How side projects can make you a better designer at work

Saffad Khan
Feb 7, 2019 · 6 min read

I want to share how designing, building and supporting my own side project has exposed me to lesser known parts of the product development process and accelerated my learning and development. And how I’ve leveraged this experience as a Product Designer at Deliveroo.

The industry talks about the importance of side projects a lot. Some great posts have already been written on the subject. Here are a couple:

I didn’t anticipate how much working on my side project would positively impact my every day work at Deliveroo.

My side project

Three years ago Alexey and I partnered up to solve a problem for ourselves: How can we quickly see movies showing in cinemas nearby? In early 2016, while working full-time, we launched our first iOS app: Cinemap.

It’s been growing steadily ever since and is now the top rated Cinema Showtimes app in the UK. We couldn’t be prouder. But this post isn’t about how we built it (a lot of hard work) or why you should get it (you definitely should!).

Instead, I want to share the top three things I learned on the way that changed my approach to product design:

  1. Collaborate with engineers
  2. Focus on the “90/10” solution
  3. Talk to your users

Collaborate with engineers

Your design isn’t solving anything if it’s sitting in a design file. It has to be built and released into the hands of users to solve the problem you set out to solve. Unless you’re confident building your own product, your engineers will be the ones to make it a reality. It’s easy to blame the engineers when the shipped product doesn’t align with your designs or expectations. But that isn’t the best mindset. Your design should be the product that ships, and the best way to get there is by working closely with the engineers who build it.

Building partnerships
With a lot of help from Alexey, I learnt how to use Xcode, taught myself Swift, made pull requests, did my own testing and read a lot on StackOverflow. I’ve come to appreciate the engineering process a lot more.

I’ve leveraged this at Deliveroo by contributing directly to the code by making design tweaks and partnering with an engineer to solve problems. You’d be surprised how helpful and patient your engineers can be when you are as invested as they are. The experience is rewarding because you’re learning how to be better partners. As a bonus, being close with engineers pays off when you want to polish a UI or take an idea and build something together. It’s the fastest way to get things done.

Understanding constraints
Assuming you have identified an opportunity or an important problem to solve, the first step is usually understanding the engineering constraints.

Do we have the data?

If we don’t, how can we get it?

How reliable is it?

How complex is the existing UI?

Identifying the unknowns early will help you adjust your plans later on. The worst outcome is spending a tonne of time perfecting a design that can’t be built in the given constraints. Always ask an engineer before you design.

A transparent design process
Behind every feature on Cinemap is a transparent design process. My default is share often and early. I learned a while back how valuable sharing early work can be and I use the same approach at Deliveroo.

What about sharing to non-designers?

Alexey and I have been working on Cinemap for a while now. He’s the engineer but he really cares about design. We talk about user experience and UI, we make quick decisions and bounce ideas off each other. The shipped product is always better as a result.

At Deliveroo, designers and engineers sit together. We have design reviews with different disciplines. We also write design docs to have a clear source of truth and all designs are on Figma for colleagues to view and leave feedback. Working closely with engineers and being better collaborators is invaluable in building better products.

Stefan Dougan-Hyde and I polishing transitions on the Deliveroo app

Focus on the “90/10” solution

Given that Cinemap is a side project, we only have weekends and evenings to work on it. This forces us to use our time effectively by working on the thing that delivers the most value to our users. We don’t have a product manager so I quickly learnt what it means to define scope, say no and stay focussed.

The “90/10” solution has worked really well for us and changed the way I approach product design. YCombinator explains it best:

Look for a way in which you can accomplish 90% of what you want with only 10% of the work/effort/time. If you search hard for it, there is almost always a 90/10 solution available. Most importantly, a 90% solution to a real customer problem which is available right away, is much better than a 100% solution that takes ages to build. — Paul Bunchiet (YCombinator)

It’s harder than it sounds. You have to talk to your users and ask “Why?” a lot. You’ll learn a lot from your users by releasing a simple solution that solves a problem really well. For my work at Deliveroo this would mean understanding the engineering constraints and designing the “90/10” solution first. The learnings on release will inform your future iterations.

To save more time, don’t reinvent patterns. Reuse UI and take advantage of platform capabilities where possible to get to your solution faster. This has saved me many hours and is one of the reasons why we are investing in a growing design system at Deliveroo.

Talk to your users

A lot of startup advice centers around talking to your users to ensure that the product you’re building is is what they want. There’s a great story on how the founders of Airbnb offered to professionally photograph customers’ homes as an opportunity to talk to them.

Our simple method of talking to users is the Feedback tab. I tell people that it’s the single most important feature we have built.

People message us with their pain points, what they like and what they want. We’re small enough to reply to every one and ask for details. We’ve also become customer service reps overnight, learning how to deal with frustrated users. Listening to feedback has been essential in Cinemap’s growth and has taught me two things:

  • Passionate users will love talking to you
  • What users say they want isn’t always what you should build

Uncovering the real user need is a core part of my design process at work. Jobs to be done is a good framework to help with that. I’m also lucky enough to have a great research team at Deliveroo to gather user needs and help me answer questions.

Whether you’re a small team or corporation, pay attention to your users and get to know them. It’s invaluable in designing an empathetic experience.

So to summarise, here are the top learnings from my side project that I leverage every day at Deliveroo:

  1. Be a better partner to other disciplines
  2. Solve the right problems efficiently
  3. Talk to your users

You’re only accountable to yourself on a side project, so make sure it’s something you’re passionate about to stay motivated. It’s also okay to make mistakes because you can’t learn unless you allow yourself the freedom to fail.

Side projects are an excellent way to level up your skills whether you’re a designer or engineer. It will accelerate your learning and development in ways you won’t anticipate, and hopefully enjoy the journey too.

Deliveroo Design

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