Behavioral Interview Tips

7 minutes


Updated October 11, 2023
Land Your Dream Design Job

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.

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.

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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.

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