In the short time since I started designing, I have had a bunch of titles to describe my role; some I chose myself when freelancing, and some were given by the companies that I worked for. I have been a web designer, a user interface designer, an interaction designer, a user experience designer and most recently, a product designer. As I have moved from one title to the other, the industry has evolved and it is much easier to see some of those patterns in hindsight. What does your role, really encompass when you say you are a designer at a startup, or more importantly what all can it encompass that will help you be better at what you are trying to be? What does it mean to be a designer for the digital medium? What does it mean to design a digital product?
The startup is the new agency
It is not the biggest surprise that some of the finest designers of products happen to work at tech companies and startups. I would argue that a startup or a larger tech company that cares deeply about design (I can definitely attest for Facebook being one) is a better place to bootstrap your career in design than any traditional design agency. There are lot of reasons for this but the biggest and most obvious ones in my head are the breadth of projects and the quick learning curve. Today you could be designing the logo and the larger brand of the new app that is about to launch, and the next day you are back to tweaking the flow of the app based on new user testing nuggets that your CEO passed on from one late-afternoon coffee shop testing. I traded my two year course in ‘interaction design’ for a crash course in design at Pulse. Never made a better decision in my life.
Products—not just apps or websites
What the hell do I even mean by that? Mostly that our work is no longer confined to interfaces inside a viewport in the browser or on our phones. The apps & the websites are just the means of interaction we enable. We are here to design the larger system of which the apps and websites are one aspect. It is equally our job (or should be, if it is not) to understand how they fit into the larger sphere of things. What is the product market fit? What do the release cycles of the app look like in terms of features? Does it make sense to launch feature A without sub feature 1, 2 and 3 which are part of the next release cycle? How similar do the app and the website need to be? Do they need to be optimized for particular use cases versus being at feature parity? What about our iPad app? How does the account creation flow work if a user connects via Facebook on iPhone but closes the app before they complete their profile? How do we handle this edge case if they open the app on a desktop device next? How does their data sync across platform and what are the design affordances for it? In a world of A/B tests and instrumentation of design, how do you tell the stories that need telling.
…[In] situations where the product is facing an incumbent and there are complimentary network effects, it’s simply not enough to launch a well designed product. - Johnnie Manzari
For most cases in the past, designing something meant working with a client on a project for a few weeks and giving a ‘final deliverable’ and working briefly with the engineers in some case. The client could always hire for the next project, but as far as the old project was concerned, that was it. Welcome to the world where the job is never done. The job really starts from What we are trying to build and ends on how what we released has been performing—which is arguably for as long as the product exists. Are there any major drop offs in the funnel? With tools of today, it is easier than ever to be in the know of the story that data has to tell about the product. What about the things that are not working as you had hoped, can we do a quick revision and submit to App store in 2 days? The feedback loop is shorter and tighter. This also means we have to be okay with things not being perfect. This one in particular is at odds to the perfectionist in us. The thing that makes it better to wrap our heads around is that you have forever to make it perfect. Keep iterating.
When you see a live, polished, interactable demo, you can instantly understand how something is meant to work and feel, in a way that words or long descriptions or wireframes will never be able to achieve. And that leads to better feedback, and better iterations, and ultimately a better end product. - Julie Zhuo
This is a medium that is not static. This is a medium that enables affordances that other mediums of the past did not. This is a medium for which photoshop should not be the end, but merely a milestone in the journey of creation. Use what you are comfortable in, Quartz, Framer or good old HTML/CSS/JS. The end goal is to get more insight and feedback and be able to better envision how the design works and not just what it looks like. Use all means necessary and at your disposal.
Own the product: Being proactive & executing
This might seem like an odd item to add to the list, but of all the above mentioned qualities, this has to be the one that is the most important. Gone are the days when someone will be carrying over a spec document of project requirements and leaving it on your desk for you to look at. You are responsible for the product. Think of it like your own baby. Does it need caressing, go do it. Nobody will be sending you emails about it, but it is implied that this is YOUR job. Worry less about the ideal process and more about the outcome—the impact. Hack your way around traditional UX practices that make it feasible for a 2 person design team to do everything from user research to communication design, while always knowing the magic sauce is the product and it’s execution and not the process. Maybe even ditch the traditional notion of UX for a far more opinionated product. Follow what works for you and your product.
We don’t have our journal of record, our vocabulary is splintered and vague, our processes are inconsistent, but this is the beginning of something important. - David Cole
The field of designing digital products has just begun to come together. There are common grounds and there are disagreements. New mediums are being added, while old ones fade away. In the coming years, what do you want to see when you look at your phone or through a pair of glasses or glance at your watch or stare at that screen that mimics the TV in your living room? What kind of products do you want to design for this medium? What kind of a designer will you be?