Behavioral Design Interviews

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You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

Behavioral Design Interviews

Behavioral interviews usually follow soon after your design presentation and the various design exercises. I’ll break this interview format down by function: outside of design, you’ll learn how to build rapport with product management, engineering, and research. You’ll want to build rapport and get people excited to work with you. I’ll also share best practices with stories of success and failures along the way.

Behavioral Interview Format at a Glance

The goal of cross-functional interviews is to get a 360-degree view of how you approach your work and collaborate with others. Typically these will be one-on-one interviews about 30 minutes each or one-hour pair interviews.

If you’re applying for an in-house role (either at a startup or a large company), you’ll talk with cross-functional peers in product and engineering. You might also have a researcher or a data scientist sit in. For agency roles, you’ll be primarily speaking with designers.

The best way to prepare for your final interview is by actively working with your recruiter. Find out what to expect, the schedule, and the people you’ll be speaking with. Lastly, many companies are starting to do behavioral interviews over the phone or a video conference. While the format is different, many of the same principles apply.

important When you’re presenting your portfolio, you usually get into the details of the situation and provide specific examples because no projects are alike. Same with behavioral interviews—get specific and answer the question succinctly. Aim to respond to the question in about two to three minutes. Hypothetical responses that err on how one should or in theory might do things aren’t good responses as they don’t give the interviewer a clear signal of how you actually handled things in the past.

The behavioral interview format might also vary. Some companies, for instance, have a “lunch social” interview. While the goal of this interview is to give candidates a breather and not get barraged by interview questions—you’ll still want to be on your best behavior and treat this casual format as just another type of interview.

Peer Design Interview

Usually, right after your portfolio presentation you’ll be slated for a peer design interview. If that’s the case, expect some detailed follow-up questions on your work. They’ll also dig into:

  • Your past experience. Anything that was mentioned in your portfolio, resume, LinkedIn, and so on.

  • Design collaboration. How you work with other designers.

  • Your working style. Preferences in process and your approach to work.

  • Design focus. Areas of design that you find interesting.

Sample questions you may get asked:

  • How do you keep up-to-date on the latest trends in design?

  • Why are you interested in working here?

  • The PM wanted the design to go a certain way that you thought wasn’t right. How did you defend your rationale?

  • Tell me about a conflict you had with another designer. How did you handle it?

In my experience interviewing candidates, some folks fail to provide an adequate answer to why they’re interested in the position in the first place. It doesn’t have to be anything out of the ordinary. Talking about the team, the role, or specific aspects that you’re hoping to develop are all good starters. Employers want to see people who are interested in the opportunity as opposed to fishing for whatever they can get.

Interviewing with a peer designer also gives you a glimpse of what the design process and design culture is really like. See how they approach their work. What barriers do they encounter? What’s an exciting project they’ve recently worked on? What are they looking to learn next? Get them to open up to learn more about the culture and process.

Hiring Manager Interview

Most of the time the hiring manager for a design role will come from a design background, but in smaller startups they might be an engineer or a PM looking to establish a design team. Depending on who you get, the questions will vary slightly but the objectives are similar.

Usually you’ll talk to them at the end—by this time the other interviewers have submitted feedback or flagged additional things to probe on. In addition to these, the hiring manager will try to assess your:

  • Professionalism. How you carry yourself and how you come across.

  • Career aspirations. Where do you expect to be in the next few years.

  • Team fit. What team would serve you and the company best.

If this is a seasoned manager, they’ll get straight to the point and will ask you the hard questions. Since the final decision rests on them and the consequences of a bad hire are high, they’ll want to make sure there are no remaining red flags. But it’s not all bad cop—they’ll also sell you on the role and the team.

Sample questions you may get asked:

  • What aspect of design is exciting to you? Why?

  • What’s your area of strength?

  • What’s your area of growth?

  • Where do you see yourself in the next few years?

Use this time to learn about your manager as well. Are they growth oriented? Do you feel like you can get along with them? How have they supported designers previously?

Cross-Functional Interviews

After interviewing with the designers, you’ll talk with your cross-functional peers: product managers, engineers, and researchers. The primary goal of these interviews is to understand how well you work with others and measure your level of empathy and consideration of others.

