What I learned from my design thinking internship at an enterprise startup

When I first moved to San Francisco and started my job search, I began to feel that there wasn’t much out there that would allow me to use my full skill set from design thinking to visual design, yet still learn and grow. So when I heard about the opportunity for a three month internship at Cerebro Data, that would allow me to practice design thinking and user research, I was intrigued.

The interview process

Although I was aware of the risks of interning at an early stage startup vs a more established company, I was excited about the opportunity for rapid learning and growth. That being said, I knew going into it that success would depend on clear expectations for the internship being set up at the beginning.

During the interview process I was asked to present how I would approach the problem that was given to me, and talk about my process. I knew it wouldn’t be possible to lock down an unchanging project plan (no good project plan should be), but I was able to communicate my concerns to the CEO and discuss how we might mitigate them.

Projects I got to work on

During my three month internship I had the opportunity to work on several projects at Cerebro including:

  • Scoping and running a large empathy user research project: creating, testing and iterating on a discussion guide, recruiting participants, helping design and run user research workshops with one of our customers, unpacking insights and presenting those insights to the team.
  • Designing marketing collateral and updating some of visual design for the company (e.g branding, style guides, layouts)
  • Doing the visual design for our pitch deck and various other presentations

Even though some of the work was more visual design oriented, I was able to get an unprecedented look and gain insight into the strategic thinking behind the company. Here are my overall top 3 lessons from my internship experience.

Learning a new domain

They say “You don’t know what you don’t know”, but boy did I realize quickly I had a lot to learn. I had never previously worked in, or really studied in depth the world of Big Data. It’s a rare opportunity that you get to deep dive into a whole new world as a designer. I began to read market research papers, study the industry and look at our competitors, all in the name of understanding the problem.

As designers, it is our job to make the complex simple, or easy to understand. Because I was going through the process of trying to understand the space, as well as the positioning of the company myself, I had that perspective fresh in my mind. This made is easier for me to see the gaps and the opportunities for where visual communication could enhance people’s understanding of the company and the product.

Lesson 1: Don’t be afraid to ask

Don’t be afraid to take an internship or job just because you’re not from that domain. Coming with a fresh perspective helps you see things in a new light, and your skill set brings a new way to approach problems in that space.

There were lots of times when I didn’t fully understand something, or would make a mistake e.g I would oversimplify a diagram. I was always able to ask my colleagues for help, and I realized I needed to overcome my own discomfort around asking. I have learned so much by sitting alongside software engineers, in fact my colleague Shekar often jokes that I’m secretly trying to bypass a four year engineering degree, when I ask him to explain something to me.

Navigating ambiguity

When I began my internship, my first priority was helping to scope, plan and run a user research project that would involve us speaking with Data Analysts and Data Scientists in order to better understand the problems they face accessing data and doing their jobs. Within three weeks of my internship starting, we would be traveling to one of our enterprise customers and conducting one-on-one user research interviews with their staff, and also collaborating with them to run smaller Design Thinking workshops to help shape our product strategy!

Before I started, I was definitely intimidated by the three week deadline, especially once I started to grasp just how much there is to learn about the world of big data. But I soon realized it was a huge opportunity for me to make an impact. I needed to take initiative and take on an incredible amount of responsibility- and I was grateful that the company trusted me with this project.

Lesson 2: Be flexible, let go of perfection and just do

I realized pretty quickly that the best way to attack anxiety is through action. Design is all about being flexible enough to adapt your process, there is no one size fits all. Design Thinking provides a set of tools to navigate uncertainty, but you should never do things for the sake of doing them. Having a deadline forced me to prioritize, take risks, such as organizing practice interviews, and more importantly just DO so I could iterate on our discussion guide before we used it with our customers.

A photo from one of our customer design thinking user research workshops

Getting comfortable with (or at least accepting!) being uncomfortable

You’ve probably heard this again and again, but that’s because it’s true. We tend to shy away from discomfort. However a lot of the behaviors of truly honest, open and collaborative communication can be uncomfortable at first. For the user research project I had the opportunity to lead user research interviews with senior people in data from large enterprises and startups. Naturally impostor syndrome was bound to creep up, but I quickly realized that the only way to get better and more confident was to continue to practice, and meet any discomfort head on.

Lesson 3: The answers you get are only as good as the questions you ask

Part of design research is understanding the value of crafting and asking good questions to users. However during my internship I learned that this is also an incredibly important skill on the job too.

My internship allowed me to interact with, or think about, several different stakeholders: founders, employees, customers, users, investors. Being well prepared for meetings, critiques and workshops resulted in much better outcomes and understanding. People are busy (especially at a startup!), and they will respond to the work you put in. Furthermore I learned how important visualizing early can be — a visual can be a focal point and facilitate a conversation.

An example from one of our white-boarding sessions

I’m pleased to say this story does have a happy ending. I was offered a full time position at the end of my internship and I’m now working as a designer at Cerebro Data?—?touching everything from visual design/branding to product/UX. Every day brings new insights and challenges as we scale, and as our team grows. However every challenge is a new opportunity to collaborate and learn more about the practice of applying human centered design for the enterprise.

We are currently busy designing and building a great data product and encounter many interesting challenges/projects on a daily basis. If, like us, you enjoy solving interesting problems, drop us a line at jobs@cerebrodata.com or feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn if you have any more questions 🙂

A photo of our team from our recent offsite in Half Moon Bay, where we brought together staff from San Francisco, Seattle, D.C and Germany!