What I learnt from being the only designer at a startup

Today with my beer, I found myself a bit more energetic so I decided to share my experience of designing for a startup with the rest of the world. Disclaimer : For various reasons I am not proud of the final deliverable I could push with the team but I learnt a hell lot of things on what it takes to design an ambitious product as the only designer. I believe I can write about this because of the satisfaction i could bring to other personal projects I was doing simultaneously.

Being a part of this startup, I learnt more about the business than about design. I really squeezed my brain into product thinking constantly criticising and evaluating every thought that was discussed in the workplace. I was handling the design solo in the place where people had absolutely no idea about design except for the good looks of it. Since in this article I wanted to write about design, I wanted to tell you all that one thing i really took away is — the workflow. The workflow that it actually takes to build something at very very short timelines you got. So I have decided to break it down into 3 steps so for those who think this might work, you can use it as a guide.

1. Define the Goals of your design

This is the most important stage of the design which I feel people miss paying much attention to. This step, if given a little time can actually save a lot of time until of the process. Let me give you an example.

Someone asks you to design an articles page in an app

Now how do you define the goals of the article page apart from just “Design an articles page”. The actual process that you follow actually defines how much attention to detail that you end up giving to your designs which consequently impacts on the satisfaction that you carry for your designs at the end of the day.

So at this stage the goals of the product is answered with the actual design process that you follow.

  1. First and foremost, Whos your persona? where are they coming from and what are they looking at?

I’m sure most designers out there start frowning looking at personas and trust me I am one of them too. I mean, who gets the lavish time to go out there, research your users, find out what they exactly need, note them down, use techniques like card sorting, put them in a spreadsheet file, and note the most important traits? This is a great process which I definitely believe people should follow and does polish the quality of work but only companies with a research team and designers hired just to focus on research, like twitter or facebook can afford to do that.

In a seed stage startup its nearly impossible to go out there and talk to the users when you just have about a week to finish the entire product with the prototype. Its a lot of stress on you when you have to constantly keep up with your creativity.

So how do you go about it ? This is where designers can actually utilise thinking out of the box to get what you need. In my case, the actual audience were mothers. How do you know what the mothers need?

I came across an app called Haptik for iOS. Its a chat app thats like a personal assistant that helps in finding information that people need. I thought this app was brilliant and I saw something that I believe could help me get what I wanted. The app technically outsources the process of finding the information with trained professionals and makes the job easier. Now that is exactly the information that I am looking for — broken down use cases of needs and the process it takes to find it. If I as an observer stand in between the user and the information that the user gets then this is exactly the point which I use to create experiences.

So I ran this test and found out what mothers actually needed and how they got them. I asked one of the people here to pull out this information and pass it on to the mother to find out if she was satisfied with the information or needed something more ( that also helps in understanding what people look for that is missing in the rough one designed so far ). So then you get a fair understand of the persona and the needs. Note them down.

What are you achieving ?

This is a critical stage of the process. Local findings are things like “ what do you exactly want to achieve from this design ? In my case I wanted to achieve great reading experience, great discoverability and a hook into revisiting the site. These points you must talk to your stakeholders to understand if they are in the same state of mind. Otherwise they might not believe in what you might believe in. People are highly influenced by their opinions so unless you get their opinion and convince them with yours at that stage, however great you design is still going to look average to them. So get this process straight.

What does it take to get what you want?

This is the inspiration stage. Look at examples. Take like half a day ( literally ) for this. Trust me , its worth every single minute. Its gonna be tough knowing that you have quiet a bit of work to finish and you havent even started and you might think “hey you know what I’ll just get started , i’ll find it eventually .. ive always done as well”. Yes you might. But is it worth the time and stress that you put yourself into? I’d prefer the process.

So the inspiration is the best part I love about designing. I check with my goals and refer these websites and try and understand how do these websites address these goals ? Do they have a different approach to making these websites? Are they actually overlapping with the goals you had in mind ? These are some interesting questions you can have in your mind when you try and find inspiration.

Once you find your inspiration, make a note of these points. These are going to be your building blocks of your design process. These are going to be in the back of your head until every single minute that you are going to spend designing.

Begin the actual designing

So this now at this stage you have prepared yourself to the creative process. Make sure you have your music on ( I would recommend Porcupine Tree — Voyage 34 ) which is the actual music of an LSD trip, interestingly that helps me forget the rest of the world and focus into my world. ( yes hallucinogens might also work ;) ).

So the secret of the workflow process is — start inside out , dont give a fuck about what your end deliverable is going to look like yet.

I really believe in this because the anxiety really kills me unless you break it down. The urge for you to quickly get done with the design and yet making it well though of functionally and also making it look pixel perfect and unique is quiet a challenge. So i would always recommend the paper.

There would always be an inspiration that you can start from. Just pick out each element that created that page you were looking at for inspiration and start sketching out that element. For example in the articles page that I mention about, start with the core of it, the actual article with the thumbnail. Try out on paper with 4–5 variations of it with the thumbnail and the text. Observe which is the best way to show it if the factors that matter are — readability, should look like a link, should have the following information, thumbnail should satisfy the following aspect ratio and finally should have the following type face. And voila — you have made just a thumbnail, a title for the article and a small description about it. People who look at you might think — seriously ? you spent the last fourty mins making this one ? Trust me, this is the best 40 mins that is going to test the assumptions on usability that you made.

The go top from where you started. Sketch out the container enclosing the article. In my case there was a need for a collection. So start sketching out a container showing the collection and make some variations on paper and start digitising them. And so on…

So now you have all the individual elements designed separately that, put together, is going to make the great big designed you wanted to make. This will eventually emerge in a couple of days depending on how many breaks you take to calm down your head and maintain the same creative energy into making the next UI element. This i learnt is the biggest part of designing that actually adds value to your work.

So finally when you have everything in place just play around and test with others as to understand what you might have missed when you designed the page. This is going to give you an idea of what details you have to keep in mind the next time you start designing.