I still remember how exciting and terrifying it felt to shift from designing for mobile to working on wearables. It was a challenge I felt ready for, like the ones that feel uncomfortably right. When I look back on everything I’ve learned, some of the skills I developed are actually very different from the ones I first envisioned. Sure, I knew working on physical products would push me to design in a different medium and within other contexts of use, but it was really the act of building something physical and so interconnected that pushed my skills as a designer and collaborator the most. Here are some of the takeaways and lessons I learned from my time working on Fitbit Alta, Charge 2, and Fitbit watches.
Embed yourself in the process and schedules your work is driven by.
While mobile design offers the benefit of regular iteration and releases, a physical product is, well, a tangible thing. It needs to be made from raw materials, assessed for quality, and made into millions of units before it ships. That means the cycle for design is significantly longer and more constrained along the way. Learning about the product lifecycle from concept to first in-hands allowed me to understand where the opportunities and challenges would be so that we could influence the experience at the right time, and with ample room for testing and iteration. I also learned a lot of acronyms! It has paid off in more ways than I can count.
Cross-functional work is where it’s at.
When you’re designing for the experience of a brand new product, incorporating features that exist on a shared platform within a family of other products, things can get, well…complicated. For good reason too — you’re working on something that sits at the intersection of many moving parts. As a product and experience designer, taking the time to know and work with the teams responsible for each component is how you break that complexity into manageable design tasks. Planning, documentation and communication are a key part of this process, and this is where you’ll be able to use your design skills for storytelling, alignment and creating shared resources. Another great perk of working across teams? Having a high-level view of the product lets you see how pieces come together, letting you anticipate issues and foresee more effective solutions.
Prototype all the things!
When it comes to mobile design, designers have some pretty amazing tools that can seamlessly emulate the product or app they’re building. I’m still surprised by how often designers don’t take advantage of this. I don’t care how fast your engineering team is, or how thorough you think you are. In a world where affordances and feedback are dynamic, interaction is context-dependent and you are designing for millions of users while managing a plethora of variables, you simply will not be able to anticipate everything. A sketch, storyboard, paper mock-up, or interactive prototype will give you insights you didn’t expect and start conversations you may otherwise have never had. If, like me, you’ve found yourself in the early phases of a product that doesn’t exist yet, prototyping can be as hacky as sliding a paper strip under a clear window taped on a 3D-printed model. It could also be a retro-fitted Flinto prototype of a new device, photoshopped to scale. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, it only needs to help you quickly communicate and assess a concept.
Be the squeaky wheel.
There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens to designers. You’re creative. You have ideas, but you also know that much of what you do will change and many times, never even see the light of day. And that’s okay — that’s your job. Often, however, designers learn this so intimately that they forget to hold on and persist where it matters most. At startups, where major projects move fast and teams are simultaneously weaving multiple solutions together, priorities may shift and things might get lost in the mix. As a designer, you’re at the crossroads of many parts of the product, which means you have a well-integrated and valuable perspective. If something isn’t working well, will bring challenges later on, or can be a big opportunity down the line, don’t be afraid to speak up. If now there isn’t bandwidth for that work, learn why and come back to it later. Identify important, strategic opportunities with your team and keep them as a priority to return to.
Don’t just build with developers — collaborate.
In my career I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some amazingly talented engineers that are also great design partners. Not every experience is like that, and I’ve definitely been in situations where I had to argue why, “yes, I definitely need to move that button one pixel to the left and, no, I’m not the only one who will notice.” Nonetheless, some of my most exciting moments as a designer have been while sitting with an engineer, making something I didn’t even know was possible real. In the best situations, your developers will challenge you and you will do the same in return, creating something that couldn’t have existed without you being there together. Take the time to ask them how your platform works, what they’re working on, and what’s important to them. Build tools together. Ask them how you can better document what you deliver. Explain what your goals are whenever you work together. Share what you've learned since the last research session. Hack things together. Learn about unforeseen edge cases. You’ll build a better product while also advocating for the importance of design. Go make a friend! :)