Lessons from mentoring a UX intern

Last summer I had an opportunity to mentor an intern; one of the most humbling and rewarding experiences of my life. At every step of it, I recalled my lessons from my mentors. While I was mentoring my mentee, my mentor was mentoring me on mentorship. (so meta, no alliteration intended!)

Searching for an intern:

Reaching out to the university network (Georgia Tech, University of Michigan, University of Washington has excellent HCI programs. CMU has a great program too but it is an year long and students directly seek a full time opportunity) and crafting a personalised job description helps. I remember being impressed by the job description of my Autodesk internship. It was thoughtful and showed the possible impact and how much they cared about an intern.

Interviewing:

I preferred a Skype interview than just an audio call. I got to see how they are as a person — their personality, communication style, enthusiasm level. For the actual interview, I asked them to showcase a project that they are proud (why someone is proud of something, tells something about that person), an on the spot design challenge (to evaluate the application of theory and quick thinking), and my favourite — why UX?

Onboarding and projects:

Along with giving direct help during the onboarding week, teaching them whom to and how to ask for help is essential. I remember this made me hands-off my mentor.

It is better to give open-ended and multiple problem spaces. My ex-manager used to say, “They wouldn’t do a good job at it if they are not interested.”. Giving an opportunity to select a problem space and define the problem within it could lead to a sustained interest in the project.

Feedback:

My ex-manager had a unique approach of giving feedback. Instead of giving direct feedback, she used to make me reflect and realise the mistakes myself. If I went to her with a problem, she used to ask me what I thought the answer was. Looking back, I think her goal was to make me an independent thinker.

My internship mentor had another unique approach. Before pointing out a mistake, she used to acknowledge how she herself made that mistake and improved. That way the feedback became easier to accept and drives home the point that it is ok to make mistakes and learn from it.

A question that surprised me towards the end of the internship was when my mentor asked me for feedback on her mentorship. That was rare. It showed a desire to improve. From my mentee, I learned that I could be more thoughtful with the intern project choices — including projects that would create an instant impact.

Networking:

My internship mentor intentionally introduced me to people in her UX circle. Their advice was invaluable. However, the takeaway was much more meta — learning to make connections. I attempted to do the same for my intern. Team events are a great way for them to bond and connect with colleagues at a different level.

By the end of summer, I realised how lucky I have been to have wise mentors!

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