Crushing the Product Design Whiteboard Challenge

Use this proven, systematic approach to prepare better, avoid common mistakes, and get the job you want.
Dan Shilov (Instacart)
▪︎ 31 minutes read time
Whiteboarding

Photo by ThisisEngineering on Unsplash.

This post is excerpted from Dan Shilov’s Land Your Dream Design Job, a comprehensive and practical resource for designers.

Design exercises are one of the most controversial interview types and are not without fault. It’s not uncommon for many designers to bemoan them, and with good reason. These interviews sometimes inadvertently screen high-quality candidates out. After all, not everyone can dedicate hours outside of work on a take-home design exercise. Sometimes the criteria for success can be confusing for interview candidates, and this is often exacerbated by the people who are conducting the interview when they don’t have a clear idea of what they’re looking for.

So why do companies do them?

The short of it is that design has become a competitive landscape with many candidates applying for design jobs. A portfolio, the strongest indicator of one’s skill as a designer, sometimes doesn’t tell the full story. Usually most design projects are team projects, so it can be hard to tell who did which part. So when you are presenting your portfolio, be sure to reinforce the role that you’ve played and the specific work that you’ve done.

For certain companies—those who cannot afford a design manager or who may just need a strong individual contributor from the outset—they may not know exactly what to look for. They frequently see designers as having nontransferable skills between industries; for example, if you worked in design for enterprise products, you may not flourish at a fast-paced startup. These are just some of the common misconceptions that you may encounter at a company that has a low design maturity.

That said, sometimes you may find yourself in a situation where doing a design exercise is a matter of getting a job. The goal of this section is to arm you with framework and techniques so that you can pass these interviews with flying colors.

Here are the most common exercises you’ll encounter during the design interview process:

  • The take-home design exercise. Typically you’ll get it in your early interview stages. Companies use the exercise as a qualifier to advance you to the next round. You’ll have a few days to work on it before submitting and presenting it to an interview panel.

  • App critique. Usually you’ll be paired with another designer or two to evaluate an app, giving sound reasons for your critique.

  • Whiteboard challenge. One the more notorious exercises, you’ll uncover your design process as you’re sketching out your thinking and reacting to curve balls that your interviewers throw at you during the process.

Here, we’ll focus on the whiteboard challenge. The rest of the exercises and much more on the interview and job search process for designers can be found in Land Your Dream Design Job, now available for pre-order.

Take heart. Design exercises aren’t easy. I’ve seen some candidates fail the whiteboard challenge and still get an offer. At other times, certain design exercises elevated a candidate’s design level, which led to a higher compensation package. So if you decide to take on a design exercise, make the most out of it and come out on top, stronger.

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Whiteboard Challenge

storyIt’s 1 p.m. I’m nervously standing by the whiteboard fidgeting with a marker. I’m only five minutes into the whiteboard interview but it feels like an hour has passed. What was the prompt again? I’m sweating. Is there air conditioning or do they blast heat on purpose? Anyway, I draw a persona and start making flows. Whoops, 40 minutes later I find out it’s the wrong persona, wrong flow, and I’m a hot mess.

Since that one awkward time, I’ve done many whiteboard interviews and had the opportunity to interview new and seasoned designers using the whiteboard challenge. I’ve seen some common mistakes but also best practices emerge from those interviews. While this interview is different from your everyday whiteboard sketch, it doesn’t have to be an enigma. Here’s a systematic approach to take on the challenge, avoid common mistakes, and prepare effectively.

Whiteboard Challenge Format and Criteria

Whiteboard interviews typically range from 30 minutes to one hour. Usually you’ll be interviewed by one or two designers. Similar to the take-home exercise, the whiteboard design challenge is meant to evaluate your skills in a short amount of time with a focus on interaction design and collaboration.

Your interviewers will assess you on:

  • Problem definition. How well can you explore the problem space and identify big problems to go after?

