Approaching Cases And Puzzles In Interviews – Tips From Aspect Ratio CEO Shivram Apte

In Part 1 we covered How To Approach An Interview. In Part 2 we covered What To Prepare On. Part 3 looks at Puzzles and Cases.

There is somewhat of a fashion these days to ask candidates to solve puzzles during the job interview. I am of the opinion that the only skills that solving puzzles tests for is the ability to solve puzzles. We only ever ask candidates to solve a puzzle if they specifically mention that they enjoy solving puzzles on their resume; and that too, only to ascertain if they are making fair claims on the CV. Even when we do ask them to attempt a puzzle, we will choose one that has multiple possible solutions, and better still, can be attempted like a business problem.

One of my favourites is a modified version of a puzzle that Microsoft has used in the past as part of its recruitment process. As I write this piece, it occurred to me that I would have loved to have met a candidate who applied the WAC framework to this problem. It is unfortunate that there have been none.

The original question Microsoft supposedly used to ask was: How would you design a spice rack for a blind person?

We make it a little case to broaden the scope of the discussion.

I am the BU head of the plastics division of a large kitchenware company operating in India. I would like to believe there is a need to manufacture spice containers for the visually impaired. How would you help me design this product and market it?

Clearly, there are two parts to the question. First, design the product well and then second, build a business case for it.

The most obvious starting point in designing the product is to print labels in braille on the spice bottles; and quite sadly, there are people who don’t even get this far.

For those who do recommend the braille labels, I admit that it is a good start, but ask them to provide a little more detail. Should the labels be on the lid of each bottle? Or on the wall of the bottle? Is there a more elegant solution? Can we make it faster for the visually impaired person to choose the correct container without having to meticulously pass his fingers over each label. If they have chosen to put the label on the wall of the bottles, then I ask what would happen if the bottles got placed with the label facing away from the user, facing the wall.

When they answer that, I ask if they are presuming to start with our standard bottles or thinking of designing an entirely new range of containers. If the choice is to go with new-containers, I present them with indicative costs of designing and manufacturing the dies and moulds and the variable cost of manufacturing each container. At this point, a good candidate would begin, without being prodded, to try and calculate break even volumes. The candidate then needs to ascertain if there is a sufficiently large market size. We have rigged the numbers such that the total number of visually impaired people in the country is barely enough to break even; i.e. barely enough to be able to sell the spice bottle set at a reasonable price and recover fixed costs within a reasonable time. Some candidates get to this point and say that the total market will just about deliver break even volume. We challenge them to think about whether all visually impaired people in the country would be willing and able to buy our product.

At this point, the question we pose is, “How can we sell more units then?” Often, candidates are stumped here; for you cannot invent more visually impaired people to buy your product. The bright MBA candidate will read the same question as, “What can we do to broaden the appeal of this product?”

The conversation can then get very interesting.


– Shivram Apte




Reproduced with permission from Shivram Apte. Originally published at AptReflections.

Shivram is the Founder and CEO of Aspect Ratio. He is an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad. Aspect Ratio is hiring –Apply here