What I Learned During my Internship at ustwo™ – UX Planet
In the spring of 2018, I worked as a UX Design Intern at ustwo Nordics in Malmö, Sweden. As a UX Designer, I would employ a range of learnings from my education at the University of Southern Denmark, including –yet not limited to– processes such as user experience mapping, paper prototyping, and design ideation.
What is ustwo?
Ustwo Nordics is a digital product design studio; It is the Scandinavian branch and second studio of a larger studio group with other offices in London, New York, and Sydney. It was originally founded in London by best friends Mills and Sinx about 10 years ago.
Since its inception, ustwo has grown to become one of the world’s most highly regarded digital design studios, consistently winning well-known clients such as Google, Ford, Samsung, and Adidas. The studio group is perhaps most well-known for creating the Apple Design Award-winning game, Monument Valley –although their Games division has since become a separate entity.
Ustwo remains as one of the only independent digital design agencies left. Their primary competitors, such as IDEO, Frog, DesignIt, or Method, have all been acquired by larger parent companies.
Ustwo’s impressive reputation within –as well as their relationship with– the consumer technology industry was the primary reason why the agency was one of my top choices for which to complete my internship.
My primary goal during the internship was not necessarily to improve upon my specific skills as an interaction designer. Rather, it was to act as a sponge, absorbing organizational processes and/or work ethic that I could employ in my upcoming graduation project and beyond.
Organization and Process
Prior to ustwo, I had worked with several other companies –either as an intern or freelancer– during my summers. While each of these companies offered a unique learning experience, they left something to be desired. I had, in fact, never worked for a company with over ten employees.
I wanted to see what it was like to work at a more sizeable company. Ustwo as a whole employs approximately 300 people. And their studio in Malmö employs 70 of them (making them the second-largest after London).
My goal to learn more about organizational tactics and processes was therefore driven by ustwo’s relatively large body of employees. How might the way they treat employees or organize projects differ from a company of 10 employees? I had no idea, and so I was excited to find out.
While I had worked with clients previously as part of university projects, doing the same on behalf of a design agency could introduce a new set of client-communication standards or protocols that I had not considered before.
I wanted to practice communicating with clients with whatever new considerations might arise in an agency such as ustwo. My hope was that I would become a more efficient communicator and collaborator, which could help me push the conversation in a positive direction as I embark on future projects.
I mentioned previously that improving on my specific skills as interaction designer would not be my primary goal, but I had to expect that new learnings would inevitably come to fruition as I worked on projects at ustwo. Might ustwo have a different definition of interaction design than the one I have found during my education?
I was assigned to a client project with a subsidiary of Allergy Lab København (ALK) called klarify.me. The goal was to explore how ALK could provide a user-friendly and personalized service product that delivers pollen counts, allergy information, and air quality data. The resulting app is called Klara, now live on Google Play and the App Store in Germany and the UK.
This would be my first time working with an Agile process on a project. While I have worked with design processes and ‘Lean Startups’ in the past, Agile introduced a new set of structures. Specifically, my team would work in two-week sprints, each concluding with a sprint demo (client presentation). We would start every day with a team ‘stand-up’ (meeting), when we would discuss what we were doing that day.
Brainstorming and Collaboration
When I first joined the project, it was in its infancy, having only been active for about a week until I arrived. Following a briefing by the ustwo team on their progress up to that point, we all bounced several ideas back and forth. I sketched out some concepts for the onboarding process, as well as some hunches that were swirling around my head. I took it as good start, but it was admittedly hard to tell without the problem being clearly defined at that point. Regardless, the others on my team seemed to be appreciating my input.
While the developers would generally participate in such discussion during the first couple weeks, the team’s assigned roles such as as UX Designer, Project Owner, or Developer would eventually become more pronounced.
I would continue collaborating in this fashion throughout the course of my internship, offering input and debating ideas related to anything from the app’s search functionality, to whether or not we should place titles in the tab bar in order to increase usage rates (they should), to enforcing brand alignment throughout the product.
Our clients at ALK were exceptionally open to collaborating on the project. Their representatives would regularly commute between Copenhagen and Malmö and work with us at the ustwo office. Our clients really felt like a part of the team. I really enjoyed that level of collaboration, as it allowed me to get a lot of practice communicating with them. Expectation management suddenly became a very critical part of my process.
