Summer Internship 2014

5 September 2014
6 min read

Backplane creates a social media platforms for communities. The concept centeres around "walled gardens" and creating a safe space for people to discover interests and interact with others exploring those interests.

I worked as a UX Design Intern on the Design team which consisted of 4 other individuals (1 full-time UX Designer, 1 full-time Visual Designer, 1 Product Manager, 1 Visual Design Intern). The other teams that were a part of the company were Front End, Back End, and Data. There were about 20 people working out of the Palo Alto office, another 10 in San Diego (ambassadors), and 2-3 in Croatia (engineers). Obviously communicating with people working remotely was a challenge but manageable (Google Hangout became my best friend).

Why I chose Backplane

  1. Touching each part of the process. As a new grad (from college) going straight into my Masters, I do not have a lot of industry experience and wanted the flexibility to be a part of various things in a company.
  2. Talented designers. All the designers that I met and interviewed with were amazing to work with. They were so kind and patient with me which obviously provides for a better overall experience. We really became a close knit family.
  3. Perfect location. While I new I wanted to be in the Bay area for the summer (as a trial run), Palo Alto was the right blend of suburbia and city that I needed. While I loved going to the city on the weekends, I could not imagine living in the concrete jungle all the time. I lived a 15 minute walk to work- literally sunshine and flowers. every. single. day.

My Experience

I came into Backplane when there were a lot of transitions going on. There were a lot of people leaving, but also coming in, which obviously changes the dynamic of the company. The product also drastically changed midway through the summer which caused all the designers some amount of grief. Communication between the designers and engineers became all the more critical to make sure we were all on the same page for what we were doing. "Structured chaos" would be a good adjective to sum up the summer.

I worked on a variety of UX projects from registration to adding features for the back end administrative side to the front-facing profile pages. I learned a lot about designing for screens and multiple platforms which I definitely felt I had lacked (since it had not been explicitly taught to me thus far at CMU*).

Professional Lessons Encountered / Learned:

  • How to integrate the pre-existing system into the design to create consistency (but also how it gets frustrating in the cycle of waiting for feedback and approval)
  • Use of new tools (Skala Preview) as well as sharpening skills on others (visual mockups in Photoshop; pixel pushing)
  • Whiteboards are SOOO important (as well as co-workers that work alongside with you on them)
  • Comparative research into existing interaction patterns
  • Design / Startup culture (sprints, crits, demo days, intern showcases, standups, scrum, agile vs. waterfall workflow)
  • "Spec-ing" and handoffs to engineers is all about communication
  • Terminology becomes so important (endpoints, access, edge cases, etc)
  • UI Kits can make or break a product
  • There is often a conflict between a simple and an ideal solution and the amount of man power it takes for each of those (not just from the design side, but engineering and data as well). There is a trifecta of tradeoffs between resources, time, and quality (polish).
  • As a company, it is important to document all your work. I know we get that lesson as individuals but it's all the more important in a start-up where there is constant transition. As people come in and out, work is lost and buried.

Personal Lessons Encountered / Learned:

  • I tend to be quite quiet (ha!) when I start somehwere new. Over the course of the summer, I learned to be more vocal and wasn't afraid to approach people. I'm glad I chose a small company in this regard.
  • I was initially very cautious about designing because I felt the need to try to understand the whole system. However, my Product Manager pushed me to just jump in and get messy. I think this is a learning technique that working in a startup is great for- getting your hands dirty to really dig into the concept.
  • While I learned a lot, I realized that client-based work was not something I want to pursue in the future. I really enjoyed all aspects of the UX that I did, which makes me think that working in a Product Manager role might be a direction I'd like to pursue.
  • I need to continue to push my visual design skills as well as coding/technical skills as tools for communication with engineers (especially if I pursue a more product development-oriented role).
  • CMU Alumni connections are everywhere and amazing. Everywhere I went (SF Design Week, random design events), I encountered CMU Alum that were more than willing to open up and talk.

I loved my time at Backplane. Obviously there were frustrations with the work at times but it made it all the more challenging and enjoyable for me. My favorite moments were having long UX discussions and whiteboarding with one of my co-workers. Although the product wasn't something that I knew anything about before coming in (and was not something I utilized daily), the UX challenges presented were very much real and great learning opportunities.

I also loved the fact that this was an older start-up. While I'm not opposed to "bro culture," I loved the fact that everyone behaved as adults. Obviously we had our fun by watching Futurama on Fridays, cheering for our teams during the FIFA World Cup and company outings (soccer games, bowling, floor seats to Lady Gaga Concert, happy hour), but I appreciated the fact that we didn't have a separate "intern culture" (cause there were only a handful of interns). I loved being treated as working as a full-time professional. The bay area also has the "man-child" culture which essentially relegates to them taking care of your every need so that you feel like you can focus on your work. I'm definitely not complaining about the fully-stocked kitchen or the catered lunches and dinners, but I also think it promotes a long-term "man-child" culture where grown men (and women) don't learn to take care of themselves. Backplane didn't have that which I appreciated.

As I move forward, I think I would like the experience of working in a larger company to have better resources at my disposal as well as meeting a wider group of people to work with. Also while working on the product at Backplane was definitely enlightening, I'd like to work on something that I'm personally passionate about (in the realm of social entrepreneurship). Also in contrast to other students' experience, I did not get to travel a great deal, but I'm definitely open to the idea. There was not enough time to explore everything in the bay area, so by far I was not disappointed in the lack of travel at all. I have expressed a lot of concerns about the bay area culture in the past and have been weary of it. Those hesitations still hold true but I think that the bay area has more to offer than just first world app creation. Finding the niche is the hard part.

The internship overall was an amazing experience. There is never an end to learning in design, and the internship was definitely an expedited process of learning and application.

*SIDE NOTE: I feel like my Advanced Web Design class is a great compliment and sequel to my internship and in general learning how to design for screens.

Tagged: summer2014

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