The Coffee Shop Interview

When recruiting new design talent, I find it laborious to review a resume, have them talk through a project, ask them about some challenges, then pull their work apart in ten minutes because it looks discerning and important.

It creates tension, unease, and unnecessary ego to a situation that is supposed to be about bringing people to life, engaging them with our dream, and having them fall over themselves to show up and bring more of themselves than ever before.

A resume and portfolio to me is simply a quick determination of ‘if they gave me work that looked like this, would I consider it professionally executed?’ At that point, I’d move on. I wouldn’t dig into their design thinking behind that product or why they made certain decisions, because it’s usually bullshit. Besides, most elaborate design processes live in beautiful presentations and Medium articles; not in meeting rooms.

Any seasoned designer knows that most projects are directed by clients (or bosses), and while one does their best to negotiate and navigate design reviews, compromises must be made whether to legal, marketing, engineering, or business teams – decisions that often sully one’s self-perceived brilliance.

Yet we are so conditioned to evaluate a person’s contribution based on primarily technical skill, and not for their character or capacity to think and learn. This is why I prefer to shift the conversation away from how they handle constraint, and instead explore the depths of their imagination and courage.

I find most interviews are like a first date where everyone’s on their best behavior; showing what they think matters, and hiding what’s real. Worried about judgement and rejection even if it comes at the cost of one’s own integrity. It’s scripted and contrived; it’s not a true reflection of either the company or the candidate. This is why I prefer to catch the real side of people, often when they least expect it.

I like to give two design challenges. One now, one later.

The latter is a take-home project that is for candidates who made it through the first interview, and are now moving onto the second.

The first design challenge is a conversation.

Rather than ask a UX/Interaction designer to draw wireframes on a whiteboard, or a business guy to create a mock sales strategy on the fly (yes, I was once asked to role-play in an interview and he even did the pretend phone thing with his fingers), I like to take them out of their comfort zone, and out of mine.

To pull them out of their medium and get to know what’s lurking behind those hopeful eyes. I care more about what drives people, what makes them tick, what happiness is to them, and what being at 100% activation looks like to them. If you can connect with people at this level, you reach a different part of them.

I ask them to close their laptop and ask them to walk with me to get coffee.

Many would argue that this is a time consuming way of learning about people. I like to remind those people that we’re dealing with complex humans, not furniture. It pays to be kind, patient, and concerned. After all, it costs a lot more time and money to manage people who are disengaged, or to continue a long search while burning through candidates.

For the first date, I like to give them:

The Coffee Shop Interview

I’m starting a new coffee shop and need to design everything. I’ve signed the lease and have an empty space but now I need help. I want to make it into something amazing, to find and attract customers, give them a unique experience, and keep them coming back for more with their friends. Of course we need to make money, but I want us to be generous rather than greedy. It’s about people falling in love with us and how we (and they) think about coffee.

Now, imagine every single job that needs doing is written on its own PostIt Note.

  • The menu design
  • Workflow / layout
  • Website and app
  • Customer acquisition
  • Food & drinks
  • Shop frontage
  • Customer loyalty program
  • Recruiting material / process
  • Staff training material
  • Go to market strategy
  • Advertising and marketing collateral
  • Brand and character
  • Business model
  • Customer experience
  • Paint and floor color
  • Tables and chairs
  • Furnishings and fittings
  • Lighting and mood
  • Front door and window
  • Music, and many many more.

This list is just what quickly came to my mind and is not the list you need to choose from.

If you can think of it, it’s a job on a PostIt to be done. The list is endless.

Alas, I can only hire people who are truly passionate about the specific job they want to impact. One person who will lead that job. Although you can only choose one job (and while it can be broad or specific), recognize the commitment. You get to choose exactly what you like, so don’t choose something you hate to do.

For example, if you said ‘I’d choose the lighting’ that means literally just lighting and not the entire interior design. If you like the whole interior design, say so. Specifics matter for this exercise.

Because I like you the most, you get to cast your eye over the sea of PostIts and choose before anyone else! Remember, you can only choose one job, and when you do, you’ll get resources and budget to make and craft it as how you think it should be.

Choose your job carefully.

Great, now I have some questions.

Which job did you choose, and why?

Okay so that job interests you. Why does it interest you? What specifically about it makes you feel excited and good about it?

Based on what you know about the project, what might be your vision for the job? Do you have any ideas off the top of your head? Why do you think they’re good ideas?

