What I learned from mentoring a UX intern

From being a mentee to being a mentor

Varsha Jagdale
Mar 15, 2018 · 8 min read

Internship season is here again. It reminds me of my experience mentoring a UX intern at VMware last year and also reminds me of my own experience interning at Autodesk three years ago.

Mentoring was a truly humbling and rewarding experience. I wasn’t alone in this journey. I had amazing managers, co-workers, and fellow mentors to whom I could I ask questions, discuss and learn from. In short, while I was mentoring my mentee, my managers were mentoring me on mentorship. (so meta, no alliteration intended!). I often found myself making connections to my own experiences of being a mentee.

So, in case you are mentoring this season and are looking for tips, here are my two cents.

The first step is to figure out what you’re looking for in a UX intern. Questions that might help you get there:

  • What projects could the intern help with?
  • What skills are needed for that? (Research, Design, technical knowledge…)
  • What traits should the intern have? (Empathy, intelligence, eagerness to learn…)

Tip: The more traits and skills on your list, the more difficult it will be to find the perfect fit. Learn to compromise. Figure out the traits that are non-negotiable and skills that can be taught during the internship period.

I had thoughtfulness, curiosity, humility, and integrity on my list. Out of which, integrity was a non-negotiable. High energy level (hey, I’m like that) would have been a bonus.

Job descriptions (JD) matter. Craft a personalised one.

A cookie cutter JD which includes just the company mission, values and over generalised problem spaces isn’t of much value to the candidates. I remember applying to my Autodesk internship only because the well-crafted JD stood out from several others.

Be specific as much as possible. You could talk about team’s mission, values, people, users and their problems, design challenges, what the team is good at, and what the team is getting better at. Talk about the traits and skills you are looking for and what the intern will learn and gain by the end of the internship.

Tip: Bring out your personality and your team’s personality in the JD. I had thrown in a “Must love post-it notes” line in the JD just for giggles. This later turned out to be a nice ice breaker in the interviews.

In short, help them figure out why they should be joining your team.

Job description ready? Now time to spread the word.

Your connections. They will help you spread the word to their alma maters. Many schools in the United States offer excellent undergraduate as well as graduate level programs related to HCI, design or Information Science. To name a few — Georgia Tech, University of Michigan, University of Washington, Carnegie Mellon University, University of California Berkeley. Recently, universities have started specialised career fairs for UX jobs (CMU’s Confluence, Georgia Tech’s Interactivity).

Tip: Along side the traditional job portals (Indeed, Glassdoor, LinkedIn), you could also try spreading the word through some new online places where students tend to hang out. For instance, Slack channels such as Designer Hangout, mixedmethods, Product Tribes, Hexagon UX, Ethnography Hangout have a large following.

After you patiently wait for the applications to trickle in, it is the time to revisit the skills and traits list.

We reviewed resumes and portfolios of 150+ candidates. Revisit the list but also have an open mind. Chances are you might end up with someone who meets everything on your list and more.

How to gauge skills

A good starting point for gauging the technical skills such as interaction design, visual design, and storytelling are the resume and portfolio.

Other skills such as user centred thought process, research, reasoning and communication skills can be gauged through the portfolio case studies. Look for why they chose a particular problem space, their research methods, questions, design decisions, their contributions.

Tip: Check for whether or not the candidates can actually translate their insights from research into design decisions. I have often observed students having design and research as disjointed phases.

During interviews, I asked them to showcase a project that they are proud of (it’s always interesting to understand what people value) and an on the spot design challenge (to evaluate the application of theory and quick thinking). See if they are able to communicate precisely, rationalise decisions, and receive feedback gracefully.

How to gauge traits

I love reading the “About me” section on the portfolio. It could give a glimpse into how they are as a person, how they got interested in UX and what makes them unique.

Tip: Cover letters could also be a good source to know more about the candidate. I still remember some thoughtful ones. The time invested in writing a cover letter shows interest.

For interviews, I found video chat to be a better medium than a phone call. I could see their presentation style and energy level. More important, I (rather the researcher in me)could pick up non-verbal cues. One of my mentors always asked her interviewees what they did apart from work. That question could uncover unique aspects of someone’s personality.

