December 26, 2018

How to Design Interview Questions

By Selma Mo, Juanjo Cardona

8 min

How-To GuideJob InterviewsMulti-Industry

This practical guide introduces the most common questions in a recruitment interview and focuses on the nuts & bolts of elaborating competency-based questions

The goal in an interview – whether it is a recruitment interview, a salary negotiation, or a sales negotiation with a prospect client – is to fill in the gaps between what you know so far and what you would like to know from your counterpart. The interview becomes a process of bridging, of unveiling critical pieces of information that will take the interview to its end goal: whether it is the alignment of apparently different interests; or the gathering of the necessary evidence to realize an objective assessment on a candidate.


A recruitment interview is also a negotiation of sorts, for the candidate is also trying to assess whether the opportunity is worth her while and, therefore, she will try to pick up any signals that might support her decision-making. In a similar fashion, you as a recruiter want to collect as many information as possible from the candidate that relates to the job at hand, so whatever decision that comes further down the pipe is based in as much objective data as possible.


Collecting information in a recruitment interview from a candidate and making an objective assessment it is not something that one does without preparing. In this practical guide, we will cover how to design interview questions within the competency-based interview (CBI) framework.


To elaborate the interview questions recruiters will first consider the core competencies needed for the specific role they are looking to recruit. Core competencies will be derived from a thorough analysis of the job description and discussions with relevant stakeholders (hiring managers, subject matter experts, high-performers who hold that position in the past).


However, competency-based questions will not be the only questions in an interview. Here there is a brief summary of the primary type of questions more commonly used in recruitment interviews: 


Fill in the Gaps & Verification: Helps the interviewer to fill up time gaps and discrepancies in an applicants’ resume, as well as to verify the depth of knowledge on the credentials specified in the resume. To read more about the verification of credentials, check our article about background checks in China


Experience: To evaluate certain features of the applicants past professional experiences. By asking to further elaborate on responsibilities and main lessons learned, the interviewer gets to verify the candidates’ work experience subjectively.


Competency-based: Questions designed to determine whether applicants possess or not core competencies required for the role, based on their account of past behaviors. The purpose is to identify past behaviors with specific competencies and use the former as predictors of future performance.


Brain-teasers: They can adopt the form of mathematical questions (to assess calculation skills), silly questions (to assess original thinking), or case questions (to evaluate problem-solving abilities). In any of these instances, they offer additional insights to the recruiter about the ability of the interviewee to think on the spot and display mental agility. It is common to substitute these questions for more structured tests (i.e., numerical reasoning). However, we do not recommend using this type of questions due to their lack of validity. For more on this check our piece on the yeses and noes when conducting interviews.


Some of the questions can be replaced by structured and proven tests such as numerical reasoning, emotional intelligence (EQ) tests, and the like. Whenever possible, it is advisable to use those instead of trying to tackle them with questions in an interview. Why? Two main reasons:


A) Not all competencies are created equal: not all is measurable with structured interviews. Structured interviews are amongst the ones with the highest predictive values. However, information gathered using other tools (i.e., assessment centers) adds to the overall validity. That is, the validity of different assessment methods compounds and, it is often a question of balancing validity with the budget available. Recruiters can leverage in already existing and field-proven tools that add extra points of information for competencies that are hard to be measured in an interview.


B) Whether it is face-to-face, phone, video, WeChat or similar, the number of core competencies that can be assessed throughout an interview it is somewhere around four to six. Nothing is set on stone, and that is only a rule of thumb. Note, though, that more than six competencies usually become a challenging task for the interviewer. Therefore, if there is a competency or a set of them that can be assessed through other means, this will liberate resources to allow the recruiter to focus only on those that are better appraised in an interview format.


In the following sections of this practical guide we will discuss how to select the competencies we are going to assess in the interview; second, we will create questions accordingly; and finally, we will take a look at how to set up an evaluation system with the purpose of removing, to the extent that is possible, subjectivity and bias.



Which competencies?


We mentioned that not all competencies are best assessed via CBIs. So, which ones are? Table 1 (click on it for more detail) introduces a set of competencies we believe are best assessed via competency-based interviews.


Competencies in a CBI interview |


You can find the relevant competencies for a given role in the search brief a recruiter should have been provided with; your notes in the meetings you had with the hiring manager/s and other stakeholders; and in the final job description you all put together to advertise the opening position. See Figure 1 (click for more detail) for an example of specific job requirements taken from a real assignment.



