I’ve had several job test experiences to share…
I’ve done a design test for a West Coast USA consultancy before… it was a 24 hour thing, to come up with several concepts around a pocket camera product brief. It was also unpaid. I didn’t think it was that big a deal, and I took it seriously working very late into the night do the best job I could. Frankly it’s the kind of thing I would have enjoyed doing anyway, and the extra urgency made the whole thing more exciting. I got the job and it paid off well in the long run - I would do it again.
If I hadn’t gotten the job, I’d have been upset at the work done even though I had planned to use it for my portfolio if something nice came out of it. I had also spent quite a bit on several trips out to visit and for the initial interviews, but they were partially job-hunting visits that combined several meetings so nothing to really gripe about.
Recently in England however, I had a different test experience. I was following up a first interview with a large manufacturing company and was asked to prepare a 15 min presentation plus complete 3 hour online assessment test. That experience was terrible. The on-line questionnaire was a usability mess, the results were suspect, and the outfit gave a very poor interview - They insisted on a suit/tie for the all day interview, then power went out on a hot sunny day, and on top of that - everyone involved was deathly sick with a cold leaving the interview often to blow their noses!! They didn’t even provide a projector though they confirmed one available twice beforehand. * note: always bring a hard copy, luckily I had. Needless to say I didn’t land that one and I’m calling it a ‘bad fit.’
My final experience was with my current employers… they brought me in as an outside consultant for a project to try me out and help with bandwidth - and it was a paid gig. We all got along great, the project turned out great, and they made me an offer when I finished the project. I couldn’t be happier to have done the project with them.
Additionally, I was recently in touch with a good friend in the Bay Area, formerly a top dog at one of the consultancies, was telling me he is doing a test project for a new job out there. The guy is one of the best designers I know, so apparently it happens to the best.
Overall, if it’s a day or so of work and you can afford the time, I think you should go for it if you want the job. Seeing someone’s performance in real time is revealing of what you would produce for them and how you could work together. It might not be enough time to show how you could be developed as in the case of a jr or mid-weight designer, but telling nevertheless and they could still get a sense of your work habits. A day of work is not going to cost you more than a flight out to visit a possible employer and if the potential job is worth it. The best of all cases is the paid trial project, but that might not be an option. I’ve never had the feeling that I was being conned into doing free work for someone, but I’m sure it does happen. If I had a bad feeling about the company I might not do it.