Give interviewees some time to ask questions. It helps to assess their thought process and interest in your company. After all, it is not just the answers that give insights.

Tip: Check with your company’s HR the official terms and conditions for hiring an intern. In my case, I didn’t realize we couldn’t hire graduating students as interns until we had gotten too far along the process. Also, factor in the extra time that HR requires to make an offer. Often candidates have multiple offers and need quick decisions.

Do read my colleague Chit Meng Cheong’s story to get deeper insights into gauging skills and traits.

The time before the intern joins, is a good time to think more about the potential projects for the intern and setting the internship goals and rules. Goals for yourself and for your intern. If goals is where you are going, rules are what will help you get there.

Goals for myself were to understand the intern’s self goals and help them get there, assessing what they are good at and what they could get better at, giving just enough help (added later) and getting feedback on my mentorship.

Goals for the intern were to make them an independent learner and critical thinker. These skills are valued in my team. Note that these goals were in addition to the mutual goals set later with the intern.

For achieving these goals my rules were to not push my ideas on them, to let them take their own decisions (despite knowing that they might fail), to probe their decisions and to check on them regularly.

Now might also be a good time to dig deeper into the potential problem spaces. An approach we follow at VMware is to give interns multiple problem spaces to choose from. My ex-manager used to say, “They wouldn’t do a good job at it if they are not interested”. Giving an opportunity to select a problem space could lead to a sustained interest in the project.

Tip: Offer problem spaces and not specific problems. Let them figure out what the problems are. Leverage their fresh perspective of looking at problems.

Fast forward to May-June, time to warmly welcome your intern.

Everything is going to be super new for them, give them time to ease into it.

Tip: Help your interns a lot in their first week. Also teach them how to ask for help, whom to ask for help and how to reciprocate.

This approach made me rely less on my mentor when I was interning at Autodesk.

B2B problem spaces are complex, difficult to understand and could easily get boring for the intern. So, how do you prevent an intern from dozing off while you are explaining a problem space? Answer — Comics.

I mashed together xkcd strips to explain the problem spaces in a fun (hopefully!) way. (based on storytelling technique developed by my awesome co-workers at VMware — Bonnie Zhang, Manasvi Somaiya and Ashley Pan)

credits: xkcd.com

Giving feedback is an art. As with any art it needs to be practised.

My ex-manager had a unique approach of giving feedback. Instead of giving direct feedback, she used to make me reflect and realise the mistakes myself. If I went to her with a question, she asked me for the answer. In short, she pushed me towards becoming a self learner.

My internship mentor had another unique approach. Before pointing out a mistake, she used to acknowledge how she herself made that mistake and improved. That way, the feedback became easier to accept and drove home the point that it is ok to make mistakes and learn from them.

Tip: Getting timely feedback on your mentoring is helpful not only for yourself but also for your intern. For instance, I received feedback of being too hands-on with the intern, which defeated my goal of making them an independent learner.

What surprised me towards the end of my Autodesk internship was my mentor asking me for feedback on her mentorship. That was rare. It showed a desire to improve.

From my mentee, I learned that I could be more thoughtful with the intern project choices — asking what projects mattered to them the most. Though I was quite flexible with choice of three problem spaces, I could have done better by creating a fourth option based on discussion with the mentee.

First, please don’t do this as a step 8.

Have fun (your intern’s definition of fun) the whole way. Short of ideas? Ask them. You will be overwhelmed with the suggestions.

My intern’s note :)

By the end of summer, I realised how lucky I have been to have wise mentors such as Ellen Zegura, Sarah Krasley, Josephine Choi, Manaswi Shukla amongst many others throughout my life and an awesome intern Siddharth Naik.

Thanks for reading! I hope you found this helpful. Good luck with mentoring. I look forward to hearing your experiences.

Special thanks to Grace Noh and Bonnie Zhang for making the story even better through brilliant editing and beautiful illustrations.


We are looking for product design interns this summer. Apply here and come join us!

It will be fun, I promise!

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