Do you have any direct or indirect experience with doing this kind of job? What do you think is key to making it great? Please tell me something specific, not sweeping statements.

What don’t you know but would need to figure out?

What do you think our customers want to feel, and how would you translate that when doing this job?

Who would you want or need to help you to complete this job at the standard you want?

What would it look like if you could do this job and bring the best of your abilities and enthusiasm to it?

At this point, people look up and start to let their imagination run wild. I assure them that there’s no right or wrong answer, nor is it a trick question. I genuinely want to know what floats their boat, and why.

These are questions that have never been asked of them – ever. Some people struggle with finding the ‘right’ answers. Most choose something, say it cautiously, then look for approval or permission. Others smile and look inward before confidently saying ‘I’d do x.’

As I start to drill into the questions, their inhibitions tend to fall away, and before long they’re talking about the task at hand, and why they actually care about it.

I look for their humanity. Their depth of character. Their internal fire. Their raison d’être. Some cannot conceptualize at all; others are very elaborate. Some communicate with vigor and enthusiasm; others give one word responses. Some don’t understand the exercise at all.

What does this reveal?

There are parts of our job that we like better than others; some necessary yet boring, and others more exciting. By probing further into the specifics of why something excites someone, there is an opportunity to truly understand one’s motivation, commitment, and self-awareness. It’s with this knowledge that we can direct and channel people towards being fully activated in our team, rather than trying to make them fit a mould.

Depth of character is hidden in the parts of us that show up time and time again, but may be operating at half throttle, without nourishment, or worse, in contradiction with other motivations. When it’s let out into the light for just a moment, some people seize the day, others try to contain it, and some poor souls try to pretend it’s not there.

If we want to activate someone, to transform them, or even to simply connect with them at a meaningful level, we must have the time and willingness to dig deeper with them. It’s one thing to be visible, it’s entirely another to be seen.

When trying to find people to join me, I look for their fire. Without fire, there’s a greater chance of apathy, indifference, dogmatic behavior, and sterility. Not everyone has to be jumping up and down on their seat or spitting flecks at me, but this exercise has repeatedly proven who has vigor inside, awaiting to be activated, and who simply isn’t interested in doing more than what’s written on the task sheet. It always reveals itself, and often in times of hardship and need.

You’d be surprised how much you can learn from someone’s eyes, voice, and body language. Pay particular attention to this.

Sadly for those living in a daze, we don’t live in times where being indifferent works anymore. In fact, I don’t think there ever has been a time. The abdication or suppression of self only leads to unhappiness, discontent, and resentment. Those then lead to blame, anger, and bitterness. It is hard wired in us to want to create and perceive progress whether incremental or great. Those who deny that have chosen to give up, rather than being created that way.

Digging Deeper

We must all dig deeper than ‘I love designing great experiences’ statements without being specific about our own psychology, and motivations. If we don’t understand what our itch is and why we have it, we risk ambiguity and superficiality. We risk being shaped in ways that don’t feel right to us, or being pulled down a path we don’t wish to be on. It’s on us to decipher ourselves, or risk being defined in ways we don’t like.

Multiple people of varying beliefs and backgrounds may be motivated by the same broad goal, but experience, understanding, perspective and personality means they would go about it in wildly different ways, and with varying conviction. Whatever the task, if the people I meet simply, when asked, can’t offer a deeper explanation other than what’s written on a job description, then I’m at a cross roads.

One on hand, I see an opportunity for activating someone (even if it’s not towards what I’m hiring for). To stoke their fire, and encourage them to come out of their shell.

On the other hand, I cannot (and will not) assume that activation is what they’re looking for without probing further to find what’s getting in their way. 99% of the time, it’s indoctrinated beliefs rather than real logic.

What I’m trying to evaluate is (amongst many other things): Are they a fixed or growth-mindset person? Do they want to grow or are they on autopilot? Will they step up when poked hard, or will they fall over? Will they fight for themselves, or allow themselves to be defined by others?

Knowing and being honest about our own relationship as to what drives us and why, gives confidence and strength when looking for compatible friends, jobs, employees and so forth. It gives clarity when trying to determine if something is or isn’t for us, and saves a lot of time, bullshit, and effort pretending to be something we’re not.

I care most about a person’s relationship with their own awareness because it can’t be faked, bought, or gifted. It’s always earned through struggle and persistence.

Job Descriptions

If you were given a job description of ‘Design a great cafe for customers who love coffee in San Francisco’ you might have a flurry of ideas and possibility. You will also likely find yourself searching for answers, predominantly to questions like ‘why, who, which what, how and when’. It’s exciting at first, but soon clashing opinions and ego come to roost. The person lowest down the ladder always loses.

