Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons
I can always tell when interviewing season is upon us. The number of “Wait, what is a whiteboard challenge?” and “Oh, my...how am I supposed to get through this?” questions increase substantially.
My inbox is filled with subject lines like “WHITEBOARD CHALLENGE????” and my video discussions filled with sighs or silent contemplation on whether or not UX was the right career choice.
Yes, the whiteboard challenge can be a dreaded and anxiety-ridden experience, but you can also turn it into a fun, enlightening exercise.
Imagine the following scenario: you just arrived at your in-person
interview. You have been looking forward to this for the past week. Exciting thoughts of new opportunities and twinges of nervousness rush
through you. You meet the first few people. The interviews are going
well. There’s some nice conversation. You don’t feel like you’re in an
interview, you feel like you are part of the team. The vibes are good.
Suddenly, they slide a piece of paper in front of you. It has a vague
prompt about their company. You take the whiteboard markers being
handed to you. Time slows down. You hear the terrifying words:
You have 30 minutes to write all your thoughts on this board, and then we will come in for you to present to us for another thirty minutes. Make sense?
Somehow, you nod your head. All too quickly, you are left in a room, alone, with your racing mind.
This is a whiteboard challenge. You don’t always know it will happen. There isn’t a 100% guarantee. But they are becoming more and more common in the UX research interview process.
Essentially, your interviewers will give you a vague prompt and want you to give them an idea of your process. This allows them to evaluate how you go about approaching a problem in a “real life” setting, beyond your curated portfolio. Companies are increasingly valuing employees’ thought processes over their qualifications.
Understandably, this can be a really difficult experience, which is why you should practice beforehand! Whiteboarding your approach is a great skill to have in general.
Getting ready to start a new UXR job or role? We’ve got an onboarding guide to make your first day, week, and month a breeze. Snag it for free here.
Whiteboard challenges are about showing a company how you process ideas. So it wouldn’t be useful to explain how exactly you should go about one. Instead, I’ll give you a framework for you to apply to your experience.
One thing I would encourage, before you read on, is to jot down your own “thought process” for approaching a project. That way you have an awareness of how you currently think, and can add that to the below framework in a way that works for you. I follow these steps:
- How do you currently approach problems?
- What is the step-by-step process you currently use when faced with a project?
- What about that process would you like to improve?
My whiteboard process
I'm a UX researcher, but I do include a separate portion here for UX design. In addition, this process can be applied to both generative (discovery) research and usability testing, as well as any other methodologies that would make sense given the statement.
Adapt this process to make it your own, unique method. It is completely moldable, and should be changed however you see fit.
During this challenge, one thing I can’t stress enough is:
It may feel as though companies want you to come up with the perfect idea in an impossible amount of time. But really, they just want to understand how you approach a problem. They don’t particularly care about your solution, and, if they do care that much...run.
✔ Understand the statement
You’ll usually get a
piece of paper that states a goal for the company. They may want to try
some new feature, innovate a product, or make a major change to the
current offering. The prompt can be just a few sentences long, or
contain more robust information (timelines, participants, questions that
need to be asked). Make sure you understand what’s written before you
grab the marker.
✔ Define the problem
statement generally does not consist of a problem, but more about what
the company wants to accomplish. Restate this into a research problem:
What is the company trying to learn, at a high level, and what problem
is the company is trying to solve?
✔ Identify potential business impact
How could doing research on this problem impact the business? What are
general KPIs—such as retention, acquisition, growth, monetization,
innovation—to watch? Tie your research back to business. In this step, I
also mention how I would like to meet with internal stakeholders, to
ensure we are aligned.
✔ Determine the research objectives
Write 3-5 objectives based on your research problem. We want to be able
to answer these at the end of our research project, and, with these
objectives, we want to be able to address the overarching problem
✔ Decide on your methodology (and reasoning)
What methodologies are you going to use to get insights that help you
solve the larger research problem, as well as smaller objectives? If you're trying to understand customers, interviews are phenomenally
helpful. If you're trying to evaluate a product, usability testing is
key. Just make sure to give your reasoning behind why you chose that
given method. More than one is fine (see below for more information).
