What I Learned as a Design Intern at IBM
AKA “20 Sticky Notes Only Design Thinkers Will Relate To”
Old Western movies would have me believe that Texas looked a little like this.
I wasn’t sure what to expect my first time walking down the short, sunlit path to IBM’s Austin studio. I’ve spent most of my life in New Jersey (cold), then moved to upstate New York (colder) for university. The prospect of 10 weeks under the burning Texas sun was initially hard to fathom, but I suppose I warmed up to it.
I joined IBM through the Patterns program, formerly Maelstrom, as one of 20 from a pool of over 2000. I was excited to improve my skills as a UX designer, but also to learn from and work with researchers, visual designers, front-end developers, and offering (product) managers.
Coming into the internship, I set a few specific, actionable goals for myself in the areas I wanted to improve on, while keeping an open mind for picking up new skills. I pursued opportunities to refine my craft, while cultivating relationships with my peers and mentors.
By the end of my internship, I’d grown in my confidence and abilities as a designer, and walked away with amazing memories of my time in Austin.
The Patterns Experience
For the duration of the internship, I worked in a cross-functional product team with 2 offering managers, a front-end developer, and a visual designer. We came from different backgrounds and career paths, but immediately hit it off and settled into a comfortable workflow.
As the UX designer, working in a team challenged me to think through, justify, and clearly articulate my design decisions, framed around our user’s goals and pain points. Working in a diverse team empowered us to tackle problems from various angles, but ran the risk of misalignment. It became important for us to regularly touch base and share the intentionality behind what we were doing.
Throughout our project, I collaborated with offering managers to frame our deliverable in terms of its market viability and roadmap. Closer to delivery, I worked with the visual designer and developer to execute on a prototype that would deliver a usable, useful, and enjoyable end-to-end experience.
There were definitely some shaky moments — especially towards crunch time — about how much we could get done, whether our user story made sense, etc. One of the challenges we confronted in our project was complexity in our web of stakeholders and target users. When team members received differing feedback at interviews or usability tests, it became easy to get misaligned.
One light that guided us during this time was the IBM Design Thinking Field Guide, which helped us step back and deconstruct the problem via concrete frameworks. In our case, the Stakeholder Map, Scenario Map, and Storyboarding were especially helpful for mapping out points of contention, getting us back on track, and maintaining our velocity.
At the end of our internship, we delivered a great prototype and presentation, and are even looking to patent a component of our solution. Though I came to IBM looking to improve on technical skills in design, I was fortunate to join a diverse, cross-functional team and strengthen soft skills in communication, workflow coordination, and conflict resolution.
The IBM Experience
Outside of my team, I pursued opportunities to meet, chat with, and come to know incredible designers from backgrounds in industrial design, computer science, psychology, and more. I peeped some of their awesome projects, in areas like immersive data visualization, cognitive security design, and real-time digital thread analysis.
Talking to people within the company ended up becoming an invaluable part of my IBM experience, opening the door to new perspectives and stories. I managed to find both mentorship and friendship from different people at IBM, accelerating both my professional and personal growth.
Within the intern cohort, we shared a whirlwind of experiences that drew us closer together. From sushi bars to barbecue, go-karts to Mario Kart, and karaoke to ukulele, I’m grateful for the chances I had to grow closer with my peers, either from connecting over common interests or sharing excitement for unique passions.
To unexplored perspectives, knowledge, and expertise.
In some ways, my previous experience as a designer prepared me pretty well for what I’d be doing at IBM. I’m grateful that the work I contributed to struck a balance between what I already knew and what I wanted to learn.
To that point, I’ve realized the importance of adopting a growth mindset. Working at IBM gave me the chance to branch beyond my immediate project and explore design across a variety of technologies and product offerings, from cognitive systems to blockchain to the cloud.
Ask questions, listen, and reflect — rather than become complacent in your understanding, seek to dive deeper into domains that interest you. Curiosity drives us to learn new things, but provides the additional benefit of making us more informed and engaged in conversations with others.
In your relationships, personal growth, and time.
I mentioned earlier that I came into IBM with specific goals in mind. This was especially helpful when seeking out mentorship — in my case, I looked to find people who could help me improve on visual design, optimize my Sketch workflow, and learn more about designing at scale.
When meeting with designers, I tried to be as intentional as possible with my time, either by coming in with questions or asking for specific feedback on my work. Much of what I learned came from collaboration and co-designing— I’d spend meetings discussing interaction and visual decisions, weighing the pros and cons of UI explorations, and thinking through how users would perceive and process content at each interaction touchpoint.
Making time to be intentional about where you want to improve is hard, especially when juggling a project and other obligations. But taking the time to do so not only made me a better designer, but gave me an excuse to meet and get to know some cool and good people.
Of people, problems, and process.
People are complex. We assign priority to different things based on our own experiences and mental models. This implies that disagreement is natural and expected in the course of working with others.
When conflict arises, it’s important to hold open, candid conversations about the issue, rather than letting it fester. Our team worked effectively by voicing our concerns and being honest about what we thought we could and couldn’t achieve, or what we should and shouldn’t pursue. This improved alignment and ultimately benefitted the success of our minimum delightful experience.
I’m happy to have spent my summer with IBM, making new friends, mentors, and memories. I’ve learned a lot and contributed to meaningful work during my time here, and look forward to bringing my experiences to wherever my next adventure takes me.