Observations, learnings, and Amazon’s unique culture
I’ve recently finished my summer internship at the tech giant’s HQ in Seattle and thought it’s a great time to take a step back and document everything. Here’s a rundown of what I’m going to cover in this article:
- 🙋🏻♂️ My background
- ✍🏼 Application timeline
- 👤 The team: HR Org/ People Experience Technology/ Recruiting Engine UX Team
- 👁 Observations working at a Big Tech company
- 🍌 Amazon’s unique culture
- 👥 Lessons around designing for enterprise tools in the HR space HR Tools
- 🦮 Accessibility
- 🤝 The importance of soft skills
- 🧠 Things to keep in mind when approaching a design project/ internship
- 🌱Some other habits/mindsets to boost productivity & learnings
- 👋🏼 Closing
🙋🏻♂ My background
To give a bit of context, I am a rising senior at USC studying a combination of design, business, and technology. In the past, I’ve mostly worked at startups that have less than 200 people. This is my first big tech internship experience, and I’ve explored a bit of product management before focusing on product design.
✍🏼 Application timeline
I applied to the Amazon UX Design Internship through a referral around early November 2021. I didn’t hear back until late January of 2022 with an invitation for a final round interview (there wasn’t any phone screen or recruiter calls). The final round consists of two 45-minute sessions with 15 minutes of break in between (one portfolio presentation and one behavior interview). I heard back within a week.
👤 The team: HR Org/ People Experience Technology/ Recruiting Engine
The team I was assigned to was within the HR org. Specifically, it’s a team that builds human resources-related tools for Amazon’s employees, candidates, and recruiters. It’s not the most exciting product, but the tools the team builds directly impact Amazon’s worldwide 1.6 million employees, countless prospective candidates using Amazon.jobs, and Amazon recruiters.
At Amazon, every day is “Day 1” to stay innovative like a startup
👁 Observations working at a Big Tech company
Although I’ve heard what it’s like designing at big tech from others before, actually working at one hits differently.
- Your experience is largely dependent on the team you are on (e.g. the design culture, work-life balance, or people). Before coming in, I only had a generalized view of Amazon’s work culture (hearing people talking about their intense work environment), but my actual experience on the Recruiting Engine team wasn’t like that at all.
- It may be hard to feel a sense of community on a company level. Unlike a startup where you can feel the sense of camaraderie being on the same boat and working towards a shared mission, that’s not the case for a big tech due to the size of the company. Most of the time you would barely know the people you see walking around the offices beyond your immediate team.
- You’d do more UX work than visual stuff.
- Switching team internally is easy, the harder part is getting in. Amazon’s full-time interview process has multiple loops, but once you got your foot in the door, you can easily switch teams with the hiring manager’s approval.
- Due to the sheer size of the company, there are a lot of company-specific internal tools. For example, Amazon has an internal wiki for employees to look up different terms & references, a contact lookup tool to see the organization chart, and an office management tool to book a conference room.
- When you are working on enterprise tools, the type of problem you solve is often related to legacy software, old system, or previous processes.
- Most full-time employees work remotely. I was at the Amazon Headquarters in Seattle. Because my team was largely remote, I explored multiple Amazon buildings. The entire Amazon campus is filled with interns in the summer (Amazon has A LOT of interns), and it seemed like most full-timers don’t come in that much.
- It’s easy to feel like a small fish in a big pond. Walking around the Amazon skyscrapers, seeing people come and go, and browsing through internal contacts can make you feel tiny. This is the typical “feeling like a cog in a machine” observation in large corporations.
Most mature companies have established design systems and libraries, so the role of product designers is usually figuring out how to incorporate them into the design flow. An analogy is like puzzle pieces— they have already been made, and your job is to assemble them together.
For example, deprecating or migrating something away from an old tool might require months of work across multiple teams as too many processes were already built on top of that..
🍌 Amazon’s unique culture
- Leadership Principles. Originally, I thought this was just something people talk about for interviewing purposes. It turned out the Leadership Principles are baked in the DNA of everything Amazon-related. They are a set of values and rule-of-thumb that Amazon expects all employees to religiously follow. These principles set a standard on how to evaluate hiring new employees, promoting teammates, and prioritizing product features across different product organizations and job functions as Amazon continues to scale. A couple of examples are customer obsession, bias for action, ownership…etc.
