New to designing in a startup – Need advice

over 8 years ago from

I'm a college freshman and I've been lucky enough to be hired as a part-time UI/UX Designer (and the only designer) at a startup. I'm very new to being a designer at an organization as I've mainly worked for magazines in high school and did a lot of UI/UX work for myself. Couple of things that I noticed:

  1. Everyone likes to give comments on the design, and I've always thought that every comment should be welcome and be addressed in designs but some goes against design principles and are purely aesthetic changes which may either look bad (IMHO) or worsen utility. This is worse when the person giving comments is the founder as I'm not sure I have enough clout to overrule his ideas.

  2. Because of the fast-paced nature of startups, I'm forced to always rush when doing mockups: no needfinding, no iterations, no user studies. As a side-effect, I sometimes have to send over mockups which I'm not proud of simply because "the new release has to be out this Friday"

I'm very new to this and if anyone has any suggestions whatsoever based on their experience I'd really appreciate it.


  • Xavier RXavier R, over 8 years ago (edited over 8 years ago )

    I started working a year ago in a startup & the situation I was in was exactly the same. I never went to (web) design school whatsoever. I studied advertising & did graphic design for myself on the side. Here's what I learned the past last year & what I tried to do.

    1 / Bring a "design culture" to your company. This is probably the most important point. As you're the only one in charge, nobody can bring this in except you. It's especially important if your company relies on interfaces & web design. Don't hesitate to send links to your colleagues about design trends & processes, to sensibilize them about your work & the importance of it.

    2/ Opinions of others are very important, especially in a small company. So you got that right, but you'll have to draw a limit line. Anyone has an opinion about your work, but you're the one who knows best. Design is your job. You'll have to learn saying no to some remarks. Don't implement every single suggestions your colleagues give you.

    3/ Learn diplomacy. Hear what people have to say about your work, but don't throw a blunt "no, I won't do that" into the conversation. Explain why you think it's not a good idea & justify your choices, always. Leave room for negotiations. People will give subjective opinions. Answer them with objective & detailed answers. If you listen carefully to people, you'll also see they can suggest really good ideas sometimes. Be open, but know your place & your value as a designer.

    4/ Be careful about your design process. Establish a clear process between you & your boss. Startups are great, but it can get messy. People will sometimes change their mind 2 weeks after approval. If your work process is well defined, you give yourself the assurance you won't have to change all the time what you did 2 weeks ago. This is especially important, because you would lose a lot of time changing things over again, and time is crucial for a small company.

    5/ Get used to the idea you won't ship perfect design. You can optimize your process to gain time, but the business decisions of your company will - most of the time - prevent you from shipping the perfect mockup. That's just business. Once the company grows, this gets a little better. Use your free time later - when you have 30 minutes or so & nothing to do between two briefs - to improve your previous layouts. Companies like Facebook iterate their products all the time in production, because they don't have time to wait 1 month to bring new features to their community. Even Apple doesn't ship perfect iOS. They iterate & get better with later versions. Work on your designs even after deadlines (if you have time for it).

    6/ Be curious, read stuff on the Internet about your work, keep your company afloat with trends. You will learn more about design the next 12 months than you did for the past 5 years. Invest time in your passion & you'll become very valuable to your company, especially if you're their only designer.

    7/ Bring the idea to build a designers team once they'll grow & have money to recruit new people. Take the lead, you're the only one for now, grab this chance.

    8/ Keep in mind that design is not only a technical job, but it's also a social job. You'll spend a lot of time discussing with people about ideas, look & feel, user experience. You'll spend a lot of time selling yourself too. Value that social side of the job. It's the most interesting part (to me) in this industry.

    Hope this helps, good luck.

    69 points
    • Bjarke DaugaardBjarke Daugaard, over 8 years ago

      As someone in the same situation, this is really great advice

      2 points
    • Brian BellissimoBrian Bellissimo, over 8 years ago

      Thank you Xavier this was great help. I am in a similar situation and most of these points will work for my environment as well. Thank you for your feedback and insight it is really appreciated.

      1 point
    • Mark TrudingerMark Trudinger, over 8 years ago

      Good advice!

      1 point
    • Jim NielsenJim Nielsen, over 8 years ago

      This seems like good advice to me. I would reiterate point 5. In my experience as the sole designer at a startup, often the business needs of a young startup trying to survive means things go out the door that make you shiver as a designer. You simply have to keep on point and remind everyone that design is important and that time should be scheduled to revisit the ideas and implementations that had to be shipped early. If no one is persistent about taking the care to go back and fix things, it'll never get done. Someone has to care to continue bringing it up, may as well be you right? :)

      2 points
    • James AcklinJames Acklin, over 8 years ago

      The startup is not a scaled, established organization. They're trying something out to see if there's a market fit. Probably nothing is perfect.

