The Beginner’s Guide to the Whiteboard Challenge
The Designer’s Best Thought Exercise
Today, it is easy to get caught up in the illusion of design — that you hand a problem to a designer who then produces a magical solution to all of your problems. This lack of transparency into the thousands of thoughts put in the design process is exactly what the whiteboard challenge (or WBC) helps tackle.
Previous Tradecraft instructors Kate Rutter and Laura Klein introduced the whiteboard challenge as a weekly exercise, which graduate Molly Inglish later dubbed the “ninja skill for UX designers.” Start-ups continue to use the whiteboard challenge to assess a designer’s thinking and communication skills. Because the WBC can be powerful but daunting, we put together this beginner’s framework as a useful reference to help you get your feet wet.
Why do whiteboard challenges?
Whether you are a person with a design background or not, WBCs can help you strengthen your problem-solving and communication skills while under pressure. The whiteboard essentially serves as a playground for visualization of your thinking process. People from any background can benefit from exercising their brain, and your existing knowledge may serve as a great way to help you stand out in the process.
With continued practice, you will be able to strategically vocalize your thoughts, manage your time efficiently for short sprints, know how to manage your environment, facilitate creativity in others, and most importantly — think on your feet.
Design is thinking made visual. — Saul Bass
As designer and Tradecraft instructor Zac Halbert puts it, WBCs “open up the black box of design” so that those not privy to the amount of detail put into the process can understand what goes on behind-the-scenes in a designer’s head.
Although not every great designer will ace the WBC, it is a great way for hiring managers to see how people think under pressure. Because these challenges are critical to practice, this framework will help you get started.
The general structure follows the suggested timeline of a 20-minute WBC, with guidelines on where you might choose to allot your time. We focus first on the problem, then the ideas and solutions generated, and finally conclude with a review of the entire process.
As a reminder, this is just one of many frameworks that may help you solve the challenge . Ultimately, the art of the WBC is deciding how to approach it. Therefore, we encourage you to try what works for you and continually experiment with different approaches over time. We hope this to be a launching point for other beginners like ourselves.
Get in the Zone & Find a Client
Before you snap the cap off your Expo marker, take a moment to acknowledge that you’re likely to experience some embarrassment the first, second, and even tenth time you do these WBCs. Yes, they’re intimidating in the beginning, but over time the anxiety will wear away — and even if not immediately obvious, you will be making progress towards becoming a stronger designer.
Go find a friend to play the role of the Client. Your friend should have a mental image of what they want for this challenge before starting the timer. Our advice for acting Clients is to stick to constraints that are sensitive to the WBC timeframe. A limited scope helps the designer explore the user’s story within a realistic time limit while also leaving enough time for actual sketching.
OK, now you can remove the cap off your Expo marker.
#1 Understand the problem (5 min.)
Who am I designing for?
Why does the user need this product?
What constraints am I working with?
Suggested tools: Personas, job stories, user stories
Build your foundation. Your client is in front of you, and you have the next 20 minutes to produce some working ideas for a problem. However, prior to diving in with wireframes and task flows, you need a couple good questions (outlined above) that explore the who and the why. These will help ground you throughout the rest of the WBC.
Get to know your user and create a mental story. Start weaving a cohesive narrative around the typical user of the product. Discover what the user’s provisional story is from start to finish. If it helps, pretend that you’re George R.R. Martin, crafting the Game of Thrones saga (but with much less time and no bubble wand). You want to make sure everything pieces together and that any holes in your understanding are filled.
Gain a sense of both the user’s motivations and real-world constraints. Put your empathy skills to work and place yourself in the user’s shoes. By building up the user’s world and understanding the product’s goals, you start to define the connections between the two. Despite this problem being purely hypothetical, also aim to respect actual constraints that exist in the real world — for example, something like Wi-Fi accessibility. This demonstrates that you actively consider a fuller picture versus immediately tunneling into the problem without context.
Create a quick checklist. When you start sketching, it’s easy to forget the many details drawn out from your interview period. A checklist is a great way to ensure you hit all the pain points and service needs of the user during that time.
