13 February 2023
9 Mins Read
Thriving as a Product Designer
Startups count as some of the most fast-paced and exciting places to work while doubling as some of the most competitive workplaces to get into. Over the past few months, I have spoken to designers about various topics, and several questions are recurring in these conversations. Some of these questions concern issues such as the relevance of one’s work experience while job hunting, building a portfolio, things to look out for at any startup you’re applying to, as well as navigating a design career within an organization.
Like these people, you might also be considering working in a startup where you hope to see the impact of your work in real-time. Or you already work at one and need a guide to help you deal with expectations, and navigate design at startups. Regardless of where you stand, I have taken time to draw from my experience working at four different startups to write this article tailored to help you.
My name is Leke. I’m a Product Designer with over seven years of experience; five of those years have been spent working closely with startup founders. I recently became a founder at Jobgap, where I utilize AI to help techies land interviews and job offers.
Let us dive into some of my tips on helping you build a successful career in Product Design.
Negotiate on behalf of the people you represent
Remember that as a designer, you are the user’s biggest advocate. This is a critical responsibility. From my experience, there’s always the danger that if you work with core engineering teams it is often a common occurrence for usability concerns to be waved aside. It is your job to take a stand here in “speaking up for users”. Negotiate on their behalf by backing up your claims with statistics and studies. Take it upon yourself to educate your team on best UX practices that can help inform design decisions.
Adapt, do not get too attached
Most ideas are often not fully formed, but you must be able to create meaningful work out of them. It would be best if you dug deeper sometimes to get more info or context about what you’re asked to do (some things are more complex than the initial description given to you). A lot can change in a week, and that might render your work from the previous week redundant. This is where your ability to adapt comes in. Pick up the pieces and get moving. Making mistakes is also okay; owning up to them and fixing them is the remedy. A well-grounded team would understand that’s a sign of growth. Over time, this adaptation tactic will give you the experience needed to avoid pitfalls.
Actively participate in the product-building process
Because of the uncertain climate that startups operate in, there are brainstorming sessions from time to time to clarify how best to move forward. This is the time to ask intelligent questions and contribute meaningfully to the development of the product. Although sometimes, you only need to listen and absorb the information being passed around. Take time outside work hours to study the industry in which your startup operates. What are the patterns of doing things? Are there regulations and policies you should know about? Is there a niche that no one is paying attention to etc.? This helps to show that you also care about the company’s bottom line. Another added advantage is that you learn things outside design, from business to technical terminologies.
Selecting a team
This is a make-or-break decision. We spend a huge chunk of our lives with the people we work with, so it is crucial to work with the right set of people. First, determine if the company’s mission is ambitious enough for you to dedicate your time and effort. The second thing you need to consider is if you will enjoy working alongside these people. Do their values align with yours? Is it an environment where you can grow? Do they inspire you to become a better version of yourself? Understanding how best you work and the conditions you need to thrive will help you see if a startup will be a great fit. Also, make sure to evaluate their compensation package to see if it is fair & competitive. Endeavor to tick those three boxes before you finally commit.
Build your taste
One of the best pieces of advice I have received from my mentor is
“If you see a bad design, in the same second, look at ten good designs to wash the bad one off your subconscious.”
It might sound funny or bizarre, but it works. Dedicate a few minutes of your day daily to feeding your mind. Spend time curating design resources. It could be anything from courses to articles to even case studies. Your team relies on you to give the users the best experience possible and you cannot pour out of an empty cup. Your subconscious works uniquely and depends on you to feed it with the best ideas out there. The most significant disadvantage you can do to yourself is to stop improving. Audit yourself regularly and take action on any aspect of your career you would like to improve.
Iterate, Iterate, Iterate
The improvement never stops. Constantly think about how you can make the product more usable. Ask yourself questions like;
Can I redesign the flow to allow users to achieve their tasks faster?
Can I rewrite this copy to communicate the action better and more clearly?
Can I introduce some “aha moments” into the product to delight users and visitors etc
Spend time with people in customer support and understand what the current user pain points are. Draw from these insights to know how best to solve these problems with your design. As the product gains adoption, more features will be introduced; this will test your abilities how to introduce this new piece into the product.
Take time to rest and have fun
No one tells you how stressful working in a startup can be (More so if they’re still in the middle of finding a product-market fit). You will be stretched and often stressed because of this. Keep your mind sane while trying to save the day. I like to tell myself that an unfit body/mind cannot perform at its best. That’s why it’s essential to take time off, spend time with people that matter in your life, go on holidays, and travel without feeling guilty about it.
Leave UX protocols at the door
Now I might get crucified for this, but you must leave some “UX protocol” at the door. Startups are one of the most fast-paced places to work, time is its most expensive currency, and its default mode is survival. Things change fast, and you can only rely on a flexible foundation for your work. This often means you’d have to jump straight to high-fidelity prototypes and skip processes like wire-framing, in-depth user research, etc. You often need to churn out work for quick customer validation, a sales demo, or investor validation; this does not mean you should churn out mediocre work. That would be unacceptable! Bring the highest quality to the smallest detail. Having a simple set of flexible guidelines will help you speed up deliverables.
Landing a job in the first place
It can be pretty competitive to land a job in a startup, but depending on how large the startup is, hiring is done by the founder or a hiring manager. I will tell you a secret; founders hire for attitude first, then skill second. You have less control over the first, so I’ll focus on the second. Here’s a little checklist you should keep in mind. Focus your job hunt on the industries you intend to work in, write great case studies from a business perspective, design your portfolio to meet industry standards, tailor your resume for each role, and write a cover letter that aligns your story with the company. Use tools like jobgap. xyz to help you automate your job search. Remember, you don’t have to meet all the requirements before you apply!
Network with people in other startups
Attend conferences and meetups, and learn how others work within their startups. You can even get a mentor in a startup more prominent than yours to understand their workflow. Have them critique your work and give tips on being a better designer. Learn how to ask intriguing questions and demonstrate a willingness to grow. It will pay off in the long run.
Copy but think differently
Yes, users have strong mental models about how things should work. Leverage that and build on it to differentiate your product. Startups exist to disrupt. Reverse engineer user experiences, experiment with new ideas, and watch how impactful you become. You also need to understand that you’re not just there to make things shiny, so here’s your chance to make an impact! Always strive to exceed user expectations; you know by now that user experience is a competitive edge, and that’s your superpower.
I cannot write exhaustively about what you need to thrive or succeed in startups in just one article (I am also evolving as I write this), but I hope these thoughts and guidelines provide a bit of clarity as you navigate your way amidst the stormy waters in startups. I acknowledge the intensity of work and innovation needed, but I can promise you it is a worthwhile experience. If you’re ambitious, I am sure you will have a fascinating ride.
Please feel free to reach out to me @AyodeleAdeleke_ on Twitter if you have any recommendations or gripes.