.: 11 December 2017 :.

What I learned during my internship at IDEO

Today is my last day. My last day as an Interaction Design intern at IDEO, San Francisco. It’s been great. No school course could have taught me what I learned interning at IDEO for half a year. It’s been pretty magical to work at the place that has had such an impact on my job as an Interaction Designer.

Instead of writing ten articles I tried to condense my experiences into one. Instead of writing about Invision, Sketch and all the tools that I learned to use, I want to share my insights. Tools come and go but I will keep these insights forever.

This is a story about culture, creative confidence, post-it notes and about trying to stay curious.


Photo from my first day.. time flies!

Rediscovering creative confidence

Creative confidence. You might have heard of it. It is a term coined by IDEO’s founder David Kelley and his brother Tom Kelley. During my internship, I found what creative confidence means to me. I found it in a place I didn’t quite expect.

In a period of 6 months, I participated in lots of creative sessions. I joined brainstorms, I sketched scenarios and I made prototypes on a daily basis. Even though I felt creatively confident, I was always concerned about my actual output. I always looked at the number of ideas I generated and I doubted the quality of my sketches.

The more sessions I joined, the more creative I started to feel. Not because I generated more ideas. Not because my scenarios became clearer. Not even because I became a better sketcher. I felt more creative from the moment I stopped caring about the actual end result.

I started to feel truly creative when I completely stopped caring about the result of my creative process.

Why? Because I started to trust the creative process. I started to trust it perhaps even more than I trusted myself. I realized that if I give myself in, if I dive into the creative process, if I apply the rules of creativity, I will get the desired results. And if results don’t come right away, they will certainly come next time.

I realized that creativity is not just about me. It is much bigger than me.Even more than being confident in my own creativity, I become confident in creativity as a problem-solving tool.

I realized that — to me — underlying creative confidence is confidence in the creative process. This process is confusing, full of uncertainty and hard to quantify so feeling uncomfortable in these circumstances is natural. However, I got more comfortable in fully giving myself in.

I realized that underlying creative confidence is a confidence in the creative process.

I actually think that main reason that creative insecurity exists is because we often measure creativity based on the person’s end result. We count the number of ideas. We judge a finished movie. We criticize the quality of a painting. By doing so, we put pressure on the process. This is the enemy of creative confidence. I experienced it myself.

Courtesy of IDEO / Nicolas Zurcher

Don’t overthink design

For more than a month I was part of a design team in which we designed a tool for teachers. We faced many design problems and we did our best to solve all of them.

One day a bunch of teachers visited the office to give feedback on our prototypes. This short session turned out to be an eye-opening experience.

First, because I realized that I had made many bad design decisions. Users were confused. Initially, I didn’t understand why. I have been designing for a couple of years now. I should be knowing my stuff. And I thought I did. I knew interaction patterns. I knew about information architecture. I knew what colors work well together.

Was all of my knowledge useless? No, but I realized that the more I know, the more I need to challenge this. It’s easy to fall into the trap of just tapping into past experiences. It’s easy to expect something will work just because it worked in the past. It’s easy to just do what a book tells you. It’s easy to just rely on intuition. Every design problem is unique. Intuition can be the illusion of knowing. Trying to be stupid is a skill.

Intuition can be the illusion of knowing. Trying to be stupid is a skill.

This insight made me appreciate IDEO’s prototyping culture more. Without the prototype, I wouldn’t have been able to question what I thought I knew. I wouldn’t have been able to gain valuable user feedback. I realized that the problem of overthinking is that the more you think, the more you think you are right. Something that starts as an educated guess can very easily turn into an assumption.

I realized that the more you think, the more you think you are right. Prototypes challenge this.

Besides making many bad design decisions, the user session made me realize that I had focused on irrelevant design elements. I had spent days worrying about whether to use a fixed or an infinite scroll bar. During the session it turned out that the user didn’t care about this detail. The user cared about other things.

I am not saying that we should stop caring about design, just because our users don’t necessarily recognize the value. I think we should be more obsessed with our user than we are with pixels, typography or scrolling behaviors.

As designers, we should be obsessed with our user, not with pixels, typography or scrolling behaviors.

It made me realize what empathy means to me. It is not just about understanding the user, but it is about starting to value the same things as the user. It is about developing an intrinsic understanding that can inform design decisions.

Traditionally, the role of designer and user are separated. I started to believe there is a value in combining them more and more. I asked myself: “If that user would have my design skills, would he end up with the same product?” If not, I am probably doing something wrong.


Courtesy of IDEO / Nicolas Zurcher

Staying relevant through research

My biggest fear as a designer is to become irrelevant over time. I worry about a new generation that interacts fundamentally differently with future products. I worry about not being able to understand them.

To illustrate this, I felt old when I tried to use Snapchat for the first time. It confused me. I used to make fun of my dad for reading instructions before using a product. However, now I was doing the same. Now I was looking for Snapchat instructions online.

Fortunately, IDEO has developed a research methodology to understand people. I realized that by observing and interviewing users I can overcome the generation gap. I can stay relevant through research.

What a collaborative culture feels like

Before my internship, I had done many group projects. After each project, I could always pinpoint where my ideas impacted the final outcome. I always cared about my role within a team.

At IDEO this was different. I stopped caring about my personal contribution. Why? Because it didn’t matter. It did not matter whether I came up with an idea or my coworker did. All that mattered was that we built a good product. Together. I just felt so much trust from my coworkers, that I didn’t feel the need to prove myself. Even though I was an intern, I never felt that people were looking down on me.

Part of IDEO’s culture is that people don’t take credit, but ownership. They can defend their work when necessary, but they don’t use it as ammunition against another coworker. To me, this felt quite liberating. It felt like a true collaboration.

People at IDEO don’t take credit, but they do take ownership and responsibility.

Good design should not be explained

Okay this sounds cliche, but somehow this one suddenly snapped with me. It snapped with me when I started to work more closely with my teammates. It brought me into fast moving cycles of producing and presenting wireframes. A lot of wireframes.

I realized that their constant feedback helped me in two ways. It helped me to solve some design problems, but even more importantly, it made me realize what I had to improve.

Before giving me feedback, before giving me answers to some of the design problems I was facing, they asked me questions. They asked me to clarify my design. They needed these answers before they could give me feedback. To me, this became part of the feedback itself.

My coworkers needed clarification before they could give me feedback. To me, this became part of the feedback itself.

I realized that the more I had to clarify, the more I had to improve. When a user faces my product for the first time, I won’t be there to clarify the designeither. Good design should not be explained, it should explain itself.

I started to design with this in mind. It became a way to evaluate my work. I asked myself: “What would my coworkers ask me to clarify?”

Well, that’s it. Thanks to everybody at IDEO who have made this internship possible! Special thanks to Shane Zhao for proofreading this article.


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© 2018 Martijn van den Broeck
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