Strategies for Thriving in Your First Product Design Role

Over the past year, I’ve been mentoring students on Designlab, an online bootcamp for new designers.

During weekly 1:1 sessions, I help answer any questions that students have. One of the questions I get asked often:

What should I know to succeed at my first design role?

Here are the things I wish I knew before starting my first design gig, years ago.

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Alex Kunchevsky

1. Remember to ask the important questions upfront.

“What problem are we solving?”

“What role does this product play in the user’s daily life?”

“How do they react emotionally and physically to it?”

“How does this new feature align with the business goals?”

“How are we going to measure success?”

Questions, whether directed towards the users or the business, should be asked every step of the way. By asking these questions right from the start, you can trace every product and design decision back to something tangible, in turn allowing yourself to create better experiences for your users.

(📚 recommended read: Build Better Products by Laura Klein)

2. Your job is to not only ship, but to sell.

While there are a ton of methods and tactics to communicate designs effectively, I won’t be able to even scratch the surface here. However, one of the things to remember is that empathy will go a long way. This means you are constantly empathizing with the people you work with—knowing where they’re coming from and what their needs are. Only from empathy will you be able to clearly articulate your designs, respond effectively, and follow through with value.

(📚 recommended read: Articulating Design Decisions by Tom Greever)

3. Know your tools, but focus on the fundamentals.

My advice here is to focus on the design fundamentals that can translate over time: information architecture, visual design, user psychology, etc. Focus on asking the right questions and nailing down the right principles, regardless of what tool you use.

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Alex Kunchevsky

4. Open up your work often.

Also, don’t just solicit feedback from other designers. You’ll find that product managers, researchers, engineers, and other stakeholders can bring unique knowledge and perspectives to the table.

(📚 recommended read: Discussing Design by Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry)

5. Change is the only constant.

One thing I encourage is to focus on the relationships. Building trust with the people you work with and creating close ties is what usually pays off in the long run, no matter what challenges are thrown your way.

6. Allow your teammates to inspire you.

I loved my time in both my previous and current roles mainly because I was constantly surrounded by interesting people. Allow yourself to learn from and be inspired by them.

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Alex Kunchevsky

7. The learning never stops.

Seeking out new things to learn and do helps you stay curious, introspective, and aware of what you’re striving to grow towards. The best designers I’ve worked with are constantly learning new ways of doing things, and infusing those learnings into their work. Luckily, there’s a million ways to grow: podcasts, books, meetups, conferences, and even Slack communities.

By staying curious about new skills and technologies, you can keep yourself and the product you’re working on relevant.

(📚 recommended read: Mindset by Carol S. Dweck)

8. For mentorship, embrace “Plus/minus/equal.”

“Each fighter, to become great, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.”

This approach to learning can apply to one’s progress towards mastering almost anything, but I’ve found it helpful in my own growth as a designer. As you start your next role, who are the people you can make your plus/minus/equal?

Teaching your “minus” reinforces what you already know. Working alongside an “equal” ignites challenge and prevents complacency. Seeking a “plus” gives you the opportunity learn from someone more skilled—and more importantly— shows you what’s possible. This strategy will constantly remind you there is always so much more to learn.

9. Gravitate towards situations you think you’re unqualified for.

It could mean leading a cross-functional design workshop when you’ve never done so before. Or it could be speaking at a design conference about a topic in which you don’t have a formal academic background in. One thing I’ve embraced at every step of my career is not asking for permission to try something radically different from what I’m used to. Only from experience can you truly learn what you suck at, what you excel at, and what needs improvement; the only way to move forward is to try.

10. Be fearless.

When I admitted this to my former manager, he passed along the quote,

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, bring others.”

Don’t feel afraid to admit you don’t know the answer. Don’t be ashamed when you think you’ve made a mistake. Rather, trust your gut, and find the confidence to open up your flaws and insecurities to other people. You might find that they have similar insecurities, no matter how long they’ve been in the industry. Opening up will help you connect with people, and they can help you push you farther than you’ve ever been.

11. Don’t forget to have fun.

Like many designers, my own path into design has been a bit serendipitous. This post is dedicated to the people who have inspired me and the mentors that have taught me some incredible lessons along the way.

Thanks to Alex Kunchevsky for the fun illustrations, and to Mike, Amy, Aditya, Steven, and Ferj for giving me feedback.

Written by

Senior product designer @SurveyMonkey. Passionate about travel, storytelling, and guacamole

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