How a flyer in my mailbox took me on a crazy 2 month adventure
Serge Stefanovic
704

#Designsplaining

Wow. This was a wild ride.

I had such visceral reactions while reading it, that I felt like it would be doing you (and anyone who reads this and thinks this is a good idea) a disservice by following my (possibly better) instinct of clicking away and wiping it from memory.

So, apologies if this comes across as more of a criticism than a critique, but I will start by saying your design process alone seems pretty solid, and despite what I’m about to say, I’d genuinely be interested to see what the actual outcome was.

However, there’s a few red flags in here that I feel like you might want to consider re-thinking next time you’re going to do something like this.

They all relate to three main things: attitude, empathy, and ethics.

Attitude.

The biggest thing for me here is the attitude it conveys.

Your second paragraph, especially the use of the word ‘explain’, had me genuinely cringing.

So here I am, patiently waiting for my first ever meeting with the CEO of car sharing company, Car Next Door, and his team to explain to them how they can improve their business and summit to top of the car share industry.

I get that you’re trying to come across with confidence. But this reads as incredibly arrogant.

This is a startup that’s been around for 5 years, and according to LinkedIn and Wikipedia has a staff of 25 — of which I’m going to assume most were hired quite recently.

(I’m basing that assumption on the revision history of their Wiki)

I do know for a fact that only late last year they hired an absolute GUN lead product designer in Aaron Moodie, who was previously a senior designer at Etsy for 4 or 5 years.

His profile is the only one that comes up in Linkedin searches for current or past employees of Car Next Door with the word ‘designer’ in the title, so it seems as though he might even be the first in-house designer they’ve ever had.

I don’t know him. I can’t speak for him. But almost a year absorbing the world of car-sharing, and with all his years of experience — I highly doubt you could have revealed much that was surprising to him from two months of work, with almost zero actual business context.

Empathy.

I’m certain Tractor would have taught you very well about having empathy for the customer, and that’s great.

Apart from being harassed as they tried to use a service they’d paid for, I’m sure your methodical design process accounted for that beautifully.

But, thats only half of being a designer.

In my opinion, this whole story screams of an absolute lack of empathy for (and understanding of) the business, and the constraints of working on a real product.

I mean, unsolicited redesigns are a contentious topic at the best of times. They definitely can be valuable, but it’s rocky ground. You need to tread carefully.

Especially if your going to be making assumptions about their business needs, contexts, or constraints.

Especially if you’re going to claim that a few days of guerilla research led to an “initial unbiased hypothesis”.

You consistently talk about this like 2 months of working on a problem (in complete contextual darkness) made you experts on an industry they’ve been soaking in for at least 5 years.

Part of the issue here isn’t your fault. There is a disconnect in public perception between the idea of how fast a startup is meant to move, and the reality.

Bootstrapping the first MVP of a product? Sure, spend 100 hours a week rapidly prototyping. Get something out into the world!

But after 5 years, with thousands of users — many of whom are trusting their own cars to your business — you have to be a little more careful.

Aaron has been there less than a year*. But I’d be highly surprised if there aren’t multiple product improvements or features either in development, or already in beta. I’d be even more surprised if many of those changes had already shipped and were public knowledge.

That is, I’d be really surprised if you had any idea what, or how many, new things the company was already working on.

I don’t actually know if Aaron was in this pitch meeting — but I can only imagine how it would have felt to sit there, as a graduate designer explains your job to you.

(Note: I wrote this earlier, and only just realised you posted this in January. So Aaron had actually only been there a matter of months himself)

Ethics.

Honestly, my skin is still crawling from the fact that you ambushed paying customers of the company you wanted to work for, who were just trying to use the service.

But there’s other problematic things here too.

You approached their main investor to basically explain to them what a bad job you thought the company was doing.

That doesn’t just show a lack of empathy for the business (again), it seems ethically troubling.

There’s also a whole lot of privilege going on here that should at least be acknowledged.

There’s been a lot of contention in the past around the ethics of unpaid internships. Though, I’d say it’s become pretty much consensus now that they are unethical.

Not just because of graduates being taken advantage of, but because of the basic imbalance of privilege they exacerbate.

I say this as someone who benefited greatly at the start of my career from basically forcing the company I wanted to work for to take me on as an unpaid intern.

They didn’t have any intern program, and they weren’t looking for one. I came in initially to “borrow some desk space”, and then started trying to find ways to offer assistance.

Before they knew it, I’d somehow made myself indespensible (by doing all the shitty jobs nobody else wanted to). So when I asked for a reference for another job they hired me on the spot.

In hindsight, I’ve absolutely acknowledged how privileged it was for me to be able to do that, and how that was actually quite unfair to other (potentially more talented) junior designers that didn’t have the luxury of going another 4–6 weeks working for free after college.

(We now run a paid internship program a couple of times a year, and it’s awesome, but I’m getting off topic.)

This feels even more questionable than an unpaid internship to me, because you didn’t even give the business a say in the matter.

(Note: I know, neither did I, acknowledged)

You’ve then put them in a position where, without their knowledge, they find themselves confronted by someone who’s slaved over their product for two months.

They now are on the spot to either hire you, or find a way to politely let you down, despite all this effort.

If I was in their shoes, I feel like even if the work was incredible, based on the things I’ve said above alone, there is no possible way I could feel comfortable hiring you.

Finally, sorry if this seems harsh.

I realise the irony of giving unsolicited feedback criticising an article about unsolicited feedback, but I hope you can understand why I’ve bothered.

If it wasn’t for the above circumstances, as an indicator of your drive and motivation alone, I think it’s actually quite admirable that you spent two months of your life on a passion project, and worked your asses off as a learning experience.

Maybe it might have been better spent identifying and exploring an unsolved problem, or even doing free work for a not-for-profit — but what really matters is what you learned from it.

My only issues here, as listed above, are with the way you went about it from an ethical standpoint, the fact you don’t seem to have considered how the business or it’s employees might be impacted by your actions, and the way you actually worded it in your article.

If anything I’ve said has helped you to turn this into a learning experience, it’ll be worth the 30 minutes I’ve spent giving you this unsolicited feedback.

If not. I’m sorry if I ruined your night, and good luck.

Note: I wrote this whole thing thinking this had just been posted recently. But as I was about to post it I realised it’s actually at least 6 months old.

I don’t see any follow up articles explaining your realisation of what a terrible idea this was, so I figure I might as well still post my response.

People are obviously still sharing this occasionally, and I feel like some of the issues this raised for me are evergreen when it comes to the topic of unsolicited designs.