Making the Most of a UX Internship: Out of the Classroom and into the Wild

For students, a summer internship represents a major first step in establishing oneself as a user experience professional. Internships are a tremendous opportunity to learn about the field and explore the potential of a UX career in a very short amount of time. Drawing from our own recent experiences as summer UX interns at Salesforce.com, as well as feedback from UX interns at other companies, this article discusses how to prepare for and maximize a UX internship.

Applying and Interviewing

Before applying for a UX internship, you should think about what kind of internship experience you want. There can be quite a bit of variation in what it’s like working as a UX intern at different companies. In smaller companies or startups, you’ll likely get more direct exposure to products and customers and have more varied responsibilities. In larger organizations, it’s typical to work with a bigger team, get great mentorship, and learn how UX can be structured at a larger scale. Talk to your fellow classmates, teachers, and alums to get insight into what environments you might thrive in.

Before you apply, it’s important to create a compelling portfolio of your work and put it online. It’s completely fine if your examples are solely from a few school projects and aren’t as polished as you’d like—more than anything, UX managers want to understand your thought process, impact, and contribution to projects. Also, keep in mind when creating your portfolio that UX managers typically look for evidence of culture fit, skills, and experience rather than focusing on fancy degrees, titles, and GPAs. If you have an impressive 4.0 but show no evidence of being able to work with multifunctional teams or clearly communicate your design decisions, you might be in trouble.

If your portfolio has impressed and you score an interview, don’t forget that interviewing for UX gigs is daunting, regardless of whether you’re an industry veteran or just establishing yourself as a UXer. It can be especially nerve-wracking when your project work is limited. Interviewers are most often interested in learning from candidates about the journey of a project rather than the final product or outcome. They’ll ask you to walk through your projects, explain your motivations, and discuss what you learned along the way. There are usually no right or wrong answers, but you should always have a clear explanation of your process, what your impact was, and what you would change if you could go back and do it over again.

“Having come from a seemingly disparate background, I was often asked how and why I made the jump from print design to UX. Even beyond having a portfolio that sells your ability, the interview is where you sell yourself as a brand. It’s really important to understand your own decision making process and to construct a narrative that other people will also understand, both logically and emotionally.”

—Jennifer Wang, UX intern at Location Labs

Also, remember that interviews are two-way conversations. Be sure to ask questions about the company, the team, and the internship. Is the company using agile or waterfall for development? How big is the UX team and how many designers and researchers are there? How do they work together with developers? What kind of project will you be working on if you get the internship? We’ve often been told that the worst thing you can do in an interview is to ask nothing at all.

These are just a few tips and tricks for preparing your portfolio and navigating the interview process. There are many great resources in this issue of the UX magazine and around the web that go into more depth. One good place to start is the UX Career Guide on UsabilityCounts.com. We also suggest checking out Lynn Teo’s UX portfolio deck and Stewart McCoy’s blog post on UX jobs. The Quora thread  on the topic of UX portfolios is also insightful.


What to Do Before Starting Your Internshi

Congrats, you’ve landed your dream internship! Now what? Leading up to your start date, you might find yourself chomping at the bit to get going. Use this energy to improve your skillset around your expected responsibilities. Designing web experiences? Brush up on that JavaScript and check out the latest on HTML5 and CSS3. Doing user research? Review those interviewing skills you covered in class. Before Salesforce, Arthur knew he’d be doing some prototyping, so he had a more technical classmate teach him the ropes in jQuery. Spend whatever time you can to prepare yourself because once the internship starts, time will fly by.

Prior to starting your internship, it’s also important to set appropriate goals. Doing so will help guide your learning experience and ensure that you leave with clear results. Before your first day on the job, talk with your manager to get a sense of what project(s) you’ll be working on. Then establish goals that are ambitious but realistic.

“Make sure to take some time to talk to your boss and really get some consensus on what projects you’ll work on, what you’ll accomplish by the end of the summer, and what skills you hope to be able to improve upon by doing the work.”

—Gregory Shapiro, UX design intern at Practice Fusion

Some example goals from our summer internships include:

  • Completing specific stages of the design process
  • Building an interactive prototype of a project concept
  • Learning how to conduct remote user interviews
  • Improving skills with a specific design tool like OmniGraffle or Adobe Illustrator
  • Meeting ten employees outside of the immediate team

Of course, goals will vary based on your employer, your skills, and your position. The important thing is to make a plan, though you may need to adjust it along the way. Setting goals early will help you avoid the common mistake of being too ambitious, which could result in not accomplishing anything tangible during your internship.


