An Agency Designer Comes to Terms with being a Product Designer

I wrote recently about my dreams of being a Product Designer after years of working at an agency. I felt that I had reached a ceiling in my work and had become unsure of how to grow as a designer. I rarely saw how my decisions were actually interpreted by users, since once we shipped a project, we rarely participated in or received meaningful analyses.

I dreamed that within a product company, I would have constant and specific access to data and metrics, which would help find problems and opportunities as well as provide a mechanism to evaluate the impact of our decisions in real time. I’m happy to say that I found what I was looking for, and that within a few months I’ve had data that have both validated and rejected my design decisions. Basically, exactly what I was looking for!

When I Felt Smart

There were a few areas that I felt like I had more experience than some of my other colleagues, which helped define my role relatively shortly after starting:

  • Presentation of Ideas
     For years I’ve had to articulate and present nearly all of my design decisions, and walk clients or senior colleagues through the process. It was one of the most time-consuming parts of my job, but I quickly learned that it provided me with experience that not all designers shared.
  • Process Driven Design
     I eventually found the best way to “sell” designs, was to sell the design process. Part of this involved improving my presentation and storytelling skills, but it also necessitated actually following a process that facilitated that storytelling.
  • Guiding Inexperienced Designers
     I also found that the best way to mentor less experienced designers was to coach them through the design process. Tweaking specific design output may be a necessary part of the relationship, but is more about quality control, not design education. If you can actually guide someone through a process and design thinking methodologies, they will grow as independent designers.

What I didn’t know

I have to admit, I did not anticipate some of the challenges that have come with the transition from working at an agency to a product company. While the skills above helped me settle in, I quickly found I had quite a few gaps that were preventing me from making the progress that I was hoping for.

  • A/B Testing
     I’ll be honest here. Not only had I never conducted an A/B test, I had no idea how to design for or conduct one. I knew about this gap coming in, but what I didn’t know was that testing is a cornerstone of many product design processes.
  • Iterative Design Cycles
     Related to the above point, I was simply not familiar with a design process that favored small, measurable decisions. So often in the agency model, we executed massive design projects over relatively limited time spans. There was no time to think about isolating variables to test key metrics.
  • Organizational Hierarchy
     Agencies have plenty of bureaucracy, and so do clients. Managing both of those structures could be difficult, but were part of my job. I did not anticipate that within a product company there could be equally complex organizational complexities and personalities that needed to be accounted for. Just because we’re on the same team does not mean we’re on the same page.

What I’m Learning

Looking back at the main reasons I switched from agency to product, I’ve mostly gotten what I asked for. However, the transition has been a lot harder than I anticipated it would be. While I was used to articulating design decisions, I wasn’t used to articulating them in terms that a CPO or Product Manager might find convincing. “Best practices,” “Heuristic Analyses,” and “Industry Reviews,” were still part of the conversation, but were secondary to metrics such as “conversion” and “Average Order Values (AOV).” I knew what these terms meant, but I did not know how to tie my decisions to these new bottom lines.

I’ve had to re-think what it means to be a designer of software since moving to this new environment. I feel less like a starchitect, and more like a psychologist. Less like an artist, and more like a scientist. It’s a significant transition, and one that has required me to seek some education. I’ll write more about these in future posts, but this education has involved:

  • Reading Different Books
     From books about design as a philosophy (The Design Way) to books about A/B Testing, I am slowly gaining the vocabulary to more meaningfully interact within my new environment.
  • Finding Others in Similar Situations
     Luckily I know a few other designs who have made similar transitions recently, and I’ve been able to share stories with them. It’s interesting to find out which characteristics appear to be shared across the industry, and which are organization-specific.
  • Learning to be Patient
     Discovering, learning, and then acting on new knowledge does not happen quickly. I am trying to be humble and patient as adapt to new processes and techniques. As a “senior” designer I feel some obligation to know the best way forward all the time, but I’m learning that it’s equally important to know what you don’t know, and act accordingly.

Overall, I’m glad I’ve made the jump. Seeings things from the other side has been enlightening, if more challenging than I had originally anticipated. I haven’t decided on next steps yet, but I will continue to see where this current path leads.

I am a Senior Product Designer at Paperless Post. I’ve also posted this on my website. Feel free to reach out to me, or leave comments below.