Ace your design internship — in a remote world!

Priyanka Nagwekar
Aug 18, 2020 · 10 min read
Illustration of a person on a rocket moving towards a trophy signifying goals

It was a usual socially distant Thursday afternoon. The morning skirmish of remote meetings had died down ( Zoom fatigue is real folks! ). I was reflecting on my day so far and feeling a bit unsettled about a meeting earlier. A teammate and I were brainstorming with our summer intern in a typical 30 min zoom sesh and had to wrap up abruptly to jump on another call. In spite of doing our best that short session, I wondered if I had managed to translate everything I had to say in that brief discussion. In a pre COVID world, we would have had the luxury of co-location, facetime, discussions over coffee, random corridor talks, and so on. But bang, right in the middle of the pandemic, we had to make the most of these short remote meetings.

It was with these thoughts that I decided to pen down this article covering what design interns need to focus on at each point of the internship to set them up for success. If you are an intern currently starting on your exciting design internship, I hope you do stick around and read on.

Stage 1: Beginning of the Internship

Interns face huge challenges as they join their summer gigs in the world we find ourselves in today. For many of you, this will be your first foray into the ‘real world’. You will need to onboard onto a new team, learn the lay of the land as quickly as you can, and then make some real impact in a relatively short duration of the internship. All this while being remote and somewhat isolated from the teams you are working with. This can all seem downright scary!

Growth mindset for the win!
Everything is new. The people, the processes. If there ever is a time to adopt a growth mindset, this is it. Open yourself up to learning new things, meeting new people, and absorbing new processes. Learn as much as you can about not only the product you are working on but the entire ecosystem. Try to adopt an end-user perspective and see how they perceive the product. Take a bajillion notes. Drink copious amounts of coffee ( if that's your jam). Ask questions. Learn. Rinse and repeat!

Remote World Tip #1: Designate a space for all of your notes and learnings, such as a collaboration board on Miro. They have pre-made brainstorming templates that are super helpful at this early stage.

Be intentional about your goals
Know what you want from the internship. This sets you up to work with intent. Knowing what you want to achieve in the next 3–4 months will help you plan out your time and help you figure out where to expend your energy. Think about how much time you will be spending on each stage of the design process, and how you can best make an impact on the product.

Selecting your project
Often the team you will join will have a project in mind for you to work on. Sometimes you might even be given options to choose from. Evaluate the project and see how much work it entails. Raise any concerns you have with your manager or mentor and get their thoughts. Is the project too long or does it require a lot of upfront research that will take up your entire internship?

If it does, are you ok with focusing on the ‘know the user’ portion of the design process or do you want a more end to end design project that touches upon all aspects of product design? In case you have a choice regarding the project, see if the topic interests you and makes you feel passionate about the work you are about to embark on. After all, you will be spending a good opportunity and a great deal of your time on the project. It might as well be something that drives you and makes you want to wake up wanting to go further in the design journey each day!
Learn to communicate your wants and concerns with your manager in a timely manner so that your manager can address them effectively.

Prepare your project case study along the way
As you make progress, also focus on having a good portfolio case study that showcases the problem statement and your solution highlighting your thought process and decisions made. Absolutely any design job worth its salt will want to review your portfolio for future roles. Having a strong case study of how you identified and solved a user pain point will help you get your foot in the door and make you a stronger job candidate.

Meet and keep in touch with your team
Meet your entire core design team. This includes your mentor, skip-level manager, and the entire product and cross-functional teams. One of your goals should be to absorb all you can from experienced peers. This also helps you build bonds you can leverage later in the internship to get feedback, brainstorm concepts, and so on. As you progress through your internship, you are simultaneously building your own professional network. I’ve always found the bonds I’ve made with like-minded empathetic fellow problem solvers to be the biggest perk of my time at any of my previous gigs.

Remote World Tip #2: In a remote-only world, this becomes even more important. Set up time on your calendar on a regular basis to talk to teammates about your project, the design process, and anything else design related. This broadens your perspective and gets you into a habit of holding your own in design discussions.

The full-time talk
One of the themes I’ve noticed new interns wonder about but are reluctant to discuss with their teams is the possibility of converting their internship into a full-time role. Some opportunities have this clearly defined before the start of the internship while some do not discuss it openly. While the exact timing can be decided by each individual based on their own experiences with their team, my advice is to have this talk early on in the internship. It could be a quick 30 min sync to understand what the team looks for from full-time candidates and what you could do to place yourself in a good spot as a potential candidate.

Stage 2: Designing with a robust process

Process is key
Many new design projects will start with the burning request for mocks for a new idea in an unreasonably short duration. Instead of jumping right into mocks (it is exciting right! ), it’s a good practice to step back and evaluate a few things:

A. Understand the problems
Reach out to end-users of the product, try to understand the problem space. See where the gaps are. Uncover the key pain and happy points for the users.

