Illustration by Prabhat Mahapatra
You’ve spent weeks perfecting your resume & applying for positions. Now you need to make sure you’re prepared to answer these common interview questions.
You’ve polished your portfolio and resume. You’ve had lots of coffee chats and sent out too many applications to count. You’ve read up all about the company and its mission. You’ve finally got an interview scheduled for a job you’re really excited about. How do you increase your chances of feeling confident, prepared, and ultimately putting your best foot forward in the interview?
UX interviews can feel daunting, especially when the stakes are high and you really want the role. The good news is, a little preparation and practice go a long way to feeling confident and ready. Patti Carlson and Mackenzie Dérival come at this topic from two different, and important perspectives.
Patti has had a 15 year career in UX, spanning many roles, from early days in human factors, to leading teams of content strategists, UX designers, visual designers and researchers. She’s currently a Director of UX Research, and is often involved in hiring decisions as the final sign off. She has extensive experience as an interviewer and hiring manager. Mackenzie fell in love with the world of UX while working on startup and business ideas at university. He has completed internships at local companies and at Google, has interviewed for roles at some of the biggest technology companies, and is currently working on a startup.
Both Patti and Mackenzie mentor designers – Patti through UX coffee hours, and Mackenzie through his writing, Youtube videos and connecting with designers. Here’s the advice they had to share about preparing for UX interviews.
There are a few key questions and topics that you should be prepared for when getting ready to interview: the basics, showing your work and soft skills questions.
The basic questions
“Tell me about yourself?”
“How did you get into design?”
“Why do you want to work in UX design?”
“Can you share some experiences you think are examples of good design?”
Both Patti and Mackenzie mentioned that overall you can expect pretty generic questions. “Most of the time, I ask pretty straightforward questions in an interview, I keep things pretty standard,” shares Patti. This aligns with Mackenzie’s experience: “To be honest, the questions that I get are pretty standard, and the questions repeat all the time.” These questions help the interviewer to get to know you and understand your perspectives on design.
One word of caution – Patti highlights that there are certain questions that cannot legally be asked in an interview, due to a country or state’s laws. These can include questions like whether you have kids or whether you have ever filed for bankruptcy, or your disability status. These laws are intended to protect against discrimination. “It’s definitely useful to know what your rights are, and to know that you don’t have to disclose that information in the case you did get asked.”
“How do you define success for a user experience?”
In addition, you need to be prepared to articulate how you define success for a certain user experience. This can be a great way to stand out as a candidate, as many people don’t take the time to think about how they would define success. Mackenzie takes that a step further and thinks about how to measure that success. “I usually talk about my own process, where I start with a high level goal. Then I back cast from that to define the desired user behaviours. Then I’m going to translate it into measurements, for example improving NPS (net promoter score) or HEART (happiness, engagement, adoption, retention, task success) score.”
“Do you have any questions for me?”
The last basic question to make sure you are prepared for is when the interviewer asks whether you have any questions for them. It helps to look at interviews as a two way street. As much as you are being interviewed, you are also interviewing the company and assessing the role and fit. Having questions about the team, organization, projects and ways of working shows your interest and thoughtfulness to the interviewer.
White board challenges and portfolio walkthroughs
The next type of question is the ‘showing your work’ type. These can take a few different forms, and are often the core of a design interview. You may be asked to walkthrough a project or portfolio piece, complete a whiteboard challenge or to critique an existing app or design. These are central to the UX interview.
“Can you walk me through a project from your portfolio?”
“For this specific screen or user interface element (UI) what are you trying to communicate to the user?”
One of the most important questions to be prepared for is talking through a portfolio piece or project. Mackenzie emphasizes the importance of the portfolio walkthrough and being able to articulate your design decisions. “During a portfolio walkthrough, you may be asked for a specific screen or user interface element (UI) ‘what are you trying to communicate to the user?’” This is an important question to be prepared for not only when interviewing, but also “something you should be thinking about as you are designing.” Being able to frame your design decisions and work around what you are trying to communicate visually to the user is an important skill.
