Over two years ago, I started my career in an international service design consultancy, where we designed digital products for a wide range of clients. We had a big team, consisting of designers of all kinds. Together we brainstormed with post-it notes, drew customer journey flow maps, organized workshops and had passionate discussions about design thinking. It was easy to get inspired just from looking at what others did, and constant constructive feedback helped you sharpen your skills. One piece of that puzzle, however, was missing – there was almost no contact with the development. Once you handed in the designs you’ve been working so hard on, you could never be sure the product would look and work exactly how you’ve planned.
I applied for a job at a startup in San Francisco because I wanted to be building a product for thousands of users together with other disciplines. I knew I could learn so much more. Learn how products are developed, learn new things from marketing, and gain deeper knowledge of product management, just to name a few things. It was the best decision I could ever make for my career. However, there is no longer a team of designers and seniors around me. Being the only in-house designer in a small company has opened my eyes to new things, and I would like to share a few notes about my experiences with other designers who are considering a job in a tech startup.
First, don’t let your job title fool you. I have been working together with the development and marketing teams, learning from them and contributing to their projects. My work included everything starting from content planning to following analytics. I have even been participating in the recruitment process to expand our team. Be open-minded and take every opportunity to participate in various projects because the experience you’ll get will be priceless. It is also important to share your own design knowledge with the rest of the team. If the company is not design-driven, it is your responsibility be the advocate of your discipline and build a collaborative culture. Be part of planning sessions, show examples of great designs or concepts to your team, tell stories, organize workshops where your co-workers can participate – especially those without design background. Many times, I got inspiration from our talented engineers, and their ideas gradually turned into valuable features. I constantly think of them as the users of our product and never underestimate their ideas or comments. It is then the matter of how you process all that information and feedback coming from team members. And let’s face it – who doesn’t have an opinion about design?
What comes to people’s opinions, never forget the power of user insights, and do whatever it takes to make that research happen, in order to constantly improve your product. Ask for some time to be allocated for user testing or a workshop – it is the best way to get to know both your users and your product. Nowadays reaching users can be as simple as signing up for and online service, such as usertesting.com, where the users can test your products and record their sessions on video. Collect the best clips and share that knowledge, your team will truly appreciate it.
When you get the inspiration you need to proceed with your work, remember to continuously communicate what you are working on, and constantly ask for feedback. Even at the sketching stage, when nothing is final, it is crucial to collect comments from the team. Make sure you know who are the key stakeholders and keep them in the loop. Nothing can be as frustrating as showing your designs, after spending hours with Photoshop, only to find out that they can’t be implemented or they don’t match the company’s goals. Allow time for prototyping the ideas and features to avoid ‘oh shit’ moments just before the release – the mistakes can turn out to be expensive for the business. And when it comes to releasing, keep in mind that ‘good’ is better than ‘perfect’. The product will never be ready and it will always evolve, which is something you have to accept. Besides, the faster you get the designs out, the faster you will know whether that’s something your users value. Just remember to document whatever changes or new features you do. It will be a lot easier then to go back and see how the designs have impacted the performance of your product, which is a great way to learn for the future.
And what to do when you feel lonely? Luckily San Francisco has a lot to offer. Sign up for meetup.com and see the wide variety of different meetups that are hosted in interesting locations. You will easily find likeminded people, get to see inspiring presentations and meet other designers. It is very easy to attend sessions where experts share their best knowledge and techniques that can give a kick to your own work. When I need my own space or get stuck with my design tasks, I tend to go to cafes. San Francisco is full of interesting cafes that offer a good vibe, great coffee, and you get to see other designers drawing wireframes and making illustrations. It is important to change the environment once in a while, especially when you’re working in-house on one product. And San Francisco is perfect for that because, technically speaking, you are never alone in this town.
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