Walk into your whiteboard design challenge with confidence with these tips and best practices.
As you begin to interview for UX designer roles, you may be asked to participate in a whiteboard design challenge. This typically occurs in the later stages of the interview process, especially during your on-site interview. While the idea of a whiteboard challenge can seem daunting at first, you’ll find that with a little preparation, you can walk up to the whiteboard with confidence.
In this article, we’ll discuss what a whiteboard challenge is, what interviewers are looking for during the challenge, and a simple, repeatable framework for approaching any whiteboard design challenge you encounter. You’ll also find tips on how to prepare for this portion of the interview, as well as some design prompts to practice with.
During the later stages of the interview process for product design jobs, you may be asked to complete a whiteboard challenge. This is a design challenge where you walk through your design process with a whiteboard and marker. The whiteboard challenge allows your interviewer to evaluate your design thinking and ability to collaborate in a short amount of time, usually 30 minutes to an hour.
While it may feel intimidating to walk up to a blank whiteboard and start designing, it’s important to keep in mind that this exercise is less about your final design and more about your process. Potential employers want to see that you can:
Think through problems logically and critically
Design with the user in mind
Go beyond the user interface (UI) in your analysis and design
Collaborate with team members
Incorporate constructive feedback
Watch this video for a more detailed explanation of whiteboard interviews.
Each company conducts their whiteboard design interviews a bit differently. It can be hard to predict how much time you’ll be given or what you’ll be asked to design. You can prepare yourself for these unknowns by having an established framework for solving design challenges.
A framework is an easy-to-remember, step-by-step process. In this case, it’s a process you can walk through no matter what problem is presented to you.
Take the first few minutes of your whiteboard time to make sure you fully understand the design problem presented to you. It may be tempting to immediately start scribbling wireframes on the board, but resist that urge. Instead, restate the challenge, then start asking questions to dig deeper. Write down any relevant answers on the whiteboard.
Who are the target users? What are their pain points?
When, where, and how will they use this design?
What are the business objectives?
Are there any technical or business constraints I should be aware of?
What device am I designing for?
What does success look like?
Tip: A little role play can be a big help. Ask your interviewer to play the part of a business stakeholder or user as you clarify the challenge.
When you take the time to think through the challenge, you set yourself up to design solutions with the user in mind.
Now that you understand the challenge and know a bit more about the target user, take some time to list out a user flow on the whiteboard. Make a bulleted list of the steps a user will need to take to achieve their goal.
If the product has multiple user personas or use cases, choose one to focus on as you design solutions. Communicate this choice to your interviewer, mentioning some other use cases and explaining why you’ve chosen this one.
Now’s the time to start sketching. With the user flow as your guide, start coming up with ideas. Go for quantity over quality at first; let your ideas flow.
Tip: If you feel at a loss for ideas, start sketching. Sometimes putting the marker to the board is all it takes to get your creativity flowing.
Once you’ve come up with a range of possible solutions, narrow in on one or two of the most promising options. Refer back to the information you discovered in the first step to help guide your choice. Does the solution address user pain points? Does it fit within any technical or business constraints? Does it satisfy business objectives?
After you’ve focused on your best design solution, start drawing wireframes of the critical screens. Match each screen with a step in the user flow, and be sure to label them clearly on the whiteboard (login, product listing, checkout page, etc.). You likely won’t have time to work through edge cases, so focus on the primary path a user would take.
Tip: Think about the whiteboard challenge as a conversation with the interviewer. Remember to incorporate their feedback into your design as you work.
Leave some time at the end of your challenge to summarize your solution. Point out how it addresses both user needs and business objectives.
If you have extra time, use it to discuss other use cases, critique what you would have done differently, or mention what improvements you’d make in future iterations.
As you’re working through your whiteboard design challenge, you’ll need to carefully manage two things: time and whiteboard space.
When you get to the whiteboard, draw a line down the middle. Use the left side to write down any important information about the challenge, as well as anything you learned while clarifying the challenge. Also use this space to write down your user flow.
The right side of the board is for sketching. Start your exploratory, idea-generating sketches at the top. Use the bottom half for the wireframes of your in-depth solution. You can always erase some of your early ideas and sketches if you need more space.
Since you’re designing with a time limit, you’ll want to keep track of time. Wear a watch, or ask the interviewer for a time check periodically. Budget a certain percentage of time for each of the steps in your framework.
If you have an hour, plan to spend 20 minutes clarifying the challenge and outlining the user story. Take the next 30 minutes to generate ideas and sketch the critical screens. This leaves 10 minutes for presenting your solution and critiquing your design.
In the age of COVID-19 and Zoom, it’s becoming increasingly common to forgo the onsite portion of an interview and complete the entire process virtually. In this case, you may be asked to use an online collaboration tool, like Miro or InVision Freehand, or to design on paper with a webcam set up to show your work. The company should have this process in place, but it’s a good idea to clarify ahead of time so you can practice.
One of the best ways to prepare for the whiteboard challenge is to get plenty of practice beforehand. This can help you solidify your framework so it comes naturally and help you feel more confident walking into the interview room. Here are some tips for preparing:
Practice with an actual whiteboard. Designing with a whiteboard is fundamentally different from sketching on paper or in an app. Work through some sample challenges with a real whiteboard and marker. Do this standing up if possible.
Record yourself. When you watch the recording, pay attention to when you’re talking too much or not enough, as well as where you might have spent too much or too little time. Identify your strengths and weaknesses so you can focus your practice.
Stage mock interviews with design friends. While practicing alone can certainly help, it’s often more effective to practice with other people. Take turns playing the part of the interviewer, and critique each other’s presentations.
Watch other people’s interviews. Search for “whiteboard challenge” on YouTube and you’ll find a few recordings of whiteboard interviews demos. This can give you a better idea of what a whiteboard challenge looks like in action.
Do your research. Check Glassdoor for any information on how the company conducts whiteboard interviews and questions they might ask.
Tip: Taking a public speaking class or joining a local Toastmasters group is a great way to build confidence when speaking and presenting in front of strangers.
When you’re ready to start practicing, here are some whiteboard design exercises to get you started. Design a:
Library book rental delivery app
Noise-free app to help you find your car in a parking lot
Interface for ordering food on an airplane
Interface for an autonomous ridesharing vehicle
Bike rental app
Experience for new college students to discover orientation events
Dashboard for a freelancer to manage client work
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