As a UX designer, I often dream of finding a designer’s utopia: a company with a design team of talented people with wide-ranging skills, a recognition of the value of UX Design and an embrace of Design Thinking throughout the organization.
Maybe this is my definition of a utopia because I have mostly found myself working for a variety of organizations as a lone designer. I’ve had ups and downs in this role and learned quite a few lessons along the way. Whether you are contemplating accepting a new job opportunity or currently working somewhere as a lone designer, here are some reflections and a couple of pieces of advice from someone who has experience working often as a design team of one.
There are a variety of reasons why any given company will decide to hire only one designer. A lack of resources is a common scenario, which will result in many people in the company wearing multiple hats. What this translates to for designers is that there will be a time when you’ll need to do market research, user research, build wireframes and prototypes, do motion design, act as a product manager, and most of all, manage your own time and your deliverables. This can feel like a lot of work and responsibility, but with that responsibility comes flexibility.
If you’re not in the mood to work on pixel-perfect mockups today, try spending your time doing user research or something else that will help move your projects forward. Most likely there will never be a shortage of work, so as long as you are making progress, enjoy the flexibility of being able to work on what you want when you want! Also, don’t be afraid of taking on jobs that you’ve never done before. Showing initiative and drive will give you recognition in your organization and will help you learn new skills along the way.
Keep up momentum
As a designer, people look to you for answers and solutions. You are the problem solver and the person that makes things better. Your decisions have lasting impacts on the company you work for. It’s not uncommon that designers question (either internally, or externally) whether they do have all the right answers. Within a design team, there are people to bounce ideas off. There are checks and balances so that no one person is in charge of making every decision in a silo. This system becomes more complicated when you are a lone designer without a good sounding board and this can lead to imposter syndrome. If you are a designer experiencing imposter syndrome, don’t fret. Know that you are not alone!
Imposter syndrome is commonly described as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s efforts or skills.” For designers, this often translates into a feeling that you have no f*@#ing clue what you’re doing. This is totally normal and even healthy! A little bit of self-doubt can come in handy and keep your ego in check. The most important lesson, however, is not to let self-doubt paralyze the design process and the decision making necessary to move your designs forward. Keep in mind that regardless of the numerous hypotheses and prototypes you create, when software is released into production, the results are often unexpected. Keep moving forward. Digital products are never finished and will never be perfect on the first try. So, even though you want to have the right answer today, there will always be an opportunity to make improvements down the line.
Define your value
User Experience Design is a relatively new field of work, meaning that many people have never heard of it and have no idea what it means to be a “designer.” There will most likely be people in your organization that don’t understand what you do or understand why you were hired. You might be mistaken for a graphic designer or someone who should be working in the marketing department, but isn’t.
In an ideal situation, you will be able to prove how you positively impact your organization by tracking your results in concrete metrics. These metrics will look different for different products and it’s important to understand which metrics your organization cares most about. But, this can prove difficult if your designs are taking a long time to get into production.
If this is the case, you can focus on proving your value in other ways, namely by finding answers. Collecting research on competitors and talking to potential customers or users will put you in a position of being a valuable resource. Even if people never understand what UX is, they will know that you bring insights and knowledge to the company. Over time, you will be able to help people better understand your role and how you positively impact your organization.
Working as a lone designer will force you to get creative in ways you never expected. It’s possible that you will spend many hours working in isolation, without other designers to bounce ideas off. It may feel like you are going in circles, unable to make decisions. Ignore this feeling and try bouncing ideas off non-designers.
Seek feedback internally from a variety of people in your company. For example, developers can give excellent feedback on technical limitations as well as use cases that you may have never been aware of. CSMs will know the customer perspective more than anyone in the company and are a great resource if you are not able to speak to customers directly. Stakeholders should be able to give insight into the short and long-term vision, which can help you strategically design for the future and better understand the bigger picture.
If you find that you are still blocked, even after exhausting your internal resources, try reaching out to either a local or virtual design community for feedback or advice. There are slack groups dedicated to UX and groups on meetup.com that can be a great source of support.
Working as a lone designer can be a daunting task for a variety of reasons; try to stay positive and keep in mind the many benefits of working as a design team of one. Someday, when you are working on a larger team, you will look back at your time as a lone designer and be grateful for the experience. You will have your limits pushed, but trust your instincts and never forget what you love most about being a designer. This is different for everyone, but for me, it’s important to keep in mind that I am a designer because I love solving problems and making things better. Embrace the challenges you face today because there will always be more and different challenges in the future!