Interviewing design interns at Shopify
Author, Joon Park, August 25, 2020
Product designers find their way into the profession from all sorts of backgrounds. Some were engineers, some were self-taught. Some were business majors who stumbled on product design as a profession after seeing Jony Ives introduce a shiny new Apple product.
The backgrounds of design interns at Shopify this term are just as diverse. The following series of interviews shed some light on their individual journey to Shopify, and dives into successes and hardships they experienced along the way.
If you’re starting your career in design, these interns get real about their personal growth and provide advice which you may find inspiring as you embark on your own design journey. Special thanks to Therese Owusu, Alex Dales, Vivian Lam, Anna Yu, Athira Vasudevan, Estelle Chung, Mirna Zohiry, Peter Ip, Riley MacIntosh, Simran Singh and Stephanie Lin for being so generous with their stories.
Disclaimer: This is not representative of all the former Summer 2020 interns, just several design interns who were willing to share their personal experiences while interning at Shopify.
You volunteer a lot to mentor younger generations who are interested in tech. What’s the impetus for doing all those activities?
A big part of it is because I don’t see people who look like me in the tech space, and I wanted to understand why that was the case. It’s also fulfilling for me to connect and support individuals who don’t know a lot about technology, or UX in particular, as I’m a big advocate for increasing inclusion, equity, and diversity in the tech space.
How do you think that experience has made you a better designer?
It’s helped me reflect on my biases on design. Sometimes we forget to think about users with different backgrounds or those who are not similar to ourselves. It might just be an oversight due to the fact that we haven’t lived that experience or have tried to connect with the people who have lived that experience. I think that’s a big part of design — ensuring we’re thinking about all the users who are impacted and asking the right questions, like, is our research speaking for different types of users, not just one dominant group?
What advice would you give other folks who are hoping to get an design internship at Shopify?
The best way to break into design, in my opinion, is doing informational interviews. Reach out to individuals who work in the industry or have a role that you’re interested in, and try to gauge how their profession matches your expectations and goals. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to support you if you strike up that conversation. It’s important to build your community to increase the chances of someone advocating for you when you’re not in the room.
Tell me what led you to design.
Growing up I’ve always been attracted to creative work through fashion, photography, and design. I started running my own freelance logo design business throughout highschool, and that helped me gain experience working with global clients and delivering brand solutions that meet customer requirements. Blended with my interest in computers, I was naturally led to product design. I feel very fortunate to have found myself working in product; it feels like a near perfect balance of design for me.
How did you end up at Shopify?
I applied to Shopify during my 1B term at university for the first time, however did not make it through to the second round of interviews. I asked for feedback from my interview and understood that I was lacking communication about my design process. In the meantime, I found another job at a startup where I was exposed to an agile environment and moving through the whole design process to deliver successful product features. I applied to Shopify again in my 2A term, this time communicating thoroughly what I had learned while working at a startup, and here I am now.
At what moment did you feel you’d grown the most during your internship?
Throughout my internship, I feel like I’ve grown my skills gradually. Not only have I been able to improve how I communicate my thinking and rationale to support design decisions, I’ve also gotten better at sharing accurate context. Providing an appropriate amount of context to support your team members’ understanding of your ideas can be challenging. I feel like I am getting better at doing this every time I present. Through critiques and reviews, I’ve learned how to tailor my presentations in a way that will set me up to get the right feedback I want.
What advice would you give other folks who are hoping to get an internship at Shopify?
Through everything I’ve done here at Shopify, I continually feel everyone’s passionate to support merchants. In other words, we are merchant-obsessed! Sharing that sense of passion you’ve experienced through your past projects or internships is important. Shopify’s product may not be something that everyone is interested in working on, but if you are one of those individuals who are, don’t be afraid to share why or how this passion is connected to your experiences.
You joined as a web developer intern but switched to design in the middle of your internship. Walk me through how you made this transition.
While I was working as a web developer intern, I got really interested in what the designers were doing in my team. Talking to my team members, I was lucky that they let me switch roles to design, and this helped me to get a taste of the design field. After the first four months of the internship, I switched to another team to work on a project where I could utilize more of my technical background as a design intern.