  • Solution finding and idea generation. How quickly can you explore multiple creative options without being married to any one idea and identify the best one to develop further?

  • Interaction design knowledge. How well can you make trade-offs between platforms, or global and local interaction patterns? Is your story and interaction flow coherent?

  • Collaboration. How well do you work with your interviewers by responding to their prompts and getting them interested in the approach that you’re taking?

  • You’ll also need to be aware of your main constraint: time. Whiteboard interviews usually last almost an hour—but with initial setup and questions at the end, time will fly. You’ll need to budget appropriately to show strong reasoning and meaningful concepts.

Just as with the app critique, how you come across, your level of self-awareness, matters. Usually you’ll complete one whiteboard interview per company however at some places designers may have to complete two different whiteboard challenges. Typically the first challenge will assess your generative skills while the second interview will focus more on MVP scoping and/or getting the feature to the finish line with engineering.

Going on the Journey Together

Since whiteboards are an artificial challenge, it will be up to the interviewer to properly set you up. As the candidate, you’ll be driving the interview. However, since prompts vary and companies have different expectations, clarify expectations with interviewers up-front:

  • What outcomes do they expect to see?

  • How do they want to be engaged?

  • What role will they play in the process: are they designers, product managers, engineering peers, users of the product, stakeholders, researchers, or someone else?

Write down their response and what you won’t cover so that objectives are visible and clear from the start. At its core, the whiteboard is a highly visible space to build shared understanding quickly. Use this to your advantage.

Approaching the Challenge

Once you have an understanding of the interaction model, the process itself can unfold as predictably as the traditional double diamond design model that’s so often taught in school. Since you’ll be pressed for time, you’ll need to make the call on what steps to accelerate, where to skip, and where to dive into the details.

Figure: The Double Diamond Design Model

The double diamond design model

The double diamond design model. Source: Dan Nessler

For those not familiar with the double diamond model, it’s a simplified model of the design process that’s essentially boiled down to four steps:

  1. Understanding the problem. Challenging existing assumptions, asking questions, clarifying.

  2. Defining the problem. Reframing the existing brief based on answers from the previous steps.

  3. Exploring solutions. Brainstorming multiple divergent solutions to avoid local maximum, not judging ideas, and keeping things as open as possible.

  4. Converging on a solution. Picking a particular solution to go after and spending time fleshing it out.

Like all models, it’s not perfect. It doesn’t account for all the nuances of the design process, but that’s OK because the whiteboard interview isn’t about going through nuanced details like visual design and such. Instead, this exercise is more about getting a glimpse into your design approach, specifically how you think through complex interaction design challenges.

storyDuring one of my interviews, the candidate kept drawing and redrawing a border of a window, emphasizing that they’re particular about how things look, thinking about 1px borders and shadows. While detail is important to design, the reality is that there’s no way to adequately convey this detail, nor is it required for a whiteboard challenge. Show your visual skills in your portfolio or in the design exercise.

Managing the Whiteboard Space

Just like when you’re presenting your portfolio, you also want to position yourself in a good spot for a whiteboard. This means having enough space for you to write while having your interviewers clearly see what you’re doing. You should also keep track of time, ideally with a timer on your watch.

The surface area of your whiteboard should be proportional to the amount of time you’ll spend on it.

Figure: Managing Space and Time

Match surface area to time

The surface area of your whiteboard should be proportional to the amount of time you’ll spend on it.

Setting the Context

The first step to any design solution is to understand the problem. Just like in your portfolio project summary slide, you want to summarize the context:

  • What is the prompt? What are you trying to solve for?

  • What are the business objectives?

  • What are the user objectives?

  • What are the constraints?

  • How do we measure success?

At this stage, you may treat your interviews as stakeholders. They can be your business or research counterparts. Ask questions to understand the problem fully from multiple perspectives and document this on the whiteboard.