Product Manager

In many cross-functional teams, you’ll work with the PM closely on a daily basis. They’ll want to know:

  • How you’ve worked with PMs and any conflicts you’ve encountered.

  • Your ability to work on multiple projects with different timelines.

  • How you balance different constraints in your work.

Sample questions you may get asked:

  • What is your design process like?

  • You’re given a project that you need to execute on in one week to meet a deadline. How will you approach it?

  • How often do you like to share work? How do you share work with the team for feedback?

  • What types of conflicts have you encountered with product managers? How did you resolve them?

  • How will you let me know if you’re going to miss a deadline?

Take the time in this interview to understand what kind of PM they are. Just like product design, product management has many aspects to it. What gets the PM excited to go to work every morning? What part of the process do they enjoy the most? How do they see design contributing to the product development process? Have they done design before? These are all good questions to keep in your back pocket.

Engineering

Engineers have the final say on what gets built, as they’re the last persons to touch the artifact. Similar to a PM, they’ll be interested in how you partner with their kind. They’ll examine:

  • Collaboration with engineering and empathy for constraints.

  • Handling conflict in design and engineering situations.

Sample questions you may get asked:

  • How do you prefer to work with engineering?

  • How did you successfully partner with engineering?

  • What’s the worst part of working with engineers?

  • How do you assess a design’s technical feasibility? When do you consider it in your process?

If you’re new to design or have never worked with engineers before, you might not know how to proceed or how to find common ground with your engineering counterpart. One way you can address this gap is by selling the engineer on your collaborative skills and your ability to learn quickly.

If lack of collaboration skills is a big barrier, you can invest some time by participating in a hackathon or contributing to an open-source project. Many of these are engineering-led and don’t have a design contributor. Find interesting projects and reach out to the engineers there.

UX Researcher

Sometimes you might get interviewed by a UX researcher. If you do, consider yourself lucky—great design rests on solid research, and knowing how research is treated will give you deeper insight into the company’s design culture. Researchers won’t expect you to know the ins and outs of doing research, but they will ask you how you’ve engaged with their function:

  • Your preferences working with research.

  • Conflicts you’ve encountered when working with research.

Sample questions:

  • How have you worked with researchers in the past?

  • Tell me a time when you successfully collaborated with research. What made the collaboration successful?

  • Was there a time when your design failed in a research study? Can you tell me why it failed and what happened next?

If you have time left over, use this to learn about the company’s design maturity. A couple of ways you can get at that question is by asking when researchers are included in the product planning process (if at all). Ask them about what pain points they’ve encountered in their role and how they prefer to work with design.

Wrap-Up

At the end of your interviews you’ll meet either with the hiring manager or the recruiter. This is another opportunity to reinforce your enthusiasm for the role. They’ll let you know what happens next and the time frame for the final decision on your candidacy.

For another list of interview questions, check out BuzzFeed’s design interview questions.

Behavioral Interview Tips

Even when you have your answers prepared, your delivery still matters. Here are a few best practices to consider.

Use a Story Format

Many behavioral interviews will ask you about a situation in the past to assess how you handled it. It’s not unlike the methods we use in user research. We don’t ask participants to predict what they’ll do in the future—we ask them what they actually did. In an interview setting, you’ll also have to get specific and use your storytelling skills to give an example and provide concrete learnings.

As an example, here’s how the structure might look like when you’re asked “Tell me about a time when your design failed”:

  1. Summary of the situation. I was working on a design for a photo sharing feature which failed in usability testing.

  2. Set up the context. I was in the middle of this project when I briefly chatted with my researcher. We decided to do a quick study to validate the idea, as the problem wasn’t well defined.

  3. Your actions. After seeing the fourth participant struggle through a prototype I built, I understood that we had a bigger problem to solve.

  4. Outcome. I met with my PM and researcher to scope down the initial feature so we could focus on learning and buy us more time to understand the problem. This did cause some delays, but it also helped us learn faster and iterate on a solution that helped people to more easily share their photos with their loved ones.

  5. Lessons learned. This situation helped me build the case for defining problems with product up-front. I also built a stronger relationship with my researcher, and we keep each other regularly informed about new work.