For portfolio walkthroughs, Patti mentions that the biggest mistake she sees is that designers feel the need to show perfect, polished final products. “I wanted to see the messy stuff, the sketches, the incomplete stuff, I want to know how you got to the end point, what the process was. I need to know how you got there.”
“Tell me about your process and how you solve problems?”
Patti mentions that “The most important thing a hiring manager wants to know is your process, how you solve problems. You can use the STAR (situation, task, action, result) structure to tell a story about your process and approach.” Mackenzie agrees. “I can think back to a story about what I want to show, whether that’s collaboration, solving a problem, conflict management, and then use the STAR structure to tell that story.”
“Using the whiteboard, can you walk me through how you would approach the challenge of designing X?”
You may be asked to do a whiteboard challenge or critique an app as part of a UX interview. For both of these, there are some principles you can consistently apply to tackling these questions. Always focus on the user and their goals. Find ways to explore who the intended user might be, and check in or validate your assumptions with the interviewer. Keeping that user focus in your thinking will show your literacy in human centered design. Ensure you always bring it back to the goal or objective that you are trying to solve for. This is one of Mackenzie’s key pieces of advice. “Always use the problem as an anchor point. Go back to the problem over and over, use that to guide all the decisions you make.” This approach means you always have two things you can go back to (the user and the problem) if you get lost.
The final tip is that something that will set you apart from other candidates is thinking about the flow you are designing in a circular way. Mackenzie shared a story about a whiteboard challenge for a ski rental app. “I designed the flow to get the skis, but I didn’t think about the flow to return the skis. You always have to think about the flip side and make sure there are no dead ends. Since then, I’ve always tried to design in a very circular way.”
Soft skills questions
The other type of questions that are important to prepare for are the questions that cover your soft skills, such as communication, collaboration and influencing stakeholders.
“Tell me about a time that you worked collaboratively with people from a different background than you?”
“As an interviewer, I’m looking at one third hard skills, two third soft skills”, says Patti. “The one third hard skills are the table stakes – for example, do you have a good grasp on things like stakeholder interviews, wireframing, and methodological soundness in your research methods. These are often initially sussed out by the recruiter and the initial interviews. So I’m often focusing my time on the soft skills, particularly collaboration and influence.” For Patti, those questions alway sound like ‘tell me about a time that you worked collaboratively with people from a different background than you?’
“What would you do as a UX designer if the product manager and dev on your team want to implement different features? How would you convince them about the best path forward?”
This resonates with Mackenzie’s experience being asked hypothetical scenario questions like ‘what would you do as a UX designer if the product manager and dev on your team want to implement different features. How would you convince them about the best path forward?’ When you are asked these hypothetical questions or questions about collaboration, it’s really about understanding how you approach situations.
“How do you learn?”
Both Mackenzie and Patti highlight the importance of answering questions by telling stories. “Once, I was really thrown off by an engineer asking me how I learn,” shares Mackenzie. “I went back to storytelling, and told a story about how I learned English, followed by the story of how I learned UX design. I was then able to highlight patterns in those stories to answer the question of how I learn.”
It can certainly be helpful as well to talk about industry publications, trends and thought-leaders you frequent. Familiarity with this kind of content can demonstrate your passion and eagerness to learn.
Find a good fit for you!
While interviewing can feel intimidating (and demoralizing if you have to do it over and over), it’s worth remembering that careers are long, and you can do great work in many different contexts. Patti finds this is advice she often offers to folks starting out in their careers. “Even though the big, well known companies might be very appealing, they are also highly competitive. Think about your personal values and whether they align to the company’s values. Do you feel passionate about the users you would be serving? Recognise that you can have a great job at lesser well known organizations, and feel passionate about the users you are impacting.”
Interviewing is ultimately a conversation, in order to find a good fit for the role, and a good fit for you as a candidate. Some preparation, perseverance and reflection will set you on the right path. Knowing the key questions to be ready to answer, understanding what interviewers are trying to understand, and focusing on stories will set you up for success.