The whiteboard challenge is wonky, wild, and in my opinion, and an unfair way to gauge someone’s fit on the team.
During the whiteboard challenge, you’ll be given a design challenge to solve on the spot and in ~20 minutes. You’ll have members of the hiring team there with you, but they’re not there to be your teammates.
Instead, they’re there to hear your thought process and have you lead them step-by-step through what y’all should do to solve the challenge.
It’s not like on the actual job, where you’d all be collaborating together to find the best approach. No, in the whiteboard challenge, you steer the ship, and articulate every move you make while you’re thinking of what moves to make.
This is an infamously tricky part of the UX writing interview process for a reason. It favors extroverted, external thinkers who thrive in ambiguity and pretty much no one else.
Why put us through such horror?
The purpose of the whiteboard challenge is for the hiring team to get a closer understanding of what you’d be like to work with and how you think. It’s not about coming to an actual finished product or solution, although it doesn’t hurt to get to one.
While that’s a good intention, I just want to call out that this is a ridiculous practice that resembles no real-world scenario and sets people up to fail.
That said, I don’t make the rules, so I’m going to teach you how to play the game.
What’s an example of a whiteboard challenge?
Whiteboard challenges have broad and vague prompts.
You’ll hop in the (maybe virtual) room, and the hiring team members will set the stage with a situation and a problem. Then, you’ll guide them through solving the problem on an actual whiteboard IRL or virtually on FigJam or Miro.
Here are some examples of what you might be asked from UX Design Institute:
- “We run a bespoke toy company and want to build an app for kids to design their own toys (which we will build).”
- “We want to improve the Costco customer experience by eliminating the long lines at checkout.”
- “You are a design director for a large national bank. Your bank wants to be ready to launch an app that allows your customers to access their account information via a chatbot. How do you approach the challenge of providing information via a series of requests?”
Not much context, huh? That’s why this challenge is so challenging. It’s up to you to lead the entire path forward.
How to tackle the whiteboard challenge?
There are 4 steps to follow when embarking on a whiteboard challenge:
- Define the situation
- Define the solution
- Start wireframing
- Tie it all together
Let me explain…
1. Define the situation
You’re going to start by getting all the context they didn’t tell you. Sneaky, I know.
Your goal here is to understand:
- What’s the problem we’re looking to solve?
- Why is it a problem?
- What have we tried in the past (if anything)? Why has (or hasn’t) it worked?
- The ideal outcome?
- Who is the user?
- Are there any constraints that limit the solution?
- Who are the stakeholders involved?
- Any assumptions you should make to move forward?
You’re literally going to be asking questions and getting answers during this part.
Once you feel like you have a good enough understanding of the situation, you’re going to want to jump to forming a hypothesis.
A good hypothesis formula is:
By [what you’re improving], I will [effect you’re going after], improving [result you’re after.]
Then, make sure you all agree on the hypothesis — while you’re leading this challenge, it’s important to try to collaborate, even if you find resistance.
Once you agree on the hypothesis, it’s time to define the tasks…
2. Define the solution
After you align on one idea to explore, you’ll want to start creating a solution.
There are three stages to landing on a solution:
- Define the user tasks: What does the user need to complete to achieve the goal?
- Define the task flow: What’s the order the tasks should be completed in?
- Define the narrative: What’s the story you’re communicating along the way?
1. Define the user tasks
Think of defining the tasks as creating a to-do list for the user to achieve their goal.
Say your challenge is to “create and share a book list for a University Professor.” Your user tasks might be:
- Create list
- Create class
- Edit list
- Share list
These are all actions the University Professor would need to take to “create and share a book list.” Defining the actions will help you jump into the designing the task flow.
2. Define the task flow
This is just the order the tasks need to happen in order to make logical sense. Think of it like a flow chart the user would follow. Which tasks lead to which tasks?
You could spend a lot of time here, but I recommend going over it quickly and focusing on the narrative design, because that’s what’s going to help you stand out.
3. Define the narrative
The narrative is the story you’re telling throughout the journey. Most people don’t touch this, but it’s part of what makes content designers and UX writers invaluable to a team.
To define the narrative, you’re going to take the task flow, and attach a message to each step. This could be a user benefit to touch on and/or the main message the screen should communicate.
This will help preface and create the strategy for what microcopy you’ll use.
3. Start wireframing
At this point, you’re going to take your task flow and narrative and start wireframing out what this might look like in an actual flow, screen-by-screen.
This doesn’t have to be pretty, and it can start pretty vague.
Worry first about the ordering of the screens, then the arrangement of components, and then worry about the actual microcopy. And make sure your narrative informs your microcopy — that’s key.
4. Tie it all together
If you get this far, which isn’t realistic in 20 minutes, you want to tie a bow on things by summarizing the process y’all went through.
This is to show off what a good job you did, so be sure to emphasize your role in the process.
Here’s an example of what a picture-perfect whiteboard looks like from Molly Inglish:
Helpful tips to keep you sane
Lean on quiet brainstorming if you need a moment
If you’re not good at thinking on the spot, I highly suggest recommending you and the group spend a few minutes writing down ideas separately, and then come together to share what y’all came up with.
By suggesting a quiet, solo brainstorming exercise, you’ll give yourself, first, a break from talking on the spot, and give yourself actual time to think without people staring at you.
When you’re brainstorming solutions, go for quantity over quality. Whiteboard challenges aren’t long, and it’s more about how you think and your process than finding the perfect solution.
After you all go around sharing your ideas, align on one to explore.
Talk more than you think you should
The goal of the whiteboard challenge is to learn how you think, so articulate more of your thought process than you’re comfortable with.
Ideally, it should be 20 minutes of you talking nearly non-stop. It’ll feel uncomfortable, but know it’s the “right” thing to do.
As much as you can, try to get the group involved. This will show you’re a team player and will reflect that you’ll bring that good quality to the role.
To inspire collaboration, always make sure the group is aligned before moving to the next step, ask questions when it makes sense, and inspire them to also think of ideas.
Smiling won’t only make you a friendlier, more approachable presence, but it’ll lighten your stress and bring positive energy to the exercise — I promise you.
The whiteboard challenge is a beast, and it might take a couple of times to feel remotely comfortable doing it. I highly recommend practicing solo or with a friend before hopping into one in an interview. Practice makes perfect ✨
Happy UX writing 🖖