A broad job description sounds great in theory for it opens a world of possibility (and ambiguity). So why do people read them with nonchalant disregard?

Most job descriptions are merely a checklist of tasks that require complex people to be simplified into doing single robotic tasks. Resumés are written to match the job ad, and neither side is concerned with communicating context, character or depth for the risk of rejection or judgement.

The emotional complexity of one’s character, potential, and ambition become merely a functional agreement between two parties, dwindled into a series of bullet points. And we wonder why people are feeling dead inside?

Both the company and the candidate in this situation are merely service providers to one another, and are evaluated based on a vague and subjective metrics rather than ones forged out of mutual understanding and respect. The company needed to do more; the employee didn’t do enough.

If however, you were given a job description stating ‘You need to create a coffee drinking experience that people want to sink into and feel happy feelings leaving their worries behind. People will come in happy, sad, angry and indifferent. You need to help them find peace in our cafe’, your attention is acutely focussed into a narrative which contains complex emotion, characters, context, and depth. It’s inviting you to participate rather than facilitate.

It will still provide conflict and disagreement with others but the focus is sharper. It’s less about what, and more about how and why.

It’s effectively the same job description, but this time it lends itself to be interpreted and interacted with by the person doing the job. They get to share their perspective and feelings, to contribute their curiosity and love for their craft, and most of all, to positively influence the outcome and be part of something bigger than themselves.

Activating people

When someone is attuned to their sense of purpose and motivation, they are able to focus with greater intensity, remove noise easily, contextualize their thinking, and solve problems with greater dexterity and efficiency. They enter flow easily, and feel extraordinarily happy.

To tune into someone’s contribution to anything, we must take the time to explore what drives them, lest we make it purely about money and status. Most people have no idea so it’s on you to reach in and flick that switch.

We must understand and learn what they lean towards and why. What got them to that place, and where they’d like to go from there. To dig deeper into their thoughts and feelings about an idea, and to willingly embrace their resourcefulness and grit over just looking at experience and qualifications. 

The process of activation is powerfully transformative, and helping someone come to life is not only good for the soul, but often creates a deeper connection, loyalty, and integrity to your working and personal relationships. This is how lasting and high performing teams are created. It’s not luck.

What if I told you that ’employee engagement’ is found by being real, honest, and giving a shit about people’s pasts, presents, and futures? To know your own purpose so well that you can leave your ego and biases at the door, and go forth exploring others and activating them by emotionally connecting with them. 

Those who are emotionally invested try harder, give more, and hang on tighter because they have a powerful relationship with what they’re fighting for.

To the people

Mastery of craft isn’t just one’s ability to execute a task, but how you piece things together and capture the hearts and imaginations of those around you with your ideas. Your ability to get back up, to learn new and hard things, and to challenge convention is all that separates you from others. Despite what people say, no-one ever fights the person with nothing to lose and who won’t stay down. They can’t.

The model of work one hundred years ago is different from today. Tomorrow will be different again, so resist following rules that aren’t created for your best interests. Courage and character always beat compliance and convention. Boldness is hard at first, but what is worse – being you, or forfeiting you?

If you don’t know yourself – and I mean really what drives you, then you risk bouncing around someone else’s playground while longing for your own. Invest in yourself because no-one else is as committed to you, as you are.

To recruiters and companies

Experience definitely helps, and technical ability is important. You should definitely check that but remember that skills can be quickly learned by someone who wants to learn. 

Experience or skill doesn’t always equate to future potential or valuable contribution. Focus heavily on who will be your future generals, for when the dust settles it’s those with pluck and heart who remain.

Not every problem is a technical one. You must be hungry to find who is standing behind you when the rubber hits the road, and who is looking for the next branch to grab on to. Who will stand up against the ropes, and who will tap out? What will you do? Only you can answer that truthfully when no-one else is around.

Companies are only as rich as their people. If you as the recruiter, CEO, manager or employee can’t see in the dark, follow a script, are helpless in the face of change, seek to blame externally, or look to others for safe passage, then please realize that you will get what you have invested in yourself.

You will reap what you sow, so it’s in your own interest to activate people instead of standardizing them. Money and fame is short lived, while integrity and authenticity always prevail. Never forget that people are loyal to their internal dialogue, so focus on what you can find, activate and transform in them, rather than your fear of the unknown.

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