When you wrap up: summarize key context points, tell your interviewers what you’re going to do next, and ask if there’s anything unaddressed that they’d like to see. This ensures everyone is in sync and no lingering questions (which can derail you later) remain.

Narrowing Problem Scope

At this point you might have more problems than you have time to solve for. That’s a good sign. Usually, in defining the context you’ll discover many opportunities to go after.

This step is an opportunity (no pun intended) to demonstrate your product thinking by narrowing options to the critical few leading to outsize impact. Show how you think about impact and the criteria you use to evaluate a problem space.

Here are some basic frameworks:

  • Impact versus cost. The impact to the business and the user will be high, while the time spent developing this feature will be low.

  • Forward momentum. Building this feature will pay down tech debt and position the team to learn and iterate faster.

  • Ideal experience. If there are no explicit constraints, what would the ideal solution look like?

Alternatively, you might also be asked to not think about constraints at all (for example, unlimited engineering resources) and to create the best solution. In that case your constraints are driven by user needs, which you want to note down.

important Finally, beware of the curse of knowledge. Take the time to remind yourself of the main goal and pick one big problem that you can solve well in the allotted time. It’s tempting to fight on multiple fronts, but you won’t have the time for that here. Choose meaningful focus over diffused diligence.

Generating Ideas

Now for the fun part—exploring many varying solutions by lifting constraints. Suspend disbelief and generate lots of solutions. The beauty of whiteboards is that you can draw lots of ideas and then either erase or narrow down the list to a promising few. If you get stumped, don’t be afraid to start sketching. The very act of sketching on the whiteboard and describing as you’re drawing can yield additional ideas. Go for quantity over quality at this phase.

Converging on a Solution

Once you’ve considered the world of possible solutions, you can start narrowing your scope down to a few promising options. Now’s the time to go deep. Again, it’s important to refer back to your original objectives. Did you miss anything? Look back to ensure the solution you’re about to expand on hits on the key pain points you’ve learned during the problem phase.

As you’re sketching out your solution, think in journeys and flows. How would someone interact with the service or the product? How would the interaction flow from one screen to the next? At this point you’re usually not expected to think through the edge cases as you’re sketching out a happy path.

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Finishing on a High Note

Even with great time management, there are usually more problems and more solutions to explore, so it’s very likely that you’ll run out of time. If you’ve been tracking time yourself, pause ten minutes before the end of the interview to take a pulse check—what do the interviewers want to see next? Do they want you to proceed further, or is this a good place to stop?

If you are at a stopping point or if you’ve actually “completed” the whiteboard challenge with time to spare (congrats, a rare feat!) take a moment to summarize and mention how you might have approached the process differently. Balance this self-reflection with time for additional questions that you might want to ask your interviewers.

As an interviewer, I’m also reflecting on our time. Could we work well together? How well did you respond to my feedback? Was your approach different from mine? Can you help me overcome my gaps? Have I learned something new here?

Common Whiteboard Mistakes to Avoid

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).

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.

You’ve taken the time to understand the problem by looking at it through multiple lenses from the business, user, and engineering side. You’ve defined a specific audience or persona to design this solution for. You’ve pushed back on the initial statement by reframing it, perhaps making it broader or more specific or by discovering a new problem altogether. The interviewers agreed this was the way to go.

Based on your problem you’ve generated many different high-quality ideas quickly. You didn’t dodge any questions—you answered all of them and clarified with the interviewers to make sure their questions were addressed. In the end you made good on time, enough to give you a moment to step back and reflect on what you could have done better.

Amazing Execution

Amazing execution builds on top of solid execution. Usually, I’ve seen this come from design leads who have a rich interaction design vocabulary developed over years of solving complex design problems in different industries.

In this case, you not only solved the initial problem quickly but you also exhausted your interviewer prompts, leaving them with nearly no questions. You’ve impressed them with your level of thinking and creativity by coming up with unconventional solutions that not only solved the problem but also anticipated other issues that you’ve mitigated for.

