The Internship That Confirmed My Career Path: A Product Design Intern’s Story
I invite you to join me while I celebrate and reflect on my 11-month internship at Productboard. In those 11 months, I achieved two things: I entered the job market and validated that I can and want to work as a product designer. I went from being a complete novice to owning my own domain and shipping a feature. I’d like to share how I did it.
This article will examine the following questions:
- How can you get an internship at a company without an internship program?
- How can you validate your dream of working as a product designer?
- What can you get out of doing an internship?
- How does learning at university compare to learning on the job?
💡 Throughout the article, you find several lessons highlighted like this.
✍️ There are also comments from Zdeněk Kunčar, my internship mentor at Productboard.
Part 1: Getting an internship at Productboard
Feeling down and searching for opportunities
In the spring of 2021, I felt like I wasn’t doing so well. I felt frustrated from studying UX at the Hague University of Applied Sciences. I wanted to go to a different university where I thought I would be happier. I was looking for a more fast-paced and hyped environment. However, my application to Aalto University to study design got rejected. I spent many hours on that application, narrowly missed getting accepted by eight spots and one point out of 100, and experienced burnout.
I was supposed to do an internship for my second year at university. I was searching for a product company in Prague with a strong design team that could support me and where I could learn a lot. I asked Tomáš Kubina (who I knew from my previous internship) for help, and we identified a few companies that he could help me to get in contact with.
Goals of the internship
Talking about internships with my school mentor Alice Schut, I identified a few things I was looking for in an internship. I wanted to make sure the company would support me well enough and that I could do my best and learn.
Things I wanted to make sure about:
- Being supported so I can do my best
- Always having someone I can rely on and who can help me out when I am struggling or when I am unsure
- Having regular 1-to-1 meetings with my mentor at the company (at least once a week)
- Doing regular checks on how things are going for me and what I as well as other people in the company can do to make things work better
- Receiving feedback from other team members
- Receiving structured feedback from my mentor at the company
There were also things I feared and wanted to avoid:
- The scope of the internship is not well-defined
- Tasks are too easy, leaving me unmotivated
- Problems outside of my skill set and lack of support
- Junior designer role will be stressful in an environment full of seniors
- “Bringing coffee to others”
There were a few companies I was eager to join, two of them in particular – Kiwi and Productboard (thanks to Kuba Zegzulka for the tips!).
Kiwi’s design team, however, was not fully staffed, and after talking with Martin Jančík from Kiwi, we decided an internship there would not be a good fit for me. Sometime later, I got in contact with Zdeněk Kunčar from Productboard, and we started talking about the possibility of an internship. I went through a simplified hiring process, which consisted of clarifying what an internship would look like, and a portfolio presentation. I got an offer.
💡 Investing in my network early on allowed me to get connected with designers and learn about job possibilities that did not even formally exist yet.
At first, I was not completely sold on Productboard’s culture and ability to support me. I was afraid that I would not be able to deliver what would be expected from me in this very fast-paced environment. I was the first intern after all. I communicated with Zdeněk about my concerns, and he seemed confident and reassured me that these wouldn’t be big issues. My hesitation vanished, and I decided to jump into it.
Zdeněk on setting up the internship and why he hired me
✍️ We didn’t have a formal internship program set up at that time. However, we knew that we had grown to a size where we could absorb the effort associated with hiring an intern. After meeting Filip, I saw his hunger and his desire to learn. I knew there was plenty of work for designers, and I was sold. I really wanted him to join the team.
I personally got a chance to intern at an early-stage startup when I was a student, and I wanted to give the same chance to others since I knew how valuable it was for me.
Part 2: I have never been more naive about design before
The beginning of my internship was tough. I remember being super excited and thinking that onboarding would take a maximum of two days, and after that, I would go straight into designing.
Well, I might have been a bit naive, as onboarding took a month, and even after that, I felt like I knew so little about Productboard and the way the organization works.
