The Outsider’s Guide to Landing a User Experience Research Internship

Nicole M Hill, PhD
Mar 30, 2020 · 9 min read

By Nicole M Hill

Illustrations by Ling Zhou

Every year, students contact me for feedback on their internship interview. Unfortunately, most seek advice and feedback only after they have been rejected. And more often than not, the students asking after failing are underrepresented minorities, international, or first-generation college students. What they all have in common is a lack of familiarity with the internship process and academic resources as well as limited professional networks to tap. These individuals may feel at times like they are outside of the process that more privileged students seem to navigate with ease.

It goes without saying that internships are incredibly important opportunities. First-generation college students and underrepresented minorities are often less aware of the long-term career impact of landing a prestigious internship. This is especially true at Groupon and my previous employer Grainger, which have a track record of hiring former interns. Good internships are sort of like reality tv-dating shows without all the drama and contrived elements. It’s basically an employment simulation, involving real project work to see if you would ultimately be successful as a full-time employee. At the end, both parties decide if they want to continue the relationship, hopefully by extending and accepting a job offer. And both parties benefit from this process because former interns tend to ramp up faster and are more productive while being fast-tracked into a full-time position.

This piece aims to demystify internships and provide practical advice on how to avoid the most common mistakes that “academic outsiders” make when applying for UX research internships.

Outsiders do(n’t) ask*

The first step in landing a prestigious UX research internship is to ask for help and feedback through the process. Your personal networks may not include people who could be of help to you. Don’t be deterred or afraid to ask even strangers for feedback. Students of privileged backgrounds are doing it and you must do it too in order to be competitive. If you don’t know how to begin below are some steps to get you started.

Step1: Career Services is your internship library

Every year I see great candidates inquire about internship opportunities after all slots are filled. If you visit career services within the first months of the school year, you will learn about upcoming career fairs and other events. Find out which companies will be visiting campus and what positions they are trying to fill. Don’t stop there, use Google and Linkedin to research any companies you are interested in even if they will not be visiting campus. And of course, check out these companies’ job sites, many (including Groupon) have a “university” section.

Step 2: What’s your “Instagram?”

Step 3: Don’t Make Me Think, Steve*

Keep in mind that the recruiter is often the first point of contact, they aren’t UX practitioners, and if they don’t know where to place you they may put your application in the “no” pile.

Step 4: So you made the cut! Now what?

Step 5: Your interview is not a pop quiz, it’s the final exam

Your (Groupon) interview is not the time to wing it, and you may only be given a few days notice to prepare. Schedule your mock and informational interviews while you are applying for positions if possible.

Step 6: Everyone loves a great story

Don’t ramble on and eat up all the time, this is an introduction. The remaining chapters will depend on what the interviewer asks. Be prepared to talk about why you are applying to Groupon, your previous research experience, and what you hope to gain from this experience, including if you are hoping to learn more about specific methodologies.

Step 7: Now I’d like to open it up to the audience for questions

The biggest mistake that academic outsiders make is to rush to answer as quickly as possible. It’s ok to say, “that’s an interesting question,” pause and reflect, respond, then follow up by saying, “have I fully answered your question?” Try to answer everything but know it is appropriate to say “I don’t know” or “can you rephrase the question?” Your interviewer will also expect that you have good questions about the internship, Groupon as a business, and the research team.

Step 8: Advice for a Young Investigator *

When presenting, always start with the objectives, then explain how the goals or any constraints informed your choice of methodology. Call out what you learned, what you could have done differently, and how you evaluated whether your project was successful. If you weren’t the project lead, here is a great opportunity to contrast how you might have done the project differently. Conclude with next steps, if you were hypothetically continuing this research. Be prepared to talk about how school projects might be conducted differently with the resources of a professional setting. Graduate students (outside of UX) the most important thing is for you to clearly and concisely explain your research, draw connections to the user research field, if possible, and talk about how your unique skill set and training are a value-add to a UX research team. Don’t get too technical or use jargon without providing context. Simplifying complexity is a core skill for UX as a practice, and UX research specifically.

Step 9: Show that you care

Step 10: Say thank you and pay it forward

Hopefully, you found this helpful and, if you did, pay it forward by coaching another academic outsider, a friend, or your own future intern. Given that minorities have less robust professional networks, it is important that you coach these groups in particular and pass on what you have learned.

For additional great tips please check out: 10 interview tips I share with my designer candidates by Groupon’s Helena Seo.

*For those paying attention, Women Don’t Ask, Don’t Make Me Think and Advice for a Young Investigator are famous books on negotiation, UX, and neuroscience.

Special thanks to my colleagues Joanna Vodopivec, for reminding me to bring my whole self to this post, Ling Zhou for her amazing illustration ideas that also reshaped the content, and Matt Hanson for brainstorming concepts with Ling.

Groupon Design Union

A collection of stories, case studies, and tips 'n tricks…

Nicole M Hill, PhD

Written by

I’m a User Experience Researcher. My superpowers are intentional connections, whether insights-to-actions or samba steps-to-syncopation!

Groupon Design Union

A collection of stories, case studies, and tips 'n tricks from the Product, Visual and User Research folks at Groupon

Nicole M Hill, PhD

Written by

I’m a User Experience Researcher. My superpowers are intentional connections, whether insights-to-actions or samba steps-to-syncopation!

Groupon Design Union

A collection of stories, case studies, and tips 'n tricks from the Product, Visual and User Research folks at Groupon

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