How do you think your background in web development has impacted the way you approach design?
The biggest benefit of moving from web development to design is the amount of overlap between the two fields. I understand how React components work in the Polaris design system, how flexible or customizable components are, and how API calls are made. This comes in handy when working with developers because I can speak the same language and have an understanding of what can be done. Understanding how things are built under the hood has helped me onboard faster to projects.
It’s impressive that you are leading your current project as an intern. Can you tell me how that happened and what that’s like?
In the middle of my internship, I was able to demonstrate to my team that I was able to work well under pressure. My mentor told me the team saw a lot of growth in me, and she trusted that I can handle more responsibility for the next project. By leading a project, I was watching over what each discipline is working on and making sure they aren’t blocked by anything. There’s lots of documentation involved: setting expectations, defining realistic project scope, and talking to stakeholders to inform the project is moving forward on schedule.
When did you first become interested in design?
I studied urban planning in university because I thought it was a safe choice in terms of job prospects and opportunity to learn how to use design softwares. Throughout the first few years in university, I focused on specializing in urban design, honing in my research, graphic and 3D modelling skills.
It was when I went to Singapore for a student exchange in my third year (3B term) that I first took a UI design course. I was immediately intrigued with the idea of working with emerging technology to improve upon existing products/services. I believe my interest in product design stemmed from my natural tendency to want to help solve people problems in a creative way.
How has your perception of design changed since you switched your career from urban design to product design?
I realize design is so much more than visuals. There is a ton of work that needs to be done before you even start drawing a rectangle. If you look at what I’ve been doing for the past 4 months, it’s mostly exploration and research. What people see is the little shiny interface on screen but what they don’t see is the months of work that’s been poured into scoping the problem, understanding and analyzing data, asking questions, and iterating on solutions.
What advice would you give other folks who are hoping to get a design internship at Shopify?
- Treat your portfolio site like another design project. Especially when you’re starting out, having a good portfolio will help get the attention of recruiters looking through applications.
- Tell a good story within your case studies, as no one really wants to read through blocks and blocks of text. I like to break down my project into digestible pieces that are accompanied by visual elements to allow others to easily scan through.
- Show your product thinking skills. Fancy visuals are not necessary as we typically don’t need to create visuals from scratch, thanks to our robust design system Polaris.
Tell me about where you come from and how you ended up at Shopify.
I grew up in the Southern part of India and moved to Canada last year for higher education. Shopify was one of the industry partners associated with my program at Algonquin College, and I was fortunate enough to be hired as an intern as part of the co-op curriculum.
I know, from my personal experience, that international moves are daunting, especially when you come alone to study. What was it like when you first started your internship?
I struggled with cultural and communication barriers. When I was interning back in India, usually there was someone who gave a task and my job was to finish and return it. I wasn’t used to this culture where interns are trusted to take ownership, do experiments, and make decisions.
It sounds like you had a hard time in the beginning.
Yeah, I started as a part time intern and didn’t feel like I was making much impact for the first 8 months. Because I hadn’t fully adapted to living in Canada and lots of project changes were happening, I found it hard to keep up with constant changes.
How has that changed now?
I sincerely feel grateful that my team was patient enough to wait for me to grow. My mentor assured me that everyone has their own journey and people here don’t expect anyone to always be perfect, and it is especially not expected of an intern. I was told it’s completely normal to feel vulnerable, and that’s why I’m interning. With this enormous support that I can never thank enough, now I feel much more confident in my abilities. It wasn’t easy for me to clearly communicate with other coworkers because of the missing pieces in understanding context and cultural barriers associated with it, but now I see significant improvement in both written and spoken form. I’ve also become more proactive and able to smoothly collaborate with other stakeholders to discuss and get feedback on my work.
You’re studying computer science at university, but you come from a graphic design background in highschool, thats interesting to me! How did that transition happen?
I was in a specialized program back in high school called cyber arts; the curriculum consisted of a good mixture of digital arts and fine arts. While drawing and designing was still an important part of my life, a few computer science courses I took also made a strong impression on me, and I thought it would be cool if I study computer science in university and keep doing design as a side gig. This hybrid profile has been extremely helpful when it comes to understanding complex technical portions of a project.
