Better UX Internships

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
March 10, 2014

An internship is a great way to get into the field of user experience, but internships are often failures—for both the intern and the hiring company. Why? The hiring companies often don’t have a plan for how to use their interns, and interns often don’t know how they can contribute or where they fit in.

Whose fault is this? Both the intern and the hiring company are responsible for ensuring that an internship is meaningful and rewarding. Yet many companies hire interns without any plan for how to use them. They may think, We have a lot to do around here. We could use an intern. They then hire an intern without planning how to use that person and realize that it’s difficult to find things for the intern to do. So the intern either sits around underused or does a lot of busywork. Thus, the internship becomes a bad experience for both parties, and the company may think twice about ever hiring an intern again.

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It doesn’t have to be this way. In an ideal situation, interns learn a lot, get to experience working on real projects, gain materials with which to build their portfolio, make valuable connections, and eventually, may even get hired as an employee. But, too often, internships don’t work out well for either the intern or the hiring company. In this column, I’ll discuss what interns and companies can do to ensure a better internship experience.

My Experience with Internships

Who am I to talk about UX internships? I’ve been an intern twice—years ago in cable television, then later, as a usability analyst, an internship that led to my first real UX job. I’ve worked with some great interns, and I’ve worked with some bad interns. I’ve managed and mentored interns at two different companies. I’ve heard raves about good interns, and I’ve heard people swear off ever hiring another intern after having particularly bad experiences. So I’ve learned a lot about how internships can go well or badly.

What Makes an Internship Go Bad?

Bad internships can be the fault of either the intern or the company, but it’s usually a little of both. We can excuse interns for most of these problems, because of their inexperience. But companies have less excuse for being unprepared. Let’s look at some of the problems that lead to a bad internship experience.

A Lack of the Right Personal Characteristics

For interns, knowledge and experience are much less important than having the personal characteristics that lead to success. The most successful interns have passion and a deep interest in learning more about their chosen profession. They are hardworking, motivated, honest, responsible, dependable, professional, and mature. They have good communication skills and aren’t afraid to ask questions. The problem is that it’s difficult to determine whether someone has these qualities until he or she is already on the job. That’s why good interviewing is crucial.

Poor Interviewing of Candidates

Because an internship is just temporary, some companies don’t take the interviewing of interns very seriously and may leave interviewing candidates for internships to less experienced employees. Interns don’t have a lot of experience to evaluate in their resume or portfolio, so it’s difficult to judge how well they would fulfill their role as an intern. As a result, companies often end up just taking a chance—and don’t find out until later whether they’ve made a good decision.

Not Having Enough Work

When there’s not enough work to go around, full-time employees keep all the work they can find for themselves. Under pressure to be busy and billable, when extra work does come up, they tend to take it on themselves. This hoarding mentality doesn’t leave much left for interns to do—other than busywork.

Having Too Much Work

When there’s too much work, employees can be too busy to help find work for interns to do. They’re under deadline and have project pressures to get work done on time with the right number of billable hours. Ironically, busy times are when an intern could help out the most, but it requires time to get interns up to speed, show them what to do, and monitor their progress. So it’s usually easier and faster for employees to do the work themselves.

A Lack of Management Oversight

Interns don’t always get the oversight they need to ensure that they have meaningful work to do and are performing effectively. They’re often the lowest priority on a manager’s list of things to do. Sometimes the role of managing interns falls to a non-management employee as a way of giving that person some management experience or to take the extra burden off the manager. The problem is that those people don’t always know how to manage others.

Interns Not Asking for Work

Sometimes interns don’t ask for work to do. They may be too intimidated or feel like they’re a burden, so are uncomfortable with constantly asking people for work to do. As a result, they spend a lot of time sitting around with nothing to do.

Poor Planning

Many companies don’t plan how to use their interns effectively. They just hire them and expect their employees to use them whenever they need help. However, it’s not always clear to employees what activities interns can help out with.

When interns just help out employees with miscellaneous tasks, they don’t get involved throughout entire projects. So whenever employees ask them to perform a task, they have to bring them up to speed on the project. For all but the most menial tasks, this often makes bringing interns onto a project too complicated and time consuming. Employees often find that it’s easier to just do the work themselves. So the plan of simply having the interns help out wherever they’re needed doesn’t usually work well.

Lack of Insight into Interns’ Availability

Employees often have no idea whether interns are available. When an employee does have something an intern could help out with, it’s usually something that needs to get done right away. If the intern isn’t immediately available, the employee will probably just do the job himself. Later on, the employee may assume that the intern is already busy, so won’t ask again.

Short Work Weeks

Problems with intern availability are compounded when an intern doesn’t work a regular work week. If employees don’t know when a part-time intern will be around, they’ll be hesitant to give that person deadline-driven work.

A Lack of Trust

Most employees are friendly toward interns and want to give them a chance, but giving them work to do requires trust that they’ll complete the tasks well and on time. Interns have to earn employees’ trust to receive additional responsibilities. If they fail,  it will be very difficult to earn back that trust.

