Case Study

Illustration by Scott Martin

A Different Way to Run Internships

How I applied design process to management

"Not only did I get the chance to work in different design disciplines alongside talented and humble Shopifolks, I experienced what it was like to work in a product design world and be treated as a real designer."

Gloria Ip, Design Intern 2017

Design process can be applied to more than project deliverables. When I applied it to developing a new Intern program at Shopify, I was able to see exactly how beneficial it could be for the interns, the design team they were joining, and the company itself.

As the team was growing, we added more senior designers and leads to the team. Senior Designers were becoming more difficult to find (and unnecessary, due to the differing requirements for each project) so our team started to looked into filling the hiring funnel with experience levels of all types.

Aside from being more deliberate about hiring less experienced designers, I wanted to explore other things we could do better. I reconsidered the entire process: everything from hiring all the way through to final evaluations.

The program

Problem exploration

Mapping the opportunities

Our design team of 25 was looking for opportunities to mentor, we wanted to better equip teams with people of varying skill-sets, and we wanted the breadth of our team's experience levels to reflect Shopify's future-focused priorities.

We’d hired interns before in another office (fun fact: Shopify has five offices) but never in Toronto. After talking through some past experiences of interns and mentors, I wanted to zero in on how we could do better.

Experience map I built for the internship

An experience map[1] helps me identify opportunities for improvement

Many interns are too green to function in a work environment off the bat despite strong technical skills, or the opposite, languish without proper mentorship from an experienced designer. They’re not set up for success, and as a result, both the company and the intern lose out on potential.

This was the perfect opportunity to solve those challenges and pilot a better way to work with interns across all offices (or perhaps, even, across the design industry). To start, I worked on a brief which outlined my core objectives for the program.

  1. Put the interns’ learning first and set them up for career-long success

  2. Empower our designers to practice mentoring with quick feedback loops

A quantitative metric wasn’t part of my objectives. While hiring metrics can prove success of an intern program, I didn’t want us focusing on that. Interns can be great advocates, bringing more candidates into the hiring funnel, and maybe returning years later.

Focus #1

Prioritizing diversity

Every design team should be actively participating in hiring their designers. I encouraged the program’s mentors to participate in the hiring process. After all, they would be the experts on who could fit where, being the ones who are already working on those teams day-to-day.

Top of mind for me was diversity due to holes I’d identified earlier in the year. As I was already heavily involved in hiring for the rest team so I was curious to see how new approaches would change the make-up of our applicant pool..

Illustration of paper and pen
Design Challenge

We used a new Design Challenge[2] to help candidates without portfolios, give school candidates an opportunity to stand out, and evaluate them. This eliminates biases around projects they choose to talk about during their interviews because they're all given the same problem.

Illustration of picking out a candidate
Pooling candidates

Interviewing a set of candidates at the same time always happens with the internship due to its regularity. This time, we ran the pooling off-season from the formal student schedule. This opened the floor for those who weren't necessarily bound by a school term.

Illustration of rewriting posting
Rewriting the posting

While Shopify’s Talent Acquisition team does spend time ensuring our postings use inclusive language, our intern job posting needed an update. We reviewed it multiple times with diverse team members to adjust for phrasing and words that were more inclusive.

Illustration of blinded person choosing
Blinding portfolios

One of our mentors (@katbautista) removed names and other identifiers from the applications. This made our conversations with the mentors pronoun-free. While it is difficult to understand how to measure this, this to be an avenue worth exploring across the industry.

Illustration of rubrics
Standardizing rubrics

We built rubrics to help our team talk about the candidates and mark them objectively. We asked questions like, “Did they explain the problem clearly and succinctly?” This objectivity led to us re-considering some candidates despite our initial gut reactions.

Illustration of smiling mentor faces
Guiding mentors

Group conversations and pairing evaluation sessions helped us work through our unconscious biases. We talked about hiring for potential and not for perfection. As the mentors talked through their decisions with each other, no decisions were made in isolation.

