In this post, I will quickly summarize my internship experience at Google as a User Experience Researcher in 2016.
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I completed an internship as a User Experience Researcher at Google in the summer of 2016. This internship was during my PhD studies. Many of the fellow UX Research interns were in their PhD programs too, but there about as many in their Master’s program and a few in their Bachelors.
Google has their headquarter in Mountain View, California but offices all over the world. The bigger offices in Europe are in Zurich (where I am currently based) and London. You can only apply in NA or Europe, not both. Once you started an application for one continent you can’t easily switch – hence it makes sense to decide upfront where you’d like to do the internship. Each summer, the main engineering offices (which excludes the offices that only do Sales), offer internships. These internship positions are usually added to Google’s Career site around December for the coming summer:
If you are interested in a User Experience Research internship at Google, I would recommend you sign up for alerts. I will write another article on how best to prepare for a User Experience Research Internship application in another post. Feel reach out to me if you have questions in the meantime: mail <at> janahrend.com.
User Experience Research falls under the “Engineering” pillar at Google (all fields of work). User Experience Researchers at Google are either qualitative researchers, quantitative researchers, or generalists who do both. Therefore it’s okay to have a qual focus and not be strong in quant, for example. I suggest you tell your recruiter and in your motivational statement if you are more qual/quant or a generalist to manage expectations early on.
I won’t go into details about the application process here – for me it consisted of a CV, motivational statement, portfolio in form of a website and 5 telephone interviews. I’ll write another article about the application process.
What kind of work you do in your user experience research internship and what product you work on depends on the team you are matched with. The research you conduct is always tied to the needs of the team, the product stage and ultimately the users’ needs. This article describes the differences between types of User Experience Researcher in more detail.
To give you an example, during my UX Research internship, I conducted eye-tracking studies, large-scale A/B tests, large-scale surveys, interviews and ethnographic field observations. I learned a lot in terms of methods and data analysis but also about effectively collaborating with stakeholders to operationalise research findings. Coming from a PhD program, what stood out to me most was how closely user research worked with the product team. As a User Experience Researcher, I was close partner to the Product Manager, UX Designer and Engineers. You will learn how to work with stakeholders under tight product, business and legal constraints to help the team quickly move forward. The experience also taught me how to rigorously prioritize. My academic research valued scientific rigour over quick turnarounds. Conducting qualitatively excellent research is just as import in industry UX research as quick turnarounds and socializing findings is. Concretely, this may mean that only the top drivers of dissatisfaction are relevant and it’s not efficient to unpack secondary drivers further.
Something else that stood out to me during my User Experience Research internship at Google was the culture that understood and appreciated user research deeply. Stakeholders believed in its value and I could focus on doing the research and socializing findings and had to spend less time getting buy-in to do research in the first place. This is a perk of doing user experience research at Google and other ‘newer’ tech organization and may be less common in other organisations and industries.
Speaking of culture, there are hundreds of UXRs working at Google and they have weekly/monthly/yearly meetups. The support for user research studies was outstanding. Google has dedicated teams that help with conducting studies (e.g. participant recruiting, legal aspects, etc.). This support goes so far that you can even have certain types of research studies completely conducted for you if you choose to. This frees up time for you to fully focus on designing studies and integrating research findings.
The infrastructure is also outstanding. Example; Google builds their own labs and fleet of user research vans all around the globe. And the financial support for studies is also fantastic. I got granted participant reimbursements within an hour, for example. This support is available to all UXRs and interns. This lead to a role that could be described as ‘senior’ User Experience Researcher in other organisations – where you have teams working for you, to ‘enable’ your research. You can concentrate on the fun parts like designing studies, analysing and integrating findings.
The people are also genuinely nice and supportive – to a degree that I haven’t experienced in any other organisation. I felt very well included and cared for. I couldn’t have imagined a warmer welcome!
One aspect that an academic researcher may be perceived as a drawback when working as a User Experience Researcher – but not just at Google but any tech company – is the product-centred nature of the work. While you still can publish papers, most of your work will be about improving the user experience of a product. If this is a strength or weakness will depend on your definition of ‘impact’.
To summarise, you will face a research environment that truly appreciates user research, uncomparable support in terms of infrastructure and culture to conduct research studies, and interesting and motivated people.
How User Experience Research work differs from our academic work
As you may have sensed from the description above, the work focus shifts somewhat from analysing data to designing studies purposefully and feeding findings effectively back. Your main responsibility is not only to analyse data but to design studies appropriately so they will lead to impact on your product. You will need to collaborate closely with the product team and understand what research questions are most pressing, and then to communicate findings in a way that they will lead to actual impact. In our academic work, the analysis of data may be most ‘challenging’. The challenges I faced as a User Experience Researcher shifted more towards understanding what findings would be needed to drive pressing product decisions and how to effectively communicate them to product managers and engineers and work with designers to incorporate them into the product. It is not enough to have ‘interesting’ findings if they lead to no impact on the user experience.
UX and UX Research at Google
You will need a reference from someone working at Google otherwise your application will get lost. A reference will increase your chances of getting to the interview stage. You will need a tailored CV and motivational statement. A portfolio showcasing some of your work is not necessary but can help.
I am happy to answer any questions you may have!
Disclaimer: I work at Google as a Senior User Experience Researcher. Content and opinions are my own and not of Google.