d move on to the next round of interviews.

This is a request I hadn’t heard in years. They were seriously expecting me to redesign a part of their product for free. All those traumatic memories and emotions I experienced in my first years of working (and being exploited) as a designer came welling back up. I was livid. How could they be so exploitative? And this was a company making software for churches, no less! They should know better!

Many people have written about why you shouldn’t do this kind of work. In this article, I want to cover how to elegantly handle these requests.

How To Handle Requests Like This

Ask For Details About The Exercise

There is a fine line between ethical and unethical design exercises. You want to make sure you keep calm and ask for more clarification around the design exercise and what it entails before deciding.

An ethical design exercise:

  • Takes less than a day to complete
  • Is unrelated to their current company needs
  • Pays you for your time (ideally)

However, if it’s unrelated to their company needs, you have the problem of not fully understanding what it is like to work together. The hiring manager often will not have a design background, so they don’t understand how to transfer over the outcomes of the design exercise to their company needs.

The compromise here is to do a one-hour brainstorming/whiteboarding session together on a current problem. Many people disagree with me on this, but I think a one-hour consultative session about their problems is time and energy you can invest in the right situations, for the right company.

The goal of design exercises should be to get a feel for your chemistry when working together, not to assess if you can design or not. By the time you are in this step of the hiring process, a good interviewer ought to know whether you have the hard skills.

The goal of design exercises should be to get a feel for your chemistry when working together, not to assess if you can design or not.

Try To Steer Them Away From This Request

After I heard the rough scope of this design exercise request, my first instinct was to tell them to fuck right off. But that was the years of pent up rage from being treated poorly early in my career flaring up.

You want to assume goodwill, or at least cluelessness, on behalf of the company making such a request. Try to educate them about what exactly they are asking for.

During our call, after hearing their request about redesigning a section of their product as a design exercise, I told them they are walking a fine line here, and that this is something you rarely see asked for in the design industry. She brushed me off and said, “Ah don’t worry, this won’t take too long, let me send you over the full exercise and you can decide then”.

Scope The Work, Then Send Them A Proposal

I let her send over the design exercise. It was even worse than I thought it would be.

It wasn’t one design challenge; it was two.

  • Exercise 1: redesign their availability tool for volunteers. Here is the deck they sent over for that. The expected deliverable is an InVision prototype.
  • Exercise 2: Redesign their blog. Deliverable is a set of high fidelity mockups.

So many emotions welled up inside me when I read this. It’s a hilariously bad request, but also sickeningly exploitative. My first instinct was to write up a profanity-laden email to the hiring manager. I already knew by this point that these are not the kinds of people you can have a good working relationship with, so why not tell them off? “No, I’m an adult now, I need to handle this differently”, I told myself.

I sent them this message back:

Hi *name*, thanks for sending this over. I’d really love to work with you guys. These two exercises would take me 8–16 hours to complete. It’s also spec work, which is considered highly problematic (some even call it unethical). I’d be happy to take this on as a small paid project. Let me know if that works for you. J

This way, you are giving them one last opportunity to steer the relationship into a more productive direction, while also setting boundaries and explaining why their behavior is not okay.

Of course, a company that behaves like this is likely not going to suddenly change course and behave ethically. She politely made clear that other candidates will do the exercise and that she will move forward with them.

What To Take Away From This

Most companies will try to achieve the highest possible financial outcomes for themselves, even if this means putting their workers at a disadvantage. It’s very unfortunate and frustrating that many people are in a situation where they have no other choice but to enter into such a exploitative relationship: 4 out of 5 american workers are living paycheck to paycheck.

I recently encountered a similarly exploitative situation: a company approached me about creating a curriculum for a 10-week UX design course. They gave me 4 weeks to do it and offered me $5000. This is a course that costs $4000 per person, and they will profit from it for years. I’d have to work 80-hour weeks to even have a chance to hit such an unrealistic deadline, and I’d walk away with not even enough money to cover the cost of living in San Francisco for a month. I made them a counteroffer asking for 50k plus 10% of course sales for 2 years. They declined(lol). However, when I checked their website the other day, I saw that a very skilled and well-respected former coworker of mine ended up taking that terrible offer. That’s also why I can’t name this company — I don’t want to put this colleague in the spotlight. But it really pissed me off to see that this company not only found someone to take that terrible offer, but they also got someone who is really good.

You can’t stop companies from behaving like this, but you can decide to not play that game. You need to know your (self-)worth and have the courage to step away from toxic opportunities, even if you need the money. There are other opportunities out there where you don’t have to lose your self-respect. If everyone in the design industry were unified in saying “no” to these types of requests, companies would have to change their behavior.

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