- Customer obsession. This is probably the top Leadership Principle and the most talked about at Amazon. Everything always goes back to serving the customers — from product roadmap to new services. From a designer's perspective, this is great because it allows designers to have a common vocabulary to communicate with non-designers. Being customer-obsessed also means constantly keeping in mind the user goal and the trade-offs every step of the process.
- Writing culture. Amazon is known for its big writing culture. Jeff Bezos famously banned PowerPoint in meetings because it “encourages lousy thinking”. He made people write down things and read silently at the beginning of the meeting.. During my internship, I haven’t really designed anything until the fourth week. Up to that point, I was mostly researching and synthesizing my findings through writing. For my team specifically, we write an Experience Brief about each project to ensure we know clearly the specific customer problem and solution we are dealing with.
- Working backward. This is a philosophy that applies to all projects at Amazon. People are expected to know the desired outcome of what they are working on and reverse-engineer from there. This is often seen in the way of a PRFAQ document but is also a general mindset that helps structuring projects and scoping down work. During my internship, my mentor who works closely with me discussed what our desired outcome for the internship is and came up with a timeline accordingly.
- One-way door vs two-way door. This is a framework that empowers Amazonians to take ownership and make decisions quickly. Amazon celebrates being resourceful, scrappy, and fast, but with the huge scale and impact, there needs a rule of thumb when it comes to decision making. . This can be applied to other life decisions as well!
Before starting any project, Amazonians write a PRFAQ (Press Release/ Frequently Asked Question) document detailing the specific customer problem and expected solution as if it’s the actual press release used in the product’s launch
The structure allowed us to have clarity in the deliverables throughout the internship and made sure we are on track.
One-way door decisions are like walking through a one-way door, there’s no turning back. For example, decisions like promising 2-day shipping for Prime members are considered a “one-way door” because turning back the decision would jeopardize customer trust. On the other hand, two-way door decisions are the ones that are reversible, you can easily go in and go out. Examples of this include introducing a new meeting structure or switching to a new design tool like Figma.
Generally, the rule of thumb is to move fast for two-way doors and move carefully for one-way doors
👥 Lessons around designing for enterprise tools in the HR space HR Tools
- Navigate ambiguity and complexities by thinking holistically and constantly asking for feedback. When it comes to building tools that involve multiple stakeholders and processes, it’s important to zoom out to think in systems and talk to different people, because even a small feature could be dependent on multiple moving parts. For example, Amazon has 30+ organizations hiring across multiple roles with multiple processes, so there are a lot of complexities when you want to design something across these systems.
- Look at the product’s customers from multiple angles. For one of my projects, the direct user was Amazon recruiters, the second-level users are Amazon candidates, and the final level is Amazon’s leadership. The nature of internal tools is usually around solving specific business problems for internal customers, but, in this case, it also touches upon external customers.
- Accessibility and inclusivity are crucial in the HR space. Designing HR solutions could directly change someone’s life (e.g. getting a job that changes their career trajectory). Therefore, it’s important to make sure the design is inclusive and accessible. The right solutions in the space can ensure equitable practice and reduce bias. For example, some tools my colleagues work on include reducing bias in the interview process for marginalized groups.
Thus, it was important to understand who we are solving for at each stage of the process and discuss how to make the tradeoffs accordingly.
Speaking of accessibility, here are 3 major lessons I’ve learned through accessibility workshops and conversations.
- A majority of our population actually needs accessible products. Originally I thought only a small number of people would need accessibility, but after this summer, I realized I wasn’t aware of the extent of accessibility at all. We are often in circumstances that need accessibility accommodations. Wearing glasses, having a darker phone screen brightness at night, and using an elevator are all examples of this.
- Accessibility breeds innovation. An example of this is how Xerox originally invented the “pinch to zoom” gesture to make printed words more accessible, and Apple borrowed and applied this to their products.
- Accessibility should be built into the product from the beginning instead of as an afterthought. It’s easy to assume that you can just add some accessible accommodations after you are done designing something. However, that’s not the ideal way as you could cause unnecessary inefficiencies and risk legal consequences. Designers should have accessibility in mind when at the early stages of the design process.
