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Recently I had a telephone interview. It was going ok until the interviewer asked me to look at something on the company website.

I went to the website on my computer whilst on the phone, and told him I could see what he was on about. Then he said, yeah, this is work of one of our top employees, what do you think.

All I could think was how bad it was. I didn't just want to say it was bad, I wanted to say why it was bad but I couldn't think of in a nice way, I ended up saying yeah its ok but I would just do this instead. I literally said 2 sentences. I could have done a whole presentation on how I would make it better.

Was the employer expecting me to critique the work, would he have been ok if I told him its not that great?

I just feel as though I should have told the employer how bad the work was but don't know how to in a pleasant way.

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    Start with: "Sir! Permission to speak freely? Sir!" and then go on... – Carlos Campderrós Aug 2 '13 at 16:17
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    "-This was done by one of our top employees -Then it's a good thing you're hiring new blood" – rath Aug 3 '13 at 16:06
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    possible duplicate of How to tell a interviewer that he is wrong on a technical question – Jim G. Aug 6 '13 at 16:35
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    Never say "this is bad"; that isn't useful when working with people OR in an interview. Call out specific things that you believe could be improved, and be prepared to justify in detail. And remember to clearly distinguish matters of taste from technical issues. – keshlam Jul 25 '14 at 12:39
  • What did he want you to look at? Specific information? Or how the web page was crafted? – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jul 25 '14 at 14:03
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I'd see the opportunity for three things to happen here:

1 - You show knowledge about the craft - you are able to articulately (and concisely!) explain the problem and a potential solution

2 - You show good communication and tact - you are able provide negative feedback without being a jerk.

3 - You get for yourself a sense of what sort of team you'll be working on and whether you'll be happy - My experience has been that most smart/talented people do not enjoy working unskilled/undedicated people - people admire diligence in each other, it's a big motivator - so if this team isn't interested in doing good work, you may hate the job.

Items 1 & 2 are about getting a job, Item 3 is about deciding whether you WANT the job.

First - ask

Start with something tactful - "I'm interested in these design choices", "this is a different style than I'm used to, could you explain the rationale for doing it this way?". Something non-judgmental and very open ended. You've heard it was their top person - my initial reaction would be to assume that if this site is really horrendous, they don't know any better. I'd say it's a rare case where they are deliberately lying to you to see if you'll call their bluff. Particularly in engineering - these kind of skills are not a major part of the skill set required.

Watch the reaction

Watch the reaction - if the initial prods are met with defensiveness or willful blindness, you have two options:

  • Offer critique - "Do you mind some thoughts? I have a lot of experience here"
  • Shut up - Decide it's not worth the risk. It's your call - I don't know how desperate, or eager you are for this job. And no one else is standing in your shoes to judge whether the reaction is truly defensive or just reserved.

Proceed with caution - offering critique is never easy, and you're not an insider yet. People have to want your advice to take it.

Keep it short

When offering critique, it's easy to rant. Keep yourself short and sweet. Summarize, don't offer long explanations that may not be warranted. Suppose you are talking to an equal and let them guide you with questions if they don't understand. While explaining anything truly esoteric, unasked, is helpful - explaining anything that should be standard to best practices (even if it does not to be something they appear to understand, given the example at hand) can come off as condescending.

It's also good to be respectful of time limits. Most interviews have a narrow window - managers do a LOT of interviews in a thriving team, and they have to balance this in with a lot of other time demands. If you don't keep the ideas short and sweet, you risk the opportunity to respond to other questions or concerns that are important to determine suitability for the position.

Focus on the "What to do"

It's easy to point out glaring mistakes. It's definitely more challenging but better politics to focus on the good things to try. It's much easier to say "This site would really shine if you did XYZ - here's why it would be awesome... (more maintainable, more attractive, cheaper, etc)" and sound like a supportive team member. Saying "This site as it is is an example of poor skills in the following ways... as it is it's (expensive, hard to maintain, ugly)" is usually going to raise defensiveness.

Getting from the "don't do" to the "please do" isn't always easy. I've been awfully vague in the process of trying to put things this way, but it's generally a good way to start a discussion.

You're interviewing them, too

Hopefully you're talking to a potential manager or team member. If you don't get the reaction that you'd want on the job - consider that. People are unlikely to change their character - if you think the person is defensive, hostile or disinterested, and this is something you care deeply about -- do you really want to work here?

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    Excellent answer. Seems that not enough people scrolls down enough to upvote it. – Peter M. May 3 '14 at 0:08
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If the interviewer asks please-give-your-feedback-on-our-website-but-don't-hurt-our-feelings, your best odds of getting that specific job are to give a politico answer: "All webpages have their strengths and weaknesses, and different people may have different opinions."

Some people have said that the best kind of question to ask is a "value-added question," where you ask a question that includes an implicit suggestion for improvement. One of the things I have sometimes done in the past, not recently, when interviewing for a web position is to go through the website and compile a polite list of suggestions for improvement. In a way that serves as a winnow for bad bosses: good bosses will see initiative and perhaps other desirable qualities, while bad bosses will be defensive. At least in that dimension.

I think you were given a telltale clue of something that would be writ large if you were offered and accepted the position. That's much more valuable than a boss who is personable during the interview but haughty once you're on the team. But overall in terms of jobhunt, I would have suggested what improvements could be made (which is slightly different than what is wrong: you don't say "X is bad"; you say "your website would be sharpened by adopting Y change"). Never mind that some bosses will receive such feedback in a hostile spirit; those are probably not the bosses you want. The bosses you value will be more likely to respect honest, if perhaps, diplomatic, feedback, and a good boss may ask you questions but simply not ask you the does-my-bum-look-big-in-this sort of question.