Productboard is a very complex product with many use cases and types of users, and for someone who knew very little about B2B SaaS in general, it was a lot of things to absorb. Looking back, I am grateful that I had a lot of time to familiarize myself with the product, because it paid off later when I had the context I needed for designing. It is also worth mentioning that apart from building up knowledge, it is crucial to meet people within the company and build relationships with them. Later on, they will be the ones who will help you succeed by, for example, giving you feedback.
I joined one of the product tribes called Insights, which had two or three other designers working on various features and improvements. Zdeněk tasked me to tackle one of the more minor UX issues identified by customers. The task was to redesign bulk operations within Insights which had many usability issues, such as poor discoverability or confusing button placement. It was a small enough chunk, and I felt confident I could solve it quickly. Two weeks tops. I was wrong.
The expectation was that I would simply take the problem and design a solution. What I bumped into was that I needed more understanding of the interaction and needs of users. I spent many hours looking into feedback, observing recordings of users in FullStory (a tool for seeing users’ screen recordings), and talking to other designers. I iterated heavily and made use of several pair-design sessions and design critiques. These were very useful, because more senior designers gave me quick feedback and direction. What I did not expect is that other designers would challenge my design decisions and show me that I could have done better. Two months later, I managed to find a working solution, had it tested, and handed over the designs. Unfortunately, this feature never got shipped, because it wasn’t high enough on the priority list.
I want to highlight how vital the mentor/mentee relationship was in the beginning. Frequently, Zdeněk was the person I would go to when I was struggling or unsure of what to do. He would advise me on how to continue, but more importantly, he listened to my worries and pains and supported me on a human level.
💡 Exploring and iterating are crucial. It’s what makes designs good. I needed to focus on producing instead of getting stuck on details and overthinking.
Working in a team with a product manager
One of the goals of this internship was to validate the idea of working as a product designer and whether this role fits me. And for that reason, I wanted to experience how it is to work in a team and with a product manager. As I wrapped up the first project, I was given an opportunity to work with Eva Novotná, a product manager, and explore a video integration in Productboard. For the first time in my career, I started to understand problem discovery, solution discovery, and stakeholder management.
I approached the problem by first trying to understand the customer problems and then attempting to work in low fidelity. This helped me to continuously evolve my understanding of the problem as I talked over the wireframes with other designers and PMs. I had a lot of freedom to do what I wanted, which was a big challenge as well as a cause of frustration, because I needed to figure out how to prioritize my time and as a result, spent a lot of time wandering around.
I did not know it back then, but I had difficulty focusing on what mattered and prioritizing my work. I often felt like I had too many things to do and didn’t know what I should focus on and prioritize first. My understanding of the problem and domain constantly changed in front of my eyes as I worked. I gained a perspective and eventually found a rhythm through collaboration and reflection.
💡 Work prioritization and focusing on what matters is challenging but crucial for success.
My internship was supposed to end in January, but I was hesitant to leave. Zdeněk was happy with my contributions and was open to extending the internship. Considering my options, I decided to take a gap year at my university in the Netherlands and continue the internship. I felt like I could learn so much more and enjoyed my time at the company.
Zdeněk on why it made sense for him to extend the internship:
✍️ Filip had settled in. I saw him getting more and more confident. He understood the product a lot better at this point, and I wanted him to experience working on a fully staffed product team, shipping a feature. I liked working with him, because I was also learning how to best support somebody so early in their career. He was doing meaningful work, and it simply made sense for everybody to continue.
Diving into the permission domain
After I extended the internship, I got an opportunity to switch to a different, even more complex, domain, because a designer was needed there. I spent the second half of the internship on the newly formed permissions team with Adam Vargic, my new PM.
We focused on two things: Productboard’s permissions, making sure that users would not step on each other’s toes and could smoothly focus on what mattered to them. We wanted users to be informed but not overwhelmed. I dived deep into permission models of other products and the needs of people around permissions. I learned what different editing and viewing rights for users mean within a system and that there can be conflicting rights. These conflicts can be resolved in multiple ways, and I learned about which approach is the most fitting. I got a real sense of design debt and how challenging it can be to solve wicked problems. I had to deal with many obsolete UI components and many usability issues collected over time, making designing even more difficult. I still think that one of the hardest things is to not lose the holistic view of the problem and domain within the narrow-focused activities and details of each day.
