A year ago I got my first official job as a product designer. It was neither my first job nor my first attempt to be a designer.
I’d been working as a freelance motion artist for two and a half years, trying on different hats in the process. I was directing animation, managing small groups of people, and collaborating with friends. I was responsible for a few music videos and one stadium size music show as a motion and VFX designer. I worked with some of the best Ukrainian music directors. And even before that, I was working in a post-production studio and a national TV channel, doing intros to TV shows for three years.
Five years later, I was slightly burned out from all the work that I’d done. I felt stuck and tired. Add to that the fact that I was about to move to another country and knew I would lose a lot of my clients to that. So there I was, nearing my fresh start, in a new country with no connections — but the more I realized that, the more I understood it was a perfect chance to try something new.
Having always been interested in technology, startups, software, and user interface design, I wanted to learn it from the inside.
I advertised myself as a mobile UI/UX designer everywhere on the internet. I started the way I started with motion graphics — coming up with a design for a nonexistent product (one that I eventually tried to build, and failed miserably). I did a lot of UI work just for myself. I read a few books about UX, and realized how systematic and research-based this process is compared to motion or any other design. I was suddenly much more aware of Ukrainian startups, and all the things I was looking at and interacting with on my phone screen. Learned that there is much more to the design of a product than designing UI. Eventually, I was able to get a few freelance gigs and later got a full-time job offer.
Today it is a little more than a year since I moved to NYC, and a year since I joined Hightower, a startup that is changing how brokers and owners manage their leasing process. I traded my motion design skills for customer empathy, iteration process, pixel-perfect data-driven interfaces, and a team of 30 people that grew to 70 in the process (and is still growing, we’re hiring). Here are my takeaways so far:
- Your motion design skills matter a lot, but you will need to learn interaction tools. Animations made in After Effects are harder to translate to a developer’s language. An intended swiping gesture or any other animation that you created on your 15-27" screen will feel different when you see and interact with it on an actual mobile screen. And oh yeah, you better be able to interact with it on your phone screen. Fortunately, you have many prototyping apps to consider — Framer, Origami, Pixate, Principle to name a few.
- Consider making your animations shorter. It’s all about function and ease of use. It’s less about imagination and crazy flying transitions than it is about how it will work and behave, and whether it’s intuitive to a user. Based on Twelve Basic Principles of Animation, animations are a Secondary Acton in the product. Use them to hide loading times, draw attention, or create the character of your product. Point users in the right direction with them. Have fun, but don’t overdo it.
- It’s all about constraints and working your way around them. Designing will be easy, building will be hard. Finding a solution that will require less time to build but will work and serve its function is a key.
- Say goodbye to deadlines. Say goodbye to render-send-forget. Creating a minimal viable product is your deadline, and there is no end point to features that you are designing. You should be shipping features, and then coming back to iterate based on gathered feedback.
- You are solving real problems, for real people. Gather users’ feedback, value that feedback, and have enough empathy to understand core problems that they have so you can try to get to the solution more easily.
- You are solely relying on other people to build what you’ve designed, and it’s a great thing. It will teach you how to communicate what you intended to make, how to explain the reasons behind everything you intended to make, and how to compromise (when needed) in favor of shipping it faster. Or you can learn Xcode and develop your own apps, and go as crazy as you want on your own — but it’s not that easy.
- Being thoughtful and considered will get you far. Think a few steps ahead when designing; don’t justify your decisions but actually ask yourself “does it make sense?” a lot.
- Oh yeah, equipment is way cheaper. I have so many hard drives that I don’t use anymore. So many gigabytes of finished videos and sequences on them. I don’t even count how much money you can spend on different video-plugins.
If you’ve been thinking about switching gears and moving to product design, now is the time. You can create interfaces that will be used by hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people, and you’ll be creating tools for the 21st century no matter what it is. It is you who is defining how it will work, and if you can figure out how to be a good motion/visual designer, you can figure out how to be a good product designer. In the end, it’s not that different. It’s all about learning and trying.