Interviews That Don’t Suck: The Product Scenario

Interviews That Don’t Suck: The Product Scenario

A framework for shaping scenario interviews that offer candidates a great experience — and your team vital evidence for quality decisions.

I am a strong believer in hiring product people through an evidence-based, performance-orientated process. Starting with the achievements you expect of the candidate in their first year, shape a rubric for the attributes they need to demonstrate, then use interviews to collect evidence that demonstrates the score to award for each one.

Scenario interviews are one of my favourite tools for collecting this evidence for product roles, because behavioural characteristics are so much of what makes a strong candidate a terrific asset to the team.

Thoughtfully constructed and facilitated, a scenario can give terrific insight into the candidate’s thought process, communication preferences, and professional behaviours.

But poorly structured and haphazardly run scenarios lead to confusion, poor performance on the day, weak decisions by the hiring team, and leave the candidate with a poor perception of your company.

In my experience, most organizations run bad scenario interviews.

In this article I will try to help — by outlining two models that most scenario interviews fall into, explaining why the collaborative model is my preferred approach, and offering five concrete things you can be doing to make your scenario interviews a valuable experience for everyone involved.

Two models

I’ve been through numerous scenario interviews in my career. Some great, others have been awful. All have fallen more or less into one of two models. I call them ‘figure it out’ and ‘discover, together’.


‘Figure it out’

Photograph of the ocean. A person is sitting on a paddle board, waiting for a wave.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

In this model, the candidate is given an outline of a problem or opportunity by the interviewers–usually in writing, sometimes verbally–and is told to work through the problem.

The interviewers take a largely passive observer role by default, though they may provide prompts if the candidate appears to get stuck. If the candidate wants the interviewers to engage in the process, they must actively invite them to do so.

My worst experience with a scenario interview followed the ‘figure it out’ model.

I arrived at the office, was eventually greeted at the door, and led to a narrow room that barely fit a long table and the dozen chairs set around it. The table held a few scrap post-its and a couple of unpromising whiteboard markers. The wall was filled with old scrawls.

The two interviewers sat on one side of the table; I squeezed in between the whiteboard wall and the table on the other side.

After an hour or so of questions back and forth, the interviewers announced it was time for the scenario/whiteboarding exercise.

interviews-and-insights scenario product-management hiring

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