Figure 1. Obtaining competencies from job requirements |



We are going to perform the following exercise. Let’s assume that all has gone according to plan and that, at this stage, the job description is a truthful representation of all the requirements needed for a successful applicant to get the job. That is, it contains all the relevant information provided by all stakeholders with interest to close that position.


Some comments about the deconstruction of the job description in a set of competencies, as shown in Figure 1:


  • Often there is not a clear-cut and, within what it seems to be a single requirement, more than one competency is involved. For example, in (E) a successful candidate is required to be a “Strong communicator with the ability to influence at all levels”: this entails both strong Interpersonal Skills (verbal communication, conflict resolution) as well as Influential Leadership (delegation, motivation).


  • On the other side, the same competency may come up several times across different requirements. The competency Organizational Ability appears both in requirement (C) “…experience in sales, service and operations management…”, (D) “Strong business acumen…”, and (E) “Structured working style…”


As a rule of thumb when doing this exercise, we advise that you write down all the competencies you consider every single requirement entails. Once you are done going through all the requirements, you will be able to look at all the competencies and, from a more comprehensive perspective, see which one/s appear to be more common across the set of requirements for that specific job role.


When designing the specific questions, you will then consider which competencies you might want to double-down on. A warning though: that a particular competency is derived more often than others from the job description does not imply it is more important. So, no competency should be left behind when preparing the questions using the job description (provided these competencies can be assessed via an interview, of course). In a separate piece, we will discuss the possibility of assigning different weights to competencies if some are considered to be more relevant than others.



Creating interview questions


Once there’s a clear break down with regards the different competencies we want to tackle in an interview, it is time to write down the specific questions.


Because the interviewer (you) and the interviewee do not share a common frame of reference, the questions should provide a context, a given scenario, to start with. Given that context, you are looking to assess if the interviewee can describe what actions did she take and what were the results of such actions. This combination of context–actions–results has been dubbed the CAR interview method (see Figure 2, click for more detail).



Because the response of the interviewee might be vague, incomplete or solely based in opinion, you should also have on stock some clarification questions ready to bring to the surface those actions and results. These type of questions are often referred to as follow-up or probing questions.


To help you write these behavioral interview questions you should rely on subject matter experts – high-performing employees, supervisors, and managers – that possess the knowledge for the job at the level of the position that has to be filled.


For a given competency it is advisable to prepare two or three questions to support collecting examples of behaviors from previous (recent) work experiences during the interview that relate to that competency (see Table 2 – click for more detail).


Designing CBI Questions. Turning competencies into questions |




It is advisable that prior using the behavioral interview with actual candidates we share it with other colleagues to test it. The test will help to fine-tune the wording and indicate if and what revisions need to be made.


From the competencies laid out in Table 2 let’s take, for example, “Problem solving”. We will take two of the proposed questions to assess it, and then we will prepare follow-up, probing questions to clarify context, actions or results for each of the chosen alternatives. The final result could look something like this:


Alternative 1. Describe a situation in which you had to address a problem whose cause was not clear to the organization.

Context probing questions: What was the problem exactly? What consequences did the problem have? When was that?

Action probing questions: What did you do to understand the causes? How did you do it? What was your role?

Results probing questions: What happened? What did you find out? What was the outcome?


Alternative 2. How did you handle a member of your team who was falling behind the work schedule and time for delivery of the project was getting close?

Context probing questions: When was that? What was the reason for the co-worker’s delay? How did you notice it was that specific team member?

Action probing questions: What actions did you take? Who did you talk with?

Results probing questions: What happened with the project? How did the team member perceive your actions? How were your actions seen by the rest of the team? In hindsight, would you act differently today in that given situation?





Consider carefully which competencies amongst the ones relevant for the opportunity at hand are measurable during an interview. For those that don’t use other proven tools (i.e., assessment centers).


Bear in mind some criteria for writing questions:


Simplicity: always ask one question at a time. Do not include questions within a question. That is don’t try to aim at more than one competency at a time (or at more than one specific dimension of one competency at a time).


Open questions: answers cannot be “yes”/“no”. Questions should give room to the interviewee to elaborate. Open questions usually start with: “Tell us about”, “Describe a time where”, or “Share”.


Neutrality: the right answers cannot be deduced from the way questions are formulated.


Follow up: follow up questions should be ready if answers do not provide enough clarity with regards context, actions and or results.


Selma Mo

Account Manager at Direct HR

L: Chinese, English

T: +86 755 2238 5221



Juanjo Cardona

Editor at

L: English, Spanish

T: +86 21 6010 5000