Common Whiteboard Mistakes to Avoid

5 minutes


Updated February 27, 2023
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When interviewing designers, I see many common mistakes made repeatedly. It doesn’t matter if the designer is fresh out of school, mid-level, or senior. Here are a couple of issues that stand out and can be easily fixed.

Overkilling It with Context

As part of the product design interview, it is important that you establish a strong foundation that’s predicated on context and the problem. But you can also go overboard with this and run out of time, so you don’t get to any solutions or you take a very superficial pass at the solution phase.

This is a problem of time management. Context setting and problem definition should take less than half of the interview time. For example, in a one-hour session with 15 minutes for questions, roughly 10 minutes should be used for understanding context, about 10 minutes for problem exploration and definition, and most of your time (about 25+ minutes) on sketching and iterating through solutions.

Jumping Into Solutions Too Soon

The flip side of too much context is doing too little. Jumping into solutions without considering the broader context leads you to dance between possible solutions and possible problems. It leads to a dangerous path where you spend a lot of time on a solution and invent the problem for it. Make sure your foundation (context, problem) is solid first.

Overfitting an Existing Pattern

Some designers have tried to use patterns from one app (for example, Facebook) as an answer to the whiteboard prompt. While this approach is generally sound and you will use analogous apps for inspiration, beware of trying to fit a pattern that doesn’t make sense in the context you’re solving for. Think through the problem from first principles—what must hold true for this pattern to work? If the context isn’t right, consider a different pattern.

Thinking Components, Not Journeys

Instead of thinking about the experience as it’s presented to users, some designers think about components and patterns instead of journeys. While thinking about hand-off is important, if you don’t have the overall journey right, it doesn’t matter if your UI can be componentized, as you’ll still be solving the wrong problem. Get the journey right first.

Not Vocalizing Your Thoughts

The more clearly you can verbally communicate what you’re doing, the easier it is for the interviewer to understand your process and provide feedback.

important Strike the optimal balance of talking, sketching, and facilitation. This can be hard to do at first, which is why I recommend practicing (more on that follows).

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Not Taking Advantage of Interviewer Feedback

On the flip side, you don’t want to speak so much that it leaves little breathing room for your interviewers, with no opportunity for them to interject. Interviewers are your best source for answers, and they’re right there! Don’t miss out. Lead them through your process, but also be sure to pause, clarify, and engage them with questions. Your job is to strike the optimal balance of talking, sketching, and facilitation.

Not Addressing Interviewer Feedback

Generally, whiteboard prompts start open-ended with a wide field of opportunities. As you work through the prompt, I’d like to see how you react to my feedback. Are you receptive? Do you “yes, and” or do you try to brush it off or, worse, skip it? Responding to feedback effectively is just as crucial as having a solid process with good solutions.

Blaming the Whiteboard Interview

No interview is a perfect assessment of your skills. As interviewers, we know this and take it into account by assessing candidates holistically across multiple interview types. However, getting defensive and blaming the whiteboard challenge when you’re still interviewing isn’t an effective use of your time. Ask questions and build rapport instead.

storyAfter a decent whiteboard interview, I left ten minutes at the end for the candidate to ask me questions. Instead of asking questions or talking about how he might have done it differently, he proceeded to bad-mouth the interview and blame the whiteboard for his poor performance.

Solid versus Amazing Whiteboard Execution

Once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to think about what can take your whiteboard execution from good to great.

Solid Execution

A good whiteboard execution hits on many of the things we have already talked about—proper framing, generating solutions, and collaboration.

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