Getting into UX: Finding your Design Work Environment

☁️ Intro

The tech industry is abundant with opportunities to design in different problem spaces and for different users. Exploring a career in such an innovative field means your experience at one internship will never quite be the same as another, and this can be influenced by a multitude of factors (culture, location, working style, etc.). In your job hunt, it may be important to consider the type of company you would like to work for depending on your learning goals as a designer!

This article by UW/UX will explore what it’s like to design at the following company types:

  1. Corporations 🏢
  2. Startups 🌱
  3. Agencies 🕵️‍♂️
  4. Labs/Incubators 🧪

We reached out to 14 student designers and alumni from the University of Waterloo to learn about their experiences working at the above company types and asked them to rate each of the following categories as Low, Medium, or High based on their experiences:

🏗️ Structure:

  • Is there a solid product vision?
  • Are the processes well-defined?
  • Is there a clear hierarchy?

Ownership

  • Will I have the opportunity to lead a project and make design decisions?

🔧 Breadth of skills

  • Will I have the opportunity to expand my skillset and learn many different things at a higher-level, instead of focusing on and refining a few skills?

⛏️ Depth of skills

  • Will I have the opportunity to focus on and refine a few skills, instead of learning many at a higher-level?

🤝 Mentorship

  • Will I have access to a mentor to aid me in my design decisions and career?

💸 Salary

  • What will my compensation be?

It’s important to note that every student experience is unique and that the following is a generalization based on a sample size from the University of Waterloo. Your own experience may be completely different!

🏢 Corporations

Corporations are larger and more established companies. As an intern, you may be part of a team within a larger design team based on your specialization or project.

(9 students)

🏗️ Structure: Medium to high

Student 1: At Big Tech, your influence matters more than your title.

Student 2: While the technology/engineering teams tried to emphasize that leadership is ‘flat,’ you will always come across hierarchy when interacting wth other teams, which you definitely do as a designer.

Student 3: Within my direct team the structure was pretty ‘flat’ but you could definitely feel the hierarchy above my direct manager

Student 4: Because design teams are larger at corporations, you might find that the design team itself is divided into smaller sub-teams focused on research, service design, design strategy, etc., or on certain features of the overall product.

Ownership: Low to medium

Student 1: You will be working on a team’s side-project, something experimental or some very small feature. The projects are designed in a way that if you were to fail, it wouldn’t hurt the company.

Student 2: I had full ownership of this one project, but the team was very new and had never hired a co-op. There was work done for small features that may not even be launched…. or they would much much later. Depending on the maturity of the team, you may need to really dig around other teams to grow and learn what you would hope to learn during your term.

Student 4: You may need to take a lot of initiative in order to find a project to have ownership over.

Student 5: High ownership on the project they give you, but low in terms of the value of the project to the company. However, when I was a returning intern I got a lot of ownership and higher-valued projects to design for. You can do a lot more work if you identify problems and show your enthusiasm to help solve them

🔧 Breadth of skills: Varies

This will depend on the company and the projects given. However, a T-Shaped or generalist designer (having knowledge in a wide range of design disciplines) is typically valued.

⛏️ Depth of skills: Medium to high

Student 1: Top tier depth of skills in specific areas can make up for lack of breadth.

Student 5: You might end up working more on user research, UI design (creating lots of mockups) and testing compared to fancy prototyping.

🤝 Mentorship: High

Student 1: It’s the cost of low ownership.

Student 3: Had a defined mentorship ‘buddy’ system to help interns learn and grow.

Student 6: Depends on the mentor’s ability to mentor.

💸 Salary: Medium to high

🌱 Startups

This pertains to early-stage startups that are smaller and do not have much funding. Larger and more established startups will fall into the “Corporations” section.

Funded by entrepreneurs, startups are young companies in the first stages of operations focused on growth and innovation. As an intern at a startup, you will be deeply integrated in the company’s design work and may find yourself wearing many different hats 🧢.

(7 students)

🏗️ Structure: Low to medium

Student 1: Not very hierarchical, but there are clear informal power structure internally.

Student 2: Processes can be rushed and you may work very closer with the founders.

Ownership: High

Student 1: A lot of the time, you are super unqualified for the task you’re doing. It’s a great opportunity to try things and gain valuable experience.

Student 3: I was one of the sole people responsible for the entire design process so lots of ownership.

Student 7: I was able to lead the design of the product, even though I knew I didn’t have nearly the experience to. Another thing to note is that because the design team is so tiny (and without a leadership team that focuses on design) you are sometimes the ONLY advocate for the user.

🔧 Breadth of skills: Medium to high

Student 1: You will be expected to be a good generalist in most important facets of designs. Visuals, research, and strategy. Other skills like coding, marketing, data analysis are nice to have.

Student 3: Lots of breadth from user research all the way to implementing designs in front-end.