Your Foot Is in the Door—Now What?

So you’ve done all that’s humanly possible to prepare for your UX internship; go ahead, pat yourself on the back. Now that your foot is in the door, it’s all about taking initiative.

Companies value initiative. Sure, you can “get by” in an internship by following instructions and blending in. But that approach leaves so much potential opportunity untouched. Internships are what you make of them, and it’s extremely important to be active and engaged. You want to show that you can make an impact on the organization and that you’re not afraid to work with conviction. Your coworkers will notice and remember you for it. If you don’t take initiative, you can forget about receiving that full-time job offer upon graduating.

“Demonstrate initiative by working on a variety of projects. As an added bonus, the more people who see that you do quality work, and the more people who can attest to your fit in the company, the better.”

—Bryan Rea, Interaction design intern at Google

The internship onboarding process is a great place to start showing initiative. Onboarding can be overwhelming at some companies, and it’s often the case that companies will assign a mentor to help interns ramp up. A mentor is usually a person who has volunteered for the mentorship role and is excited about helping you hone your craft. Don’t feel like you have to wait for your mentor to approach you—take initiative by asking about anything you don’t understand or are having problems with.

UX professionals often have eclectic backgrounds. For career switchers, a great way to show initiative and demonstrate value during an internship is to use skills learned in former roles to quickly get up to speed on projects. For example, as a Salesforce intern who was new to the UX industry, Arthur wasn’t an expert with design tools like OmniGraffle and Adobe CS. Nevertheless, he took ownership of his design project and ran with it. Ultimately, it was the ability to think critically, communicate ideas, and solve problems that impressed his boss. These were skills he developed during his previous experience as an event planner and applied to his design work.

The ability to work cross-functionally is critical for any UX practitioner, and actively learning about other parts of the company during your internship is another great way to demonstrate initiative. Make an effort to interact with people in different roles who routinely engage with UX, such as those from engineering, product, service, and marketing.

“I came to realize that offering to help out with tasks that weren’t necessarily my responsibility gave me deeper insight into ways different projects were connected. It also helped earn the respect and appreciation of my busy colleagues.”

—Sara Cambridge, UX research and design intern at Proteus Biomedical

There are many ways to make cross-functional interactions happen. Facilitation is a key skill in UX, and you should do your best to help bridge the gaps between different silos and departments. You could help organize cross-functional design studios and brainstorm sessions, or offer to help with tasks outside your regular role. Working cross-functionally doesn’t always have to be a formal affair. You’d be surprised by what you can learn from a simple hallway conversation. Whatever your approach, engaging people across functions can give rise to new insights while building interest and support for your work.

Don’t Forget to Network!

During your internship, you’ll likely find yourself surrounded by practitioners with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Take advantage! The UX community is a particularly friendly group of people, and you’ll discover that your teammates are happy and willing to share their expertise with you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The people around you are valuable resources. If you have a mentor, ask her to introduce you to other team members who can give you advice.

“It’s really important to ask a lot of questions—the people you’re working with  understand that you’re there to learn, so you really want to harness that wealth of information that they have.”

—Gregory Shapiro, UX design intern at Practice Fusion

Build relationships that last beyond the summer and you’ll find far more opportunities available as you progress in your career. The connections you make will help open doors in the present and later on. We’ve found that some people we worked with over the summer have dispersed into other companies, and they’re already reaching out about job openings on their new teams.

One of the greatest strengths of the UX community is the massive variety of professional backgrounds and career paths among its members. Everyone has something unique to bring to the table, and there will undoubtedly be plenty to learn from your colleagues. At Salesforce, we met people with backgrounds ranging from pure HCI and interaction design to musicology and philosophy. Leveraging those different points of view was one of the most rewarding aspects of the summer.

Don’t be afraid to network externally both during and after your internship. Connect with your friends and classmates to talk about your internship experiences and learn about their experiences. It never hurts to get a better understanding of the landscape and figure out where you fit best.

“Talk to classmates who had different internship experiences. It helps to get a better idea of various companies, teams, and work environments. Also, go to networking events put on by other companies. Companies take advantage of the summer by hosting interns for events at their offices and telling you about what they do there.”

—Laura Wishingrad, HCI intern at Apple

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about your internship is that it should be a mutually beneficial experience. As an intern, you will receive a wonderful opportunity to work in the industry, hone your skills, and learn from seasoned professionals. Your employer, in turn, is expecting you to bring a fresh perspective and do great work. Express your point of view, contribute, and make an impact!

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