How did you end up at Shopify today?
In my first year of university, I applied to Shopify for the first time without having any experience in product design. Obviously my design challenge submission was dreadful. It was like “Look at this one cool idea I have!” It was a good learning experience after all — I did manage to get a design internship at TD that Summer where I got to learn more about design as a discipline. Then I applied to Shopify again this year and I guess it worked out well this time.
What was your first experience like working at Shopify?
When I first joined the team, I had this constant self-doubt that questioned myself “Am I doing enough? Am I making an impact?” Things got more comfortable when I focused more on getting better on my work and focus less on making an impact. Over time, I learned to trust myself as I became more confident in my skills.
Tell me about how you got into design.
My passion in design started during the internship at Ontario Power Generation after I finished my third year of my undergraduate studies. I was a human factors engineering intern on improving the GUI systems in the nuclear station control room. That internship opened my eyes in design; When I returned to university, I took some UI courses and started thinking I want to dive more into this field.
What’s unique about designing for nuclear station operators?
Imagine a room filled with hundreds of dials, lights, and buttons. An operator sits far away to observe all the information simultaneously. The design part of my job was heavily focused on usability instead of visual aesthetics of the screens. For example, we cared about how the typography and color would appear in respect with the standard of other screens and the environment they’re moderating.
I think this is the biggest difference between design in a critical safety environment and design for an online platform. Designing software, you can still launch a product without completing a thorough usability testing to see how it performs first. If you get tons of support tickets, then you can come back anytime and refine the product for the next release. But an operator error caused by bad control room design can kill millions of people, and that’s why I think design was treated more seriously there than at a tech company.
What do you enjoy the most about being a design intern at Shopify?
To experience the full spectrum of design — from defining problems to shipping solutions — of a large project. I was handed off a big portion of the work, and I learned the most when I got to take full responsibility, like the role of a product manager, on the portions I was assigned to. Especially collaborating with external partners and incorporating that back into Shopify’s standards are not something common for interns to experience.
How did design come on your radar?
I graduated with an energy management degree from university, but didn’t feel like working in the oil and gas industry at the time. So I tried working in digital marketing, content, communication, business development before slipping into design. The experience I had in other industries and countries has been really useful. My marketing background, for example, helps me keep business objectives in mind while designing for the user.
It must have been hard to break into design without any related experience. What was it like when you first applied to Shopify’s design internship?
I knew I was an underdog coming in because I didn’t hold an official degree specializing in engineering or design. My strategy was to differentiate myself through the two essay questions required for the application. I told a story instead of answering questions — starting off talking about how I first gained interest in entrepreneurship and why I loved it, and why I would be a good fit at Shopify.
Any advice you would give to people who are hoping to switch careers into design?
Network and connect with people often using tools like Eventbrite, Meetup, and Facebook groups. I’ve been able to get multiple interviews and job offers through networking opportunities. Connect with the people you meet at events on LinkedIn after and follow up with them. If you focus on building meaningful relationships, opportunities are more likely to come from these connections.
I’d love to hear about your experience going on exchange at the Bauhaus University during your undergraduate degree. Can you tell me more about what led you there?
It was my dream to go on exchange there since the day I got into university. The program was serious about the building blocks of design, the very foundation of it. The Bauhaus was all about breaking the rules — we would make bad design intentionally to discuss why it was bad. And it was a perfect balance of my traditional university experience. They really pushed the limits of design, and it was a great opportunity for me to see the other side of design that I would have never been able to experience in a traditional university program.
How did you end up at Shopify today?
One of my professors in my final years of university was a senior designer at Shopify. He told us about the company and I really liked what he had to say and what the company stands for. Noticing Shopify also take graduates for internships, which not a lot of companies do, I thought it would be a perfect chance for me to get a taste of what’s it like to work in Tech as a product designer.
What is something you learned about design during your internship here at Shopify?
