Lessons learnt from my Interaction Design Internship

From my portfolio website

During the past summer at Google, I was working as an Interaction Design Intern on an in-house enterprise financial system which was a big and complex project spanning across several years.

When I looked back at my daily takeaways documented throughout my 13-week internship, I thought it would be interesting to analyze them, extract the most important lessons and share them with you all.

My Daily Reflection & Takeaways throughout the 13-week internship

After I quickly grouped the notes, 5 lessons surfaced and summarized my takeaways from the last summer.

1. The core challenge of Enterprise UX is its complexity.

The complexity reveals itself in different aspects of a project, including but not limited to :

  • The project’s scope of an enterprise product is usually very big. Many different modules are contained in the pipeline to achieve the business and users’ goals, which often makes it a several-year project. Quickly acquiring the domain knowledge is the first hurdle for designers if they don’t have related experiences or trainings. A clear mental model of what the system consists of and how different modules work together technically is also essential to the following UX work.
  • There are very different users and stakeholders with very different interests related to your project inside and outside the company. It’s hard but important to have a good understanding of their goals, workflows, working habits and so on.
  • Ambiguity and changes of the requirements from business and technical sides are inevitable (e.g., product manager maybe “not sure about how many attributes the payroll team will come up with, they are still in the middle of their process. I think it won’t exceed 20.”). Designers cannot wait until everything is crystal clear. When to make assumptions, when to compromise, and when to persist show how well a designer understands the big picture of the project.
  • Of all the design considerations, a lot of time is invested to keep iterating the design for customized business logics, numerous edge cases, accessibility considerations, etc. However, you still need to move fast and get the work done within limited time.

2. Talk to the audience at earlier phases if possible

Usually we, designers, won’t be the end users of the enterprise products we are going to ship, which stresses the importance of user research and evidence collection even more. Unluckily, due to the limits of resources and time, I didn’t talk to my end users in the explorative research phase. Rather, I chose to learn about them via previous research documents and business partners who were familiar with them. Therefore, I had to make assumptions during the design phase and validate them later in the user testing. When I reflected on this decision after the testing, I realized that even if I only spent a little amount of time talking to the end users at the beginning, I could have saved a lot of time and avoided some unnecessary discussion:

  • The insights got from even 1 or 2 interviews already have the power of reducing the number of assumptions made and time wasted later even they might not be representative enough.
  • When working with researchers, we should back each other up, learn from each other and challenge each other.
  • Make concrete research plans before talking to the real person. Understand my goals, set the procedures and prepare the materials. Have a backup plan for the urgent situations during the research activities and calm down to cope with the urgencies. Also prepare for getting up at 4 am : )
  • Pilot testing is valuable for finding the potential procedure flaws in the test plan.
  • Persona and user journey provide me with a good framework to organize the insights and align everyone on the understanding of the problems and users supported by the user research.

3. Structural creative process

From my perspective, being creative is not that A-ha moments hit you unexpectedly. It’s a good habit of going through divergent and convergent thought processes whenever you need good ideas. Creative part of the design process is of vital importance to a design project’s success.

The Process of a Senior Designer from Julie Zhuo

I love Julie Zhuo’s description of the differences between senior designers and junior designers and I believe one of the major differences is whether the designer owns his/her structural creative process which could be used to productively generate ideas and keep those good ones. Some other thoughts include:

  • At some point, theoretical analyses don’t help any more. I have to design first and then evaluate and iterate.
  • Crazy 8s is a good way to force ourselves to start considering the design itself and quickly collect some interesting ideas. I should learn more activities like this to help myself ideate and gather ideas.
  • Delay judgement. Don’t easily scrap any design idea. Try it quickly and see if how it goes.
  • I need to push myself to see the crux of the problem and make a hard call more quickly (list all the pros and cons and decide).
  • Keep iterating and I will find the most valuable part in a design and get rid of the redundancy.
  • Respect the time and design. It takes time to reach a good design. Slow down when necessary. Make my thought process clear. Be aware of what I’m doing. Form my own frameworks for carrying out the design ideation and exploration.
  • Be able to utilize different evaluation tools efficiently, such as heuristic principles, general design principles, accessibility design principles, best design practices and others. Consider the edge cases as much as possible. Be sensitive to the parts where there will be technical constraints.

4. Efficient and effective collaboration and communication in a cross-functional team

It’s a great experience for me to stay in a cross-functional team and shadow different meetings at the beginning to get the basics. Then I could keep practicing and forming the good habits during the rest of the summer. Some good practices I learnt are:

Form the right mindsets

  • Learn their languages. Look at the big picture, be proactive and solve the problems for others so that I could have bigger impact.
  • Be humble. Accept that I will still lack some perspectives even you try very hard to perfect my work.
  • UX designer should always be proactive in helping shape the products, not only the UI but also the vision, road map and needs analysis. At lower levels, I might not have the direct say on that. But I still could voice up and give my opinion to my manager.
  • When there is a collaboration issue inside the team, learn to escalate it to my manager or others’ managers without hurting a certain person.