So, what did I learn?
Towards the end of the internship, I got to taste the whole process, from discovery and problem definition to shipping solutions to the private beta and iterating on the design. Now, I know what it takes and all the different processes.
To summarize, I learned that I am OK with being a designer. For me, it included a lot of frustration, doubting my abilities and thinking about whether I was good enough to do this work. And that is fine since I am early in my career. Ultimately, I had no significant setbacks and was sometimes late with my designs, but I delivered on my commitments. I am proud that I have proven myself to be able to lead and drive my projects.
Furthermore, I understand what it takes to build software at a company like Productboard. I learned that this work is equally frustrating and rewarding. Some days you want to quit, others it is pure joy.
I asked to try out different projects and got different experiences. My wish came true thanks to the fact that Zdeněk was my safety net; he made sure that the projects were not too difficult and that I would not fall on the ground too harshly.
💡 When I reflect, it is more useful for me to do it with someone else because they keep my thoughts down to earth.
Part 3: So what’s next?
It would not be surprising for me to decide to stay in Productboard. I had a paid job, more free time than I had in school, and a good learning environment to grow.
Despite all this, I decided to return to my studies. The academic environment is different in a few ways and might be more beneficial for me in the long run. Here are a couple of differences I see between work and education environments that support my decision:
- Revenue and productivity are often the main driving forces in a professional environment. This is fine, but you must be mindful that they can affect your decisions. Because of this, you often can’t choose options that you know will fail or generate less revenue, even if you want to try them just for the sake of exploration. Academic education, however, is not profit-driven by nature, which can bring a lot of freedom.
- Naturally, in a work environment, you only specialize in what you are doing in your role. Being a product designer at Productboard would make it hard for me to explore other parts of the design field (i.e. furniture design). The academic environment can make it easier to discover other parts of design I felt I would not be exposed to at Productboard, which will arguably make me a better designer.
There are drawbacks to an academic environment, too:
- Because of its non-profit nature, the academic environment can be slow and less efficient. You are not always prepared for success in the environment, and you have to battle through issues.
- Studying does not generate income.
Getting accepted to my dream school
In the spring of 2022, I applied again to study design at Aalto University and got accepted. I accepted and decided to try it out for a couple of reasons:
- At any time, I can go back to work and easily jump on the first plane from Helsinki to Prague.
- While I enjoyed product design during my internship, I want to broaden my horizons and explore other areas of design. I may even end up making chairs one day. Even if I don’t, learning to make them will undoubtedly make me a better designer. As my Productboard colleague Pavel Hamřík and David Epstein, the author of the book Range, both say – range is a potent predictor of success.
- I miss being in an educational community and having friends to study and develop myself with; to have people around me that get me.
All in all, going back to studying feels like a good step for me. See you in Helsinki 🇫🇮.
💡 Wished learning: There is no reason to be anxious or worried about my life right now. I have great people around me. Every time I think about this, I should be like: “WTF am I thinking? Is it not going great so far?”.
Part 4: Final thoughts on my journey
Looking back, I want to share a few things I wish I had done differently or just hadn’t had to deal with. Here they are:
- Frequently, I had feelings of stress and anxiety, which poses an interesting question: what do I get from feeling that way? What does it bring me, and what does it take away? Here is a suggestion for my future self: find lightness and playfulness in my decisions. Break the patterns. Make it about having fun and a good time with others.
- When you think you are going at 80%, perhaps you are already going at 120%. Do you really want to be 20% more productive? At what cost? You are probably doing enough already, just slow down and chill.
- You are junior, and people around you are likely going to be doing the same stuff faster and in better quality. And that is OK. I know it is tough, but you will get there.
Interested in joining our Productboard? We’re hiring! Check out our careers page.