My adventure as a product designer

Problems look mighty small from 150 miles up

Posted by Spencer Shell on August 24, 2014

My adventure as a product designer.

There are few things more tantalizing than taking the reins at a growing startup as the first Product Designer. The entire visual and interactive experience is in your hands, and everything a user sees and does happens through the filter of your work. Product design is more important now than ever, so it has become a huge responsibility. Bad design and user experience can sink a small company just as fast as bad engineering, but great design can be the hallmark of a good product.

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the last five months here at LiPi, Inc. as Product Designer. It’s been so much more intense than I could have imagined, and I’ve learned a lot about how working in a startup differs from designing in a corporate workplace. These are a few of those things that stand out the most.

You are the creative product culture lead.

Just as important as good product design is good design culture. What does that mean exactly? It’s a way of thinking about product (and, I suppose, the world in general) with awareness of how things are designed, what about them constitutes good or bad design, and how it could be improved. It’s all subjective, and you don’t have to be ‘right’ – you don’t even need to be a designer or a ‘visual person.’ Engineers, biz ops, marketing, and whoever else on your small team should be thinking about design. If your team can get into the habit of noting usability and aesthetic problems (or successes) when critiquing another company’s product, they’ll be much more helpful when you ask them for critique on the work you’re doing with them. As the first designer, you can’t benefit from a strong team critique structure, so take advantage of your great team by sharing your knowledge and passion for design, and ability to discern good design from bad design when observing the world around you.

Most small startups and early-stage companies are still figuring out the nuances of their culture. Company culture can’t be forced – it has to be discovered. It’s defined by the way product, business goals, and the team work together. If you exude design from the get-go, it will be forever ingrained in the company’s fundamental values and culture.

For example, I talk about design and coding incessantly. Ask anyone on my team, ask my girlfriend, my parents, strangers… I just can’t seem to shut up about it. I see the world through this lens that makes badly set type literally impossible for me to read, and I instantly ragequit anything with bad usability. I can’t even use certain mobile OSes because the confirmation dialogues won’t make up their minds about which side the confirm button will be on.

Take religious and verbose notes before you dig too deep into the trenches. This is something I wish I had done more of. For the first 72 hours you’re part of a new product team, write down everything. Think about how it works, what’s wrong with it, what stands out in a good or bad way, what you think the product can do for you, etc. The ‘newbie’ perspective is something you can never get back, and it’ll give the “Future You” some great insight into how a new user feels stepping into your product for the first time. Think of it as doing user testing on someone with a great design vocabulary.

On my first day, I walked into the office and said “No one wants to use LiPi. People don’t even know what it is.” and it’s the most valuable observation I could have ever made. It informs most of my design decisions, because I know people (especially our market of local merchants and soccer moms) are adverse to using software. Their goal is to sell and buy locally while reaching a local audience and increasing interaction and sales for merchants. How can I design LiPi to help people achieve that goal? As we iterate on our product, you’re going to see it get more and more out of the way. There’s nothing revolutionary or shocking about that approach, but it’s informed by experience and observation, not jargon.

After your first week, present your notes and feelings to the team. It’ll give everyone a fresh perspective on something they’ve been looking at under a magnifying glass for (possibly) months or even years. Fresh perspective is crucial for any product to stay relevant and keep improving… ask any startup founder.

Never stop learning. You don’t know as much as you think.

Coming from a more traditional role as a corporate designer, I had a little of an idea of how software / product design worked. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I was pretty much completely overwhelmed with new terms like agile development, waterfall, sprints, and scrum master.

Rarely as a designer did I ever have to ‘clean up’ an existing product, and I never had to stick around after the first release to maintain, iterate, and bugfix. Stepping into an existing product with hundreds of manhours and one passionate/talented engineer behind it is an entirely different experience. At first, it’s almost impossible to make sweeping design changes. In the first week, I felt paralyzed by it. As I eased in, I learned the ins and outs of LiPi for web, then ‘realized’ there was an iOS app to come. O M G.

It was overwhelming, and even today I’ve only made serious headway on one of the two. Even on those I’ve only scratched the surface, we’ve always held high design standards. If you’re used to a fast workflow through consulting or freelancing projects prepare to slow waaay down, while working faster and more intensely than ever before. That’s not to say I sit at my desk twiddling my thumbs, however. I spend 90% of my time on product, and the rest…

Wear many hats.

My business card says “Product Designer” only because “Design ALL THE THINGS” wouldn’t fit. I’ve helped with iOS, Web App and icon design, created marketing collateral, landing pages, and the list goes on…

I expected (and desired) these responsibilities upon joining the team, but the workload adds up. Make sure you know where to draw the line, how to design for re-use, and always work smart, not hard.

So that’s it. I’m still learning, failing, iterating, and insert-important-sounding-gerunds-here-ing. I’ll keep you updated.