Cracking the UX Design Interview / by Gavin Lau

The Basics

You and your life story. No way of getting out of these.


1. Behavioral Interview

The behavioral interview never truly ends. Potential co-workers and bosses will constantly be probing your capacity for leadership, culture fit, and team work. Anything and everything in your portfolio and resume is fair game. These behavioral questions will pop out throughout the entire process.

There is a proven strategy for answering behavioral questions, known as the STAR method: situation (ie, task, problem), action, and result. Answer with a specific example you have experienced, breaking the story down in that order.

Be sure you are prepared for these types of questions:

Tell me about yourself.
Describe a time when you had to work with someone difficult and how you overcame it.
Why do you want to work for this company?
What are your strengths and weaknesses as a designer?

I have also been advised to think of your career as a timeline. Emphasize where you are currently at in your career, but give a peek at how you got started and what you hope to achieve in the future. Introspection and constant self-development speaks volumes about potential for a young designer.


2. Portfolio Review

Your portfolio is a direct representation of your design ability. It should be a curated collection of your best and most recent work. These interviews are typically conducted 1:1. Expectations vary among interviewers, so it’s always worth starting off by clarifying:

  • How many projects should you cover? (Breadth vs depth)
  • What are they looking for? (Visual vs interaction, Process vs outcome)

A good guideline to follow when discussing a project is to:

  1. Briefly describe the project background,
  2. Elaborate on your role & contribution,
  3. Explain your design decisions and justifications, and
  4. Note metrics of success.

Leveling Up

The test of raw design skills and design thinking.


3. Design Critique

Typically rolled into the behavioral/portfolio review, but the question comes up often enough that it deserves its own category:

Pick a application you like/dislike and explain why.

This is easy to prepare for. Sit down, open your phone and pick your most commonly used apps. Why do you use them? What works well? What could be improved? Imagine you are part of the design team that made this app. What decision making was put into it and what were the tradeoffs?


4. Interaction Design Exercise

Ok, there’s actually two sub-categories here: the onsite design exercise and the take-home design exercise. You will be presented with a well-scoped design challenge in both of these, but the outcomes and the processes are slightly different.

Usually as a second round interview (some times first!) before bringing the candidate onsite. The company will issue a brief through email and you have a set amount of time (usually a week) to send them some deliverables for review. Because you don’t have time to talk over your process, presentation is very important! Companies will typically recommend to spend no more than 4–5 hours, but it’s not unusual to spend double that.

These exercises have much stricter time limits, 15–40 minutes. In this case, you will likely to be whiteboarding the exercise live in front of the interviewer. You want to talk out loud about your design thinking and engage the interviewer by asking them questions. Jumping into sketching without acknowledging the constraints to the interviewer is a big no-no.


5. Portfolio Presentation

Instead of presenting 1:1 in the portfolio review, a portfolio presentation is conducted in front of 4–10 people. It may include the entire design team if the company is small enough! Some of the people in the audience will be interviewing individually later on and may reference your presentation.

You will have 30–40 minutes for presentation, 10–15 minutes for questions. I recommend selecting 3–4 of your best projects, particularly side projects, passion projects, or ones that you’ve had a leading role in. The formula is not unlike how you would discuss your projects in a portfolio review, but in a portfolio presentation, you have much more control over the flow. I recommend making slides rather than scrolling through your portfolio. Practice, practice, practice!

Rare Beasts

These facets are less commonly tested on, but I suspect that they are increasingly being adopted in UX interviewing.


6. Engineering Interview

While engineering is rarely listed as a requirement for a UX design role, at some companies, pushing code is simply part of a design team’s daily work flow. For more specialized UX roles, such as front-end web development or interaction prototyping, it would be expected.

This kind of interview typically involves live-coding or white-boarding code. Using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to create a simple feature component are the minimum you should know. Interviewers will most likely be evaluating for ability to learn rather than raw competency, though brushing up doesn’t hurt. Use Google during the live-coding if you need to! If you genuinely want to work for a company that requires coding competency, but don’t have enough knowledge to comfortably take on an engineering exercise, voice this concern to your recruiter.


7. Ideation Exercise

The creativity litmus test. Part of the design process is generating lots of ideas and some really, really stupid ones. That’s ok. I’ll refer to Joshua Goldenberg’s very good answer on Quora for how to succeed at this:

The ideation interview describes a very general problem with almost no detail, and then asks the designer to generate as many ideas as possible. Then she is asked to design a potential solution, drawing upon her own best thinking. This interview tries to understand things like: How generative is she? Can she fill up a whiteboard with ideas quickly? Can she spot her best ideas? Can she make interesting jumps around the problem space and explore it fully? This interview also tests whether a candidate can shift constraints (example: first lets explore solutions for a kitchen, then lets explore solutions for a busy parent, then lets explore solutions for a party) for the purpose of being generative and exploring non-obvious avenues.


8. The Extended Onsite

You’re almost there! This is the ultimate test. The team brings you to work on a trial-run doing paid spec work. It’s like you’re almost part of the team. Make it look like you’re already part of the team. Ask lots questions, talk to as many people as possible, participate in happy hour, get a feel for company culture. This is as much a good opportunity for you as it is for them to learn about fit.

That’s all for now! There are many factors that goes into what combination of interviews you’ll encounter. Your recruiter is your best asset in understanding the company’s entire interview process. Sometimes, if they know the interviewer well enough, they’ll go out of their way to give you tips and tricks on what that interviewer likes to hear.

And before I close this article, I’ll leave you with one last tip from my mentor Brian Kromrey at Google:

Don’t bullshit. If you don’t know the answer to a question being asked, just say so. But you can use the opportunity to turn it around and probe for more information.