So can you tell me about KPIs you used to measure the outcome of this design?
I froze. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I didn’t know how to answer the interview question and stumbled through with a half-assed response.
Interviewing used to be one of those painful, tedious chores for me. That’s because I didn’t understand the underlying structure of interview questions.
But through practice and dozens of interviews over the years, and I spotted some patterns. Time and time again, I’ve found that the questions I was asked fell into 4 major question types.
Identifying this pattern not only helped me provide better answers, but it helped me understand the questions in the first place.
Note: This article covers only verbal questions, not design exercises nor portfolio-specific questions.
For the impatient, these are the four question that I’ll explain in detail:
- Basic screening questions
- Technical (UX specific) questions
- Behavioral questions
- Curveball questions
This article won’t guarantee you a UX job. But for those looking to land their first UX gig, understanding these 4 question types can make a difference between offer and no offer. Let’s dive right in:
1. Basic Screener (Recruiting) Questions
aka Can you talk the talk?
Almost everyone goes through the typical phone screen, which includes a host of basic questions about yourself. These questions can seem deceptively simple because they’re so general (hint: never give just a general answer).
Interviewers may not have the most intimate knowledge about design, much less user experience design.
Imagine you’re a recruiter and a client just handed you a job description. You have 2 weeks to gather a pool of UX candidates. If you don’t know the first thing about UX, how will you evaluate candidates besides spam anyone with the title “UX” on their LinkedIn profile?
Given this situation, a recruiter would be looking for the following:
- Can you communicate clearly?
- Culture Fit: do you seem like a normal, maybe even superb, human being?
- Do you have the UX skills? Can you talk about UX confidently?
More sample screener questions
- Tell me about yourself
- What tools do you use?
- What is your process and approach to UX Design?
- How did you get into UX Design? What’s your interest in the field?
- What do you know about the company and the services/products we sell?
- Why do you want to work here? Why do you want to leave your current job?
You’re basically getting asked “Who are you and why should we hire you?” in different variations.
Getting your basic story down is a necessary exercise, simply because you’ll use this pitch across networking sessions, email introductions, and of course actual interviews.
Practice a concise, 60-90 second summary, which should include some (if not all) of these elements:
- Your past experience leading up to you applying for this job
- The skills you bring to the table
- Your passions regarding UX
- Why you’re interested in the role / company
Pro tip: Study the job posting and the company. They keywords that recruiters are looking for are literally baked in the job posting. During phone interviews I always have the job description and a Wikipedia page of the company in front of me on my Macbook.
Have a clear idea of why you’d want to work for the company, because your enthusiasm (or lack thereof) will come through.
2. Technical UX Questions
aka Can you walk the walk?
This is where the rubber meets the road. Your knowledge of UX and your fit for the role will be tested with more technical and UX-specific questions.
The level of technicality will often depend on the UX maturity of the company. For instance, if the company you’re interviewing for has a strong design culture (e.g. big design team, there’s a Director or VP of Design/UX), you will get grilled.
Conversely, it’s easy to spot a company without a strong design or UX culture because they’ll ask you easier, basic questions. Like “what is wireframing?” lulz. Regardless, prepare to be grilled on any of the following areas:
- General UX Knowledge: can you speak to the difference between information architecture, interaction design, usability and user research? When is it relevant to focus on one of these areas vs another?
- UX Process: do you know what a basic UX design process would look like? Would that process be different depending on the scale or type of project (responsive website vs mobile app)?
- UX Toolkit: what are the design tools in your toolbelt and in what situations do you use one tool or method over another? Do you sketch with paper and pen, and will you be ready to prototype something in Axure?
- UX Research: How do you know what you’re designing is tailored for the user? Can you talk a little bit about personas, usability testing, or grounding your design in some kind of data (qualitative or quantitative?)
- Industry and/or Design Trends: do you know why responsive design matters? Do you have an opinion on flat vs skeuomorphic design? If you’re interviewing for a publishing company, do you know some competitors in the space and have thoughts on their designs?
Pro Tip: Interviewing at low UX maturity companies gives you an opportunity to educate them on UX. And when you teach someone, you become a trusted authority in their eyes.
Even more sample technical UX questions
- What kind of usability testing methods have you applied in your projects?
- How do you know when your design is “done”?
- Have you created personas before? How did they help you?
- What kind of data have you used to validate a design?
When it comes to technical questions, think about keywords or key themes. If you’re asked about the organization of a page, your interviewer may really be hoping you’d say something about information architecture or card sorting. If you’re asked about validating a design, they’re looking for you to talk about usability testing and/or user research.
So with technical questions, be ready to identify “Okay, the interviewer just asked me about X. They probably want me to talk about Y.”
It’s also worth noting that there’s no use faking technical expertise when your interviewers ask in-depth questions, or grill you on something you have no experience with. I’ve gone into some interviews confident and came out with my ass kicked. The best policy?
