The Outsider’s Guide to Landing a User Experience Research Internship
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*
First let’s start with the elephant in the room, imposter syndrome: the feeling of incompetence often experienced by overachievers, that is more common for certain groups such as underrepresented minorities and women. Self-doubt may be preventing you from proactively seeking help or admitting that you don’t know where to begin. Practice, preparation, and seeking out feedback are the true differentiators of average, good, and great internship candidates. Research has shown that underrepresented minorities and women are among the least likely groups to ask for help, advocate for themselves, or negotiate (a related but different topic). This was something I personally struggled with as a student, despite the fact that I freely gave help and advice to those that approached me.
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
If you treat this process as a school project you will be far more successful at landing your actual research internship. Use your university’s career services to research the internship process. The internship process typically starts in the fall.
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?”
Academic outsiders have often never created a resume and fail to appreciate the time it takes to make a strong one. You need to think about how you will represent yourself to potential employers, much like how people craft their persona and brand on Instagram. The minimum expectation is a resume that screams, “I am a UX Research Candidate” by highlighting research and any design coursework, previous internships, and methodologies that you have studied or used in the past. If your goal is to work as a hybrid person (e.g., someone that does research and design) that is okay too, but you should be clear about who you are and what you want to do. Be sure to include any awards, accomplishments, or leadership roles. Your resume must never be longer than two pages and it should be visually clean and crisp — befitting a member of the greater design community. It may also be appropriate for you to have an online portfolio, website, or LinkedIn profile. Critically, ask for feedback on your resume. Career services, professors, mentors, family, and even friends can all be great sources of feedback on these materials, just make sure you build in time for that feedback.
Step 3: Don’t Make Me Think, Steve*
Maybe you think you are ready to apply now. But are you really? Often companies will use one application for several different internships. For example, at Groupon we are looking for researchers, designers, content strategists, and other roles. Typically we have one application for all three user experience roles. We talked about your resume screaming “researcher”, and your cover letter, online portfolios, and profiles must do this as well. Some internships, such as Groupon’s, are looking for people to do one role, while others may have you wear many hats such as hybrid research and design roles. It’s very common for our applicants to have taken coursework and conducted project work in both research and design, so it isn’t always clear which role a candidate is interested in if their application materials do not explicitly state it. Before applying, make sure your interest aligns with the role and be clear about how your experience makes you a good fit. If you are unclear on the job requirements, reach out and ask for clarity.
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?
Congratulations, you just got invited to interview or maybe the recruiter wants to do a quick phone screen. Hopefully, the company has been clear on the next steps. If not, be proactive by asking whom you will be speaking with, what their role is, and what the format of the interview will be, including whether you are expected to do a formal presentation. Once you know who will be conducting the interview, do a quick Google/LinkedIn search so you can ask targeted questions. For example, if you are talking with a recruiter or human resource professional, ask questions about the program overall, if you are talking to the hiring manager/team you might want to dig in more about the team and the type of research that is conducted at the company.
Step 5: Your interview is not a pop quiz, it’s the final exam
A quiz is an opportunity to assess your competence before the final exam largely determines your grade. The biggest mistake academic outsiders make, even graduate students, is to fail to properly prepare for the “final exam” that is an internship interview. If English is your second language, you may find the interview uniquely challenging, even if you are fluent. Fortunately, Career Services provides free mock interviews but keep in mind these folks are generalists. Use your school alumni networks or LinkedIn to find a UX Research professional willing to do a brief informational interview; be sure to prepare for this meeting.
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
Your interview is the story of why we should hire you. Your story has several chapters. Chapter one is a concise but delightful tale of why you are unique. Introduce yourself, your background, your education, and include a few interesting personal details so that the interviewer will remember you.
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
Most of the interview will be you answering questions. Make sure you listen carefully, ask for clarification when necessary, and concisely answer. Most importantly take a breath and a moment to think about your answer.
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 *
Be clear on the type of experience you have, such as coursework or a previous internship. Be honest about your role and responsibilities in any group projects. Students researchers can not always lead and aren’t expected to always lead. But if you overstate your contribution, your interviewer, a seasoned professional, will likely know and pass on you. Remember that integrity and ethics are critical research skills and you are being evaluated on your character.
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
Often academic outsiders are unprepared to answer the simple question, “Why are you interested in our company specifically?” Our best candidates are thoughtful about Groupon and don’t have a generic answer. They spend time shopping on the app and website, try at least one deal, and come prepared to discuss what Groupon is doing well and how we can improve. They also research Groupon in the news or trade publications. It is truly disappointing to talk to a great candidate only to find out they never even shopped on Groupon. I really expect a UX researcher to do their homework on us and find ways to incorporate that knowledge into your interview.
Step 10: Say thank you and pay it forward
Don’t forget to thank your interviewers with an email within 24 hours. It’s always a nice touch when a student references part of the conversation or shares something new with the interviewer. Maybe you mentioned an insightful medium post during your interview, include it in your message.
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.
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.