Student 7: The breadth not only encompasses different skillsets within design, but also internal operations, processes, and culture

⛏️ Depth of skills: Low to medium

Student 1: Not so much if you work at a pre-seed. Domain knowledge is nice to have.

Student 7: Depends on how much self-learning you’re willing to take on and whether or not mentorship is available.

🤝 Mentorship: Low to medium

Student 4: As things can move extremely fast at a startup and you are oftentimes one of only a few designers, mentorship opportunities are often very low or nonexistent and you will be expected to learn a lot of things on your own.

💸 Salary: Low to medium

🕵️‍♀️ Agencies

Agencies are service-based companies that provide design deliverables to various clients. As an intern, you will find yourself working on projects that satisfy the goals of your clients.

(4 students)

🏗️ Structure: Varies — This will depend on the size or organizational structure of the agency, as well as where it’s based in. Many design agencies operate internationally.

In terms of the structure of work, one student mentioned:

Student 4: Because the nature of an agency is to complete work for external clients, sometimes a client will have specific needs, but sometimes you’ll have to work with them to define those specifications.

Ownership: Medium to high

Student 1: You and your team have ownership up until you hand it off to the client (unless you also do the implementation). For an intern, the sweet spot is to work for agencies that are smaller, but with lots of deal-flow. More incoming projects means more interesting, cool work that’s delegated to interns. In contrast, larger global design firms are known to not provide great work to their design interns even though they are prestigious.

Student 4: Depends on how much the agency trusts their interns to do good work. Good agencies will allow the intern to take on full ownership. In my experience, I was given a lot of transparency and creative decision making with occasional guidance. (On a similar note to the above) sometimes once you hand off your design deliverables to the client, whatever they choose to do with it is up to them. In this sense, you don’t really know where your work will end up or how it will turn out.

🔧 Breadth of skills: Low to medium

⛏️ Depth of skills: High

Student 1: You should be good at what the agency specializes in or a skill they want to become good at. The industry is very client driven so if you can bring something that help accomplish client work, you’re golden!

🤝 Mentorship: Varies

This will depend on the agency.

💸 Salary: Varies

This will depend on the agency.

🧪 Labs/Incubators

Labs or incubators are typically made up of innovation teams from companies that are focused on generating new and fresh ideas. If you are a University of Waterloo co-op student, check out Communitech to learn more.

(5 students)

🏗️ Structure: Medium

Ownership: Medium to high

Student 2: You have ownership but the project will never get shipped.

🔧 Breadth of skills: Medium to high

Student 2: Expectations are difficult to identify on both parts. Sometimes, the Lab is expecting that you’re brand new to design and sometimes you don’t know yourself what you’ll be assigned to. Regardless, they are ready to teach you if you haven’t done something before.

Student 5: Got the opportunity to start a project from end to end, so did everything from branding, research, mockups, prototyping etc.

Student 6: You never know what kind of projects you might get, so breadth helps!

⛏️ Depth of skills: Low to medium

Student 2: Majority of the projects are exploratory and proof-of-concepts.

Student 6: Your projects are usually exploratory so you can develop skills as you go.

🤝 Mentorship: Varies

This will depend on the culture of the lab.

💸 Salary: Varies

This will depend on the lab as well as your co-op term.

✍️ Additional notes

Student 2: Very hard to get portfolio projects — and if you are able to use one, it may never get shipped or have some measurable result. But a lab makes a great first/second co-op. Also, depending on the lab, they may be open to you taking the initiative to start your own project, especially when work dies down towards the end of your term

Student 6: It’s a really good for environment for learning from my experience! You get a good grasp of wide design skills.

💡 Summary and Conclusion

  • In your job hunt, it may be important to consider the type of company you would like to work for depending on your learning goals.
  • 🏢 Corporations: Medium to high structure, low to medium ownership, varied breadth of skills, medium to high depth of skills, high mentorship, medium to high pay.
  • 🌱 Startups: Low to medium structure, high ownership, medium to high breadth of skills, low to medium depth of skills, low to medium mentorship.
  • 🕵️‍♀️ Agencies: Varied structure, medium to high ownership, low to medium breadth of skills, high depth of skills, varied mentorship, varied salary.
  • 🧪 Labs/Incubators: Medium structure, medium to high ownership, medium to high breadth of skills, low to medium depth of skills, varied mentorship, varied salary.
  • Every student experience is unique and the content of this article is a generalization based on a sample size from the University of Waterloo.

We hope you found this article helpful as you navigate your design internships! As job-hunting season ramps up, we wish you the best of luck and encourage you to continue to practice your skills, apply your learnings, and, above all, to take care of yourself :) Getting your career started as a student can be a tricky, and UW/UX is happy to support you in your journey. Keep your eyes peeled for more content, events, and initiatives from our team!

Join our design community & contact us!

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UW/UX Waterloo

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UW/UX is a student organization committed to growing the user experience and product design community at the University of Waterloo.