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7 lessons from a product design team of one

Apr 8, 2021

I joined Vowel in December of 2019 to lead product design. At the time, the team consisted of 4 founders and a handful of engineers, but no designers. Throughout my career, I’ve been on design teams of varying sizes, but never a team of one at a startup. It was one of the things that actually excited me about the opportunity when the co-founders (AndyMatt and Paul) reached out to me.

I’ve always enjoyed projects where I’ve had sole ownership. However, I always had other designers to bring in when I needed feedback and perspective. This was something I took into consideration before joining, but the opportunity to shape the design of a product that I was excited about was too good to pass on.

It’s been a really great year and a half and I’ve learned a ton along the way. Much of what I have learned has been about what it takes to thrive as a startup design team of one. Here are 7 of those lessons.

Find healthy emotion separation from your work

If you only read one lesson in this post, make it this one. You are not your work. If your personal identity was tied to your design output, being the sole designer at an early-stage startup would be crushing. You need to constantly be listening to your users, your team, and insights from analytics. You need to adapt, adjust, and never be precious with what you are making. Having a healthy separation from work is a necessity.

Yes, it is important to find meaning and purpose in what you do. If you’re at a new startup, it better be important to you. If you do not care about what you’re making, it will be bad. However, the quality of the work does not reflect back on your value as a human being. This lesson has taken the last decade of my career to figure out and it is still a work in progress. Back during my time at agencies, client feedback would devastate me. I was a cliche of an immature designer. Depending on the day, it would manifest itself as anger or despair. Neither made me pleasant to be around and the work suffered. I was afraid to take risks in my design work because that would open me up for criticism. I wouldn’t seek out feedback because that would require admitting that I didn’t have the perfect answers all the time or wasn’t a perfect designer.

About five years ago, I started seeing a therapist for non-work-related circumstances in my life and was surprised to realize how much of what I was learning in therapy bled into my work. The growth that I was seeing in my personal life was making me a better designer. I was able to see reality clearer in my personal as well as professional life. I saw that design feedback was never an attack on me as a person, but was actually making me a better designer. I saw that separating my personal identity from the design I was working on gave me objectivity to see where improvements were needed. I became a much better designer because I learned to rely on research, user testing, and feedback rather than my “brilliant” intuition.

It’s a lesson that I constantly come back to. Some days, I remember it better than others – especially during a global pandemic. Getting physical separation from work will also help. Go take a walk, work out, or watching 32 seasons of Survivor*.

Get feedback early and often

Once you have the freedom of healthy separation from your work, get feedback and much as you can. I get eyes on my Figma files as quickly as possible. Our head of product and I walk through Figma files most days. Our front-end and back-end engineers give design feedback. Our CEO gives design feedback. We have recurring meetings each week that ensure that we all have eyes on in-progress design frequently. For work that has already shipped, I read feedback from our users – both Intercom chats and feedback that we solicit by email. I conduct user feedback sessions over Vowel. I also have design peers and mentors outside of Vowel that I show work to.

I take the feedback and filter in through many lenses. Who is the feedback coming from? What use cases are we trying to solve for? What personas are we actively focusing on? The beauty of feedback is that it’s neither good nor bad, it’s just neutral information. It’s not always correct or helpful, but it is a lot of the time. Being so close to the work, you need that outside perspective – so seek out and find feedback in as many places as possible.

Find the right tools to simplify

As a design team of one, you wear many hats and own every phase of the product design process. One minute you’re a researcher, the next you’re a UX designer, then a quality analyst. It’s a temptation to skip certain phases due to lack of time or resources, but with the great tools that are available for designers today, you can be more efficient and effective than ever – without short-circuiting your process. For empathizing with users and researching, I use Google forms to send surveys to our users about what type of functionality they want to see in the product. I use Intercom to see what our users are proactively asking us about. I use UserInterviews to source users for usability testing. I use Vowel (shameless plug) to capture those sessions and while synthesizing that research. And I use (and wax poetically) about how much I love Figma to design and prototype.

One of the greatest skills you can cultivate as a designer is an ability and curiosity to learn new tools. Some of the best designers in the world talk about how being curious and open to learning applies not only to design inspiration but also to finding the right tools to use. By constantly using new tools, you will get the added benefit of being introduced to user experience patterns and ideas for your own work that you may not have considered otherwise.

Start your design system early

It’s tempting when you’re moving quickly and have multiple things to focus on to neglect foundational work. Oftentimes, this means the setup of a proper design system. There has been so much written on the value of design systems that I won’t delve into that here, but here are some great resources:

Instead, what I will say is that when prioritizing feature needs with foundational design setup, it’s helpful to think in terms of productivity. Find the initial time to invest and you will save yourself so much time in the long run. You will also be saving development time. Dev time is a precious resource at a startup like ours and the better I can document a feature and not spend time on visual QA, the better. If all my components are in Figma in a clean and organized way that clearly labels typography, color, rollover states, etc, that saves dev time. Over the course of developing two or three digital product features, you’ve probably already made back the investment of having a clearly defined system.

If it seems like a daunting task to set up an entire design system by yourself, start small. Work on it a little bit every day. Structuring your days with something like The Pomodoro methodology has been very helpful for me. I can break up my days, working on features and also the foundational work of a design system.

Prototype, prototype, prototype

Nothing illuminates quite like a prototype. If there are gaps in your design, turning screens into a prototype will show them. Additionally, a prototype communicates ideas more effectively than static screens do and will be a much more reliable vehicle for real feedback. As I wrote earlier, getting as much feedback as possible on a feature is paramount for a team of one. The logical progression thus follows:

  1. A great way to get feedback on that feature is to do usability testing.
  2. A prerequisite for doing usability testing is to create a prototype.
  3. To create a good prototype, all essential states and screens must have been considered.

This isn’t to say that you need to make airtight testing plans and pixel-perfect prototypes. I usually run my usability studies very quickly with 5 or so users all on the same day. And the prototypes are high-quality but lean to get only the feedback I need. But to get that feedback, it usually requires a screen or two that I hadn’t previously considered, working in a vacuum. Prototyping is a critical part of your process will serve as protection against design slipping through the cracks.

Communicate and Facilitate

Communication skills are critical when working across teams. When presenting a design that has solely existed in your own head, it’s important to walk teammates through the thought process, things you considered, and where you ultimately arrived. Receiving good feedback requires framing and asking for the right things.

While you may be the only designer, good design ideas come from everywhere. Our engineers and marketers often have great ideas that I hadn’t previously considered. To that end, I’ve facilitated crazy 8 sessions to generate ideas with the entire team that served as a great foundation for some new features. It also creates more openness for idea generation at any time.

Use these foundations as your team grows

I’ve loved the last year and a half at Vowel. We’ve built a product that I’m really proud of and I’ve worked tirelessly to juggle all of the things that I have mentioned above. That being said, I don’t think this is a sustainable practice as a product grows. Good design, especially for a complex product like ours, requires time and focus on specific design challenges. To that end, I’m so excited to grow our design team. The principles I outlined are just as applicable to a design team of 10 as they are to a team of 1 – and if everyone is aligned on these, that’s a team that I’d want to work with.

*I have 8 more seasons to watch. Survivor is a brilliant insight into America over the last 20 years. I can’t recommend it higher for quarantine watching. My next blog post will be titled 200,000 Reasons to Watch Survivor Right Now.

, Head of Design

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