Be prepared to be a generalist.
3 years ago I joined Simpl as their first product designer. Prior to joining Simpl, I had offers from well-established companies and fairly successful start-ups. But the opportunity to join a company the day it is founded as their first designer excited me more. It was like having a blank canvas in front of me and I can paint it the way I want.
I thought I knew what I’m getting into.
I was wrong.
Although, I cherish my decision of joining a start-up as the first designer because I learned things that I did not know I should. The journey would have been easier had someone asked me these questions before I took the plunge.
So in case you’re going to to be the first designer at a start-up, ask yourself.
Do you believe in the company’s vision and the problem it is trying to solve?
I believe you should not join any company at any stage if you don’t believe in what problem they are trying to solve. Especially, joining an early stage start-up without being invested in the vision of the company is a recipe of disaster.
By being invested in the idea and believing in the company vision you’ll be naturally motivated, that will make it easier to get through those difficult times which every company/individual has to go through at regular intervals.
Can you market the product that you’re building?
You’ve joined an early stage start-up and not a well-established company. People by default aren’t going to be interested in what you’re building.
As part of the initial team, you’ll be representing the company in many places like, when you’ll meet people in your circle, when you’ll meet potential hires, when you’ll meet clients, when you’ll meet your friends, etc.
To be able to explain what you’re building and what problem will it solve is vital. By successfully doing that, you can garner people interests which in turn will help you and the company grow.
Can you design everything?
You’ve to design everything. EVERYTHING!
The brand identity, product wireframes, design system, user interface guidelines, design processes, landing pages, mobile apps, prototypes, developer documentation, t-shirts, stickers, merchandise, business cards, employee id card, advertising materials, print designs, social media posts, investors decks, sales decks, pitch decks, internal decks, training decks, email newsletters, etc. The list goes on.
The only way you will be able to do this without killing anyone is by being aware of business needs and learn to prioritise. First figure out ‘why’ this needs to be done, then jump on how to do it.
Can you work alone?
Initially, it’s likely that you’ll be the only designer for quite some time. You’ll have no other designer with whom you can bounce ideas.
Not having another designer to get feedback can be challenging. You’ve to be more critical about the decisions that you take and question yourself more.
Can you handle design feedback from non-designers?
Since you’ll be the lone designer, you’ll only have the option to run your ideas/designs through your colleagues. This can be a blessing in disguise
The feedback that you get from these non-designers will challenge your thoughts and push you to think in ways that you wouldn’t have imagine before. They will be giving you feedback not just from user’s perspective but also from the business perspective, growth perspective, data perspective, security perspective, etc.
We as designers make the mistake of thinking the whole product from just users perspective.
A good ‘User Experience’ doesn’t necessarily means it’s good for the business.
If that was true, your Instagram feed will be in chronological order. Your Facebook feed will have your friends posts and not filled with ads and irrelevant videos. Twitter will allow you to edit tweets.
Can you be your own product manager?
– Can you scope out a product feature?
– Can you define success metrics?
– Can you write product documents?
– Can you define and manage your own deadlines?
– Can you do data analysis?
Are you okay leaving features midway? Are you okay with the fact that some of your best work will never see the light of the day?
Start-ups are vulnerable, especially at the start. The company is figuring out what works and what doesn’t. There are 100s of ideas that are floating around. You will not realise when one of those ideas will slide into the current roadmap replacing the one that you are already working on.
The direction/strategy can change abruptly. What was on priority yesterday can become totally irrelevant today. Features that you have been working on for months might have to be abandoned.
That beautiful gradient that took you hours to perfect. That cool screen transition. Those beautiful icons that you spend days to pixel perfect. All those might never be seen by the world in their full glory.
As frustrating as it may sound that’s the reality. You’ve to be mentally prepared so that you don’t get bothered about these abrupt changes. Again, that can only happen if you’re aware of why those changes are happening.
Can you overcome the idea of perfection?
With the limited time and resource, you need to validate those 100s of ideas that are floating around.
As designers, we are adamant about our thoughts. One of the toughest things for us is to embrace the idea of iterations in design. We want every piece that we design to be perfect. But you don’t get that luxury at early stage start-ups, where the company is still figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
But limited time doesn’t give you the liberty to compromise on design usability. The whole point of testing the idea will become irrelevant. You’ve to learn where you should/can compromise and where you shouldn’t/can’t.
With the limited time available, you’ll have to design something that is ‘good enough’ to validate the idea.
Remember, Design is never done.
Are you okay to feel lost?
Given the vulnerable nature of a start-up, things get chaotic.
You may not agree with some decisions the company takes. What the company is doing may not make sense to you and won’t align with your thoughts and expectations.
It’s easy to get frustrated. Instead, you need to debate to understand why those decisions are being made. More often than not debating will either lead you to agree or you will make them agree to what you think is correct.
The key is to remind yourself that everyone wants good for the company and even if you don’t agree with what is happening you should stick with it and give your 100%. Remind yourself about the bigger picture.
Can you make coffee?
You’ll need it, a lot of it. 😉
Can you write copy?
Copy is a vital part of any design.
It is the core of a users experience. As a designer working on your own, it is critical that you write good copy for your designs.
Can you be honest with yourself?
Being the only person responsible for making design decisions, you’ve to make sure your ego doesn’t come in between. It’s easy to feel important/powerful and think that you can do nothing wrong. Be honest and accept the fact that even though you’ve to do everything, you can’t.
You will make many mistakes. Realise that you are human. You don’t know everything.
Ask for help often, very often.
Can you lead a design team?
Once the company grows, you will have more designers. Naturally, you being there from day one and having the most context about product will be asked to be the design lead.
Designing alone is one thing, working in a design team is another but leading a design team is a whole together different ball game.
Being a good designer doesn’t necessarily means that you can be a good leader. ‘Design Lead’ as impressive as it may sound for your resume, it requires a different set of skillsets.
Reach out to people who are leading a design team. Listen to their experiences. By doing so you’ll not require anyone else validation, you will know if you can/want do it or not.
Can you think beyond UX?
Design is not separate from business — design is the business — Erika Hall
Designing the user experience is designing the business.
Business wants numbers. Customers wants a quality experience. As designers, it’s our responsibility to be the glue and stick those two together.
To be able to do that meaningfully, you’ll have to spend time understanding the business needs, business strategies, business models, long-term and short-term goals and try to contribute in defining those. This will help you to think not only from users perspective but also from the business perspective.