B. End to End Story
Think about a user's lifecycle with the feature or the product. What is the problem? Who are the users? Why is it important to solve this problem? This is another good spot to touch base with the users and validate the problem statement.

Remote World Tip #3: End to End stories have proven to be an excellent tool to bring cross-functional teams on the same page and share a common documented vision before any effort is put on mockups. This is very critical for remote teams since there is much more scope for miscommunications regarding the end goal.

Check out this excellent resource on End to End stories by Kevin McBride, one of our Product Design Architects.

C. Existing Patterns
What other products or services have a similar pattern within the company ecosystem? Consistency is good for areas that do not need any unnecessary innovation. This is a careful line to tread though. We do not want to be bogged down by consistency and not make any improvements or innovations where needed. It is a designer’s job to push the boundaries of the experience where required.

Remote World Tip #4: Create a Miro board to document similar patterns seen across other product areas. This helps you easily visualize these patterns in one spot and make educated choices on your current use case.

D. Understand the Competitors
It is essential to understand the landscape of competitors. Your users are using these other apps in their day and your experience will be invariably compared to these apps. You want to come out at the top of such comparisons. And the first step to that is understanding what others out there are doing.

E. Iterative Design
Iteratively progress to mocks of a higher fidelity to save time for more critical flow and interaction decisions and then in later iterations, focus on the visual.

Imposter Syndrome Strikes!

There have been many times early in my product designer journey that I have felt an existential crisis. I’ve wondered if I am actually deserving of the opportunity given to me. I’ve marveled at the skill and finesse of other designers and in general, felt bummed out at not having that ‘aha moment’ that someone else in the team just did. Or sometimes I have felt lost in a really complex domain.

Remote World Tip #5: Being isolated from your team can be especially difficult early on in an internship. There is no one to talk to and resolve quick queries. No one to grab a quick coffee with and brainstorm. If you feel these thoughts creeping in during your internship, realize that you are not the only one. Try to think back on your journey and see how hard and smart you have worked. Remember the moment you knew you were chosen for the internship and know that experienced teammates saw potential in you and your work. Talk to your mentor and manager about your thoughts and get their perspective. Chances are they have felt the same way in their early days and can provide guidance.

Defending your Design Decisions

Design is often subjective — different team members can have different approaches to solving the same problem based on their experiences. During a design review, be prepared to explain your reasoning and also be open to new perspectives that can improve the design. Even though being open-minded is good, you want to avoid designing by committee. Listen to all the differing opinions, go back to the drawing board and reevaluate if you need to pivot on your decisions. If you feel strongly about the direction you have chosen, stick to your proverbial guns!

Remote World Tip #6: Before a design review, pull together all the key research insights that informed your design decisions in a format that is presentation friendly. In normal times you could easily share this and have quick corridor conversations with cross-team members to demonstrate your thought process. In the remote world, you will have to use the design review meeting slot diligently.

Brainstorm with your team — early and often
So you have begun working on your project and are making progress. Make time to sync up with your core team and brainstorm ideas and approaches. You want to get feedback early and pivot your approach if need without going too much further.

Remote World Tip #7: Check out this awesome template for remote brainstorming by Sanaea Kakalia, one of the Product Designers on the VMware Design team.

Stage 3: Finish Strong

You have successfully completed the final design review for your project and have a great design concept that can be handed over for implementation. Awesome sauce! However, the work is not done yet. Hopefully, you have been documenting your progress in your case study regularly. Now is the time to finish and polish this case study and add it to your online portfolio. Do this when the thoughts are fresh and you remember the important discussions and reasonings for the decisions. If possible collect quotes from the cross-functional teams on how the project worked out and their experiences with you. If the project gets implemented, collect some before and after metrics to gauge the success of your work and include these in your case study. Nothing drives home the point better than actual tangible metrics of success.

Check out the USER Framework for measuring user experience success by Boaz Gurdin, one of the User Researchers on the VMware Design team.

Also, focus on the people side of your internship. Thank the people who helped you, brainstormed with you, reviewed and provided feedback, and so on. Build strong connections to carry forward in your career.

Lastly, I will leave you with these thoughts:

Make your outsider perspective to the team, the product, and the organization your superpower. You are new to the entrenched process and way of working. You are new to the design decisions made in the past. Absorb as much as you can and ask questions when something seems off to you. Form your thoughts on what you would improve and try to bring those to the table in your conversations with the appropriate audience. Have an opinion and follow through on trying to affect change to longstanding inefficiencies.

Being new is not an impediment. It is an opportunity to see things with a fresh perspective and try to affect meaningful change!

As Samuel Beckett rightly said

“ Ever tried. Ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better!”

VMware Design

The VMware Design team | Transforming enterprise user…

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