10 things I learned working at a startup as a product designer

It’s been just over a year at Propelor as a product designer. Propelor is a modern investment tool that makes portfolio management easy for everyone. I currently am the sole designer in the company and our goal is to make it easier to be a self-directed investor and to encourage more people to start investing for themselves. I plan on writing this article to reflect on what I’ve learned so far and how much I’ve grown.

I also hope to share my experience with those who are interested in working at a startup, or new to the design industry.

Without further ado, here they are:

  1. Familiarize yourself with non-design tools

Learning new tools especially non-design software can be uncomfortable but learning it will help you so much not only in your design process but also in communicating with stakeholders. I learned Google Analytics at Propelor and it was a pretty big learning curve. You don’t have to master it, just learn a little at a time by figuring out how to find the specific info you need!

2. Priortize. Priortize. Priortize.

Identify what’s a must vs nice-to-have. Prioritize the tasks based on if you will be blocking someone else if you don’t have it done. Scope hammering is also another strategy that also helps you focus on the main purpose of the project.

3. Hey, it’s okay to not be pixel-perfect.

I’m not saying that being pixel-perfect is not important!! It is important but working at a startup, we work very fast and unfortunately, I don’t always have the time to be pixel perfect on every single mockup. This relates to the point above of prioritizing what’s important and what’s considered a must vs nice-to-have.

4. Be a design leader. Show initiatives. Speak their language.

Every company has its own design process in place. I think it’s important to continue to educate others about design as you work together so that they can understand why design is important or sometimes why it takes longer than the stakeholder thinks.

At Propelor, we didn’t have a design library system so essentially we would be making slightly different UI components every project and wouldn't have them documented and therefore was not reusable. Creating the library would take time and it was on my mind for a while but just never had the time to allocate to do this.

Long story long, I suggested to my CEO that we have it built. I could have said something like, “We should build the design library so that we can document UI components, and plus, all other companies have it”. You can see here that this doesn’t incorporate any business value when speaking to a business-focused stakeholder and sounds like this is only beneficial to me.

As you may know, the design library brings a lot more value than that. It helps provide consistency in communicating the brand and connected user experience. It also helps standardize the code for devs and be able to reuse the components saving us time and allow us to work much faster. Now, this aligns a lot more at the business level and how this can create impact across different teams. If we can work faster, we can allocate our time to tackle the next priority.

5. Use business goals as your north star

This is what my senior designer told me and I think this is so helpful. Me being a user-focused designer, of course I’m always thinking about the users but at the end of the day, things we do need to provide business value.

6. Communicate proactively (especially with pandemic and WFH)

Communication and being transparent is key to great teamwork. Great teamwork allows us to work effectively together and this ultimately helps us make a great product.

With the pandemic and the team working from home, it became evidently important to keep everyone updated on your progress without someone necessarily asking you for your status. Overcommunicate and do not wait for the next stand up or next team meeting to address problems.

7. Stay 2 steps ahead

If a problem needs to be discussed with the stakeholder, don’t just bring up the problem but come to them with possible solutions so the decision can be made in the same meeting.

Along with solutions, I try to reach out to devs to figure out the estimate of each option so that during the meeting we can weigh out the options based on how much time we have for the project and how much higher in priority is it to solve the problem compared to other problems.

8. Collaborate with everyone

Talk to people with who you don’t directly work. Get feedback on the product and learn what users like or dislike, what other ideas do they have in mind to make the product better? They are the experts in their field, so make sure you use that as a resource!

9. It’s okay to say “I don’t know” but make sure to figure it out later

Sometimes a question is thrown to you in the middle of the meeting and you are put on the spot. I used to have a mini panic attack because I didn’t have an answer. It made me feel like I wasn’t prepared for a meeting. But over time, I came up with my little formula to use when you don’t have an answer:

“I don’t know” + [what I’ll do] + [how long it will take] + [how they will be informed]

An example would be: I don’t know the answer right now. I need to look into x,y,z to figure it out and I will ping you sometime today on Slack once I find out.

Trust me. It’s wayyyyyy better than BS-ing!

10. NEVER think of yourself as a “junior” designer

Saving the best for last. I had a difficult time changing my mindset. I’ve always thought of my career path to be a very cookie-cutter style. You start off as a junior designer, after a couple of years you become an intermediate designer, and then after many years, you become a senior designer. Right?!

This mindset made me so insecure when sharing my design thoughts. Sometimes I would literally start my sentence, “I don’t know if it’s because I’m junior but I think…” and then share the rest of my opinion.

There is no right or wrong. Like what my senior designer told me, your opinion is equally as important whether you are junior or senior. This change of mind has helped me tremendously in the growth of my professional career.

And that is it! I’m sure there are more to come. Thanks to the small but mighty team at Propelor who has continued to challenge me to grow ❤

Thanks for reading!!

Product designer with an appetite for solving complex problems through data-driven design. Toronto, Canada 🇨🇦