Although you stated the approach that you would follow to your interviewers up-front, you weren’t rigid. You struck the right balance of moving faster through certain sections, skipping some, but also deliberately taking longer in other parts to make sure no one got lost. In the end, you finished the whiteboard exercise with plenty of time to spare for questions, leaving your interviewers impressed by your execution.

Practicing Better with Whiteboard Prompts

The best way to get better at whiteboards is through practice. Baseline yourself initially to gauge your progress. If you haven’t done any whiteboarding, grab a marker and start sketching. Don’t worry about perfection, just get familiar initially.

The prompts vary depending on the company and the space they’re in. Some exercises range from pragmatic to design fiction. Interviewer guides usually include the prompt, variations, and questions interviewers might ask, plus grading criteria. As an interviewee, you’ll be presented with the prompt up-front and then be asked to walk the interviewer through the process. Here are a couple of starter prompts to experiment with:

Growing Gardens, Growing Business

  • Prompt. Growing Gardens targets suburban families who are interested in gardening but have little to no formal knowledge. The business primarily sells plants but is also extending into additional products (pots, fertilizer) and services (landscaping). Create an application to help people learn more about gardening and getting them to

  • Assessment. As an interviewer I’d like to see how you think about the opportunity space, which platform you decide to use for this prompt, and how you balance user and business needs.

Designing an Interior for an Autonomous Vehicle

  • Prompt. An automaker, Edison, has been experimenting with a completely new car design for their model Z vehicle. This car is fully autonomous, so doesn’t require any human interaction. As a designer, you’ve been asked to reimagine the car interior. What should the interior look like?

  • Assessment. I’d like to see how you think about blue-sky projects, and how you define a problem space and generate novel ideas accordingly.

Time-Traveling Tourism

  • Prompt. Scientists recently discovered a way to time travel. People can now go back and forward in time without any consequence to the timelines—no need to worry about the butterfly effect. As one of the first designers of the time machine, you’ve been tasked with creating an experience for time-traveling tourists. What experience would you create?

  • Assessment. The open nature of this prompt gives you many possibilities to go after. You’ll need to think through constraints, analogous experiences, and how to scope the problem meaningfully.

Baselining Your Whiteboarding Skills

Now that you have some prompts and core criteria, you can start practicing by yourself. Imagine you’re running a think-aloud usability study, but instead of moderating, the participant is you. Record your first-time through and be sure to time yourself. Play back the recording and look for patterns where you pause, don’t speak, or speak too much.

Take a photo of the whiteboard and do a self-evaluation based on the criteria we mentioned in the beginning:

  • What did you wish you could spend more time on?

  • What did you miss?

  • What’s not clear?

  • Did you go over or under your time limit?

Use the combination of your recording (audio and video) and the photo of the whiteboard to grade yourself. Note areas of strength and opportunities for improvement. It’s important to isolate areas of weakness and focus on closing those gaps. That said, don’t forget to highlight your strengths during the actual whiteboard interview.

After your baseline, and a few more practice runs (which you can easily do in a week), it’s time to practice with a fellow design friend (or two). Take turns, let them be your interviewer and have them probe you on the design details. Then evaluate them. The nature of switching roles will help you see the problem from a different perspective.

Whiteboarding Remotely

If you’ve been asked to do a whiteboard challenge in 2020 or 2021—and perhaps even beyond—chances are it’s taking place remotely. Like the on-site version of this challenge, typically you’ll have about 30 minutes to an hour to complete this interview. Instead of a traditional whiteboard in a conference room you’ll be given a few options as to which tool you want to use.

In general, these options fall into two categories—analog or digital. Analog tools such as a notepad or an actual whiteboard may feel familiar and fast. Digital tools that allow you to share the document live in the cloud may make it easier to collaborate.