  • It's also good to practice your 'this could be improved' skills now, since you're going to need them for any interaction with an ego-fragile client in web design. Knowing how to present constructive criticism so it doesn't get knocked down is a real talent in and of itself. – Zibbobz Oct 21 '14 at 20:04
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When you said the qualifier:

Then he said, yeah, this is work of one of our top employees, what do you think.

Then they were doing 1 of 2 things:

  1. Deliberately saying something they knew was wrong in an attempt to provoke an honest reponse
  2. Telling you this so that you did not deliver anything overly critical.

If the former is the case (which I highly doubt - as often the more senior members of a company will have little idea of technical details) then they have shown that there is a combative approach to problem solving (which may or may not appeal to you, but is often a warning sign that there will be conflict in the role, or a brusque management style).

If however they were saying this as a gesture (which sounds more plausible), then you could not have been overly critical as this reflects poorly on both the interviewers judgement of how a website (or best meal or whatever else) should be, as well as their view on who is able to make a great end product.

In this case, moderating your feedback is the best policy (and I believe the only policy, at least during the interview process), as the potential gains of being brutally honest are massively outweighed by the potential to insult.

You need to show you are aware of both technical issues and the social environment in which they occur: having only one side of this skillset limits your desirability significantly!

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Hmm, this is a toughy

For one thing - it depends on what sort of role you're going for. If it's not IT or marketing, then you could probably get away with saying you're not a fan.

It does sound like an IT role though, so I would suggest the judicious use of questions back to the interviewer to clarify requirements e.g. 'What would you like my opinion on? Design, UX, load speeds, responsive design...?'. That way it becomes clearer whether it's a 'does my bum look big in this' question or whether it's a test of your skills and opinions.

  • Hi Steph, thanks for replying. Yes in my personal situation I was asked about the website as a whole so could have commented on any of those things you mentioned. My question relates to the generic situation though, it could have been for any role/position. I.e If you were applying to be a chef in an amazing restaurant and you were presented with the head chefs best meal and you hated it how would you respond, or if you were auditioning for to be a musician in a band and the person you were replacing had wrote an awful piece for you to play what would you say to the rest of the band. – Sam Healey Aug 2 '13 at 12:24
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Be Honest, but do it nicely. I would assume that they pointed this out to get your honest opinion of the website. In that case you should have given your unfiltered honest opinion of the design of the site. Unfiltered does not mean that you blast the work with expletives, but you give critical feedback just as if a co-worker asked you this question.

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Difficult situation. One big problem is that you don't know what answer the interviewer wants to hear. Let's say the site was designed by the owner's nephew, and it is absolute rubbish. Are you talking to the owner? Is he proud of his nephew or does he want to get rid of him? Or are you talking to someone who hates the website himself and can't get through to the owner that it costs the company goodwill and money?

If your job is designing websites, then you can obviously say what you would do to improve the site. Otherwise, you might point out where people who are not quite as clever as you might have problems with the site. Don't say "X and Y are wrong", say "I personally prefer A and B". Worst case, if they ask you to judge an awful website, and they can't take polite and careful criticism, then maybe you are better off not getting that job. And maybe the interviewer wants to know whether you can tell people nicely and politely where they go wrong and convince them to improve what they do.

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Was the employer expecting me to critique the work, would he have been ok if I told him its not that great?

There's no way to know definitively what was in the interviewer head at the time.

Since it's rather unusual for an interviewer to point you to their website and ask for feedback, I would suspect that he was looking for something more than just 2 sentences of general "It's ok" comments.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, probe a bit to determine what kind of feedback is being requested.

If you are asked only "What do you think?" You could reply with a neutral answer like "It's interesting. What would you like to know about what I'm seeing?"

You have to judge the tenor of the reply you get. If you sense he is looking for a more technical analysis, then you can talk about the good parts you see and also the bad parts you see.

Don't just say "This is bad" - explain why what you are seeing isn't as good as it could be, and what you might do to make it better. Also, make sure you point out some things where you can say "This is good", and explain what is good about that portion.

If instead, you sense that the interviewer is just proud of what he is showing you, then a more general "That is nice" response is appropriate - perhaps with pointing out a few things that are nice. In this scenario, there's little value for you to point out flaws that you see.

If I had to guess, I'd suspect that the interviewer was looking for you to point out the good and bad parts - otherwise it seems unlikely that he would direct you too look at the site. But clearly that's just a guess that would need to be confirmed by hearing the actual conversation and asking more probing questions.

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If someone shows me a website and says 'what do you think?' I look at it from the perspective of 'how easily to I get from initial presentation to desired result'. Having a recruiter telling me this 'was the work of their 'top' employee' simply sounds like interview bait - let's see if this candidate flies off on a personal attack.

Someone showed me a website that had a Flash graphic of a UFO flying across the top frame, and some business name that I can't recall. His question to me is 'what does this organization do?'. I had to stare at it for awhile to realize this company provided PC tech support. I showed him a counterexample - no fancy graphics or even particularly professional design, but the first thing you saw was 'Legacy Software Migration'.

So the appropriate response is: 'If the objective of this feature is do to thing x, it presently takes this amount of user effort to get to 'thing x'. This can be reduced by this many steps, or by the placement of certain content so the user can decide which way to proceed'. If 'Objective x' can't be met on the website and the user has to call, then obviously the site is dysfunctional. Treat the interviewer as a user, and tell them how you would make the user experience more direct and effective.

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