✔ Think about which participants to recruit
I usually take a stab at a general demographic the company might be targeting (which is why it's important to do some research
beforehand). I will also include information such as the number of
participants and whether we'll conduct in-person or remote sessions.
Finally, I talk about recruiting processes, and what I have used in the
past in terms of tools, agencies, or internal recruiting.
✔ Include some sample questions
I will usually write down some overarching framing questions, so they
get an idea of how I form questions (which is an important part of being
a researcher). I use the TEDW approach (“talk about,” “explain,”
“describe,” or “walk me through”) for generative research. For usability
testing, I’ll write some sample tasks instead.
✔ Touch upon analysis techniques
I like to talk about how I summarize the research and how I do recaps
with teams after each session. I will also include processes I use, such
as brainstorming sessions, affinity diagramming, and insight tools I
have used in the past. Lastly, a stakeholder insight report and
presentation. It's important that we take this research and make it
actionable. That is what companies hire us for!
✔ Explain some potential expected outputs
I have found interviewers really appreciate this step, because it helps
you tie the output back to the overall objectives and research problem.
For example, by creating personas and customer journey maps, we can
more deeply understand the customer, and start prioritizing the roadmap
based on these needs or pain points.
✔ Write down any biases/hypotheses (optional)
time permits, sometimes I'll write down any of my assumptions, biases
or hypotheses. I usually use this information to brainstorm with teams
in my day-to-day job, so it's good practice.
✔ Talk next steps
Briefly talk about what you think any next steps or follow-up would be.
It could be as simple as usability testing or more concept testing, in
order to further validate a product.
✔ Write some user stories
Take what you thought
of for the research portion, and write some (assumptive) user stories
based on that, so that interviewers can see the thread between the two
✔ Brainstorm some (assumptive) ideas
Based off of your assumptions, and the initial statement, what are some
of the problems the user may be having, or something the user may need?
Choose one idea to continue with (or more if you have time).
✔ Create user flows
Imagine the journey users will go through with this idea. How would
they land on it? What would they do? What will they try to achieve?
✔ Include some rough sketching
Again, this doesn’t have to be perfect, but it is the culmination of
all of the work. Make sure the ideas, flows, and sketches can roll back
up into the main problem we stated from the beginning. If they're not
solving that problem or going in that direction, the final steps will
✔ Take note of your own questions
Was there a
place where you wish you had more information, or you were unclear about
something? That's okay! Admit it. It's okay to ask questions. The
more shared understanding we have, the better the outcome will be. Be
sure to include that you had some questions and would love to ask the
✔ Use additional methods to supplement the study
Yes, we’re focused on qualitative research here, but a mixed-methods
approach always wins. I like to include some quantitative metrics, such
as surveys, A/B testing or using Google Analytics to validate trends in
the qualitative research, or to work alongside the research. Thinking
about projects as mixed-method, in general, is good practice.
✔ Establish success metrics
How will we know we were successful when the research project is
finished? Often, it's hard to determine the success of qualitative
data, but we certainly can come up with some ideas. Are we able to give
teams action items that help them hit their KPIs? For example, can we
give a retention team UX improvements that allow them to increase the
number of users returning to the app/website/service? Were we able to
create personas? Are those personas being put into user stories?
✔ Establish a timeline
Everyone loves a good timeline, especially when it comes to user
research. It's important to show user research doesn’t have to take
forever. But make sure you’re realistic about it. For instance, I
estimate a generative research project to take about four weeks—from
recruitment to analysis. No matter what I project, I explain where my
estimate comes from, and write ideas for where we could cut down, or
where we could add more time.
This can seem like a lot to remember and write down within 30 minutes. But it makes the entire presentation go so much more smoothly
when you have a flow that you can explain.
Remember, nothing is—or ever will be—perfect. Especially in thirty
minutes! So be very open to questions and feedback from the team. It’s a
lot for them to understand, too.
Finally, the more you practice whiteboarding, the better you will be.
So take a deep breath, be confident, grab a marker, and start practicing. Try out this random challenge generator, or take on a pre-set challenge. You've got this.
Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs.
To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membership, follow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.