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.
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.