Run meetings effectively

  • Get prepared and have a plan before a meeting or anything that costs others’ time, especially when they volunteer to do it.
  • Define goals for the meeting and get feedback on the agenda in advance from the team.
  • Prepare the items I want to go through first. Document them. And go through all of them one by one in case I forget.
“Before having a meeting with any, have an answer for the question you want to talk about.” — Sangmi Park
  • Explaining why things/what we are doing are important for UX to complete the design is an important process before the start of each agenda item. It’s a good way to educate and evangelize the value of UX
  • Remember to speak louder to make myself more confident. It’s okay to make mistakes. Learn to fail. When I fail, remember that it’s a good thing and learn from it.
  • Control the pace and write down the agenda on the whiteboard as a reminder.
  • Be patient and encourage the feedback. Have eye contact when I talk to the person in the meeting
  • Reading a room is really important and keep thinking about my next actions to move this meeting forward.
  • Use different tools/models/frameworks of presenting data/thoughts in a meaningful way which helps myself and other colleagues get the value from it.
  • Take notes and document others’ feedback first. They are not in the meeting to argue with me for the sake of arguing. They try to give their sincere feedback and concerns. These points might not be valid but worthwhile to be considered later. We are also not solving the problems in the meeting. Rather, we are to find the problems and possible ways of solutions
  • Having a debrief session really helps me organize the thoughts got in the meeting and identified the main problems.
  • Document the meeting and send it to the team members and show the respect and appreciation

Critique the design constructively

  • Remember to give credit to others even though my design is under criticism. Look at my design always as if it’s the first time I see it and be critical. Be open and embrace others’ feedback even though it might hurt my ego. Put down the ego first. Focus on the design itself.
  • There is always something I could improve as a designer. Be humble and listen to all the feedback
  • UX design decisions are made by us. Requirements need to be clarified with other team members. Some design decisions need to be based on users’ feedback. However, we also need to lead the users to better work flows sometimes if they haven’t used this tool before and hesitate to change their habits.
  • Having a checklist is helpful for me to review my own designs without being affected by my affection/ownership for them.
  • Tease out the different design facets and talk about each one at one time. It’s a good way to come up with alternative design solutions as well when I consider different facets for conveying different information (colors, font weight, iconography, shadows, etc).
  • Focus on the general navigation, layouts and interaction first. This is the fundamental part.
  • Scannability, flow of eyes, information architecture users get used to, prominence & info priority, etc. Have all the criteria in mind when examining my own work or give feedback to others

Communicate visually

  • Visualization is very useful for helping us understand a complex system
  • Use different visual tools to help explain my ideas. They could be simple charts or tables, data visualization results or user journeys/personas/affinity diagrams. You name it. The ultimate goal is to explain my idea effectively and efficiently.
  • Storyboarding is a very important skill. It helps me consider and illustrate the entire service. I need to practice my hand sketch skills more.
  • Grouping the ideas to find the pattern is another way of visualization. A good designer should be good at presenting the patterns (whether it’s from my own research or from others’ work)

5. Future Growth

Apart from working on the internship project, I had 1:1 chats with designers from different teams across Google. I learnt a lot from these chats, especially about how to grow quickly as a junior designer:

  • As a junior designer, I need to meet the bars for all the skills, including visual, interaction, motion, communication, leadership, etc. Then choose what I want to focus on and become a T-shaped designer in the first several years.
  • Find my passions and have fun when I’m looking for my long vertical stroke in that “T”.
  • Have a mindset of “exploration” rather than “work”. Boldly try new things and ideas. Welcome the mistakes and be patient with myself.
  • Understand my strengths and weaknesses. I need to utilize my strong analytical skill nurtured in philosophical trainings during the undergrad time and have more impact by using it to help others solve problems. As a non-native speaker, I need to keep improving my language skills, as what I did everyday during the internship.
  • Take moments to reflect and see what I have learnt. Move forward from there. (I’m doing a good job at it right?)

Final Thanks:

I was really grateful to have this amazing chance of interning at Google. Everyone I met there was so nice. I guess that’s what makes a company inclusive and competitive. Things start from the people and culture.

I would like to shout out to all those who helped me so much during the internship, Sangmi Park - the best host in the world , Brian Kromrey - our supportive and experienced manager , Amy Pu - the amazing and helpful mentor and all the other great team members!