The Internship That Confirmed My Career Path: A Product Design Intern’s Story | by Filip Zajic | Mar, 2023

Design vision workshop during team on-site in Prague.

I invite you to join me while I celebrate and reflect as I finished my 11-month-long 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. Here is how I did it.

In this article, I set to answer the following questions:

  • How to get an internship in a company without an internship program?
  • How to validate the idea of you working as a product designer?
  • What can you get out of doing an internship?
  • How does learning in university compare to learning at work?

💡 Throughout the article, there are several learnings highlighted like this.

✍️ There are also some comments from Zdeněk, my internship mentor from Productboard.

Feeling down and searching for opportunities

In the Spring of 2021, I felt like I wasn’t doing so well. Besides, I felt frustrated from studying UX at the Hague university. 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, missed the acceptance by eight places and one point out of a hundred, 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 from which 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 the internship with my school mentor Alice Schut, I identified a few things I was looking for in the 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 in the company (at least once a week)
  • Doing regular checks on how things are going for me and what both I and people in the company can do to make things work better
  • Receiving feedback from other team members
  • Receiving structured feedback from my mentor in the company

There were also things I was fearing and wanted to avoid:

  • The scope of the internship is not well determined
  • Too easy things to solve that would not motivate me
  • Problems outside of my skill set and lack of support
  • The junior designer role will be stressful in an environment full of seniors
  • “Bringing coffee to others”

Choosing companies

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 was not fully staffed, and after talking with Martin Jančík from Kiwi, we decided not to do the internship. Sometime later, I got in contact with Zdeněk Kunčar from Productboard, and we started talking about the possibility of my internship. I went through a simplified hiring process which consisted of clarifying what the internship would be like and a portfolio presentation. I got an offer.

💡 Investing in my network early on allowed me to get connected with designers and lend jobs that did not even formally exist.

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 it, and he seemed confident and reassured me that I won’t experience the 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 grew 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 start-up when I was a student, and I wanted to give the same chance to others since I knew how valuable it was for me.

On Friday night at the airport for a flight to Amsterdam to visit my university friends studying in the Hague. After this trip, I realized the benefits of taking a break from my day-to-day life.

The beginning of my internship was tough. I remember being super excited and thinking that onboarding would take me a maximum of two days, and after that, I will go straight to designing.

Well, I might have been a bit naive, as the 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 in the company and build relationships with them because later on, they will be the ones who will help you succeed in your work, for example, by giving feedback.

I joined one of the product tribes called Insights with 2–3 other designers working on various features and improvements. Zdenek 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 placement of buttons. It was a small enough chunk, and I felt confident I could solve it quickly. Two weeks tops. I was wrong.

Bulk operations of notes in Productboard.

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 tens of 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 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 my designs good. I need 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, 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 understanding the customer problems and then trying to work in low fidelity, which continuously evolved 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 also a big challenge and cause of frustration because I needed to figure out how to prioritize my time and 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 have too many things to do and don’t know what I should focus on and prioritize. 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 prioritisation 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 in 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 in 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.

Me and Adam (my PM) presenting our vision to the rest of the tribe of Scale.

Diving into the permission domain

After I extended the internship, I saw 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, 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 focus on what mattered to them smoothly. 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. To this day, I still think that one of the hardest things is not losing that holistic view of the problem and domain in the daily narrow-focused activities and details.

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 summarise, 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 get different experiences. My wish came true also 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.

My favourite memory from the internship was when I spent a weekend running a stage race with the other runners from the company.

What do you think?

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