UX Design

Navigating & Thriving as a UX Team of One, aka Product Design Unicorn

Niki Tisza
Tiny Design Tips
Published in
8 min readApr 17, 2024


A Unicorn — Image by Canva

Hello, it’s Niki here! Welcome to the UX Under Microscope newsletter, free to read on Substack. Bi-weekly, I deep-dive into the world of UX, sharing practical tips and insights that will take your UX design and research skills to the next level, enabling you to make a greater impact as a UX professional and accelerate your career growth.

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Half of the time in my UX career, I’ve been a solo product designer & researcher in a team.

At the very beginning of my career, it was tough because I didn’t know what I was doing. I believe junior designers should not be subjected to such high levels of pressure as I experienced. It made me work harder, and I had to do lots of extracurricular learning to upskill myself fast while pretending I knew everything.

Why was it a challenging time?

Because I was accountable for every aspect of the product design lifecycle and had no one to talk to, there were no ChatGPT or Figma or downloadable templates or UI kits.

I was responsible for the UX roadmap (I didn’t even know what roadmap meant), design strategy, planning and executing design research, conducting stakeholder interviews, gathering requirements, sketching, wireframing, prototyping, testing, report writing, iterative visual and experience design, working on design systems, handover for developers, visual QA, data analytics, writing code, and occasionally graphic design. Meanwhile, I only started learning the English language 18 months ago.

If you’ve been long enough in this game, you might remember we were called ‘Unicorns.’ In other words, a UX Team of One — a term coined by Leah Buley.

It’s a great book; I highly recommend it if you’re in the same situation because working in a product development team can be challenging enough, let alone if you’re the sole design practitioner and every design responsibility sits on your shoulders.

How to Thrive as a UX Team of One

When you’re the sole design practitioner in an organization (usually startups), many responsibilities I mentioned above fall on your shoulders. To avoid burnout and still present yourself as a skillful individual, it’s important that you don’t spread yourself too thin.

Working as the sole member of a UX team is tough. The company that hires only one designer is usually on the lower end of the UX maturity scale. But remember that every company starts with only one designer at first; they typically don’t hire a bunch of designers and researchers. So, you need to prove the value of product design to make a case for more design buddies at the organization. And yes, work makes you feel isolated and overwhelmed.

Here are the Challenges You Need to Overcome as a UX Team of One:

  1. Limited resources and budget: As a solo UX practitioner, you’re often constrained by the lack of financial and human resources, making it challenging to conduct thorough user research or usability testing, which are crucial for great product & user experience. What you can do is secure a budget for a research tool that allows you to conduct unmoderated UX research. This way, you only need to set up the tests and review the data, but everything else is done for you.
  2. Role ambiguity: As the sole UX designer, defining your role’s scope can be challenging, leading to unrealistic expectations from colleagues who may not understand the breadth of UX work. What you can do is set clear expectations so that your team knows what you will be delivering and what you won’t.
  3. Wearing multiple hats: Being the only UX team member means covering various roles, from research to design to testing, which can be overwhelming and may not allow for deep specialization in any single area. Essentially, you will be a ‘Jack or Jane of all trades and master of none.’ What you can do is define your scope of work for yourself, meaning, don’t try to be a graphic designer, a skillful prototyper, a qual and quant UX researcher, system designer, wireframer, coder, etc. Pick a maximum of 6 skills to focus on, and be ok if you’re not the best visual designer. It’ll save you lots of frustration.
  4. Limited skill advancement: Without a team to learn from, staying updated with the latest UX trends and methodologies can be more challenging, potentially hindering your professional growth. What you can do is set aside half an hour every day to learn about a topic related to your work. Are you going to run a contextual inquiry next month and have never done it before? Learn about it, plan for it, and remember to be ok with being scrappy (not unrigourous) in this case.
  5. Difficulty in obtaining buy-in: Convincing stakeholders of the importance of UX without a team’s support can be daunting, especially when trying to secure resources or initiate significant changes. What you can do is find allies for product design. There’s at least one person at a company who appreciates you and the value you bring, it’s usually the person who hired you, who made a case for a designer. Team up and tackle the nay-sayers, knowing your ally is in the background.
  6. Self-reliance: Without a team or precedent within your organization, you must navigate your career path independently, often without direct guidance or mentorship. What you can do is carve out time from your day to do professional development. Ask your manager for a budget for professional learning and advancement.
  7. Isolation from the UX community: Working alone can sometimes lead to professional isolation, making it harder to exchange ideas and stay connected with the broader UX community. What you can do is connect with people in online communities such as groups on Discord, Slack, Facebook, and Meetup. Read newsletters, engage in communities, and ask questions. There are other Unicorns out there.
  8. Overcoming biases: Without a team to provide different perspectives, there’s a risk of your biases influencing design decisions more heavily, which could impact the user experience negatively. What you can do is be extra mindful of your own biases. We are humans; it’s normal to have biases, but you need to try your best to remove them from your work as much as possible. Cognitive biases to be aware of? Here’s a link!
  9. Managing workload: Balancing multiple UX tasks alone can lead to workload management issues, which can affect the quality of the deliverables and potentially lead to burnout. What you can do is don’t wait until you burn out completely. Talk to your manager beforehand that, hey, this is too much right now; I need you to prioritize the tasks for me and agree on what is feasible. If you’re putting 10–12 hours in a day, that’s not sustainable. Sometimes, there are deadlines, and it’s okay to push through, but if a 10–12-hour workday becomes your norm, you should know it’s really not normal.
  10. Evangelizing UX: In environments where UX is a novel concept, you must advocate for its value, educate stakeholders about its benefits and integrate user-centric practices into the organizational culture. What you can do is set up Lunch & Learn sessions for the entire team to educate them about UX topics. Make the sessions interactive, and have them regularly on your calendar, e.g., once a month.
  11. Limited feedback and collaboration: Working alone can limit your exposure to diverse perspectives and feedback, which are crucial for iterative design improvement and personal growth. What you can do is engage with online UX communities, participate in forums, and attend virtual meetups to gain diverse insights and feedback. Establishing a mentorship relationship or joining a peer review group can also provide valuable perspectives to fuel your growth.
  12. Scaling challenges: As the sole UX designer, it’s tough to scale your efforts to meet growing demands or larger projects, which can lead to bottlenecks and increased pressure. What you can do is leverage project management tools and automate repetitive tasks where possible to manage workload efficiently. Consider outsourcing specific tasks or collaborating with freelancers to handle larger projects or specialized tasks beyond your bandwidth.

Here’s the strategy that worked for me, and I’m 100% certain it’ll work for you if you apply it to your situation.

If You Feel Stuck…

By making a list of what truly matters to you, you can gain valuable insights and be motivated to take immediate action toward achieving your goals, especially when working as the sole member of a UX team.

Ask These Questions

  • What kind of work do I want to do?
  • What kind of team do I want to work with?
  • What kinds of products and experiences do I want to put out in the world?
  • What do I want my success stories to be?
  • Who do I want my allies to be?
  • What kind of education do I want to have?
  • How do I want to apply that education in daily life?
  • How do I want to work?
  • What kind of culture do I want to be a part of?
  • How do I want to evolve in my career, and what steps do I need to take to get there?
  • In what ways can I leverage my position as a UX team of one to influence the organization I work for?
  • How do I balance my workload to maintain quality and avoid burnout?
  • What are the key skills I need to develop to be effective as a solo UX practitioner?
  • How can I create more impactful UX deliverables with the resources I have?
  • What strategies can I use to stay connected with the UX community and continue learning?
  • How do I measure the success of my UX work and demonstrate the value to stakeholders?
  • What can I do to build a user-centric culture in my organization as a UX team of one?
  • How do I navigate the challenges of working in isolation?
  • What kind of legacy do I want to leave in my current role, and how can I achieve that?

Reflect on these questions. Get clarity. Set new goals to shape your career.

If you’re looking for tools to add to your UX design & research toolkit for productivity, take a look at the following:

  • ChatGPT, Gemini, or other generative AI tool for quick research
  • Dovetail, Notion, Miro, Otter, and Maze for delivering research insights faster
  • Canva for presentation design (it also has AI-assisted features that can help you design items in bulk if needed)
  • Figma design system or UI kit for repetitive & consistent usage and design. If you need help with which design system to use, check out this video for inspiration

If you’re new to me, my name is Niki. I’m a part-time writer with a 9-to-5 job in tech.

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