      Your design should take the same path. Socialize the lowest-fidelity artifact that you can get away with as early as you can. Get feedback, iterate, and work in tighter and tighter feedback loops until engineering has what they need—and nothing more.

      1 point
  • Max SchultzMax Schultz, over 8 years ago (edited over 8 years ago )

    1) Remember that you've joined a team and that everyone is making compromises and meeting halfway in the pursuit of the same goal. Your ability to be a team player (as cheesy as that sounds) will determine your success long term.

    It is no surprise that 'everyone likes to give comments'. Aesthetics are subjective, and giving design feedback can be fun.

    If the comments are coming from other designers, engineers or people that work on the product, their input merits a discussion. Often a compromise will yield you a solution you had not thought of.

    If the comments are from people not directly connected to the product, it is perfectly acceptable to just say 'Hm, thats interesting I'll have to think about that' flash them a respectful smile then get back to work.

    If the comments are coming from a founder or co-founder - their ideas merit discussion based on respect. This can be extremely difficult. You will need to build this relationship over time, it will have ups and downs. With a founder you will need to:

    · Backup your decisions with case studies, your previous work and eventually customer data.

    · Find a product-savvy third party in the office to bring into the discussion.

    · Educate your team on design principles, give a 5 minute talk at lunch, draw up a branding guidelines document for internal use etc.

    · Build your relationship and meet halfway every day.

    2) If you need more time, ask for it. If the founder can't give you 24 more hours to work on a design problem that is core to the success of his startup - then you need to talk to him about allowing you to do your best work.

    Unfortunately, working at startup means that you have forfeited the luxury of iteration, user-studies etc. If you want to do those, you should find a larger company to work for.

    Your job is to build a Minimum Lovable Product. Startups move quickly and will throw away more interactions, design and hypotheses than it will keep.

    Design going out the door that is imperfect is absolutely a part of everyday life at a fast company. You'll need to find pride in your agility and the fact that you delivered what the company needed to get to their next step (all on a competitive timeframe).

    7 points
  • Martin LeBlancMartin LeBlanc, over 8 years ago (edited over 8 years ago )
    1. "This is worse when the person giving comments is the founder as I'm not sure I have enough clout to overrule his ideas." - Screw that - they hired you for a reason! As long as you have some good arguments to back up your decisions. Make it a habit to back decisions up with data and think of new design ideas as small tests that can get you more data. Get comfortable with analytics tools that can help you see what design is working and what isn't.

    2. If you are working on a web based product, remember that you will always have the options of tweaking the design. It's never done and it's never perfect. Make sure to get the overall principles right for the design though e.g. how you balance usability vs. pretty-looking. You can do user testing and simple user studies by being pretty pragmatic. E.g. sometimes we pull a list of the latest sign ups and send them an email asking them for feedback and possible a short Skype call - you can get a lot of information with very few resources.

    4 points
  • Jason M, over 8 years ago (edited over 8 years ago )

    Form follows function.

    It's taken me years to finally get to this point, but I've realized that design is, and should be, secondary to many many things. Both of your concerns are going to be a test of your strength as a UX/UI designer.

    1. If your design argument betters the function of the product, make the argument. Pick your battles. If its important, fight for it, but if it's purely aesthetic, make your argument and then live with the decision of the higher ups. DO NOTconsistently fight your management on design choices. This is the fastest way to alienate them, and soon they will ignore your input, whether or not you are correct. I know this may be hard to hear but the truth is, the things you deem most important really just aren't.

    2. Be HAPPY that you work at a startup where shipping product is so important. Perfecting a product is a luxury for Apple and their likes. The faster they get into the market, the better off you are. Down the line, you'll have time to make the changes, as the startup stabilizes and becomes a real career for you and its founders.

    I've seen it my whole life. Design brings value to a product, service, company, etc... but it is not essential. In other words, you are not essential. The way you can make yourself valuable is by:

    1. Completing assignments given to you quickly .
    2. Doing the best you can with what you've been given. (make the design as great as you can in spite of others)
    3. Choosing your battles. (nobody wants to spend all day arguing with a designer)
    4. Finding ways to improve the product or service through design, or other methods.

    I hope this helps. Best of luck!

