6 steps to ace design questions in PM interviews - ½

April 21, 2022
Jennifer Paul
Andrew Oh
Andrew Oh
Jennifer Paul
A coach at Exponent, Andrew is a tech-fanatic with a strong combination of startup method and product management skills. He’s fiercely passionate about helping people land their dream jobs and has coached people who landed positions at Google, Facebook, Instagram.

Product management interviews can be daunting as it feels like you have to dismantle a bomb by demonstrating your rational thinking while showcasing your innovative creativity. We were delighted to connect with Andrew Oh, a coach at Exponent, to learn how to skilfully structure design questions during product management interviews. Andrew shares 6 components to cover if you want to stand out in a PM interview.

Interviews are a marathon, not a sprint

A product manager’s core responsibility is to work with designers, engineers, and business teams to create high-impact features and products. However, the goal of a product design question is actually not seeing if you can create the next Facebook, TikTok, or even come up with the perfect product to solve an issue. During the interview, the interviewers are looking for 2 prized qualities in a PM: first, the ability to take an ambiguous question and define the problem; second, the mindset of asking questions that build toward a sensible solution.

First, the ability to take an ambiguous question and define the problem. Second, the mindset of asking questions that build toward a sensible solution.

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when preparing for a PM interview, especially when the internet has so many strange and random product design mock questions. Andrew’s tried and true framework enables the interviewee to break down the case question and build a coherent response. From his experience of interviewing for product manager positions to becoming a coach with Exponent, Andrew has extracted the 6 most essential components of a well-thought-out product design answer. 

The most underrated advice is to ask for a minute or two to consolidate your thoughts before delivering the answer. Do this at each part of the framework to ensure your answer is clear and concise. 

In this piece, we will go through the first 2 components of the framework. The first 2 components will allow you to define the question, set up the parameters, position where the company stands, and aim to achieve. These 2 steps are often overlooked, but they are the foundation for building a solid case.

1. Clarify the question

Maybe it is the adrenaline rush, or perhaps it is the nerves; many interviewees rush into answering without this critical first step. It is important to ask the interviewer to clarify the question because it allows you to gain more context to narrow down the situation.

It is important to ask the interviewer to clarify the question because it allows you to gain more context to narrow down the situation.

Product design questions are intentionally vague. Taking the time to clarify the question serves as an opportunity to align the focus with the interviewer to avoid confusion later.

For example, if the interviewer only asks, “how would you improve Instagram?” It is paramount to clarify by asking if the improvement is for Instagram posts, stories or shop because they are so different. It’s also highly recommended that you do a quick UX walkthrough of the basic functionality of the product to ensure you and the interviewer are aligned on how the product works. Some high-level background information that you should get clarity on:

  • Is it for a specific region or market (disrupting a new market vs. reinventing an existing market)
  • What’s the stage of this product (new vs. existing)
  • What’s the objective of this product (grow new users vs. boost user frequency)

Establishing parameters is like installing bumper guards in a bowling lane, sharpening the aim and avoiding the gutter. Don’t shy about taking a minute or two to ask the interviewer more questions before moving forward. It's investing time now to save time later.

It’s investing time now to save time later.

2. Understand the mission of the company/product

Most companies strive to do good and have an aspirational mission. It’s common for companies, especially Google and Facebook, to ask how to improve its product, so it’s valuable to understand their vision so that it can be tied into your strategic reasoning later on. 

It’s easy to memorize a company’s mission statement. But a mission is meaningless without relevance. Therefore, stand out by leveraging the current market or social moment to emphasize the importance of amplifying this mission.

For example, Instagram’s mission is “to capture and share the world’s moments.” To elevate the impact of the mission, you can illuminate it in 2 ways:

  • Cultural: “The global pandemic forced families and loved ones to be separated. Therefore, people rely on Instagram ever more to stay connected by sharing their daily moments.” 
  • Situational: “Many young people are favouring TikTok or Snapchat over Instagram. However, content on TikTok and Snapchat aren’t permanent, so they lack the community bonding and reach that Instagram offers.”

If the interview question is of an imaginary company, take the liberty to make one up and make it ambitious! You will score brownie points for being familiar with the company’s mission, but putting it in context to uplift its importance in the cultural moment or market climate will be the cherry on top.

You will score brownie points for being familiar with the company’s mission, but putting it in context to uplift its importance in the cultural moment or market climate will be the cherry on top.

Never underestimate the power of the first impression. A well-thought-out product design answer is about 25 - 35 minutes, so it’s valuable to take the time and set the pace at the beginning of the interview. Clarifying the question and aligning the company’s mission will lay the groundwork for the rest of the interview.

In the following piece, we will demonstrate the remaining 4 components of the framework. The components tie together logically and beautifully. With practice, the framework will give you the confidence needed to go after your dream product management career!

Stay tuned.

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