Answer by David Cole, Director of Design, on Quora,

I've interviewed a lot of candidates for design positions at Quora over the last several years, and I've found that very few ask the challenging, important questions that are necessary to distinguish between good design roles and bad ones. These are the questions I don't hear often enough, so I'm skipping some more basic ones that most people ask.

One theme that cuts across all of these: you should always get an extremely clear answer in plain English that you fully understand. I think too many designers accept vague handwaving because they don't have much experience in the industry, but you shouldn't shy away from asking questions that might seem stupid or obvious. No company is alike, so avoid making any assumptions about how the role will operate.

How is the design role defined? What areas do designers own? What are they held accountable for?

At many companies, designers aren't accountable for anything. They're just perceived as technical talent that are told what to do and how to do it--my pal Brittany Forks characterized this as being Photoshop hands. You'll hear lots of soft, vague language like, designers are "really involved" in product or designers are "very important" to the company. Everyone says that. The thing that actually matters is where the buck stops: the best roles pair the responsibility of getting the work done with the accountability of doing the right work in the first place. When a new feature is being planned out, which roles are involved and what are they doing? When a new feature fails, who has to come up with the next steps?

If there are multiple design roles, make sure to understand how responsibilities are split between them. I'm personally skeptical of one-off or "special" roles that aren't standardized internally. You can't easily invest in tools or processes for them since there are no economies of scale, and it makes organizational boundaries difficult to maintain. Your mileage may vary.

What are the boundaries between the design role and other roles in the company?

Related to the above, you should know how you'll be expected to work with the other functions in the organization, particularly engineering and product management. Every company handles this differently, and it has a huge impact on how you work and whether you'll be happy with the results. How do designers communicate changes to engineers? What deliverables exist? What tasks do PMs do that designers don't? Who approves my work? What do I do when I get competing feedback from different leaders in the org?

What standing meetings exist and who attends them?

Meetings tend to be where leadership makes important decisions, so it's clarifying to to learn which people meet with each other and for what purpose. This will give you a lot of insight into where the organizational power lies and when design is actually involved.

How do you resolve disagreements between designers and other roles?

Regardless of how much you're concerned with resolving disagreements directly, understanding how the organization handles difficult decisions and trade-offs teaches you a lot about the overall culture and process. I don't think you should be looking for roles where designers have final say over every single thing they do, but you do want to hear an answer that sounds sensible and likely to produce good results. In particular, how are disagreements between the designer and the CEO resolved?

What is the overall company strategy? How do you acquire more users/customers? How do you (or will you) make money?

A good answer to this question is important for its own sake, obviously. But for your role specifically, the strategy of the business will determine what types of projects you work on. It will also tell you how important design is. The more design is directly part of how the business grows, the more input designers will have on decision-making. For example, many social products grow by virtue of being used, which means the design will directly drive business goals. Contrast this with a business that grows through sales or marketing, where other roles will be more directly influential to the bottom line.

How are product changes prioritized? What are you currently working on and why?

You should have a very concrete picture of how projects get prioritized, starting from the very top of the organization. You'll want to know very specifically how and when designers contribute to this process. You'll often hear "designers are involved" but without any specifics beyond that. Push past language like this and ask for descriptions of process or specific stories of how certain features/changes came about.

Learning what they're currently working on tells you a lot about the nature of the work you'll be doing. Do any of the projects sound like something you'd be excited to work on? Be skeptical of promises about cool future projects that aren't actually being actively developed right now. Companies like to dangle these sorts of opportunities, but unless you hear specifics that make you very confident that they'll really happen, you should generally disregard stuff like that as bait.

When people don't fit in culturally, what are the reasons?

It's good to ask for general descriptions of the company culture, but it's really easy for people to say anything they want and have it come off as plausible. A practical way to define culture is in terms of the behavior it encourages or discourages. Learning what makes someone fit in or not will tell you a lot. This can seem like the reverse of the question, "what is your greatest weakness?" so you should expect answers that try to skirt the issue. Don't be afraid to press hard on this. Mature, confident companies should be open to discussing the difficult trade-offs and tensions inherent in fostering a coherent culture.

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Published on: Dec 16, 2014