10 things to understand before you join a startup as a Product Designer (part 1)

Starting in the field of product design at a startup can be both tricky and overwhelming. There are now god-knows-how-many designer titles floating around the world from Web Designer to App Designer to UX Designer to Product Designer +100s more. Good luck explaining how one differs from the other. Most young designers don’t even know what their specific role is going to be after they bag that fancy offer letter from a startup.

There were instances when one would want to learn design or join a design team because they thought it was glamorous. Some wanted to build things that millions would want to use. There were people who came from detailed design academia and wanted to research for months before implementing the first feature. And there were some who just wanted to design screens in an iPhone app.

Here I talk about a few things that you should understand before joining a startup as a product designer:

1. Know the difference between startups and digital agencies

I have worked with a huge bunch of people from digital agencies who end up becoming a misfit in the culture of product companies as designers and so it’s very important for you to understand the difference between the two.

At a digital agency, your work is billed by the hour or by the project that has a pre-defined scope of execution and a set time of delivery. You’ll be working on a project for a certain number of days/ weeks before the client gets to see the cut and then proceed accordingly. Accordingly, when all feedback from the client is accounted for, development cycle kicks in through final project delivery date. This is usually referred to as the waterfall model which is a sequential process going through the phases of conception, initiation, analysis, design, development, testing, production and maintenance. Your role as a designer will most likely be confined to working in and around design tools and production of designs. There’s typically going to be a project manager/ account manager who’s in constant touch with the client doing all the selling, convincing and so on.

At a startup, however, it’s going to be you who will be the owner of a feature/ project and working hand in hand with your buddy product manager who will be your initial bridge to business, sales etc. It is going to be you responsible for delivering and selling your solution to the client (read manager, VP, CEO, CTO etc.). It is going to be you who will be living one project day in day out for months, and years before you get it just right unlike a project that will last for 3 months and delivered!! At a startup, you will not have the luxury to focus only the production of designs and leave the rest for an account manager to take care. You will need to do the fighting and pushing and hustling to ship the right thing. You will constantly be improving that one page or one flow that constitutes 10% of one of the 5–6 platforms the product is one. Day in, day out.

Many, after working for just a few weeks, realise it’s not their forte. That it blocks their creativity and simply move on. I am not criticising them. As a matter of fact, some of the best designers I know of have always been a part of a digital agency producing award winning work.

Broadly, if you want to design for a breadth of industry domains, I’d recommend going for an agency. If you’re, however, into deep diving into every industry domain, join a startup, or a product company.

2. Communication is everything

I can’t stress on this enough. As designers, we strive to communicate to our users what our intentions are, what we want them to do, what is important to them, useful to them through our designs, through font hierarchy, through micro-interactions, through layouts, through flows, through storytelling.

If you’re going to be a good designer, you need to be good in communication. Period. There’s no exception to it. If you are not comfortable talking to people outside your team, a startup is not an ideal place for you. If you can’t explain why you did what you did in design, a startup is not the place for you.

  • You will need to communicate why you did what
  • You will need to sell your concept like your life depends on it
  • You will need to discuss and reach a solution by contributing in brainstormings and decision makings situations
  • You will need to spend time with sales to understand how they are looking at a product and how they take it to potential customers
  • You will need to talk to users, hundreds and thousands of them, to understand where their inhibitions lie, how they think about your product
  • You will need to approach strangers to test your feature prototype
  • You will need to keep project owners and engineering managers in loop with the new design interaction you’re planning so they appreciate any risk in deadline commitments
  • You will need to constantly keep managers and peers in loop of your work and get constant feedback

and, hundred such things! You get the idea.

Having said that, you don’t need to be good at it on day 1. I wasn’t for one. It takes a while to understand the system you’re working in, the kind of teams that are supporting the product and also, how to craft and manoeuvre your language, scope of discussions etc. in different contexts. To efficiently be a part of a startup, be open to learning this invaluable skill of communication.

3. Product Design ≠ User Interface Design

Contrary to the popular belief, product design is not equal to your Dribbble shots. What, in the front, looks like a simple fancy input field may have hours of brainstorming, debates backing up its story. What, in the front, looks like a cool chart animation may be failing completely to represent real life data values. There will be instances when you will spend hours, sometimes days fighting to get just one like of text removed from a page — not to make it look pretty, but to communicate the right thing to your users.

I have often seen young designers get a feature requirement and jump directly into Sketch and start drawing rectangles and text on the screen. After a few days, we have a pretty set of screens that show various possible states and interactions but fail miserably to tell a good user story.

I’ll take a small example:

Once I gave an interview candidate a simple assignment: Create a (colour) theme for a quarterly sales dashboard for CXOs. I gave a generous 3 days timeline for the assignment. The candidate reverted next morning with a JPEG file with not one but 4 colour palettes. When asked about the reason for choosing the specific colours, she mentioned the colours were warm, cool etc. and look aesthetically good when put together in a dashboard. But, she missed the point.

