Startups work fast, adapt and change. The working atmosphere is relaxed, coffee flows continuously and new ideas are always welcome. Working as a startup product designer sounds like a paradise and totally exciting. And actually, you get the impression that everyone today wants to have worked in a startup at least once in their career.
I have summarized my experiences as a startup designer and share my best tips here.
What exactly is a startup?
Startups are companies that were founded not too long ago (we are talking about a few years at most) and that have a certain potential for growth. Startups often develop products or services that do not yet exist on the market or only in niches and thus focus on problems that have not yet been solved. Since most business ideas cannot be implemented profitably from the very beginning and it remains to be seen whether they will be successful on the market, financing is usually provided by investors or (crowd) funding.
The new work environment
The product or service is not yet fully developed and therefore the work rhythm at startups is definitely different than at established corporates. Due to smaller teams and often flat hierarchies, the impact of the individual is also greater in most startups than in strongly hierarchical structures.
How does this affect the work and the work process as a product designer in a startup and what is important to be able to do valuable work as a designer in the daily fast-paced startup challenge?
What have I learned being a startup designer?
Moving from the corporate world to a startup is exciting and suddenly offers many new opportunities. I’ve summarized my best tips to help you get started in a startup as a Product Designer:
Be flexible on your design process
It’s great if you are familiar with design thinking, double diamond and other structures for design processes and know the methods. However, it is hardly ever as clear-cut in day-to-day work as it appears in the concept. There is not always a large or small project that needs to be clearly defined and worked through from beginning to end.
Often it is small tasks that keep us busy in our daily work. A change in the user interface, a new icon for a function or a check-in with a user to get feedback on a recent modification. These are all tasks that are part of the design process, but are tied to tens of different projects.
Thus, it’s important to stay flexible when it comes to your design process. You should recognize if every step from the model of the design process is necessary for a smaller project. Maybe not every step can be worked through in detail due to the ratio of effort and result or simply because of time pressure. After all, in a startup you are often the only designer and efficient time management and working methods are essential for you.
Communicate with developers
Communication with the dev team is definitely one of the most important activities as a designer at a startup. From the beginning, you should make sure that you create a good communication base, use the right tools and agree on how to communicate.
If you’re not too deep in software development yourself and lack technical basics, that’s not a big deal. Because the developers have this knowledge. The important thing is that you have access to it and can ask questions at any time – this also applies the other way around, of course. You may not know whether a design of yours can be technically implemented the way you imagine it. On the other hand, developers may not be aware of why certain design decisions are made one way and not another. Asking questions and communicating with each other are the best ways to create clarity on both sides and create an open and effective working culture in the team.
Show your design
Yes, I know, stepping out with your first ideas and then receiving a flood of feedback can feel scary. But it’s important and inevitable. Most of the time, the feedback you get as a designer is super valuable and helpful (and not as bad as we might previously assume).
If you’re not the type of presenter who likes to get «in front of people» live or in group video calls, asynchronous UX showcases are a great thing to introduce new designs or ideas. To do this, you can use screen recording (e.g. with Loom) to record a video in which you present your current prototype or ideas. You can then easily share the link to the video and the prototype (or a copy of it on a whiteboard, e.g. FigJam) with the team. Ask them to leave their feedback as comments – that’s quick, easy, and you have their written feedback to read through again and again.
Google is your friend
Startups often need solutions that don’t yet exist. In UX and UI design, however, we can very often rely on best practices instead of reinventing the wheel. This helps you stay efficient, but also the users, because common patterns are easier to use if the users are already familiar with them from other apps.
Thanks to the internet, it has become extremely easy to find best practices, case studies or designer communities and many other sources of information that can help you in your daily work. Looking for inspiration or design guidelines on google is not a shame, but rather a sign that you know how to efficiently get information and inspiration.
Educate your team
You’re the designer on the team and regularly have to «defend» your decisions? Instead of facing headwinds when you come up with fact-based design decisions, you could try sharing your knowledge in the future. By doing so, you’ll create a broad knowledge base across the startup and help your team better understand your reasons for certain design decisions. At best, you can establish user-centered thinking throughout the entire company.
Ways to share your knowledge include short brown-bag sessions dedicated to an important topic, or special sharing meetings with specific teams when it comes to certain parts of the design process.
Go beyond what you already know
Maybe you just started your first job as a designer, or you already have several years of experience and are used to your profession. Regardless of what applies to you, where you are today is not the end. We can always learn, try new things, find ideas and get involved with other views. So don’t rest on what you already know, but try to stay curious, learn and apply methods that have not been part of your repertoire so far. This way you stay up to date in your profession and constantly expand your design skills. Of course, this does not only apply to start-up designers.
Working in a startup is a cool experience and offers insights into a new working world, away from the hierarchical corporates. The opportunities to get involved are often much greater, but you also need a lot of flexibility. What helps you as a designer in a startup is good communication as well as the willingness to share your knowledge and to try out new things.
Do you also work in a startup? What are your experiences with it? Write me your story via email, on LinkedIn or Instargram and tell me what is your biggest challenge as a product or UX designer in a startup.