What to Know Before Interning with a Startup

Advice from a UX/UI design intern at a tech startup.


Kathryn Lichlyter

3 years ago | 4 min read

Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash.

Startups carry a distinct kind of creative energy, ambition, and unique learning opportunities that young designers can greatly benefit from taking part in. With startups, you have the chance for more autonomy as a design intern, as well as more impact and responsibility among the company’s team.

While every internship is different depending on the position and company, there’s some rudimentary information you should know before beginning one with a startup:

Managing Impostor Syndrome and perfectionism

One of the early appeals of UX design as a career option was how designers continuously edited and iterated upon products. I thought this mentality of working on products that were ‘never perfect’ would silence my perfectionistic behaviors.

In reality, my perfectionism sneaks in when sketching wireframes, working on low-fidelity prototypes, drafting microcopy— all work I know is not expected to be pixel-perfect, ready to send off to developers, or to show to the public.

In part with perfectionism, the ever-so-lovely Impostor Syndrome has affected my confidence in landing the internship in the first place. My mentor has worked with me to find methods of how to curb Impostor Syndrome and perfectionism, among them utilizing mind-mapping tools and studying the growth mindset.

I expect the battle against perfectionism and Impostor Syndrome to be a long one, but starting to work within a professional setting will help you slowly realize these mental struggles are common, especially among designers.

How to receive criticism

During my bootcamp, all projects I worked on were hypothetical, serving only to build out a portfolio demonstrating skills suitable for an entry-level position.

The feedback and criticism received for my projects completed during the bootcamp were simply suggestions — there was no requirement to revise my work following all suggestions brought up during critique.

Now as a designer for a startup, criticism is provided as a means of quality control and you are expected to revise your designs using the criticism given.

Any form of criticism or feedback should not be perceived as an attack on your own capabilities as a designer.

Your design decisions will now have real consequences, and your mentors and managers should still provide honest feedback on your work but phrase it in a way that does not seek to damage your confidence or self-worth.

Expanding front-end dev knowledge

Should designers learn to code?

If one has the time and means of learning how to code, then absolutely. There are a bunch of free and cheap online sources to teach you about front-end dev, some of which are:

My internship program does not require designers to learn front-end development, but I’ve found value in coupling my design education with these additional development courses.

With knowledge in front-end development, you can compose your designs to be more browser-friendly, framework-friendly, and help developers understand your prototypes by providing annotations of CSS styling and/or identifying what component to use within framework documentations.

Knowledge of front-end dev also makes you a strong asset for startups. On smaller teams, UX designers who are capable of wearing multiple hats can be a huge benefit for a startup company, with the startup having to hire fewer people to get products off the ground and running.

Rapidly Iterating and Experimenting

According to Vahan Hovhannisyan, early startups should first be concerned with implementing the best UX strategies and design decisions before focusing most of their attention on elaborate branding and a sophisticated interface.

Startups have a great opportunity (and pressure) to provide their target audience with a great user experience to rival their more esteemed competitors.

Working on a startup team with designers who are motivated to push conventional UX strategies and design nuanced and improved solutions to UX problems can be a great environment to expand your education about what makes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ UX design.

Throughout my time at this tech startup, we’ve tested multiple new ideas for our products, some of which involve reimagining common UX solutions and experimenting with how we can improve them to provide a better user experience than our competitors.

Because of continuous experimenting and iterating, you may find yourself working at a design sprint-like pace.

Working on a product that has yet to be released

This may limit what work you can show in your portfolio. Be sure to check with your manager or mentor to see what you are allowed to showcase or share publicly before the product is on the market.

Even if you do not have the ability to showcase your work on the product, you can ask your manager for a letter of recommendation or something similar to showcase your work ethic and growth as a designer through their program.

Tracking your time

Document how much time you spend on work, even if it isn’t required by the internship program (though I believe most do).

Get used to ‘working on the clock’ and tracking how long it takes to complete simple design tasks, such as wireframing, researching, prototyping, etc. In the future, this will help you delegate time and schedule when and how long to work on certain design tasks.

Track your time especially if you are a remote intern.

Using the Primary Beneficiary Test

Be sure you and the company understand the legality of unpaid internships. The Primary Beneficiary Test is a common method to see if the startup’s internship program follows legal practices.

Internships are supposed to be another form of education. Your work should not directly benefit the company at the same level as a paid designer, and the company should offer you educational courses and continuous mentoring in partnership with working on their projects and prototypes.

Please note: The Primary Beneficiary Test is for internships hosted within the United States of America.

Unpaid internships shouldn’t exist

Unpaid internships directly benefit the few (usually white, male, middle- to high-class college students) who are financially able to support themselves throughout the program, further increasing the racial wealth gap among societies.

Many small companies cannot afford to pay interns but still want to provide young designers with the ability to gain some real-world practice. From my experience, mentors and managers are more than willing to help you with developing the skills and portfolio necessary to find freelance jobs in order to land some paid design gigs.

In Summary

Before committing to an internship with a startup, be sure to understand the legal implications, whether it’s a paid or unpaid position. Be prepared to challenge your design skills, work ethic, skillset, and get ready for a rounded educational experience in design, development, leadership, project management, business, and much more.


Created by

Kathryn Lichlyter

Kathryn is a user experience designer in Denver, CO. They uncover practical, inclusive, and accessible digital solutions with great attention to detail and precision. Since graduating from a UX/UI boot camp in 2020, Kathryn has worked as a UX designer for two tech startups and a B2G software company. They're currently enrolled in the undergrad Emergent Digital Practices program at the University of Denver.







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