Amidst the team’s push to make Klara more personal to users, implementing push notifications was seen as a relatively low-hanging fruit –meaning it wouldn’t require loads of resources to implement. This eventually led to a series of discussions about when to push notifications to the app’s particular user base. We also had to consider the particular goals of ALK in determining what these notifications should say or recommend –or what information they should ask for.
Prior to working on notifications, we explored the potential of widgets. While this little project was mostly by client request, I designed some mockups for the client demonstration meeting. In order to do so, I had to adapt the existing design language to use system fonts, stronger colors, as well as making certain spacing-adjustments.
During the course of my internship, I worked on two side-projects in parallel to the continuing design and development of the app. The primary function of first project was to ████████ ██████ ███████ ███████ ████ ██ █████ ████ ██████ █████████ █████████ ███████ ███████. The second project focused on ██████ ███ ███████ ████████ █████ █████████ ████████.
Unfortunately, that’s about all I can disclose for the time being.
When working on projects prior to my internship at ustwo, I usually took a more reckless approach of just designing and building everything I could in the shortest time possible. Now, after having worked at a more organized company, I have become much more familiar with the allocation of resources required to ensure that a project stays on track. While I still dream big, I understand now that focusing on getting perhaps only a couple features right for a minimum viable product is an extremely viable strategy. Going forward, I would like to be much more purposeful in determining which features carry the most value –for users and stakeholders alike.
Very much related to cutting corners, learning communicate effectively was certainly a major takeaway for me. The most obvious example of this would be to be more conscientious about what a discussion needs in order to move forward. Contrary to a small startup, in a large company such as ustwo, adhering to the subject of a meeting becomes vital for upholding order. This applies especially to client meetings, when discussions can be extra sensitive.
I actually think we could have benefitted from organizing more client socials earlier in the process, as it contributed significantly to a more casual team morale. It’s certainly something that I see myself paying more attention to when collaborating with clients in future projects.
Pros and Cons of Agile
Compared to a traditional waterfall structure, Agile is useful in circumstances where the end-goal of a project is uncertain and ever-changing. While I’m not going to dive into the details about what Agile is (there are plenty of Medium articles for that), I felt that, by the end of my internship, I had some idea of its benefits and drawbacks. As someone who likes to think in terms of the big-picture, my biggest concern would be maintaining long-term goals in spite of the amount of ambiguity that Agile provides.
At the end of every sprint, the team coach would estimate the team’s capacity to do work by comparing the amount of tasks completed with their individual difficulty. After several sprints, we would start to have an idea of the rate of completion –in this case, dubbed velocity– and thus the likelihood of meeting deadlines set between us and the client. While at first I was sceptical, now I find that using velocity to estimate a team’s ability to complete a project is actually very useful. It is something I hope to leverage for my graduation project.
The level of experience and talent at ustwo Nordics was above and beyond most other companies I have worked for; the team working on Klara was, in fact, the most senior in the office. So, while my own responsibility was consequently reduced, I spent a lot of time listening to and learning from others. The connections I have made have been incredibly strong, and I’m really looking forward to building on them when seeking future opportunities.
All in all, in spite of its ups and downs, I think interning at ustwo has been a vastly rewarding experience. Ustwo’s more traditional, segregated roles, urged me to face myself and consider who I am and where I see my own role going forward. While working in a UX Designer role is a very good fit for me, I cannot help but to miss working with emerging technologies and cutting–edge interactivity. My internship at ustwo seemed to affirm what I was perhaps avoiding all this time –that perhaps UX Design in itself does not work towards satisfying my career ambitions. In the corporate world, it touches on but a sliver (not necessarily in a bad way) of the breadth of subjects which I have studied at University.
This only makes me more excited to work on my graduation project. I look forward to discovering how my internship has truly changed my approach in my own projects. A big reason for my excitement is being able to forget about tallying work–hours, at least for a few months. That means a lot of late nights.
Paul Nylund is an Interaction Design Engineer / Creative Technologist with more than 7 years industry experience from Los Angeles to New York City, to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Working on bringing the future into present tense through functional design and hardware / software engineering.
See more of his work at www.paulnylund.com.