    3 points
  • Charlie Apple, over 8 years ago

    Everyone: This is my first post on Designer News and everyone has been the most helpful. I thought I was going to get a few posts talking about how I'm ranting too much but no, everyone gave constructive ideas. I'll incorporate many of your ideas into my workflow and see how it goes. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

    2 points
  • Malte NuhnMalte Nuhn, over 8 years ago (edited over 8 years ago )

    Congratulations - you now own the user experience of your product :)!! And its a product, not a design. It'll evolve. You'll evolve it. So: "Festina lente"- make haste, slowly.

    1. Embrace the rush. Each week, you'll have a chance to SHIP. And each week you'll have a chance to revisit some of the things you did before. Find the good in that - there's /lots of good/ to find. If you have traction, push for A/B testing. If not, experiment visually. Try different patterns. You'll change them over time anyhow. etc

    2. Don't pick battles on detail - shape the trajectory instead. Talk to users even if it doesn't help with this week's release. Grab a few each week. Over time, you'll accumulate the best user insights - even for a founder it's hard to argue with clear references to the dozens of conversations you'll have had.

    3. Move the discussion to sketch / wireframe level. Much harder to argue about aesthetics if someone doesn't see them.

    4. Make time for UX, as follows.

    • Find the highest level of fidelity required to work with the engineering team, and design no more than that. If they don't need pixel-perfect (maybe because you gave them a style guide) or glossy animations, don't deliver them.

    • Over time, reduce the level of fidelity they need. How? Get really close to the engineering team. The better they can anticipate your design choices, the less you'll need to design. Empower the front-end devs to make design choices. Aim for getting to a point where you simply sketch & art-direct, because they're empowered to do the rest. And understand the technical limitations - it really, really cuts down on cycles.

    • Get users in the building. Talk to them. Get the engineers to talk to them (or at least listen). Get the CEO to talk to them (if she/he doesn't already).

    2 points
  • Tori ZTori Z, over 8 years ago

    I was gonna post the exact same thing (I'm a college student currently working as the only designer at a start-up) . Thanks for posting it! :)

    1 point
  • Stefan RösslerStefan Rössler, over 8 years ago

    I was reading about half of the comments, so please don't mind if I might repeat something that has already been mentioned (btw. there were some great pieces of advice here).

    I was just consulting a startup for about one year and was responsible for designing interaction concepts and delivering working prototypes for the other team members, so they could implement and style them (btw. outside experts should never be responsible for designing UIs for startups that heavily depend on these interfaces – it's just too time-consuming to pay an outside expert his expert's salary for all this work).

    One thing I learned last year, is that startups aren't fast-paced by nature. At least not in a way that they have to be very stressful, they just tend to become this way, because people don't ask why.

    Whenever someone has an idea (or comment/critic on something) you're initial respond should be to ask them why they think that they are right about whatever they propose.

    Why should feature A be shipped? Why do you think it's useful?

    Whatever their answer may be, keep on asking them why, until you are 100% sure that you have understood them. [SPOILER: you will never understand someone that well, so practically you will never stop asking why).

    The result of this paradigm shift to asking why instead of just saying yes, is that you have to build way less and thus can focus on really getting the remaining software right.

    People typically ask why not, and that's why so much useless stuff gets build and time gets wasted on things no one really needs. Not the customers. Not the company. And especially not you as designer.

    So my advice in one sentence: Keep asking why!

    Your colleagues and bosses will either start hating you (you might consider to leave them for good if this happens), or you'll be able to slowly but surly build a "design culture", like proposed by Xavier Roggen in his brilliant comment.

    To get inspired, I suggest you watch this 15-minute talk from Simon Sinek about how great leaders inspire action: http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en

    1 point
  • Wil NicholsWil Nichols, over 8 years ago

    I'm a second-year, and was in an incredibly similar situation at the start of the last spring semester. Here are a few things I wish I had been told at first; hopefully you'll find them helpful.

    1.) Forget perfection. Make the best work as you can in your constraints, compromise on implementation, and build back to your original spec in subsequent updates.

    2.) Likewise, get to know the engineers. Make your specs as clear as you possibly can. The easier your implementations are, the more likely you are to get polish rounds down the road.

    3.) Know the startup model. Try to build a design culture, but know where design does and doesn't fit in your MVP scope. Compromise to ship. he chance to ship and iterate at this rate is rare; likewise, you have plenty of opportunity to improve your own designs, and their implementations, in future versions.

