The whiteboard design challenge is becoming increasing popular as a way for an interviewer to evaluate a designer. It’s one of the best way to see a designers thinking process, seeing how they approach a problem. There is a lot you can learn from a designer based on her whiteboard design challenge:
- Enthusiasm to solve the problem shows interest in the role
- Confidence at the whiteboard shows experience and maturity
- Response when you critique the solution will tell you how this person will work with the team
You can’t get any of that from a Dribbble profile. This is why whiteboard design challenges are popular, and why they work.
The Whiteboard Design Challenge
Like any other interview question, practicing the whiteboard design challenges will pay off. Get comfortable with solving a couple of sample problems, talk through your solution and remember to summarise your proposal at the end. With these 10 steps, you will be well on your way to nailing your next design challenge.
1. Get Comfortable at the Whiteboard
Here’s the best piece of advice anyone will give you before you do a whiteboard design challenge – practice it. The first time I had to do a whiteboard exercise in an interview, I assumed it would be the same as sketching. It isn’t. I only got comfortable doing these tasks when I practiced with an actual whiteboard. If you currently work at a startup, take you lunch hour and find a whiteboard in a quiet room when there’s no one around.
If you don’t have a whiteboard in your office, practice on a flip-chart or some kind of alternative, but practice standing up, with a marker, and solve some practice puzzles.
2. Practice Solving a Whiteboard Design Challenge
You need to look comfortable and natural when you approach the whiteboard. Practicing is the only way to get around the nervousness you might feel the first few times you do it. When the interviewers say “OK now, I’d like for you to solve this question on the whiteboard” you can get up enthusiastically and get started.
There are lots of resources online for possible design problems to ask a designer to try in an interview situation, but to get you started I’ve listed a few below.
- Design a meeting room scheduler app for a building with 10 offices
- Design the controls for a digital watch that only has 3 buttons
- Design an app that would allow colleagues to share a lift to work
3. Ask Questions
When you’re in an interview situation, it’s a good idea to write a list of the requirements of the task in a corner of the whiteboard. Before you begin proposing a solution, spend the first few minutes defining the problem.
Interviewers are looking for someone who can dig below the surface to find out any peripheral concerns that might need to be taken into consideration. What are the expected outcomes? What are the limitations? What are the factors to consider? Asking the right questions will put you in the top half of designers who approach the whiteboard.
Specify the problem. Know what the boundaries are. Write these down. Only when you have asked follow up questions on the task should you start drawing a solution.
4. Outline the User Story
Before you know what screens to draw, you will need to know what the user story is. Take the task that you need to solve, and break it down into the steps that would require a user to interact.
For example, if we were designing the controls of the digital watch, it might be something like this:
- Set the current time (hours)
- Set the current time (minutes)
- Save the current time
- Set the alarm (hours – optional – requires cancel function)
- Set the alarm (minutes – optional – requires cancel function)
- Save the alarm
- Return to current time
When you have the user story, you can start drawing the screens to illustrate how this is done.
5. Drawing (and Speaking) Your Solution
Now it’s time to draw the elements you outlined in your user story from the previous step. It’s important that while you draw, you also explain your decisions. Talk through your design choices. Why did you eliminate a particular approach? Why did you decide on a particular approach? What are your decisions based on?
The trick to a great whiteboard test is to talk while you draw, which is another reason to practice at the whiteboard until you feel comfortable.
Draw a few critical steps, and explain how you arrived at this point.
6. Critique and Feedback
In my opinion, the ability to respond well to constructive criticism is the absolute deal breaker when it comes to hiring a designer. Looking back over the interviewing I’ve done in the past, the single thread that connects the designers who didn’t fit with the team was that the could not take feedback from other designers and developers on board. When I’m evaluating a designer, I need to know that she will be able to take my feedback and use it to invite discussion.
The ability to respond well to constructive criticism is the absolute deal breaker when it comes to hiring a designer.
7. Iteration on this Solution
Hopefully, if the interviewer is good, their feedback will enable you to open a discussion with them about how you can improve your design solution. This should feel more like a conversation between colleagues than anything else.
Going by our above example, if we were to propose iterations on our design task, it might be:
- How would the user change the time?
- How would the user change the alarm?
- How could the user activate the snooze feature?
It’s not essential that you finish designing every edge case in the short amount of time, but it’s nice that you have considered the possibility of
8. Ask More Questions
When you have finished your iteration – you can put the ball back in the interviewers court by asking them for any more feedback. You have created a solution to the challenge, you might invite them to point out any other areas you might iterate on. You need to be building towards closure, this is the point of the exercise when you will want to start
Remember: it’s a discussion. Ask if there are any points you have missed, if there is a particular area that needs more work. This works for three reasons:
- If you have thought of everything, and you get a “I think that’s everything” then you know you’re almost done
- If they have more comments, you’ll know you’re not done yet, but these questions will steer you in a particular direction
- It will also show that you’re not afraid to hear feedback, which is an important factor if the designer is to work as part of a team.
So ask your interviewer if there is anything you have missed. If you have completed the challenge, it’s time to start wrapping things up.
9. End Strong
As with any interview question, it’s best to end strong rather than whimper “yeah, well I suppose that’s how I would approach it… I dunno…” but to end on a strong, positive note. Practice summarizing your solution aloud.
Sum up with these three points:
- Summarize the problem you were given
- Outline your solution, addressing how it solves the problem
- Summarise how you would expand on this solution
This summary has a very specific purpose. Whenever a designer is doing a whiteboard design challenge, the possibilities are endless. Whenever a designer is brainstorming ideas, the session could go on for an eternity. But you don’t have an eternity, you have about 15 minutes.
A summary acts as a way to show that after all of the questions, the flow, the sketches, the feedback and the iteration – you have addressed the problem and provided an solution. It’s a nice bookend to that particular portion of the interview. You don’t want the interviewer going back to their desk wondering if you actually solved the problem. End strong with a summary of your
10. If That Still Doesn’t Work…
… then it’s likely you wouldn’t want to work there anyway. In my experience, if an interviewer acts as a blocker while you are working on your whiteboard design challenge, it’s a negative indication of the design culture at that company. Solving a design problem on the whiteboard should cultivate collaboration, and the best ones are when the interviewer shows interest in your solution, and how you can both improve it.
The best design sessions are symbiotic, a group of problem solvers helping each other to figure out the solution to a problem. If you feel the interviewer isn’t showing interest in your problem solving skills, it might be good to ask why. Interviews are a 2 way street – you’re finding out more about the team in the same way that they’re learning about you, so when you are at the whiteboard getting critiqued, think about how it would be to work with person.
Those are my 10 steps on how to nail your next whiteboard design challenge. Take the time to practice, get all of the facts, write out your user story and use that to sketch out your approach. Sum up how you solved the problem, and suggest ways to improve your answer if you had more time.