How to build side projects to boost your design career

Amie Chen
Auth0 by Okta Design
5 min readJun 13, 2022

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A decade ago, when I was thinking to transition into the tech field, I found myself stuck with a chicken-and-egg situation: I needed a portfolio to land a job, but without professional experience, I found it hard to show off my skills to get my foot into the door.

How do I break out of this situation? What kind of projects can catch interviewers’ attention and set me apart from others? What kind of projects are worth doing?

Here is the approach I took to figure out what projects I should build and how to build them.

Who

Before building anything, ask: why do we care? Whose problems do we solve?

1. Self

My favorite place to look is within myself.

What am I interested in? What do I care about? What concerns do I face every day?

Sometimes these questions can be too philosophical to answer. If that’s the case, try digging into practical data: Analyze your YouTube watch history and chrome search history; Check out who you follow & interact with on social media; Double-check your screen time tracking app, which can give you insights into what you spend time on.

2. Future Interviewers

Figure out who might be your future interviewers. Also, what difficulties they encounter every day. If what you discovered overlaps with your self-interests, then it is likely to be a good problem to solve.

For example, a design interview often conducted by a hiring manager, a product manager, and fellow designers. Fellow designers may care deeply about design critiques, accessibility, or file organization. Product managers may care deeply about product strategies and collaboration. Hiring managers may have issues keeping track of each candidate’s status and strengths.

Brainstorm a list of concerns that these people might have in their day-to-day job. Solving them can really make you stand out in the interview process because they understand your cause.

3. Warm Niches

A warm niche is a subject which you have some kind of association with.

Maybe your mom is a teacher, your dad loves watching NFL, and your brother collects comic books. Each of these can be considered a warm niche because you are associated with it (whether like it or not), and you already know where to find your target audience. Talk to them with a curious attitude, and you’ll find an opportunity to make something better.

What

According to MIT, 90% of the most profitable products in corporations are created due to customer complaints. Starting with a problem is generally a good way to go.

By now, you have figured out who your target audience is and a general subject, it’s time to analyze the complaints.

Sales safari, a term created by Amy hoy who is a very popular entrepreneur among the indiehacker community, is a technique to find what’s worth solving.

Starting with a place where your audience goes to ask questions and get answers — could be Reddit or Quora, or some type of forum, then you set aside about 20 min, and start scanning the titles of each article. While scanning, jot down all the keywords that caught your attention. Once the time is up, stop and start grouping these keywords. Write the number of times the same keyword appears on the right. Now you can sort the list by numbers, and it helps to identify patterns and get an idea of what’s on most of your target audience’s minds.

After narrowing it down to a couple of problems, I usually can pick one that I am eager to tackle the most. If not, spending a few days researching, forming hypotheses, and testing out ideas until one stands out.

Watch this video if you are interested in learning more about Sales Safari.

How

Brainstorm Solutions

If you don’t have a hypothesis on how to solve the problem by now, it’s a great time to brainstorm solutions. The goal of this exercise is to come up with as many solutions as possible, and not how feasible each solution is.

The key is to turn off your analytical mind and turn on your creative brain.

User stories

To solidify core functionalities, I would then create user stories detailing how and what a user can do. Every step explains “what user sees and what user does.” It creates a clear workflow that makes drawing wireframes a breeze.

Often, many questions will surface that requires you to do more research. However, it is a crucial part of the process to clearly define the scope of the project.

Wireframes/High Fidelity

Probably the most enjoyable part of the process! Sweat the details, pour in all your personality, and don’t compromise 😆!

Warning: This step could potentially suck out all the motivation. Allocate your time wisely without sacrificing the fun.

Implementation

Gauge the technical difficulty early on so that by the time you are ready to implement, you already know what can be done by yourself and what needs the help of others.

Building a product is complicated, but there are many ways you can approach this, even if you don’t know how to code. No-code tools like Retool, Zapier, IFTTT, Airtable, Google Sheets, Notion & Webflow are known to build successful digital products. Or partner up with a developer. Forums like codenewbie, freecodecamp, dev.to are all great place to find developers.

Test and support

Because you have done the work earlier to find the target audience, now you can select a small group of people to help you test the product.

Although it’s uncomfortable, Cold emailing or dm is the way I go. Sometimes people volunteer, but I found the best feedback is usually from those people who don’t actively seek out your product.

Be brave, be humble.

Closing Words

Lots of people will say you should scope the first iteration to MVP, but I like to shoot for MEP — Minimum Excellent Product.

Cut down half of your features, but don’t build a half-ass product. Don’t throw the “beta” flag thinking you have excuses for shipping something not polished.

While you are building, don’t forget to share your progress with your target audience. Get early feedback to see if what you are building is what they’d use.

I have had some ideas completely coded and ready to ship to the app store, only to realize that no one but me would use them. If I had reached out to my folks earlier on, I would have saved so much more time and energy.

That’s it! If you have other questions about this topic, feel free to shoot me a message through Twitter DM or simply comment below.

This article is based on a career talk I gave at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, CA.

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Amie Chen
Auth0 by Okta Design

Designer, Developer, Maker 🇹🇼🇺🇸 Product Designer @Auth0 . Previously developer @Twitch and @stremlit.