Once you have a good-enough grasp of the user and her needs, you are ready to move onto Step #2.
#2 Flesh out your ideas (15 min.)
What is an effective way of solving the user’s needs?
Is someone else already solving this issue?
Why am I going with this design decision?
Suggested tools: User flows, task flows, UI sketches, site maps
Take a quick moment. This step is where new designers tend to fill with anxiety. Maybe you’re nervous to actually start putting thoughts into illustrated form. Perhaps you dread facing that swath of white space because you’re intimidated by its emptiness. It may feel easier to just turn to the client and continue digging for information, avoiding sketches while the timer runs out.
Fight that urge! This step is where you truly grow as a designer. If whiteboard designs were easy, this article wouldn’t need to exist. Silence any inner complaints and launch yourself into the process confidently. 👍🏼
Start by exploring a variety of options. Arm yourself with the above questions and start throw idea after idea on the board with reckless abandon — the more, the better. The goal here is not to create “the best,” but just enough to get the job done. Rather than stressing about the mistakes you might make, make them and move on without a backward glance — all while cognizant of your board space (it runs out quickly). Challenge yourself to keep pushing ahead.
Value and maintain your momentum. Since consistent progress is of the essence, a good beginner’s rule of thumb is to avoid text when possible throughout this phase. Visuals are powerful conveyors of information, and keeping the sketches low-fi means squeezing in more ideas.
Share your thoughts out loud! We know it sounds painful — but trust us when we say it gets easier. When you narrate what you’re doing, you’re communicating your thought process, which is arguably just as important as the deliverables themselves. Hiring managers not only care about how designers do under pressure, but they also want to hear how you critically think. On the other hand, there’s no need to desperately fill the silence when it happens — breathe, and then continue.
And before you know it, you’re either out of time or have a minute to do Step 3.
#3 Close the loop (1 min.)
How does my solution effectively solve the user’s needs?
What can I iterate on?
What will I do for the client in the future?
Voila! This is the part where you tie up your work with a bow and present it to your client.
Here you will beam with confidence as you thoroughly showcase all the details of your perfect design, demonstrating how your ideas flawlessly address every single issue. The client will be dazzled by your genius, and you’ll bask in her praise as the timer goes off exactly when expected. And the last thing you will be doing is crawling on the floor for your marker’s cap because, obviously, you never lose these things.
Relax. The above scenario is exactly the opposite of what is likely to happen during these WBCs as a new designer. Time management is a difficult lesson for everyone, so step 3 might not come around for some time. That’s OK! If anything, that is exactly the reason to do these challenges again and again.
Wrap it up. If you do have time, reiterate the user’s needs, how your designs address those needs, and what you’ll be doing to follow up with the client afterwards. By closing the loop this way, you ensure the client understands your solution and how it helps her.
If you have a LOT of time leftover or simply have a longer WBC, here are some things to consider that truly advance you beyond what is simply shown on the whiteboard (aka brownie points):
- If you had more time, how would you further improve or expand upon the solution?
- How would you tackle edge cases? E.g. “As our user base grows… this is what the design change might be.”
- What more can you do?
And there you have it — you have officially completed a WBC!
Tools & Resources
Now that you understand the general framework of a 20 minute challenge, here are some awesome resources to help you dive in and get started:
Design Challenge Tools
- The Designercize tool, made by our very own Zac Halbert and Jake Fleming
- Sharpen.design challenge generator
- Typecooker for the Typography enthusiast
- Daily UI’s 100 Day Challenge for the dedicated
- Molly Inglish’s original Whiteboard Challenge article
- Prototypr’s Nailing the Whiteboard Design Challenge
- Tips for an Aspiring Designer, which applies well to any design endeavor
- Adhithya Kumar’s Framework from uxdesign.cc
Thanks for reading! Please give us a clap or two if this helped and feel free to leave your thoughts and feedback below. We’d love to see you share your first whiteboard challenge experiences and a tip for new designers!
If you liked the framework and want a copy for yourself, feel free to download the pdf version.
Special thanks to Zac Halbert for his insight and knowledge.