Preparing for the Phone Screen Interview

11 minutes


Updated October 11, 2023
Land Your Dream Design Job

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Your first interview will start with a voice call where you’ll typically speak with a recruiter. This interview is usually preceded by an email—sometimes multiple emails from recruiters trying to get your attention. To be successful at this interview type, you should do your homework ahead of time, prepare your pitch, and be able to tell a compelling story demonstrating value so that you can advance to the next stage of the interview.

Screening Calls at a Glance

Design phone screens are usually short, about 15–30 minutes interviewing with one person. They give you an opportunity to present yourself, your work, and your interest in the company.

If this is your first phone conversation with the company, a recruiter will usually reach out. They’ll talk about the role, ask some questions, and will try to gauge your interest. Aside from screening, they also want to leave you excited about the opportunity. Take advantage of that by treating the recruiter as an ally in the interview process.

important Your 30-second intro should be punchy, specific, and short.

A call with the hiring manager is usually next. On occasion I also had these calls with peer designers. Either way, since both parties have domain expertise, they’ll dig deeper on your design process and case studies.

important Practice ahead of time. If you’re feeling nervous about the conversation or you’re not sure, practice with a friend ahead of time. Start by writing out your answers and reading them out loud. Then have a friend call you and have them ask you some tough questions. Let them also throw you off a bit so that you can practice how to react to questions you haven’t prepared for.

The first few minutes of a phone screen are usually formulaic, so it helps to think through the questions ahead of time. Preparing by writing your answers down will help you come off as confident and even spontaneous if you rehearsed your story thoroughly. Generally, you’ll be asked about your work background, your design approach, and your current work situation.

Below are examples of some of the common questions you might encounter.

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Your Story and Work History

This is an opportunity for you to set up the context of your story. Remember the pitch you’ve prepared. You want to come off as having a deliberate career path in mind.

Sample questions in this category:

  • Tell me more about your career journey—how did you end up where you’re currently at?

  • What would you like to do next?

  • Why are you interested in working with us?

  • Where do you envision yourself long-term?

  • What are you looking for next in your role?

These questions give the interviewer a sense of your past, your present, and where you want to be in the future.

Your Current Work Situation

Not exactly the most fun questions, but these are necessary for the interviewer to ask to make sure everyone’s on the same page:

  • Why are you searching now?

  • Would you require visa sponsorship in the future?

  • What salary are you expecting?

cautionRemember, in most states (in the U.S.), it’s illegal for a recruiter to ask you how much you’re making. But if they do, you can give a generic answer stating that you’re being paid the fair market average. That said it’s legal for a recruiter to ask about compensation expectations. One way you can answer this question is to ask what band they have for this specific role.

Preparing for the Call

Before the call, review what you already have about the company, the role, and the person you’ll be talking to. Have your list of answers (based on anticipated questions) and your list of questions printed so you can take notes without getting distracted by typing noise.

During the Call

It goes without saying that you should be in a quiet room with strong cell phone reception. You might even consider getting a phone number from Google as a backup, but in that case make sure you have a strong wifi connection.

As the conversation wraps up, you’ll usually have a few minutes for questions. Your questions should be tailored to the person who’s interviewing you and the role itself. Focus on a few specific questions to open up the conversation and follow the thread from there. You can think of this as doing user research. What important questions should you ask first? What’s a deal breaker? What are some nice-to-haves to follow up with?

important Be sure to listen actively and take down notes during the interview.

Make sure you don’t ask questions that are easy to find online. Do your homework first. With that said, here are some basic questions to get you started:

  • How is the design team organized?

  • What challenges are you facing today?

  • What problems can I help you with?

  • What excites you about working here?

  • How big is the design team now?

If you’ve run out of questions or can’t think of a good question to ask, say they’ve answered your current questions, but would it be OK if you could follow up in an email if more questions come up later? Ten times out of ten, they’ll say yes.

Ending the Conversation on a High Note

Depending on how much time is left, I usually end the conversation with a key question that I learned to use many years ago: “Is there anything I said or didn’t say that would make me a bad candidate for this role?”

How they respond is just as important as what they say.

importantUse the final closer to gauge their interest, “Is there anything I said or didn’t say that would make me a bad candidate for this role?”

Finally, end the phone call with a friendly close: “It was great getting to know you and learning more about the opportunity—I can’t wait until we chat again. What would be the next step?

After the Call

After the phone call, take a few moments to reflect on how it went. How did you feel? Do you imagine yourself working at that company? Are there any lingering questions left unanswered? What could you have done better? Take a breather and write your thoughts down while the information’s fresh.

In my experience with phone screens, it’s usually easy to tell if the company is not a good fit at this time. For example, you want to work on the consumer side of the org but they only have opportunities in enterprise this year. Remember, you’re evaluating them as much as they’re evaluating you.

In all cases, nothing wins an interviewer over like a good thank you note after the call. Even if this opportunity didn’t seem like the right fit, you never know if a new one might come along. Genuinely, follow up with an email a couple of hours later mentioning specific things you talked about in regards to the role, the team, or the company.

What to Expect Next

Unless there are obvious mismatches between your application and the role, usually most interviews proceed to the next stage. Sometimes this means you’ll talk with the hiring manager next, or you may get a take-home design exercise to complete before advancing to the next stage.

Preparing for the Hiring Manager

This interview usually follows a few days after the recruiter screening call. Generally you’ll talk to a hiring manager, or occasionally another designer may field this call.

Similarly to the screening call, this interview should last about 15–30 minutes. By this time the recruiter should have relayed some of the information to the hiring manager so they’re on the same page. But you should still expect to introduce yourself and have your pitch ready, in addition to mentioning why you’re excited about this particular opportunity.

Your Design Approach and Process

The interviewer is interested to see if you have a specific process when approaching problems. What framework do you use? Is your approach rigid or flexible based on the context at hand? Are you able to bend and break the process while focusing on outcomes?

Typically, they’ll ask you to walk through one or two projects from your portfolio. Think of this as a portfolio presentation in condensed form.

Some questions they may ask:

  • What does design mean to you?

  • What is the most exciting project you worked on? Why was it exciting?

  • What was the most challenging project you worked on? What made it difficult?

  • Who was the most difficult stakeholder in this project?

These questions are designed to probe your design process, get some initial signals around your collaboration skills, and to get a glimpse of how you solve problems.

Questions You Should Ask

By this time you want to have done your homework based on your previous interview—this means looking up the person who’s talking to you (know whether they’re a manager or a designer). Tailor your questions based on their experience.

Additionally, this is a chance to learn what it’s really like to work there:

  • Can you walk me through a project that you worked on recently?

  • What was the most complex or largest project you worked on? What made it complex?

  • How does the design team work together?

  • How do you think the design team can improve?

  • Where do you envision yourself as a designer in the next couple of years?

  • What inspires you?

Ending on a High Note

Just like with the previous interview, you should always be thinking about how this interview can set you up for success in the next one. Thank them for the interview, ask if there are any other open questions they have and, if not, ask about next steps.

Final Interview Preparation9 minutes, 1 link

The final interview is a big step in the process. Congrats on making it this far! This is an opportunity for you to arrive with confidence, be prepared for the unexpected, and, finally, leave your interviewers excited to work with you.

new Since COVID expanded remote work, the traditional on-site or final interview is often now conducted remotely. While the format is changed, many of the steps are similar. It’s important to prepare and to test out your remote interviewing setup ahead of time.

So what’s next? By now you should have received an email from the company with an interviewing schedule to help you prepare for the big day. If you haven’t received the schedule, now’s a great time to ask for it. This is a good way to communicate initiative while also properly preparing ahead of time.

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