How to Ace Design Interview Challenges

If you think all you need to ace your design interview is an eye-catching resume and a firm handshake, think again.

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Nowadays, it’s pretty common for companies to pose design interview challenges to their candidates to assess their skills and problem-solving abilities. While it’s impossible to predict exactly what your interviewer will ask you to do, it still can’t hurt to be prepared by learning about some of the more typical questions.

Here’s a roundup of four job interview design challenges and the best ways to work through them.

Google elevator challenge

It’s a straightforward question with a far-from-simple answer: “How do you design an interface for a 1000-floor elevator?” This problem has stumped designers all over the world and there are even articles, diagrams and sketches from those who have attempted to solve it.

According to author and designer Svilen, the best way to approach this article is to avoid presumption. For instance, you might assume the elevator will be used by people but it could be used for transporting animals, cars, food, you name it.

Instead, he states that the correct response, to quote Isaac Asimov, is that, “there is, as yet, insufficient data for a meaningful answer.” Potential employers don’t necessarily want solutions right away – they want to see if you ask the right questions to learn more about the problem.

Facebook product/app critique

In this design interview challenge, your interviewer may ask you to critique a popular app or product in order to get your insight into what works and what doesn’t. Again, this challenge is simple in structure but much more complex beneath the surface.

In order to properly critique a product, you need to start by developing your “product intuition,” writes Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design at Facebook. This involves understanding people’s desires and how they react to things.

From there, before you even open the app, think about how you learned about the app, how you would summarize its purpose and how popular it is. Then, after opening the app and playing with it, consider the ease of use, the feel of the app, and whether it delivered on your expectations.

Shopify metaphor question

At Shopify, hiring managers for design positions value a candidate’s use of metaphor over almost all other skills and work experience. While you might think this would be an attribute more suited for a content or copywriting job, many designers feel that “illustration is content” and some of the same principles apply.

For instance, in order to use metaphor effectively in product design, you need to make sure your approach is focused – choose one main visual to communicate your idea. Additionally, the metaphor needs to be something that will help the user better navigate the product. While this might sound intuitive, aligning your product’s goals with your own creative vision is often easier said than done.

WeWork metrocard system redesign

Many entry-level designers have well-honed artistic and technical abilities but often lack an understanding of the product thinking that helps companies produce truly amazing apps and interfaces. Fortunately, whiteboard exercises like the ones that WeWork uses with their candidates are a great way to refine this skill.

An example of one of these exercises is their NYC metrocard system challenge. In it, the company states that they need a system that allows daily users and visitors to access the metro, without a physical card. For a problem like this, the best approach is to “think in products, not in features.” Think about the specific user’s problems, the jobs to be done, the goals and the revenue before you dive headfirst into thinking of potential features.

Tackling the design test

Many designers often have a love-hate relationship with whiteboard tests. After all, it’s always nerve-wracking to have to solve a problem on the spot under a time constraint.

However, the main thing to remember is that these questions are supposed to be incredibly difficult to solve. The best way to approach any design interview challenge is to not make any assumptions. Ask questions to try and understand the problem and the potential users as much as possible.

As UX designer Braden Kowitz puts it, “The point of the design exercise is not whether someone can get the right answer; it’s to see how people think.” Design is only one part of the exercise – you need to think about the entire scenario and all the ways people could engage with the product before your marker hits the whiteboard.

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