Odd Business Logic

Sometimes strange business logic such as the way hours get billed can actually discourage the use of interns. For example, I once worked for a consulting company with fixed-price projects that they often did not scope to include hours for interns. If an intern worked on the project, either they would have to take hours away from an employee or they would add extra billable hours to the project. Employees didn’t want billable hours to be taken away from them because the company required them to have a certain number of billable hours per week. Project managers didn’t want extra hours to be billed to a project because they would get in trouble if the project went over the budgeted hours. So, the company’s perverse logic was that it was better to pay the interns to sit around doing nothing than to have them work on projects because their extra billable hours would lower project profitability. As a result, they often had nothing to do.

For Interns: How to Have a Successful Internship

If you want to be a UX intern, the list above may seem daunting—even very depressing. How can you avoid these problems, when most of them are the fault of the companies themselves? Here are some tips that you can follow to either avoid these types of companies or overcome these sorts of problems and ensure that you have a successful internship.

Take an Internship in Your Area of Interest

It sounds obvious that you should get an internship in an area in which you’re interested, but I’ve worked with interns who worked at a UX design firm despite their having no interest in design, user research, or user experience. No one wants to work with someone who is just doing time to earn some extra money or college credit. On the other hand, people are happy to help out someone who’s genuinely motivated and interested in learning more about their field.

Learn About the Company

With all of the potential problems that I’ve listed above, you should be convinced that it’s important for you to learn as much as you can about the company you’re going to work for and how they use interns. Research the company, and try to find people who have previously interned with the company and talk with them about their internship experience. During the job interview, learn as much as you can about the position. Try to learn the following information:

  • What specific activities will you perform during the internship?
  • What responsibilities will you have?
  • Will you be involved in projects? If so, will you be involved as a regular team member throughout the project, or will you just get called in to assist as needed?
  • Who will you report to?
  • Will you have an official mentor?

Answers to these questions—or the lack of answers—will give you a good idea of how well the company has planned the internship. If interviewers seem to be surprised or stumped by your questions or give you vague answers—as if they’ve never considered these questions before—run away!

Remember that a job interview is as much for you to learn about the position as it is for the company to learn about you. So don’t be afraid to ask these questions. Most internship candidates don’t ask a lot of detailed questions during their interviews. So interviewers will be pleasantly surprised and impressed by a candidate who asks a lot of well-thought-out questions.

Choose the Right Type of Company

The type of company—consulting versus an in-house UX team—can make a difference in the type of work you’re assigned as an intern. Because consulting companies’ projects are for external clients, they operate in more of a high-stakes environment. It’s very unlikely that, as an intern, you’ll be given a crucial role on a client project at a consulting company. But in a lower-stakes environment—as on an internal UX team—you may be given greater responsibilities. For example, during my first internship on a bank’s intranet UX team, they treated me like a regular employee and gave me assignments to do usability testing, heuristic evaluations, and design Web applications and intranet sites. I didn’t have much experience yet, but since I was working on internal systems that only employees used, the stakes were very low. They weren’t the most glamorous projects, but I was given much more responsibility and learned a lot more than I would have if I had been working in a more high-stakes environment at a company that couldn’t afford to give me so much responsibility.

Get Yourself a Mentor

Make sure that you have a mentor—either someone who is officially assigned to work with you or a person who you can learn from even if they’re not in a formal mentoring role. Ideally, your mentor should be someone other than your manager—someone who you can confide in, not someone who evaluates you.

Ask Questions

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Your coworkers will understand that you’re new and still learning. Doing something incorrectly—because you didn’t ask questions—is much worse than needing to ask questions about how to accomplish your work.

Ask for Work

Don’t be afraid to ask for more work. You won’t annoy people. Let your coworkers know that you’re available and eager to help. How will they know you’re available unless you remind them?

Create Work for Yourself

When there aren’t any projects to work on, ask your manager and coworkers whether there are any internal projects that you can work on. Look for things that need improvement. Ask your coworkers whether there’s anything they think could be improved. Make a list of improvement projects and work on them whenever there’s no project work for you to do.

Take on Responsibilities

Ask for additional responsibilities. Find places where you think you could add value to projects, then ask your coworkers, your mentor, or your manager about your becoming involved in those projects. People won’t always think about how they could involve you in projects, so you’ll sometimes need to ask for tasks yourself.

Earn Your Coworkers’ Trust

There’s nothing more important for an intern to do than to earn other employees’ trust. People will naturally be a little cautious about using you on projects or skeptical about your qualifications until they trust you. When you prove that you can do a good job and get things done, people will trust you with more responsibility.

Meet Deadlines

As an intern, it’s understandable that you’ll do things more slowly than an experienced employee, but it’s still very important to meet deadlines. When someone gives you a task, ask when you should have it completed. Be realistic about whether you can complete the task by that deadline. Because, as an intern, you won’t know how long a task should take, estimating the time to complete it is also the responsibility of the person giving you the work.

Get Feedback

Communicate your progress as you work on tasks and show your work to other employees at various points to get their feedback. It’s better to get course corrections part way through a task than to wait until you’ve finished it, only to find out that you’ve done something incorrectly.

