8 Things I learned in my first design internship

Reflections from a mentor and intern

I love to mentor. If it weren’t for all the people who guided me while I was still a student, there would absolutely be no chance of me working as a professional UX designer today. It’s a fun and rewarding way to give back to the design community and learn tons in the process. This summer I recruited and mentored my first intern, Alice. Together, we redesigned Udemy’s support center, overcame a plethora of challenges, and shared cat pictures. Now that the summer is over, we have compiled our most valuable findings to share with you.


Things we learned about interviewing

Frances: Have empathy, but remember your own needs

Can’t make everyone happy

A lot of candidates applied for the internship. Much like myself just a few years ago, these were all people with hopes of becoming a professional designer. It was hard to turn people down. I could empathize with them so much — all they needed was a chance to get a foot in the door, and the opportunities would start to open up.

As my short-list of potential interns got longer and longer, I realized that I needed to focus on what my needs were too. The optimist in me believed that all of these people deserved a chance to let their talents shine and discover if UX design was the right field for them. However, I needed this person to negotiate with stakeholders, deliver specs to engineering, and be open to design guidance from both myself and the team. If I wasn’t confident the intern would be able to accomplish these tasks, it would be a risk for the company as well. With that in mind, I was able to work towards selecting the best candidate with more confidence.

Alice: Take the time to find the right fit

The best decisions are well thought out

At the beginning of my search, I was optimistic: I had started looking in October, so I had plenty of time to find one, right? But as winter came around, I had done a few interview rounds with some big name companies (Microsoft, Salesforce, and IBM Design), but received no offers. As the search started to creep into spring, I started to panic. Summer was getting close, and among my classmates, I was one of the few who did not have an internship lined up for the summer.

I was worried about the possibility of not having an internship for the summer. But after finally receiving internship offers from Alaska Airlines, CP+B, and Udemy, I felt that it was important to decide carefully by weighing the different opportunities based on several criteria:

  • The project: Is it one main project or many? Will the project have an impact on the company? Can I use it for my portfolio after the internship?
  • The team: Am I working in a team with a PM and engineers? How much autonomy do I have?
  • The culture fit: Did I have a good gut feeling about the people that I interviewed with? Would I feel supported as an intern?

In the end, taking the time to look for the right opportunity paid off. Udemy offered me a project with a big impact that I would have ownership of. I would also be working with a mentor (yay!) who would guide me through the summer internship.


Things we learned about adapting

Frances: Best practices aren’t always realistic practices

Hold on a sec… do we really want this?

I was so excited! Weeks before Alice walked in through Udemy’s front doors, I had a Google Doc set up with a detailed internship agenda. However, soon after Alice started, that meticulously planned agenda went flying out the window. I had neglected to factor in stakeholder disagreements, scheduling complications, and unexpected edge cases. Even though I wanted Alice to have the end-to-end design process experience, actually getting the project shipped during her internship took priority.

We had to approach this project in a different way: trust our instincts and make changes on the fly. Ditching the highly structured internship agenda turned out to be a good thing. Exposing Alice to the unpredictability and ambiguity of real world projects strengthened her as a designer and raised her sense of project ownership. Soon, Alice was speaking up more in stakeholder meetings and doing a great job of defending her design decisions.

Alice: Be comfortable with change

Be prepared for it too!

Before starting at Udemy, Frances had sent me a detailed plan for the project. I was delighted! The plan helped me feel more comfortable starting my internship because I had a better understanding of what I would be working on and what was expected of me as an intern. However, a few weeks into the project, I started having difficulty adhering to the plan. I was receiving conflicting feedback on the user research I was about to conduct, which added a lot of confusion. I took a step back. Although I wanted to stick to my original plan, it was apparent to me that my current approach was not the most effective solution to the problem. Instead, I decided to move the project in a different direction.

The most important thing I learned about working at a startup is to be adaptable and be strategic. Don’t always expect complete a full design process for the sake of doing it.


Things we learned about people

Frances: Have confidence in your instincts

No, interns aren’t for serving coffee

I honestly didn’t think I’d be doing much besides giving design critiques throughout the project. However, as the internship project started to pick up speed, I found myself in the position where I needed to make a call on what the internship was, and what it wasn’t. Yes, Alice will work on the overall information architecture of the site. No, Alice will not work on the re-categorization of all the support articles.

Some of these decisions were challenging to make because they went against stakeholder requests or meant delegating work elsewhere. I had to remind myself that I needed to look out for the success of the internship as well as the project. Many people had ideas on what would be the best direction for the project, but ultimately it was my responsibility to have the courage to steer the ship. None of this would have been possible without much guidance from my own mentor and manager. Mentors are fantastic!

Alice: have the courage to be honest

Honesty is the best policy?

To my surprise, a big portion of my time was not focused on weighing design decisions but collaborating with project stakeholders. To keep the project moving along quickly, I needed:

  • Clear communication and transparency
  • Daily stand-ups and weekly meetings for organization
  • Consistent feedback from stakeholders

At certain times, though, the amount of conflicting feedback from different stakeholders became overwhelming. This led to hard decisions, where I had to tell certain project stakeholders things like, “Yes, that would be a great idea for a later version but that is out of scope for this project,” or “Yes, an ajax, in-page content loading experience would make a smoother navigation experience for our user but it doesn’t work from an engineering standpoint.” This led to the realization that I had the responsibility to defend my design decisions, and that I should seek balance rather than satisfy all of the stakeholders’ expectations.


Things we learned about learning

Frances: Be approachable

Mind-reading is also an option

There was a particularly challenging phase of the project that involved rethinking one of the major flows. I could tell that Alice was stuck, but I couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t asking for help or mentioning any difficulty during our weekly one-on-one meetings. Was I overreacting, or perhaps I didn’t seem available as a mentor?

As an experiment, I asked Alice to relocate her stuff away from the intern seating area to an empty desk next to me. Immediately, the amount of communication increased and the project started moving quicker. Alice became more at ease with asking for feedback, and I became more confident with giving detailed critique without feeling like a micromanager. From this I learned that I’ve got to be proactive in my mentoring, and understand what works for my mentee and what doesn’t.

Alice: (Don’t be afraid to) just ask questions

Worst case scenario, they’ll say no

During my first week, I was focused on project planning and on-boarding. As part of my on-boarding, Frances encouraged me to shadow her around the office, sit in on daily stand-ups, and set up 1:1 meetings with the different people I would be working with. I have a challenging time interacting with strangers, especially 1:1, but the more I observed my coworkers at Udemy, the more I realized that my best resources were the people around me: the people that interacted with users and our product on a daily basis.

This helped me realize the importance of Frances’ advice on meeting people around the company. What I got out of the internship was dependent on what I put into my time there. If I just wanted to get a good portfolio piece, all I had to do was focus on my project. If I wanted long term connections and a better understanding of the industry, then it was in my best interest to meet people and ask questions. As it turns out, everyone was more than happy to help me learn (as expected of an education company)!


We hope reading about our experiences will inspire you to be a mentor, find a mentor, or just get more involved in your community. Remember to pay it forward!


Frances

UX Designer at Udemy: Reads sci-fi books, attempts to draw, explores the wilderness, and drinks hot water (stop telling me its weird).

Alice

UX Design Intern at Udemy. Studies informatics at the University of Washington, loves cooking and eating, collects houseplants, drinks too much coffee, enjoys bike adventures.