Be direct and honest. If you are stumped by a question, tell them you don’t know. You can try to take a stab at it, but being forthright about what you know goes a long way. Sometimes interviewers don’t expect you to know everything; they’re looking for someone who can admit with confidence “I don’t know about that, can you teach me?”
Take a mental note of the questions you’ve stumbled on and study them for next time. There is no failure, only practice :)
3. Behavioral Questions
aka How do you really work? And how do you work with other people?
Interviewers ask behavioral questions to figure out what real world experience you have, and if that experience fits the role + company culture. These questions almost always start out like so:
- Tell me a time when…”
- “What do you do when…”
- “Have you ever…”
These questions can often be technical while asking you about a certain situation. In my experience, behavioral questions fall in the camp of problem solving in regards to either projects or people.
Project-Type Behavioral Questions
- Imagine that we want to make our website responsive. How would you approach this?
- Can you describe a time when the requirements changed in the middle of a project, and how you handled that?
- Have you worked in a lean or agile process before? How so?
People-Type Behavioral Questions
- If you design something and a developer told you “we can’t do that,” what would you do?
- Have you given feedback on someone else’s designs before? What about receiving feedback?
- How would your teammates describe you as someone to work with?
I’ll end this section with Jared Spool’s favorite question:
What’s the project you worked on that you’re most proud of?
Because these questions can be so open-ended, here’s an approach:
Use the STAR method. It’s a framework for answering questions that means Situation, Task, Action and Result. I simplify it even more by calling it SAR (I just combine situation and task together)
- Situation: Describe the situation and what the problem was. Who was involved, and what particular challenges did you face?
- Action: Describe what you did. How did you approach the problem? What insights did gather? Did you use a certain process, tool, or understanding of people to achieve your goal?
- Result: From the action you took, what was the outcome? What did this experience teach you? How does it inform how things might be done differently next time? Do you have data to prove that this result is a step in the right direction?
One “hack” to answering many project-type questions is to start off talking about the goals and requirements.
Using a previous question, let’s see how a goal-oriented response might look like…
Question: Let’s say that we want to make our website responsive. How would you approach this?
Potential Answer: I’d begin by identifying the goals of making a website responsive, because that’s going to anchor the project and keep everyone on the same page. For example, if the goal of responsive design is to better serve our customers as they access our site on more and more devices, that would inform the initial research and discovery phase of this project. Then I’d talk to engineers, developers and project management to evaluate requirements. In that discussion we’d discuss the number of breakpoints, because’s that’s going to affect how we display content, which ultimately impacts the design.
That potential answer is a bit long – and I don’t claim it to be the best – but it’s worth thinking through the goals and requirements when it comes to project type questions.
Pro Tip: Understanding the business, goals, and people can be winning factors that differentiate you from other candidates.
4. Curveball Questions
aka How do you solve problems under pressure?
The definition of Curveball: something which is unexpected, surprising, or disruptive.
Depending on the interviewing culture of a company (consulting companies are known for asking them), you may or may not get curveball questions. I don’t remember the last time I was thrown an extreme curveball, but I have UX peers who use them often.
Let’s start with an example borrowed from the technology agency Digitas.
Question: Describe the Internet to someone who just woke up from a 30-year coma.
Answer: I’d begin by anchoring what the world was like 30 years ago – which would be 1985 – and try to find an analogy that makes sense for that person given what technologies were common in 1985.
For example, a telephone is a machine that takes your voice – and let’s call it data – and transfers it over a line, connecting it to a central hub, then directing my data to someone else on the receiving end as a phone call.
Similarly, a computer (someone in 1985 would know what a computer is) would connect over such a line. The data someone inputs into a computer – text, for example – can be transferred over a physical line, connected to a central hub, then directed to someone else on the receiving end on their computer.
That central hub is the internet, and everyone can connect to it and share data with each other.
Then, I’d show the coma patient an example of email to demonstrate the analogy in real life.
Love them or hate them, remember that there isn’t a specific “correct” answer to curveball questions. The interviewer is testing you on the following:
- Can you answer questions under pressure?
- Can you take a random problem and break it down into chunks?
- Can you think creatively?
I’m not the best at brainteasers and some parts of the internet explanation may be flat out wrong. The sample answer, however, illustrates how an applicant might break down a problem and come up with a solution. It’s not too different from a user experience process or even the SAR method mentioned earlier.
Pro Tip: The worst possible answer you can give is “I don’t know, I’d Google it.” Believe me, I’ve heard this as an interview response.
More sample curveball questions
- Explain to a 10 year old what user experience design means
- What are the biggest tech innovations or trends right now that you think we should apply to our industry?
- Estimation questions like Can you estimate how many traffic lights there are in America?
You see that curveball questions can be anything. This is solely my own opinion, but I believe that interviewers often throw curveballs when they doubt the interviewees’ integrity or skills.
For example, if an interviewee seems too polished, fake, or arrogant, the interviewer may decide to “up the game” and throw curveballs to reveal an applicant’s true nature.
Now you’re armed with a way to handle the 4 major types of interview questions.
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