I’ve grown conscious of the role empathy plays in design. I think the extent to which you understand and empathize with your users will ultimately determine the outcome of your design. I was able to grow this muscle the most when I was working on user research part of the project. Directly interfacing with users provided me a multitude of ideas for design improvement.
What advice would you give other folks who are hoping to get a design internship at Shopify?
Based on my experience, I think what you should bring to an interview is something that you can talk through completely to every minute detail. Like the position of a button or the rounding for an element.
Another thing to note is that Shopify covers so many areas of expertise, so you have to be willing to learn everything about something you’ve never done before. If you can show that to recruiters, that gives you a gold star.
Tell me about your early years and where you come from.
After finishing my undergraduate in engineering in India, my first job was at an IT company doing something similar to technical support. Not being completely satisfied with my career choices, I made a move to Canada to pursue a Master’s degree in engineering management. But again, I didn’t end up liking the type of study at school.
Then I seriously started thinking about following my true passion instead of spending the next decade waiting for retirement. After graduation, I taught myself digital marketing, front-end development, and naturally landed on UX design.
From there, how did you end up at Shopify?
After finishing my Masters, I went to pursue Human-Centered Design program at Algonquin College where Shopify was one of the industry partners collaborating the program. I applied for the internship via the Algonquin program, and successfully landed on a design research internship. You can read my blog post if you want to know more about my journey.
What advice would you have for other folks who are hoping to get an internship at Shopify?
Know what you really want out of this internship, whether it is design or research or whatever. And know the reasons why you want that experience. In your application, make sure you can justify every decision you made whether it’s your design process, portfolio work, or even career pivots. This is how you demonstrate you can think critically and make reasoned judgements.
You’ve recently switched from an intern to full-time. Looking back at the time you worked as an intern, what’s the biggest change you notice?
I joined as a design intern this January and switched to full-time three months ago. For those who are only here for a 4-month internship, that time is pretty short. In the past, I used to spend a large chunk of my internship ramping up on product context and I’m lucky if I get to see my project ship before I leave. Since becoming a full-time designer, I’ve really appreciated being able to see my designs get built. It’s been really fulfilling to see people interacting with those features. I love getting that feedback and actually being able to go back and iterate on it.
What was it like when you were switching to full-time?
I would have conversations about converting to full-time during one-on-one meetings with my lead. Nothing really changed for my day-to-day schedule or responsibilities, but I worked very closely with my lead to plan out a longer-term growth plan. We identified growth areas, steps to achieve them, and what success would look like.
What do you think is unique about Shopify compared to other companies you worked at?
At Shopify, the disciplines on my team work very collaboratively together. I especially work closely with a PM, meeting multiple times a week to prioritize problems and brainstorm ideas. In my past internships, the design work I would do was done in a silo and then passed on to a development team. But Shopify values cross-functional collaboration, and I love that I can get input and ideas from developers at all stages of the product.
Any advice you would have for other folks who are hoping to break into design?
For anybody who doesn’t have a formal design education like myself, I strongly recommend you taking any opportunity that can help you build your design skills. When I first started trying to get into design, I was looking for any campus volunteer work or part-time gigs building websites for faculty or clubs. This helped me practice design, get valuable feedback from stakeholders and also add it to my resume. Shopify values being a constant learner and I think being able to show that you are seeking out opportunities to grow as a designer is really valuable.
As you have read from the stories, design interns at Shopify come from a variety of backgrounds. Design wasn’t an expected path for majority of us but more of a pinball journey.
It’s important for designers with different backgrounds enter the design discipline. There’s a tendency for tech industry design to become an echo chamber that reinforces current trends. The more diverse knowledge and experiences we can bring to the table as designers, the more interesting and culturally relevant our digital products will become.
If you care about helping people achieve their goals, and you have a good mind for putting together the pieces of a puzzle, then you have everything you need to begin. The adventure awaits.
Special thanks to my mentor, Amanda Spilchen, my lead, Daria Spechenko, and my amazingly talented merchandising team for supporting me throughout my internship. I’ve sincerely enjoyed the time that I’ve spent with you all for the past 4 months. Last but not least, thanks to Amanda, Amelie, and AJ for helping me edit this post.