Reflections on design management

Tips from managing a UX intern

Every summer, a new batch of talented interns join our UX team at Salesforce. They come from undergrad and graduate programs from across the country, bringing new ideas, fresh perspectives, and an appetite to do something that matters. Internship is a fundamental part of how we mentor young talent — providing opportunities to learn and take risks in the real world while also creating pathways to join our team full-time. It’s important that our interns have a meaningful experience and as design managers we play an important role in making that happen.

This summer I had the opportunity to manage one of our interns. As a product designer new to design management, I’d like to share five themes I found important in my first experience managing and provide tips that I hope can be helpful to design managers and interns alike. Below are my thoughts.

1. Goal Setting

When first meeting your intern, there’s a lot to cover, but one of the essentials is goal setting — defining a North Star for what success looks like. That sounds simple enough, but the reality is that success can be defined in any number of ways, and various stakeholders may have different expectations of how it’s defined. For example, what design management might consider success could look different from how an intern might define it, which could also look different from how the intern program management might define it. When developing goals, consider the holistic view and share it with your intern.

Example goals

By taking time to provide clarity around what matters and setting goals together you can provide transparency, facilitate a mutual sense of ownership, and align around the right goals. At the end of the summer, you want to be confident your goals were intern-centric, you avoided any miscommunication, and set up your intern for success. So, how do you begin this process?

Tips:

Lead with a candid conversation. Give your intern an opportunity to share what they really want to get out of the summer. Often, this starts with understanding a bit about their past to better frame their current motivations. Asking about what interests them is important, but probing for the why is where you’ll begin to develop deeper insights. For example, are they interested in working on a certain design area because they want to become an expert, cover a blind spot, or explore a new trend? Ask “What about design ‘x’ interests you?” and “Do you think this will be a trend in the future?” Understanding these answers will help you better empathize with, and coach your intern.

Learn about their journey. Getting deep and meaningful right off the bat isn’t always easy. One tactic that I’ve used is to ask them to talk about their journey into design. Mapping their narrative will tell you where they’ve been, what they’re doing now, and can help you forecast what should come next.

Conduct a portfolio review. Having your intern walk through their portfolio will allow you to see a range of work, shedding light onto their strengths, gaps, and areas for improvement as well as their technical and storytelling skills. Make clear that this activity is not meant to be an evaluation but rather a way for you to better set them up for success. By knowing their work, you’ll be able to play to their strengths, work on their weakness in low-risk environments, and help them put their best foot forward.

2. Managing expectations

After setting goals, it’s easy to want to discuss the elephant in the room — landing a full-time job. Many internships build toward this possibility, and navigating this topic with my intern was personally challenging. I wanted to gain my intern’s trust — showing that my goals as a manager were ultimately aligned with hers — and ended up having this conversation too early and without a game plan. I brought up intern-to-hire statistics from previous years and alluded to a potential smooth transition (which I discovered later to be a risk).

As an intern, doing good work, collaborating, presenting and taking feedback are primary factors in evaluation and strongly influenced hiring decisions. Nevertheless, there are often additional factors, like a change in headcount, a team’s skill gap, or a culture fit, that are outside an intern’s control and also play a role in hiring decisions. The process is complex, and being sensitive to these ramifications will help you have a more conscious conversation.

Tips

Don’t over promise. This might seem obvious but in the moment, staying disciplined can be challenging. Managing expectations in a more conditional or conservative way isn’t always as appealing and may not spur a ton of excitement but will speak to the realities of the process and your intern will appreciate the insight.

Re-focus on the experience. The real gift of the internship is the experience — meeting designers, collaborating, developing processes, taking on new tasks, and challenging one’s self. By changing the mindset from “getting an offer” to one that focuses on being present, your intern can begin to discover what matters to them, figure out their likes and dislikes, and see if this kind of work is something they want to do.

Manage milestones. You may not always have control of the entire hiring process, but you can control how you provide feedback and how you convey your intern’s general standing. Set some major checkpoints where they can receive candid feedback. This will give them a sense of their progress and can be an informal proxy for how they’ve positioned themselves come decision time.

3. Push versus pull

As a manager, there are times to support and times to lead. It can be challenging to know when to do either, and ultimately one must balance providing guidance with independence. Early in the internship, I was concerned that I was holding on too tight — providing too much directive feedback and not allowing my intern enough space for independent exploration. With a timeline of three months, there was a lot to learn about Salesforce and not a lot of time. Managing by leading seemed to be the right choice but I was challenged by how and when to step aside and let my intern gain more independence.

Push versus Pull

I spoke with my manager, and he mentioned this concept of “push versus pull”. He had me envision trying to move a block from one space to another with my intern. If you need to pull it, he said, it’s because it’s not headed in the right direction — you’re not just applying pressure to move it forward but you’re also re-directing it toward the right goal. If you can help push, on the other hand, it means it’s already on the right path and all you’re doing is providing support.

The conversation helped frame when to provide more guiding feedback — giving tactical advice, providing methods, and tools and when to give more support— finding ways to unblock, accelerate, and champion. As the intern program went on, I noted a shift toward more push and less pull as my intern’s confidence grew and she nailed down a project direction. Every case will be different, but knowing when to push and when to pull can be key in providing the right kind of help.