ToolProsCons
WhiteboardJust like the real thing at a regular interview setting.If you don’t have one already, buying a large whiteboard can get pricey. May not be readable through a laptop camera.
Paper notepadCan be a great way to sketch out ideas, cheaper than buying your own whiteboard.As with the whiteboard, camera quality will play a role in how your sketch looks.
Tablet (e.g. iPad)Using a tool such as Procreate allows you to quickly sketch ideas.Requires you to maneuver the device so that it’s visible to the interviewer.Taking notes may take longer compared to sketching.
Design tool (e.g. Figma or Sketch)No new tools to learn, easy to move around, sharing the file on the cloud makes it easier to collaborate.Be careful not to waste time polishing pixels.
Whiteboarding tool (e.g. Miro, Mural)Easy to get started with sketches quickly, and cloud share aids collaboration.Getting things precisely mocked up may take a long time and may not feel as fluid as a dedicated design tool.

If you’re not sure which tool is best, pick the one you’re most comfortable with. Interviews can be stressful enough and you won’t be doing yourself any favors if you try to learn a new tool at the last minute.

Set Your Environment up for Success

If you’re choosing to go the analog route, be sure to test your camera set-up and quality ahead of time. It may be worth it to invest in a standalone camera, as opposed to the one that comes with your laptop, because you can easily reposition the camera to point to your notepad or whiteboard while still seeing the interviewer on the screen. Alternatively, you can dial into the meeting with your computer and your phone—using your phone as a standalone camera to point to the sketch.

Modern design tools allow you to share your file on the cloud, which may make collaboration easier while conserving video bandwidth. As an example, if you’re whiteboarding on Figma, you don’t have to share your screen, thus conserving bandwidth. If connectivity becomes an issue you can turn video off and go with audio only.

Regardless of which tool you pick, you may still run into interruptions or connectivity issues. Make sure you account for those and think how you’ll respond when they happen. Having a plan for these now will make it easier for you to navigate these speed bumps as they occur.

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Figure: Managing a Remote Whiteboard

managing a remote whiteboard

If you’re using a design or whiteboard tool, you don’t have to worry about managing space, but you should keep in mind how much time you spend on each section. Just as with the physical whiteboard, you don’t want to spend so much time on context and problem framing that you run out of time to come up with solutions.

Although the double diamond model gives an illusion of a deliberate, contained design process, we know that this is rarely true in actual design practice. The whiteboard challenge is a miniature version of reality. You may have to sometimes briefly revisit a problem or clarify context. Be sure to push on your explorations and definitely make time to get into the details. The further you get, the more productive a conversation you’ll have with your interviewer, who will be asking you increasingly harder questions to challenge your thinking. Take this challenge as an opportunity to show how you think and be sure to demonstrate those ideas in your sketches.

Keep Collaboration in Mind

One of the challenges of the whiteboard is that you may not be able to see the interviewer’s body language. This becomes especially challenging if you’re sharing your screen and the interviewer becomes a small rectangle off to the side. In these cases, it helps to pause and check in with your interviewer from time to time. Since you’ll be primarily driving the interview, you can stop periodically to ask, “Are you with me?” or “Do you have any questions so far?”

important As you know, the key criterion for a whiteboard challenge is collaboration. The remote flavor of this challenge offers a glimpse into how you may work with this designer in the future. Are they collaborative and encouraging? Make sure you write down your thoughts after the exercise.

Practicing Remotely

When you’re solving design problems, one easy way to get a hang of things is to start with the simplest method possible. This could just be a notepad where you could sketch and document your ideas and process. As you get further along in your practice, I recommend switching to the final tool of your choice. This could still be a notepad, or if you do want to go the digital route (which I highly recommend), practice whiteboarding there. Consider your practice complete when the tools have become second nature, you’ve developed a robust system for solving design challenges, and can quickly frame up the problem and the solution.

This post is excerpted from Dan Shilov’s Land Your Dream Design Job, a comprehensive and practical resource for designers.

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