The quarterly sales dashboard was meant to reflect the highlights of data. It also needed to be clearly legible on projector screens since CXOs will also look at the same dashboard with the broader team or board members in a board room. Her colour palette went completely indistinguishable when I plugged it to a medium range projector screen.

So, like most fields, in product design, you can choose your one core vertical to be UI design but you have to understand the experience it will sit on, the story it will fit in, the rationale it satisfies. After all, it’s the real users that you’re making the product for, not a 400 x 300 box.

4. Don’t fall in love with your designs

Most people in product, mostly designers, tend to fall in love with their creations instantaneously.

I just found the right place in our app to introduce a tinder like interaction and it’s going to be the best thing ever! *after 3 hours* I love myself. I am awesome!

When you fall in love with your design, you go partially (or, fully) deaf to all the good discussions that can dramatically improve your designs, or simplify it. You will tend to focus a conversation more on defending the design than listening to understand various concerns and going back to the drawing board.

Practically speaking, your design is never going to be 100% perfect. You need to be mentally prepared to get your output go through grilling critique sessions from peers, stakeholders and most importantly, users and see if it survived the test.

Did users in your usability testing get the communication right? Did they understand what you were trying them to do? Is that interaction going to be smooth and functional in a low-end device? Are the flows simple? Is it intuitive? Can you sell it? Does it cover edge cases? Does it stand the test of your changing business model?
Very likely, you will not hit all of these checkboxes at once. Gradually, yes.

Fall in love with a problem, and not it’s manifestation in design. Keep hammering it till you get it right and when you do, keep improving it.

5. Culture ≠ Perks

Friday beers, quarterly team outings, top-of-the-line Macbooks, T-shirts, Herman Miller chairs, gourmet lunch buffets, 50% work from home time, convertible standing desks… and the list goes on.
These. are. perks.

Perks are different from culture. It’s very important that you understand the difference.

  • Getting shit done
  • Make mistakes, own them, fix them, don’t repeat
  • Never fail to ask for help
  • Always be shipping
  • Customer service experience is paramount. Nothing, nothing, nothing should compromise it
  • Always be learning

These are some examples of company culture.

Perks are some means that organisations provide members to be optimal and efficient with their work and life. Culture, on the other hand, are principles that people in the organisation nurture and build the company on. They are values that keep people together, focused on the common goal(s). And in the long run, make you a better person as well.

Now, let me explain how I mean it from a young designer’s lens with an example:

You’re a designer who joined a budding startup. You have a comfortable seat, a desk, free lunch, shiny new Macbook Pro and may be an iPhone as well. You’re all set to work.

Over the course of next few months, you’ll run into a few issues like this:

  • Too many emails, I can’t keep up. They’re not even important most of the time. Why do I still get it? ‘This is a company that sends an email for every god-damn-thing’
  • People are not competent. It takes a guy so much time to execute such a small thing. ‘This is a company that harvests mediocrity’
  • It’s been one year and I did not learn a thing. I’m doing the same work over and over again. There’s no one to teach. ‘This is a boring company’
  • There’s too much bureaucracy here. To get one change done, I have to run it through 10 levels of hierarchy. ‘Government company hai’
  • This is not good for the user but we’re okay with it because business ($$)! ‘Selfish company doesn’t care about customers’
  • It wasn’t my mistake but no one stood up for it. I was thrown under the bus. I hate this place. ‘Too much politics in the company’
  • My manager is extremely hard to reach. Who do I go to with my issues? ‘Too much hierarchy’
  • “Let me look for a better company which has better culture (read perks). This new startup has 5x the funding and they give free breakfast as well! Wow! This is one good place.”

Sounds familiar? All of the above are cancer to the growth of a company. How do we fix it? Culture. See how:

  • More emails? You’ll only get marked with emails if this concerns something you have worked on or are working on. For everything else, use Slack, Skype or whatever.
    Have an issue over email, with someone who’s sitting 4 rows away? Walk up and talk it out. And, to keep everyone in the loop, reply to the email.
    All members of the company should always be accessible via <insert Slack, SMS, Slack, Pigeons etc.>
  • Mediocre people? There will be a hiring committee with 5 people testing a candidate’s competence across culture, management, people, skillset etc.
    Engineers taking more time to execute? Spend time understanding why one animation is taking more time? Evaluate if the effort is worth the result. Work together with the developer to explore alternatives and if nothing works, seek help from seniors.
  • Not learning anything? Have your manager allocate some budget for learning initiatives. Online courses, monthly meet-ups and so on. Spend 1 hour every 2 weeks with other operational teams in your organisation like Business, Sales, Customer Support and work with them, if required. You’ll gradually expand your ability to look at any problem holistically.
  • Too much bureaucracy? Skip the line and directly go to the executor of the job. Do that frequently, others will follow and will eventually curb the evil.
  • Politics seeping in? Speak up immediately when you sense something like this. Be vocal about any negativity nurturing around you. It gets resolved by doing just that almost all the time.

Initiatives like these, from individuals like you form a culture . A startup is built by the amalgamation of principles brought in by the collective not one. Taking initiatives and stands will ensure you contribute to the culture equally as the rest of your colleagues.