    4.) If confident in your work, identify three to five coworkers who offer relevant feedback. Involve them as often as possible. Know whose advice to ignore, know whom to appease, know whom to give face time — know what you need to know to get your job done while maintaining your own integrity. Design by committee sounds great on paper, and is a great tool by which to override over-assertive, less experienced higher-ups, but it is by no means a tool by which to create the best product. You were hired because the current employees, those giving you advice and direction, are not UI/UX designers.

    5.) Likewise, find another designer-mentor with whom to consult. Especially if you're the only designer at your startup. There's skill and much to learn from others' experience, and those experienced individuals are more often than not absent at startups by virtue of either having better employment, or expecting pay proportionate to experience that many startups are unable to offer.

    Good luck! Keep your own projects. Don't settle.

    1 point
  • Derrick GrantDerrick Grant, over 8 years ago (edited over 8 years ago )

    Ok Charlie this is a biggie, 1. Try getting input from the people that veto your work BEFORE you start your design process. There are lots of ways you can do this the best being (IMHO) a design sprint


    1. If you can't get all those folk in a room ask them separately to name 3 objectives in (priority order) per page/screen of your design. They cant have more than 3 and if there are conflicts those people must iron out the differences.

    This is your brief! Use it to guide your team through your results explaining how you intend to meet those goals through your design decisions. (also Don't forget A/B testing if you have enough users to make it statistically relevant)

    1. A lot of the time people suggest design solutions without actually tackling the problem. Always try and rationalise if the amend actually fixes the problem at hand and if there could be better solutions. Google 'The 5 whys' its a great technique to get to the core of someones thinking.

    2. Start ups are fast you'll never be 100% happy with your solutions but as mentioned this is an iterative process you should be able to make improvements in time.

    Its also really important to make founders and product managers prioritise parts of the build. The important features (probably the ones people use/see the most) must have more R&D as they represent your products value.

    'Don’t mistake speed for precocity: the world doesn’t need wrong answers in record time. –Cennydd Bowles' http://blog.heyimcat.com/its-called-ship-not-shit

    Hope this helps

    1 point
  • Matthew Williams, over 8 years ago

    Check out Randy Hunt's book "Product Design for the Web": http://www.amazon.com/Product-Design-Web-Principles-Designing/dp/0321929039

    A lot of good principles and foundations for design within a startup.

    1 point
  • Cosmin NegoitaCosmin Negoita, over 8 years ago

    I think that your boss/founder have to understand the importance of design. Rushing to design something could seriously affect his business.

    You should simply tell them that. If they don't listen, just keep doing what they ask for. It sucks when you release work you are not happy with, but I don't think there's more you can do.

    Maybe take decisions faster? Trust your gut feeling. Good luck!

    1 point
  • Mal SMal S, over 8 years ago

    Sometime with business goals and crunchy deadlines that often take priority over good designs, introducing MDP (minimum delightful product) helps me feel connected as to why it's important to add delights in to the experience, our test subject are people too weather it's 1 or 100. http://www.startupblender.com/minimum-viable-product-vs-minimum-delightful-product/

    0 points
  • anthony thomasanthony thomas, over 8 years ago

    You gave us the context, but you didn't give us a specific question. Even your ask for suggestions wasn't specific. The onus is on you the asker to be clear and specific.

    The first thing I would suggest to you is to learn to be specific about things you want. This is something you should also apply when making comments about designs or talking to your boss.

    0 points
  • Darth BaneDarth Bane, over 8 years ago (edited over 8 years ago )

    I've been in this exact position many times. The startup world is a different beast to the corporate world where every role is defined to exact boundaries and every deadline is carefully projected.

    Here is my advice:

    For most people: design = aesthetics, and: good design = subjective. There is very little you can do about this.

    I spent a year at one place being very frustrated at the constant "suggestions" (do this instead), until I conceded defeat and instead started to just do whatever the people around me suggested. Eventually the founders caught on to the fact that I was wasting time trying ideas that weren't my own, and I was given more slack.

    Because most people think design is art (and therefore subjective), there are many quasi-experts in this field with a billion awful ideas. The trick is to listen to these awful ideas and come up with your own solution to them.

    This industry is fast-paced. You'll struggle finding a place that can afford going through iterations and doing proper user-testing before the design phase starts. This is one of those things you'll become better at over time: eventually you'll be a lean machine looking for the quickest route from A to B.

    If I'm rushed into design, I always stipulate that they can't put my name on it. I will not allow anyone to diminish my work just because they can't plan properly. This is a good way to let your founders know what's at stake. Would they release a rushed half-arsed product and put their names on it?

    0 points