Acing the Whiteboard Challenge

Design fast. Out loud. In front of an audience.

Who hasn’t experienced the sweaty-palm inducing interview technique that forces a candidate to brainstorm a design solution to an impossible puzzle, in front of a crowd of engineers and product managers? (If you haven’t experienced it, you will soon!)

Ah, the whiteboard challenge. The gold standard for design interviews. Contrary to what your racing heart and adrenal glands may be telling you, this is not a perverse way to humiliate you in front of the hiring manager, but rather an excellent method of understanding your design process.

What everyone wants to see is how you think about and solve impossible to solve design problems. Knowing that, here are a few challenges to practice with, and a method for organizing your thoughts and making you look awesome while you’re scrambling for a solution.

3 Handy Tips

One

USE A TEMPLATE.

Write each of these headers on the board, leaving space for you to fill in the details as you think of them.
  • CHALLENGE

  • SOLUTION

  • PERSONAS

  • ASSUMPTIONS

  • USER TASKS

  • FLOW DIAGRAM

  • WIREFRAMES

Take a second and plan out your attack. This will make everything you do logical and easy for the hiring manager to follow.

And that’s the whole point, right? That the hiring manager likes what he sees and hires you.

Two

TALK OUT LOUD.

Let every thought that comes to mind spill out of your mouth. Leave your ego at the door when you’re doing challenges.

If you’re worried that you’ll look stupid or uninformed, you’ll be afraid to tell people when you’re not sure about the solution.

You have to tell people when you’re unsure.

Be honest about your process–it’s messy for all of us. They’re expecting it.

They want to know that you know when you’re making assumptions or really need to do user testing on an issue. When you’re unsure or need more data, say so. Or say, “I’d do usability testing on this issue, but for the sake of this challenge, I’m going to assume that…” Then write that assumption under the assumption heading on the whiteboard.

Draw. Erase. Rework.

The more the better.
The goal is not to have the perfect “right” answer at the beginning — or ever. The goal is to show the hiring team how you think.

Three

WORK FAST.

Get in and get out! Come to quick solutions, write them down, change them as many times as you want.

This is performance art. Long pauses will drain the energy from the room and you’ll lose your audience’s attention.

The faster you write and talk, the better.

Ready to Practice?

The Challenges

I divide my design classes into teams of 2 or 3, one person is the designer, the others are the challengers.

Designers should feel free to ask questions. But don’t expect any answers.

Challengers can make up answers to questions or provide extra details, if they choose. It’s also fine to shrug your shoulders and say, “I don’t know.”

Remember, the goal is that designers demonstrate how they think through a problem, not whether they find the right answer. There are no right answers.

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