How to approach a design challenge

As I dive further and further into the interview process, one hurdle I’m struggling with is the design exercise or whiteboard challenge. Typically done in the last round of the hiring process, this 30 min to 1-hour exercise allows interviewers to see how candidates will tackle design challenges, ideate solutions, and explain their design strategies. I’ve put together some tips and resources I reference before going into an interview knowing a design challenge may be given.

You won’t have enough time

I struggle with focus at times and with the pressure of a design challenge, that adrenaline rush sometimes makes it even more difficult to stay on track. Because this is such a short time frame to complete these exercises, you need to quickly realize that you won’t have enough time to do your best work. It’s difficult to take good care of all the stages in a whiteboard challenge so fucus on the framework of how you solve that problem rather than every detail.

Come up with an approach

A whiteboard challenge is not about how many ideas you come up with or how amazing your dry erase marker drawing skills are. Companies want to see how you approach a problem, how you work with a team, and how you do all that under pressure. There are tons of articles and youtube links that show how to tackle a design challenge. Find one you like that sticks with your design process and principles and use it! After reading all that I could I created a simple framework that I feel works for my needs. You should come up with your own that feels more natural for you as just like a cover letter or thank you note, people can tell when you just copy-paste something and call it your own.  Personally, I like Femke’s approach which she goes over in your YouTube channel and mirrors an article from UX Collective by Zhenshuo Fang from 2016. 

Don’t work in silence

Make sure as you go through the exercise that you talk out loud. Speak through the decisions you’re making and talk out loud about how you’re working with the design process. Silence doesn’t provide an interviewer what goes in your head and how you handle solutions. It also doesn’t show a collaborative approach because you’re unable to show that you can do it outside of your own head.

Define roles

This is your chance to find out what you need to be successful. First, ask the interviews what outcomes or results they expect to see in this timeframe? How do they want to be engaged during the exercise? What role with they play in the process if any: are they product managers, fellow designers, researchers? Take this moment to connect and engage while using this highly visible experience to your advantage. 

Articulate the problem statement

The first step to any design solution is to understand the problem. Write down the problem and the goal. Clarify the context of what you are doing as much as you can. You want to make sure you have a good understanding of the goal so you know what will make the better design decision.

  • What is the prompt, what are you trying to solve for?
  • What are the business objectives?
  • What are the user objectives?
  • What are the constraints?
  • How do we measure success?
  • What is the goal of the design?
  • What are some details and context of the challenge?
  • What is the timeline, device, or other constraints?

Focus on the audience

Next, you need to understand the users. Don’t ask “who are my users?”, try to explore deeper and specify the scenario. How will users use the design? What are the current user pain points? How will the design solve those? 

What potential motivations and fears might our users have? 

Pick one audience to focus on to move forward with as you won’t have time to go further.

Narrow your focus

To demonstrate your product thinking and process, you’ll need to narrow down your options on what problem you want to solve. Dan Shilov provides some great basic frameworks to help get you started as pulling from this article.

  • Impact vs cost — the impact on the business and the user will be high while the time spent developing this feature will below
  • Forward momentum — building this feature will pay down tech debt and position the team to learn and iterate faster
  • Ideal experience — if there are no explicit constraints, what would the ideal solution look like?

Come up with ideas

You’ve taken the time to understand the problem and defined a specific audience, so now the fun part.  List your ideas. What solutions could fulfill the user needs within the constraints? Explore as many varying solutions as you can and then narrow down the list to a promising few.  Find one to focus on by looking back at your original objectives, problem statement, and users.

As you’re sketching your solutions think in journeys and flows.  How would you interact with the product? Think about one screen to the next from the viewpoint of the user. You won’t be expected to have the whole plan figured out but a general path should be shown.

Practice, practice, practice

Obviously, the best way to get better at these is to practice. There are lots of free resources to sharpen your whiteboard challenge skills by practicing on design challenges and exercises. Here are a few of my go-to:


Hopefully, some of these tips and notes will help you come up with your own approach to design challenges. This list just scratches the surface but like most challenges we face, the more research and practice you do the better you’ll demonstrate your ability to design.


How do you tackle whiteboard challenges?


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