Tips

Pull, then push. The internship is short so make sure to be cognizant if you need to pull your intern in the direction of their goals, particularly at the beginning. In other scenarios, you might have more time to be flexible but within the timeframe of a summer internship, you’ll want your intern to focus more time on working than spinning their wheels. As the internship goes on, there will be a gradual shift towards independence which will allow you to transition to push.

Skew towards independence. Expect that your intern will lead their own journey and create a plan for their best way to succeed. By skewing towards independence, you create space for them to make their own decisions and take risks — in turn, they can demonstrate their ability to be a self-reliant member of the team. This kind of freedom can be scary, but if managed in doses, it’ll build confidence and foster the can-do attitude that you want to see. There will always be times to assist and support, but remember to give your intern the ability to take control of their own path first.

4. The things they don’t tell interns

In any internship, there are the things they tell interns — be punctual, work hard, meet deadlines, and show enthusiasm — then there are the things that they don’t mention. In my mind, these things can be broken down into two main buckets: the art of selling (selling your brand and persuading others), and adapting to organizational bias. Together, I believe that these play an equally important role in the success of an intern (whether they know it or not) and can and should be areas for conversation.

Selling is human. Even if it’s something that might not immediately come to mind when thinking about our profession, as designers, we do it every single day. Our job is as much about persuasion as it is about pixels, yet it can be difficult for us to discuss the importance of selling. In the case of managing an intern, I believe it’s part of our job to nudge them towards developing this skill. In the short-term, promoting oneself will help gain advocates from across the design group and develop a stronger brand and in the long-term it will be a necessary skill to be successful on the job.

In addition, organizational bias is what makes every design organization unique. Every team has its own culture and customs which shape its collective identity. Naturally, there are biases related to what a team values and champions, which have evolved in part to adjust for behaviors and traits that have made that team successful within that company. For example, one design group might value prototyping skills, because their product involves many complex micro-interactions that they need to test, while another design group might put emphasis on presentation skills, because they’re a critical part of stakeholder management. Whatever biases exist, it’s important for interns to develop a sense for them.

“You can’t play the game if you don’t know the rules.”

As a whole, we need to provide transparency. One of my old managers once told me, “You can’t play the game if you don’t know the rules.” By providing awareness of these more implicit values, you can empower your intern to succeed.

Tips

Nudge towards selling. Make sure that they’re not just doing the work but also socializing it with the team. Provide time for networking and allow your intern to make it a priority to establish good relationships across the product organization.

Emphasize the soft skills. The fact that an intern was invited to work on your team means they must be good. As much as an internship is an evaluation of skills (which, typically, we already know they have), it’s also an evaluation of character and cultural fit. Do they play nicely with others, take feedback, and someone the team genuinely wants to spend time with? The reality is that the team will be working 8 or more hours a day with this person so being likable matters.

Identify the values of your design group. Like I mentioned, every organization has inherent biases. Identify what those are and share them.

5. Providing feedback

Providing feedback can be one of the most challenging things to do well — balancing suggestion with more direct feedback, finding opportunities to provide it, and (perhaps most relevantly) finding ways to discuss improvement in an elegant way. Despite the challenges, feedback is one of the most valuable resources for employees and interns alike, and has been identified as an area where managers could do more.

For the interns, there was a single formal milestone to present work and receive feedback — the final presentation. As a result, it was up to managers to provide more regular feedback throughout the summer. Given the short timeframe, I set up a mid-way check-in presentation with our whole team, and then held weekly 1:1s to review work.

The approach generally made sense, and the mid-way check-in worked well to coach and garner feedback from a larger group on design, presentation, and storytelling. The 1:1s served different purposes depending on the context. This flexibility allowed us to move across various topics, but also made it easier to skip over time devoted to deeper feedback. Building in multiple checkpoints just for this, especially towards the beginning of the internship, can be a good way to ensure that you’re providing the knowledge, tools, and time to let your intern pivot and grow.

Tips

Develop mutually agreed upon check-in points. Work with your intern to set up feedback sessions throughout the internship. Make sure that at least one of these sessions is within the first month. Despite having less information than is ideal, you’ll give your intern more time to adjust to what they hear and enact change during their time over the summer.

Create opportunities for feedback from a diverse group. It’s important that you’re not the only one providing feedback. Gathering multiple perspectives will help develop your intern’s design sense and can also begin to build support for particular feedback. Hearing the same critique from multiple sources can help to make feedback more objective and be more impactful.

Final thoughts

As a product designer new to design management, the transition is palpable. Your success is no longer dependent on your own work, but on the ways you set up others for success. You get to look at design through a new lens, and develop different skills to enact change. Inevitably, you won’t get everything right the first time, but by emphasizing transparency, communication, and regular feedback, you can course correct and guide towards a better outcome. Managing gives you an opportunity to lead from behind but moreover, provides a way to help others. By focusing on that, you’ll find your own ways to grow.


Thoughts on design management or internships? I’d love to hear below!