While this example is somewhat simplistic, as you can see the format is not unlike that of a portfolio case study. You can practice by brainstorming a few notable scenarios that you might want to bring up. Once you have your list of situations, you can break these out based on the outline above.

You can go even further by recording your responses on video as practice. This is a good way to see yourself and how you come off. It will also help you check your responses for filler words (uh, uhm), brevity, and clarity. The point isn’t to memorize these verbatim, but a little practice does make it easier to jog your memory when you’re in the middle of the interview.

Bring Excitement and Energy Into Your Interview

Sometimes when you’re been interviewing for a while without much progress you may feel absolutely down. It’s OK to feel that, but don’t bring it to the interview. You only have one chance to make an impression, so make sure it’s good. Do what you need to do to get yourself centered.

important Interviews are a time to put your best foot forward. It’s not a time to relax and to spill the beans or reveal your struggles, even if it feels like the interviewer feels nice and considerate. You want to be operating from a place of strength and centeredness and not get caught up in the negative, such as by bad-mouthing your previous employers or co-workers.

Ultimately, your goal is to leave your interviewers excited to work with you so that once you leave, they’ll be sure to mention you to other colleagues and will fight to get you in. This might not be possible to do all the time—it’s a good north star to keep in mind. Aside from doing the work, interviewers also want to know if they can get along with you and, ideally, if they’d be excited to work with you.

Connect on a Personal Level

Unlike a formal presentation where you’re talking to a group of people, one-on-one interviews offer a more intimate environment to learn about someone. Don’t miss this opportunity to ask specific questions regarding their recent work or projects. Ideally, you can also connect based on common interests (for example, that same volunteering group you saw on their LinkedIn).

storyWhen I was interviewing with a product manager at a big financial company, I searched for her name to learn more about her work. When I brought up a blog post that her team did on a project she recently completed, she was pleasantly surprised; she didn’t think the post was online. Sometimes you can be more informed on the outside than you think.

Clarify and Rephrase Questions

Sometimes your interviewers are new to interviews. Maybe you’re that lucky candidate they’re talking to. In these types of high-stakes situations, it helps to take a step back and rephrase the question.

storyOne time I was scheduled for an onsite interview at a design agency. The interview was only an hour, and about halfway through the chat, one of the designers asks, why don’t you show us something cool you worked on? So I decided to talk about a recent school project. Unfortunately, this got me a rejection. The kicker? My work wasn’t strategic enough.

Watch Out for Culture Tells

Although usually you and the interviewer are on best appearances during interviews, sometimes people let their guards down. Remember when we talked about culture? Now that you know what you’re looking for, it’s time to take note.

storyDuring one interview I was asked “off the record” about what I would do to convince a co-worker to work over the weekend? And what if “it was their kid’s birthday that weekend”? These “off the record” questions are more telling of the underlying culture than a list of values on the company’s website.

You can read all the Glassdoor reviews, but you won’t really know what it’s truly like on the inside. Take the time to observe the environment in between your interviews. How do people behave—do they look happy or stressed? What do they say “off the record?” Spend time getting to know the person who’s giving you that office tour, chat with folks at reception. Lastly, to truly understand the culture of a place, you’ll need to do a little more digging for further information once you get that offer.

Additional Resources

If you’re applying to a large company, it’s highly likely that some of those questions have already been documented somewhere. These questions may not be as easy to find for smaller startups but it helps to look around. You should consider using resources such as LinkedIn and Glassdoor. Note, these questions will change so don’t expect the exact question in your interview, instead treat these questions as practice.

The Take-Home Design Exercise

As I mentioned previously, design exercises are not without fault, and as a candidate you always have a choice whether or not to accept one. Sometimes companies allow you to swap one design exercise for another—for example, instead of the take-home exercise, doing a whiteboard challenge.

Or you can choose to forego the design exercise altogether and end the interview—sometimes this is an option if you’re interviewing at other places and this one isn’t worth your time, and they’re not budging on pushing back the timeline.

caution Beware of companies that try to get free work out of you via a design exercise. The design exercise should be different from their business and the deliverable shouldn’t be a fully coded concept that can be implemented. That said, the companies who have challenges that are similar to their business aren’t necessarily trying to get free work out of you. Sometimes they don’t know how to evaluate designers and therefore they create a challenge similar to their business because they’re the domain experts.

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