My First Startup: A Designer’s Transition into Tech

My opportunity to work at an exciting tech startup came about at a point in my life where I was:

  • Feeling like I’m missing something in my design career
  • Taking some online coding courses in my downtime to figure that out
  • Finding out what UX meant in the design and development process, and experiencing the most profound a-ha moment of my life

So when I received an email from a recruiter about a company like no other in the Midwest and a chance to put I’ve learned in theory into practice, I practically jumped at it. Or, well, I happily drove an hour each way every day to work with a crazy talented Product team of designers, developers and managers.

My design team consisted of three designers (including myself) and none of us had ever worked in product. Although we brought different strengths to the team, it was clear that when it came to the process, we were starting from scratch.

I was confident in us, though. These guys were amazing people. Surely with all our brainpower, we’d be able to establish an efficient process that’ll take us to the stars.

Well:

We kinda dove in without taking a breath

There was a new feature to be implemented in our biggest app, and we were presented with the perfect idea. Screens were already roughly designed. User flows were already established. I was excited, eager to learn anything and everything about it, hitting the ground running with a style guide and our first set of icons. We were all set.

But wait.

We didn’t have our oxygen tank

Before I was brought on, there were whiteboarding sessions that I assumed led to the birth of this new feature. I felt safe with the decisions that were made by the team. Convinced they were designed with the users in mind. We referred to our “audience” a million times in our meetings, and I was so sure we were designing a better experience.

Unfortunately, our audience wasn’t real.

We tried to build our oxygen tank while swimming

Development was well underway, yet we had no idea who our users were and how they would use the feature. So we tried to rectify this: we spoke with some college students (our target audience), held some user testing sessions, and did our best to understand how they might use the app.

There were a few problems with how we did this:

  • These students were still our “ideal” audience — we never spoke with our existing users
  • They had the benefit of us explaining the concept of the feature — which received positive responses that we mistook for validation
  • We acted on almost every piece of feedback immediately — which meant that we didn’t focus on what our app could truly offer in order to solidify our product direction
  • We could’ve used this data as an excuse to take a step back and re-prioritize — but we didn’t have time to slow down

As a result, we marched on with the positives, casting any negatives aside. We convinced ourselves that this was going to be a success. We thought we were doing enough to keep ourselves afloat.

But, we drowned

We launched the new version of the app. Our users hated it with a blazing passion. We did a major restructuring of our process in the month following the launch, and had way too many meetings about how we could lessen the damage and salvage what we had left. But it was too late. The plug was pulled and our whole team was let go.

The 10 months I spent at this startup was one of the best times I had experienced in my career. I was among game enthusiasts, TV show addicts, foodies, foosball champs, educators, mentors, designers who love code, coders who love design, and managers who cared and fought to protect our team. It was exciting, invigorating, frustrating, inspiring, mind-blowing, exhausting, self-doubting, self-assuring and downright incredible.

It was a short run, but I’m eternally grateful to have been given this chance to learn about what making an app entailed, how our process could’ve been better and about myself as a designer.

I dipped my toe in the tech ocean and now I’m ready to swim.

I’m probably going to need more than floaties, though.

Ruzanna Rozman is a designer obsessed with providing the right user experience through branding and visual design. She is typically found worrying too much but has finally embraced being a crazy cat lady. She tweets about her designer journey as on Twitter and takes too many pictures of her cats on Instagram. Check out what she’s done at ruzannarozman.com and feel free to shoot her an email (about anything) at ruzannarozman@gmail.com.