Four Tips to Stay Afloat as a UX Designer in a Small Startup

2014 Lucid Retreat — Payette River, Idaho

If you found yourself in a tiny rubber raft being tossed and turned in the wake of larger vessels with only a small paddle to steady you, could you stay afloat?

Similar challenges exist in small start up settings. You find yourself with limited resources and in an environment with several major competitors who always seem to be making waves. Providing valuable, effective UX design to a startup can be challenging in these conditions.

Our company, Lucid Software, produces Lucidpress — an online design and layout tool built by a 12-man product team here in Utah. We have to be very conscious of resources, time and contribution in order to develop the value that customers need from our tool. Below are a few tips that have helped our UX design team keep moving forward in the turbulent startup flow.

1. Borrow Paddles

Sailing the high seas of a tech startup means one thing: survival of the fittest. There’s no reason to cut and craft a new paddle if you’re already rowing with a perfectly good oar. One of those oars for Lucidpress is its sibling product, Lucidchart. This means design work, patterns and components are readily available for reference from our other design team.

Within our startup environment the Lucidpress team moves quickly through agile sprints. In order to stay ahead of the development work, I find myself drawing upon design patterns that the Lucidchart team and I have used on previous projects. This gives me the ability to create hi-fi mocks faster and provides more time to iterate and work through the most important design questions. Without the ability to reference and use interactions in an existing component system I wouldn’t be able to deliver quality work and still have the time I need to iterate.

Another way to reuse work (my own and others) effectively is by using software that facilitates sharing and reuse. Here are a few programs that save me time:

  • Sketch has symbols that automatically update everything across my document
  • Dropbox helps organize and share the most up-to-date files with the UX team
  • Iconjar is a quick and easy way to insert the latest shared team icons into Sketch
  • Lucid Particle for coding clickable, interactive prototypes

I can’t emphasize enough the value of having an organized component library–it makes everyone’s lives easier. In the end, it’s less work for both the designer and engineer, so we don’t have to build something from scratch every time.

2. Provide Detailed Maps

Good luck getting your raft to land without charting a course. You’ll likely end up rowing in circles, which can happen when engineers receive a design without any explanation.

At Lucid we continually work to bridge the gap between design and development. (See how we are bridging the engineering gap at Lucid)

When designing I use the same-sized artboards for any project to account for the most common browser screen size, ensuring the end user will have the most ideal experience. I also intentionally leave a section at the top of the mocks (where the browsers chrome exists) to provide explanations and notes for the developers.

Including notes with my designs allows me to explain complex parts for that particular artboard, making sure there isn’t a loss from the transition of design to development. Because I often have to quickly deliver work and jump on another design problem, adding detailed notes in the mocks helps the design decisions to live on beyond my own presence or meeting participation.

Another thing I do to provide context to my design work is to consolidate all design thinking and assets (e.g., icons, graphics, specs, etc.) into a single Confluence wiki page for the engineers to reference. Having one home for the assets, mocks and specs for all design projects not only provides a “map” for our engineers, it also provides a compass.

They can more quickly orient themselves to projects and answer most questions that are needed to keep projects moving forward. Having a system for providing notes and complete design stories helps everyone become familiar with design nuances and behaviors that may otherwise be lost in quick conversations or meetings.

3. Avoid Leaks

A common practice at Lucid is to involve QA earlier on in the design process. No one likes putting in days’ or even a week’s worth of design work to be shut down in an estimation meeting. It’s important to know if designs will break parts of the product or if the proposed implementations won’t play nice with a certain part on the back end. This helps to reveal any unexpected problems and course corrections before the project gets too far downstream. Startups can’t afford to stop rowing in order to bail out water because the raft sprung a leak. Involving QA in design thinking before code testing is like asking the question:

Where are the stress points in our raft and how can we avoid leaks before they happen?

At Lucidpress, QA can provide valuable information on what kind of rapids or terrain to plan for. They can better tell us where design ideas don’t scale and reveal edge cases that are sometimes overlooked. They are also extra sensitive to interactions between various product parts, which is helpful because they see the product with a slightly different lens.

4. Switch Rowing Arms

Driving high quality design work in a startup and getting through multiple iterations can be tough when you are crunched for time. In order to keep moving quality design forward, I practice the art of task switching. Think of task switching as changing rowing arms. Just like with rowing, sometimes sticking with particular design method or tool for a long period of time can decrease effectiveness. Research has shown that task switching provides cognitive clarity and increased energy when solving design problems.

I’m constantly switching between the design activities of sketching, whiteboarding, flowcharting, truth tables, spreadsheets, Illustrator and Sketch. When do you make the switch? It’s kind of an art — something that comes with time and situational awareness. The key is to recognize when switching between activities is needed. A few signs that have helped me know it is time to close Illustrator or Sketch and switch mediums are:

  • When I need to explore several different design directions or states rapidly, I turn to a whiteboard rather than build out each complex state in Sketch. This allows me to quickly see if there is a better design decision or if an idea breaks down before investing in details and symbols in a vector program.
  • When I find myself hung up on a workflow problem making mocks, I diagram the workflow to quickly explore paths and pages. This allows me to map out potential paths a user might take, providing a visual map and logic to follow in my mocks.
  • When I have so many different ideas in my head that I can’t seem to account for them quick enough by drawing or building them, I open a spreadsheet and or text editor and document my quick-flowing thoughts.


If you work in a startup and have struggled to keep up with all the design demands, maybe some of these tips can be helpful. These principle have helped my product team not only stay afloat and survive, but as time passes, we realize we are making waves of our own.

If you have other thoughts, tips or tricks on UX staying afloat in a startup, please comment and share them below.

This is a post from the design team at Lucid Software. We make collaborative diagramming and layout tools: Lucidchart and Lucidpress.