Learn what instructional questions are, how to approach them, and how to excel at them. Explore real-world examples.
- Of all of the question formats you'll be asked in a typical product management interview process, the instructional question is perhaps the most quirky. An instructional question is exactly like it sounds. It's where the interviewer asks you to teach them how to do something. Typically, they'll ask you how to do something simple, like how to make scrambled eggs or maybe even a cup of coffee. In these cases, the interviewer pretends like they don't know how to do these things for the sake of the question. However, there are variants of this format where the interviewer tells you they're going to leave the room for a period of time, during which you can think of a complex topic you know well that they likely don't, and then you prepare to teach it.
When they come back in the room, your task is to teach them about that topic. It seems pretty weird, doesn't it? Well, it's actually a very useful format. And being a bit of a teacher myself, I find it pretty fun. The whole purpose of this type of question, whether it's a simple or complex topic, is to demonstrate to the interviewer that you can describe a process or concept to someone else in a way that is empathetic and effective. This skill comes in handy every single day as a product manager.
For instance, when speaking about technical topics with non-technical stakeholders, discussing business issues with engineering teams, or even when writing clear documentation or emails. So here's a few tips on acing an instructional question. Just like the famous advice on giving a great speech, tell them what you're going to tell them. Begin your instruction by describing what it is you're going to be teaching them. If you're teaching them how to make scrambled eggs, it's as simple as saying, here's four easy steps to making great scrambled eggs.
This shows them that you're invested in making sure they understand what concept you're explaining. The second tip is to be as specific as possible with your instructions. If possible, break down the process into categories or a series of steps. If you tell them that there are four steps to creating scrambled eggs, they're much more likely to remember the process. Additionally, don't assume that they have any pre-existing knowledge of the topic or concepts you're discussing. For our scrambled eggs example, don't just say to stir and cook the eggs until they're done.
Say something more specific, like cook the eggs on medium heat, stirring every 10 seconds until the texture is firm but still slightly shiny on the outside. Don't forget to begin by telling them what ingredients and tools they will need. The last tip for answering an instructional question is to demonstrate that you're empathetic towards the listener by making sure they understand. If you're listing out the steps on a whiteboard, glance at them occasionally and see if there's a confused look on their face. In the same vein, stop occasionally and ask them if they have any questions.
Do the same thing at the end. So that's it for instructional questions. They do seem quirky at first, but they're actually quite a fun exercise and very valuable to show off your communication skills. Follow the three steps we talked about and you can't go wrong.