Applying for a Product Design Internship? 3 Portfolio Tips

What Hiring Managers Look for

Eric Burns
Feb 12 · 6 min read
How excited I feel for a student when I see their fantastic design portfolio, because I know they have a bright future. Photo by Mert Guller on Unsplash

Disclaimer: These thoughts are my own and are based on conversations with other fellow hiring managers and recruiters in product design.

Alright, let’s take a look at this portfolio.

Ok, good, this first project is solid. Shows their full process, and has high-quality deliverables. I’m already thinking about scheduling a call with this student.

Oh, but wait. There’s a typo. It happens. But there’s another. And a few tiny, unreadable images. Hate those.

Was this a team project? Did they do the final visual design on their own?

What are they studying again? This site is awkward to navigate. I can’t find the About Me section. Ah, there it is. Hmm, they don’t talk about any unique interests. That’s too bad. School is the perfect time to explore various interests. I’ll click a little more, but…

Put your best foot forward and get that interview.

You’ve invested so much time in making your portfolio. Spent countless late nights laying out just the right content.

But before you submit your portfolio for a product design internship, give yourself the best chance of securing an interview by:

  1. Nailing the basics
  2. Avoiding common student mistakes
  3. And demonstrating your authentic desire to grow

First, nail the basics.

You don’t have to have it all figured out.

We’re looking for potential.

Not potential to be a successful full-time product designer, but potential to be a successful intern. (During the internship is when we’ll evaluate if you have potential to be successful as an entry level designer.)

And to be a successful intern, where you’re a full, contributing member of the team, you need to be able to deliver the basics. We might ask ourself (as my colleague once stated), “Can I put this person on a small project, and with guidance, could they deliver work that we’d want to ship?”

So, for one or two key projects, show us a good bit of the following (Emphasis on show. Don’t tell us with long paragraphs of text. Show us with images, so it’s easy to scan your work, and we can be confident you can present your visual work effectively.).

The basics:

  • the design brief and project duration
  • the team members’s roles and your specific contributions (So important. We need to know what you can (and can’t) deliver yourself.)
  • problem statement (It’s ok if it sounds a bit wonky. Communicating this well will come with experience.)
  • early research: competitive analysis, user profiles, design principles
  • hero images of your final solution (Put them upfront to get our attention and to set context for what was delivered. Don’t bury the hero images.)
  • information architecture and task flow diagrams
  • early, broad, low-fidelity explorations (Sketches. More sketches. Please!)
  • iterating on multiple, divergent concepts
  • testing with users (even just your roommates) & iterating based on their feedback
  • prototypes (and testing again)
  • final, high-fidelity solutions demonstrating basics of typography and color
  • lessons learned, next steps, or impact

Simply put, we’re looking to see that you’ve got a grasp of the product design process and have worked with a team. (Everything you’ll do during your internship will be with a team.)

Realistically, we might scan one or two projects super quickly in just a few seconds to determine if you’ve covered all the basics in the process and have high-quality deliverables. If so, we’ll invest more time in reading the content and exploring the rest of your site. In total, we might look at a portfolio site for less than three minutes before making a decision about an interview.

Secondly, don’t doom your chances. Avoid common mistakes.

Time-crunched hiring managers may have dozens, or even hundreds, of portfolios to review. So, when you make multiple, easily-avoidable mistakes, you give them good reason to move on to the next candidate.

How I feel when I see intern candidates making the same portfolio mistakes over and over again. Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Avoid the following:

  • Failing to mention it was a group project, and by doing so, inadvertently taking credit for work you didn’t do (which can ultimately set you up for failure when asked to do that type of work on the job, and you can’t).
  • Several typos, multiple unreadable images, consistently low quality videos, and confusing site navigation. All of this adds up to indicate you lack attention to detail, don’t value quality and communication, or don’t take pride in your work.
  • No examples of user research or concept testing. To be successful as an intern you need to value UX research, and have some experience participating in it.
  • Overselling the value propositions of your final solutions. It’s not about the what. It’s about the how. You could’ve designed the billionth messaging app, I don’t care. But if you show your full approach and high quality work, then you give me confidence that you can apply your problem-solving process to any challenge you’d face as an intern on our project team.
  • Misrepresenting a project or employment. If a project was done in 8 hours, say so. Don’t dress it up to look like a full project- the holes in the process will be glaring. And if your LinkedIn profile shows multiple, concurrent full-time UX design roles (while you were a full-time student), yet your portfolio doesn’t look like someone with that much experience, then it raises a red flag. If the job was a short-term, part-time gig, say so. And tell us what key skills you learned during that time.

Lastly, demonstrate an authentic desire to grow.

Overall, an internship is one big growth opportunity. You get to grow your career and the company grows with your arrival and with your unique perspectives.

Successful interns will come in with a willingness to develop new skills and be coached. You’ll have mentors who are eager to pass on their skills. Mentors aren’t looking for someone who thinks they have it all figured out.

So, demonstrate your skills development in your portfolio.

How I feel when I see design intern candidates pursuing challenging creative pursuits and crushing it. Photo by 张 学欢 on Unsplash

One easy place to describe your development is in your intro, such as “I’m a former software engineer pursuing a graduate degree in UX design and looking to grow my visual design skills.” You might add a twist about how your unique experience creates value that makes you stand out, “Industrial Design major with growing UI design skills. Looking to create seamless physical and digital customer experiences.”

On your About Me section, describe your unique interests or pursuits that demonstrate your curiosity an eagerness to learn new things. Perhaps you’ve started doing more photography. Or sewing. Show some of it. Maybe you have a blog where you critique movies, or video games, or sushi restaurants. Maybe you’re minoring in Music. Talk about why that interests you.

Self-awareness of your skills gaps goes a long way towards your development. No experience designing for Android? Stand out by completing a side project where you get to explore Android. Didn’t get much formal instruction in motion design or prototyping? Show how you took an initiative to learn those skills via online tutorials or from peers at meetups. It’s not about the quality of the end results, it’s about demonstrating growth.

Show us that you seek inspiration and opportunities for growth, and we’ll understand that you could use those discoveries and learnings to ultimately improve your design work (and the experiences of our end users).

Creating a portfolio is hard.

And when applying for a job, you’ll make mistakes. It’s okay. Learn and keep applying. (As a design student, I applied to ten companies for internships before I got my first interview.)

And regardless of the outcome of your internship application, you should be confident that you’re growing your understanding of the product design process, presenting your work in the best light, and being true to your own interests.

Ultimately, internships are incredibly valuable in determining the type of work you do, and don’t, want to do. So, here’s hoping you can tweak your portfolio to position yourself to secure an internship where you’ll have fun, do great design, and grow.

The Author

Eric Burns is curious and inspired by other creatives who pursue their passions. As a hybrid UX researcher and product designer, he leads initiatives related to hiring and growth for Uber’s product design team. Previously at Uber, he managed design teams building HR tech, and he led design efforts across experimentation products and Uber Freight. He honed his design skills at frog design. Ask him about electric vehicles and driving with Uber.

Eric Burns

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Design Ops at Uber. frog design Alum. Dad. Husband. Electric Vehicles Nut.