🤝 The importance of soft skills
This summer I learned how much soft skills are being used in the day-to-day job of a designer. A successful design career would largely need great soft skills.
- Hard skills get you in but soft skills get you far.
- Building relationships is key in everything. A big part of a designer’s job boils down to building relationships — building relationships with colleagues when onboarding, building relationships with your customers when researching, and building relationships with your cross-functional partners when you are trying to make things happen.
- Asking for feedback is an important skill.. Then, spend 10 minutes and ask everyone to take a look and comment. On a day-to-day level, get feedback early, regularly, and casually. .
Things like reaching out to colleagues, talking to users, asking great questions, thinking at a high level, writing documents, or simply being proactive becomes much more important after you onboard.
Sometimes it’s hard to get actionable feedback at bigger design critique sessions, so be specific on the kind of feedback you are looking for. A great way is to turn your presentation into a workshop: share a FigJam file and walk through your design there
Be intentional every time you ask for feedback: how you ask, why you ask, when you ask, and who you ask
Interior of Amazon Spheres
🧠 Things to keep in mind when approaching a design project/ internship
- There are 3 onboarding phases: Normally, onboarding to the company at a big corporation includes going through training videos and documents. Lastly, onboarding to the project involves getting a sense of where your project lies within the larger ecosystem, which organizational north star to work towards, and who you should talk to. Reading planning documents and chatting with colleagues about their projects could speed up your onboarding onboarding to the company, onboarding to the team, and onboarding to the project. Onboarding to the team happens when you meet your colleagues, learn about the team culture, and read the product documents.
- When coming up with potential solutions, don’t settle for the first few ones too quickly. Do more visual explorations and seek out feedback.
- Document things and organize your design file better so your life is easier in the future It took me some time to put together my first project presentation because of my Figma file’s lack of organization. Try to provide as much context for yourself so that when you revisit the file months from now you’d still know what’s going on.
- Start componentizing things makes the design workflow much more efficient, especially when you start exploring variations of some concepts. Had I started that from the beginning, it’d have been much easier to update the margin and different states (without manually updating them one by one). I got to exercise the technical part of using Figma’s variants, components, and properties. Figma has some great tutorials here.
- When it comes to user testing, be deliberate about what you want to test each time. Know what specific questions you want to get answered. When you are asking users to compare 2 different designs, make sure to not have too many variables that might affect the outcome.
- Make sure to test with different user groups. Get input from PM and researcher on the key personas you should focus on. As I talked to more recruiters, I learned that recruiters under different organizations each look for different things.
- When preparing for a presentation, make sure you provide the right context and frame the problem specifically so people don’t get pigeonholed into non-important details. An example of this is mentioning certain parts of the design are just placeholders/ out of scope, so people won’t focus on them.
Go broad first and aim for quantity.
🌱Some other habits/mindsets to boost productivity & learnings
- Learning can happen all the time. When it doesn’t come automatically, you can always be proactive and find them. At a big company like Amazon, you could easily find learning opportunities by checking out corporate learning resources, looking at others’ design files, or just chatting with someone from another team or function.
- Revisit the project goal regularly. Expect unexpected changes and pivot when necessary. For my second internship project, as we did more discovery and talked to stakeholders, we realized the scope was bigger than we originally assumed. As we didn’t have much time left, we had to pivot the goal and outcome of the project. Had we not revisited the goal and adjusted along the way, we might end up not delivering the planned outcome and ending the project abruptly.
- What you eat affects your energy level. Eating poorly makes me feel drossy and unproductive.
- Don’t wear sleeping clothes when you are working from home. Change into your outdoor wear.
- Go on walks, especially for breaks in between meetings or work sessions.
That’s a wrap! Hope this is helpful or interesting to anyone who’s curious about Amazon’s UX Design internship! My summer was only a small picture of Amazon. The nice thing about Amazon is that it touches on a wide range of industries and a diverse problem space. From health care to fashion, software to hardware, or new teams to mature teams, you can probably find a team that matches your interest areas! Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter if you have any thoughts or questions! Would also appreciate any claps you’ve enjoyed the read! 🙌🏼