Make Connections

The people you meet during your internship will be valuable connections throughout your career, so meet as many people as you can. Talk with people socially and show genuine interest in what they do. You’ll find that most people are friendly and willing to talk with an intern about their work. Connect with these people on LinkedIn and stay in touch after your internship is over.

Ask for Recommendations

Before you leave your internship, ask your manager, mentor, and other key people for their recommendations and whether you can use them as references. You can ask them either to write a recommendation letter—although that’s rather old-fashioned these days—or to give you a recommendation on LinkedIn.

For Companies: How to Succeed with Interns

Poorly planned internships cost companies time and money and reduce productivity. The following tips will help you to ensure that your interns are successful.

Take Intern Interviews Seriously

Because internships have a limited duration, they often seem to be low-risk hires. After all, if you hire the wrong people, they’ll be around only for a few months anyway, and they won’t have a lot of responsibility, so it may not seem like an important hiring decision. As a result, people often give too little time and consideration to interviewing interns.  

Spend as much time interviewing interns as you would any entry-level candidate. Have several people interview multiple candidates, so they can discuss their opinions of the candidates. Since potential interns won’t have much work experience, look at the classes they’ve taken, part-time jobs they’ve had, and school projects they’ve done, and try to determine whether they have the right personal qualities for success. For an intern, genuine interest, motivation, and a desire to learn are far more important than previous UX experience.

Pay Your Interns

You’ll get better interns if you pay them at least something, even if it’s minimum wage. Both the company and the interns will take the job more seriously and put more effort into it if the interns are getting paid. Unpaid internships eliminate those who can’t afford to work for free, and those may often be the best candidates. For example, students working their way through college and helping to pay their own expenses can’t afford an unpaid internship, yet those are often the most realistic, responsible, and highly motivated interns.

Provide a Manager and a Mentor

Some companies give the role of manager and mentor to one person, but a manager and a mentor are different roles that ideally should reside with different people. A manager gives the intern work to do, monitors their schedule and availability, gives him or her feedback, and provides rewards and punishments. A mentor plays the role of teacher, advisor, and confidante. When one person tries to play both of these roles, the manager’s role of punisher and the mentor’s role of confidante conflict. So give these roles to two different people.   

Plan Tasks for Interns

Before interns start, plan how you’ll use them. Choose projects that you could put them on and the tasks they could perform. Also list internal improvement projects that they could work on when there isn’t any project work.

Tasks for Design Interns

The following design tasks are well-suited to interns:

  • generating additional design ideas
  • building out wireframes based on a senior designer’s initial designs
  • updating wireframes with client or user changes
  • creating alternate aesthetic design ideas
  • building aesthetics
  • creating graphics
  • creating design specification documents

Tasks for Research Interns

Interns can help out with the following user research activities:

  • writing screeners
  • recruiting participants
  • scheduling and coordinating participants
  • printing and preparing testing materials such as discussion guides, consent forms, and schedules
  • setting up usability-testing equipment and preparing the lab and observation room
  • notetaking during research sessions or usability tests
  • logging usability tests with logging software
  • taking photos, recording video, and recording audio during research sessions
  • running card sorts
  • setting up and running online, unmoderated studies such as card sorting and usability testing
  • listening to user research recordings and typing up notes
  • editing usability testing or user-research videos into video clips
  • analyzing eyetracking data
  • creating eyetracking visualizations such as heatmaps and gaze plots
  • helping analyze research results
  • contributing to expert reviews
  • contributing to accessibility evaluations

Communicate Interns’ Availability

Ensure that other employees know what interns are working on and when they’ll be available for other work. One possibility is to have an intern maintain a shared calendar showing his or her availability. Create a process for employees’ requesting an intern’s time. And make sure an intern feels comfortable asking for more work.

Involve Interns in Projects

Assign interns to projects as regular team members, attending all meetings and helping out wherever possible. This will provide a much better experience for them, and it will be much easier for them to provide help as it’s needed because they’ll already be up to speed on the project.

Give Interns Projects

The ultimate test of what interns can do is to give them real projects. While it may be too risky to give key client projects to interns, perhaps there are some low-risk client projects, internal projects, or even made-up projects that your interns can work on. There’s no better way for them to demonstrate their design or research skills, their professionalism, their ability to meet deadlines, and their communication skills than working on a project. If you’re considering eventually hiring an intern, this is a great way to evaluate his or her work. It’s also a great experience for your interns, and it gives them something to add to their portfolio.


An internship can be a great experience for both the intern and the hiring company, but ensuring a good internship requires planning and effort on the part of both the intern and the company. Simply hiring interns and expecting them to help out your employees rarely works well. A good intern can be a tremendous help, but a lackluster intern can be a drain on coworkers’ time and a company’s money. Following the tips I’ve outlined in this column will help you to ensure that internships are a great experience for all parties involved.

I’m sure there is other advice about internships that I haven’t covered in this column. If you have any additional tips, please feel free to add them to the comments. If you’re looking for an internship, good luck! 

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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