Focus #2

Structuring for our unique team

It’s easy to find a ‘fit’ for a Designer matching them based on current strengths and long-term interests at Shopify as there are so many teams and projects. The problem is candidate portfolios are typically all over the place, and any placement would be, at best, a guess.

I proposed that the interns cycled through their teams and mentors on three-week rotations. Each intern would spend one cycle working with a mentor and their team, and then move on to another one three weeks later, for a total of four cycles over three months.

Each mentor would give the intern their own work and help them through the process by pairing. This approach was inspired by my experience working at Bloc. So much of our roles are rooted in strong craftsmanship and as a designer develops, clarifying their principles is key to their success. This hands-on approach is time intensive, but it produces big results in a short period of time.

This approach had several benefits:

  1. Interns learned how varied ‘Design’ could be and weren’t pressured into making a decision about specialization prematurely

  2. Interns gained a better understanding of Shopify and how it functions

  3. The mentors developed a holistic understanding of each intern’s strengths and areas of improvement

  4. The mentors were empowered to pass their knowledge on to the next generation and learn leadership skills for their own careers

  5. The newer mentors (those who hadn’t done this before) were given time to refocus and recharge before their next cycle

"The rotation program not only exposed me to different areas of the business and more people, but supercharged my knwoledge of design and the company as a whole."

Connie Ng, Design Intern 2017

Focus #3

Managing the interns and mentors

The cycling presented a challenge: how do you prevent interns from feeling directionless when they’re moving from project to project? In a chaotic environment, ambiguity can be rather deadly for an intern’s general experience. To help, I was their manager being one single point of contact so it wasn’t too disjointed.

Each intern was also asked to keep a journal to document their experience at the beginning of the program. I suggested a weekly journal but left the length and timing up to them.

While great for me to see what was going on, writing things down helped reinforce insights, encouraged them to grow their self-awareness, and gave them an opportunity to practice an important communication skill. In retrospect, this was one of the most valuable parts of the internship.

A Slack group was set up to help the mentors and give them an opportunity to discuss what was working, and send them feedback from their interns or other Shopify employees.

At the end of each cycle, an evaluation form I made was sent to document each mentor’s thoughts about their intern’s performance and all the mentors gathered together after to discuss the interns’ performances and make final offers. These forms and documents served as the foundation for each of the intern’s assessments, giving them an artefact for their time here.

"It has been probably the toughest internship (compared to the other four I have done); but at the same time, it has been the most rewarding, motivating, inspiring, and exciting one."

Gloria Ip, Design Intern 2017


Understanding success and next steps

The internal team was pleased with the results, and I’m really proud our pilot was the success that it was. I couldn’t have pulled this off without the massive support from the incredible Design team, the talent acquisition team, and of course, the interns themselves.

“This is definitely the most thought out & well-documented UX intern process I’ve seen at Shopify.”

Lynsey Thornton, VP of UX

While this round went well, we identified areas of improvement for our next round and they’re currently being implemented now based on feedback from our interns and mentors: slightly longer (and fewer) cycles, better scheduling for mentors, and more time during the selection process.

Of 250 applicants, three interns were selected to work with Shopify. Two of them are still there, working at Shopify and I’m looking forward to seeing what impact they will have.

"Deciding to switch careers later on in life is difficult, but coming here has proven to me how relevant past skills are and the value it can bring into design. I was never treated like an intern over the course of the internship, but rather a designer working on projects that have shipped.

[…] For anyone looking to make a career change, an internship is exactly what you need regardless of age, and I can recommend this one hands down."

Connie Ng, Design Intern 2017

↩︎ [1] You can see this on Dribbble ↗︎.

↩︎ [2] I understand the controversy behind using a Design Challenge. I don’t think it’s the correct tactic when reviewing senior candidates who have portfolios[3] however think it’s okay for identifying potential in junior candidates due to the nature of our formal education system and what they may have/may not have learned so far in their career. I’m open to debate about this, so DM me.

↩︎ [3] This is important to note that regardless of seniority, I have found that female candidates are less likely to have a public online portfolio than their male counterparts. Although anecdotal, this has been accurate in my experience.