Whiteboard Design Challenge – as part of the design interview process

Whiteboard Design Challenge

As designers, we can have a killer portfolio showing our design process with detailed case studies, sketches, pictures of messy (then organized) post-it-notes, wireframes, visual design including animations etc. However it does not show how we think.

I believe designers are problem solvers (well, I definitely think about myself as a problem solver). But a portfolio doesn’t show how we think through a problem. Therefore, companies introduced a good way of assessing our thinking, our approach to a problem. It’s called Whiteboard Design Challenge (WDC – as I shorten it in this article).

So, what is WDC?

It’s a designer solving a design problem on a whiteboard in front of other people in about 20 minutes.

When is WDC being used?

You may be asked to do a whiteboard exercise as part of a company’s recruitment process when hiring designers. If you apply for a UX designer, design researcher, experience designer, or service designer position, then WDC most likely will come up on the second or third interview.

It’s getting more common practice to include WDC, so get excited about it! I know, it’s a little bit scary but it’s a good thing. It means the company is serious about design. It means the company values designers and their thinking. That’s a place where we’d like to work.

Types of WDC

I have encountered two different types of whiteboard challenges during my job hunting.

WDC #1. I get a design problem.

For example, I’m asked to design a checkout solution for an online bookstore. This example is broad on purpose. It’s up to me where I take this feature, but it needs to fit into 20 minutes. So asking follow-up questions from the interviewers is one of the main parts to narrow down the task.

Blueprint to guide Whiteboard Design Challenge #1 - design problem
Blueprint to guide Whiteboard Design Challenge #1 – design problem.

WDC #2. I get a project scenario, and I have to prepare some work around that.

For example, a hair salon has two websites, a marketing site where they get the bookings, and an online store. The business wants to have only one website that combines both. I get a few constraints, and some background information on the team, branding, customers, even links to dummy websites. I have to come up with a step-by-step plan, how I’d carry out a project like that.

Blueprint to guide Whiteboard Design Challenge #2 - project scenario.
Blueprint to guide Whiteboard Design Challenge #2 – project scenario.

My experience is, #1 is mainly used when you will be expected to work in a larger design team. It gives insight into your thinking, also how well you might work with others, how you take critique, how you collaborate. While I’ve seen #2 being used when you might be a stand-alone design source within a team/company or apply for a design agency. This can measure your seniority and experience so that the company gets a better idea whether you can take on a project/client work with little direction.

There’s a lot to these templates that I make sure I’ll cover in some future posts.

How to tackle a Whiteboard Design Challenge?

If you’re starting out as a designer, or if you’ve never done this before, please don’t be terrified. It’s a skill that you can develop, and certainly get better at with practice. Doing WDC might be a bit harder if you’re an introvert, or haven’t had experience of taking control over a room, but fear nothing. There’s a formula you can use.

Tips that help me during solving WDC

  • I take a deep breath before starting anything, and I remind myself that this is fun, I can only learn from it
  • I give myself time to think and say ok, this is what I’m going to do – and I divide the whiteboard into sections (it gives me structure) while telling the interviewers what I’m doing such as ‘I’d like to cover who’s going to use this product’, ‘what the use cases and user stories are’, ‘then I’d like to think through the flow and draw some wireflows’, finally ‘then I’m going to draw a few basic wireframe screens for this problem’. Do this, and it will show the interviewers you are confident, you know what to do, you know the approach to success
  • I ask interviewers to role play if they haven’t designated one person to answer questions (if I feel the problem needs to go through a Design Thinking exercise, I ask each panel member to pick a role – we need someone to represent the technology constraints, the user needs, and the business goals)
  • I pace myself, so I ask for time-checks (every 5 minutes)
  • If I see that the scope is way too big to finish it in 20 minutes, then I call it out. I say something like ‘I can see this problem has multiple use cases, so in order to get something valuable end of this task, I’d like to focus on the first use case, is that alright?’
  • If I invested some time into a solution that clearly isn’t going to work (because I learn more about the problem space and constraints), I say something like ‘well, now I can see this is not going to work because [calling out the constraint], so I think we need a different solution. It shows that you’re mature enough to take responsibility for your design decisions, and go to a different direction when needed
  • I bring my own whiteboard markers just in case. I’d like to use different colors to differentiate my call-to-actions
  • I write with capital letters on the whiteboard to make my text more legible
  • I continuously talk and ask questions through my whiteboard sketches

Remember that it’s not about the UI design. You are expected to get to the UI for sure, but it’s about how you approach the problem, how you think it through, communicate it, how you invite the team into the conversation.

Things to keep in mind and questions to ask during the challenge

  • What problem are we solving?
  • Who is going to use this product?
  • Is there research on the users? (it lets you draw a provisional persona on the whiteboard) What context the product will be used?

Think systematically about the elements/widgets that will form your wireframe (UI design) e.g. header, menu, copy, links, buttons, images etc.

  • If you draw a wire-flow then think about the start state and end state (where the user is coming from to your first screen sketched on the whiteboard, which screen the user can finish on)?
  • What are the steps the user needs to go through? How do those steps connect to each other?

Because your time is limited, you don’t need to think through all the possible steps. You only need to sketch a high level solution. Noting things such as user can go back to the previous page, or go to the next page by clicking here and there, is a perfectly good answer. It lets the interviewers know you do think about those steps, but you don’t spend too much time in the problem space – unnecessarily.

Summary

WDC is a very effective way of examining how you think, how you communicate your design while you’re under pressure – drawing and speaking front of other people with time limit. I cannot emphasize enough how invaluable this skill is, because we need to articulate our thinking process.

Even if you’re scared and nervous (everybody is), you need to get out of your comfort zone, gotta get up, go to the whiteboard, grab a pen, take a deep breath, and say Let’s do it. The only way of getting rid of WDC anxiety is by facing it. Remember, you got this.

Interviewing is a two-way street. WDC is good for both parties, because during the challenge the company gets an idea how you think as a designer, and also you get a feel how working with the team might be like if you get the job.

Practice challenge

Free resources to sharpen your WDC skills by practicing on design challenges:

  1. Design Challenge website
  2. Designercize website
  3. Sharpen website

Ask a couple of fellow designers to role-play with you, do it weekly, you’ll be so much better at it 🙂

Please, tweet me if you know more than two types of Whiteboard Design Challenges. I’d love to hear about them.

Thanks for reading!

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