The UX Interview: How to Crush It

When you’ve reached the phone screen or the in-person interview step, you’ve gotten past the hard part: you have demonstrated that you have the qualifications to work at the company. You’re now being judged on whether you have the soft skills and culture fit.

After holding previous talks at The Seattle UX Meetup group, I’m reminded that many interview expectations are unstated, and most companies don’t understand how to interview.

The process presents incredible opportunities where you as designers can take control of the interview and show you can fill their need. Run the interview preparation through the user experience process, and you’ll be ahead of the pack every time.I’m going to skip some of the standard stuff, like take a shower or dress appropriately, because that’s common sense. Let’s talk about what really matters.

Research The Company And The Team

Any User Experience activity should start by understanding the target audience, and job interviews are no different.

I don’t just mean what the company has made, or its history. Try to know the people, who they are, what they’ve done in the past, and what they might be doing now.

There’s nothing that impresses me more than when an applicant knows who I am and what my background is. And considering that if they search on Google for my name (“Patrick Neeman”) about the first 60 results, they should know exactly who I am.

The reason?

Any User Experience activity should start by understanding the target audience, and job interviews are no different. It shows that the interviewee understands that any process requires research even before you start.

Remember, the interviewers are your target audience. So how would you do it?

During most interview loops you are interviewing with up to six people, and each represents a different role and possibly a persona. They will all have different skill sets and different needs. They will all ask different questions that are relevant to their role in the company. Before you go into the interview, you should understand their role and background so you can be ready for their questions.

For example, the questions a Product Manager asks should be much different than those from a Design Manager. Understanding that context is key, so that you can answer questions in their language.

I look for commonalities in experience — for example, one candidate I interviewed this week had experience similar to mine in the healthcare field — so we could talk about some of that. It would be awesome if the interviewees actually did that, so that we could discuss what we have learned from each experience and how it applies to our product design today.

A key question I ask: “How would you explain Apptio to your parents?” It’s a question that is really hard to answer well, so getting a good response is a great indication they have researched the position.

Bring An iPad Or Paper Documentation

The presentations I find most engaging are iPads and printed documentation.

Designers bring in their portfolios on different devices. Sometimes it’s a laptop, other times they refer to their website. Occasionally (this happens at Apptio), we present on the big screen.

The presentations I find most engaging are iPads and printed documentation.

For iPads, showing work creates a more intimate experience: you can connect directly with the person you are presenting to. On a flight to Vancouver I had a conversation with a game designer, and he discussed that usability tests they had performed showed that users view iPads as a window to the world, looking down to access content. This experience was much different than playing games on an XBox or Playstation, so they had learned how to design their games differently to account for this context.

Dead tree material can provide the same experience: as you flip through pages, you can tell an amazing story, as with an iPad. It’s a bit more physical with printed paper, but you can be more intimate as you explain your story.

Remember, it’s about engagement and telling a story. As you sit next to your interviewer, look down at the work, explain it, and then look into their eyes to make sure you’re explaining the solution in a context they understand. This creates a very intimate experience that is hard to replicate on other devices, like sit-forward experiences (laptops) or sit-back experiences (presenting on a larger screens).

Get In Front Of A Whiteboard

Turn interviews into a user experience process sessions, using the whiteboard as your ally.

What I like best about interviews is that you can get in front of a whiteboard. Talking about collaboration is one thing; demonstrating it with the interviewer is a completely different experience that very few designers take advantage of. Many companies, including Amazon, use this as a way of judging their talent.

Here’s an approach that works really well, if you’re interviewing with the right company.

They’ll ask you to design a product or page, and will watch to see how you approach the problem to drive at a solution. There is no right or wrong answer, but there is a right or wrong approach to this question.

Turn interviews into user experience  sessions, using the whiteboard as your ally and iteration of ideas as your process.

Example questions:

  • Who are the target personas or actors?
  • How often will they use it?
  • What is the mental model of the user?
  • What is the context? Laptop in the office, or mobile on the road?
  • What is the prioritization of the flow?
  • What are the goals?

Each question drives home a different point of process. It does so in a way that doesn’t preach the user experience process, which is very important. It also involves them in the process, so you are showing how you can educate them how to do great product design and be collaborative at the same time.

It’s all about audience context, and this is a great way to show that you understand your audience without being condescending.

Have Your Stories Down

Most important is practicing the presentation with a very critical audience and getting feedback.

I’ve talked about having a great UX Portfolio and how important it is to tell stories. What’s more important is telling the story over and over again, and emphasizing the value you bring when you tell it. The more you tell the stories that focus on your storytelling and less on the pictures behind the story, the better you get at presenting your unique value.

One story I have absolutely down is Bob The Chiropractor, a five page website I built for a friend of mine for beers. It’s a small but incredible story about lead generation. I’ve told that story so many times, I show a maximum of two screens to illustrate the value that I brought to the product — the initial home page and the Google Analytics conversion page. It’s also a really powerful story because it’s a small project that still clearly illustrates that you can run user experience on almost anything.

How do you get your stories down? Tell them over and over again, and get feedback from other designers over a drink.

A few weeks ago, I met up with two designers I’ve mentored. One of the designers is looking for a new position in user experience, but they can’t tell the story of where they working at now because the work is is under NDA.

So what did the designer do?

Create a presentation the explains every step of the user experience process they went through, from research to final implementation. Most important is practicing the presentation with a very critical audience and getting feedback. The designer has done this over and over again. Their portfolio is already good, but like any great designer, they want to raise the bar.

When the presentation is done, they will have the story down so it can be told again and again. This presentation is so good, they’ll get hired before having to tell the story too many times.

Engage With The Interviewer

If you engage with the interviewer, you can get them talking (good), telling their stories (better), and understand their needs (best).

During most interviews you’ll have an hour with the interviewer. Your job: engage with that interviewer as much as possible. Show them that you understand their wants and needs.

The first time I did the UX Resume presentation was at UX Speakeasy in San Diego, California. My co-presenter was Dylan Campbell, principal of Highlander Solutions, a recruiting firm.

Dylan is a master of telling stories — he is screenwriter on the side — and even better at engaging with people. That’s his job as a salesperson, because ultimately sales is engaging with customers. I enjoy conversations with him because not only is he entertaining, he listens and engages me. Dylan makes me feel like a million bucks, even if we haven’t talked in months.

Back to the event: that engagement was in full force the first night.

I went to the speakers’ dinner with Dylan, and everyone loved talking with him. He was engaging, telling stories, but more importantly he got everyone else to talk and tell their stories. After the dinner everyone talked about how great Dylan was, but no one really knew who he was. The same goes for interviewing.

The interviewer is your customer.

If you engage with the interviewer, you can get them talking (good), telling their stories (better), and understand their needs (best). When you understand their needs, you can frame your experience in terms of solving their problems. It’s a typical user interview — understand who they are — but you are in essence giving a report of your findings right then. And people love talking, because very few get asked about what they need and then actually listened to, especially in today’s narcissistic world of Facebook and Twitter.

The longer you engage with the interviewer, that’s less time that you are forced to talk, and more importantly, there’s fewer opportunities for you to make mistakes during the interview.


Designers have an amazing advantage over other positions: we can show the work we are involved in and how our value has direct impacts on products. Showing a portfolio is much more powerful than talking about return on investment or performing a code test.

It’s up to you as a designer to take advantage of this context and turn it into a great opportunity.