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Becoming a product designer from scratch

Chiu-hsuan Huang

04 February 2021


“I want to be a product designer.”

This probably resonates with a lot of people — people who have worked in the software or design industries for years and long to shift their path, who studied for a design degree and are about to start a career, or who have no relevant experience but are fascinated by the idea of solving real-life problems by building something tangible and usable. I was no exception. I said it to myself so many times, even though I was an art school student with no product design experience. I took a stab at exploring this career, and landed a design internship at Beamery. When I arrived, I told my manager: “I want to be a product designer.”

“Sure,” he said back to me, as chill as he always is, “we will help you to get there.”

I didn’t expect it would be as easy as he made it sound, but then it actually all happened. After some time on the design team, I started working on building our current website and small product enhancement workstreams. A few months later, I transitioned to one of our product delivery teams as the sole designer, owning our sourcing and reporting products.

When you describe it that way, it sounds like the smoothest transition in the world, but looking back, I now know I was totally wrong. The “I want to be a product designer” conversation was easy. But the rest was not. The conversation was just a short prologue to a series of stories. Stories about massive amounts of learning. Stories about facing the unexpected. Stories about self-doubts. And stories about conquest and fulfillment.

And that’s how I learned to become a product designer. I struggled, I fell, I stood up, and then I continued.

A Newbie’s Anxiety

Being the only designer in the team means that you are expected to be the expert of your subject matter. However, in my first few weeks, it felt like a disaster. I still remember the first few meetings I had with my product team. “I just merged this PR”, “we got a new P1 ticket”, “I was working on the Kafka consumer”, “we should include this in TestRail”, “I need someone to help me add a new entry point”, “hotfix”, “canary”, “regression testing”, “acceptance criteria”, “refinement” and more and more technical acronyms and software development terms quickly flooded over me — I had no idea what they were! I thought I should write them down so I could ask some questions, but it was even harder to figure out where to start. “Is this what a product designer should be dealing with every day?” I asked myself. I felt overwhelmed and unprepared.

Walking out of the meeting room, I looked at the other designers, who also just finished their meetings with their teams. They were all more experienced than I was, but we all have the same responsibilities: owning the design for a specific product area and the end-to-end process. And then I looked around at the people on the same team as me — not surprisingly, most of them were more senior. I couldn’t help but wonder — “Am I good enough to be here?”

A year later, I am still in the same position, working with the same group of people and owning the same products. But I know things are different now — I am much more comfortable with my day-to-day work, my skills have matured, and I have a closer relationship with my team.

How did this happen? Having gone through many rounds of trial and error, I’ve figured out four important things:

  • Always ask why

Always ask why

When you’re just starting, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and uncertain about things. However, I’ve come to realize the fastest way to unlock the unknowns and navigate things is to use this magic word: why. “Why are we having this meeting?” or “How do we determine the priorities — and why does this matter?”

Asking why is also the easiest way for you and your team to reveal assumptions that are no longer valid. It is easy to take the existing process and ways of working for granted, and not actually evaluate the efficiencies, effectiveness, and how much what you are doing actually matters. In this case, “why” is like a powerful Reset button that helps you take a step back and refresh your thinking.

The same logic applies when you are working on designs on your own. Use it to challenge your work and refine your thinking. Keep asking “why” questions until you have built up a solid case for your design decisions. For example, if you are working on a list design, ask “Why do we need a list? Why must it be a list specifically? Why does the user need to see these options? Why…?”

Learn strategically

There are many reasons why a designer should always be learning. To me, the biggest motivation is to grow my skills, and also to equip myself with the right knowledge to execute properly and confidently. However, in an era of information explosion, it is so easy to be overwhelmed by the massive amount of industry news, design articles, and courses that can be easily found. Learning is a constant process, but to invest my time and effort more efficiently, I had to find out what made a learning path right for me. Here is how I would summarize the two common traits between all my most impactful learning investments:

  • Catered to your (most urgent) current needs: Find out what you are good at and not so good at, what you are interested in, what you aspire in your career. To grow your interest or fill in your gaps, what would you need? You might find that you want to learn 10 things at the same time. But don’t rush! Prioritize the one which could give you the most impact on your current work, but which also aligns with one of your long-term goals. In her article, The Beginning of your Design Career, former Facebook VP Product Julie Zhou provides a pathway for designers who would like to progress in their career which I have found very insightful: “In the beginning, just focus on improving your craft and execution skills. After that, focus on improving your product thinking. Finally, work on your influencing skills.”

Learning can be very lonely sometimes. Share what you have learned with your team. You will likely end up engaging with people who have experience in, or are also interested in, the same topic, and inspire conversations around the subject matter, which will enrich your understanding and views.

Build relationships with your team

Working in a team has always been the most challenging and the most fascinating part of my job. Before starting my career, I studied in two different art schools for 4 years. Most of the time there, I was working independently on self-initiated projects. I didn’t need to follow a particular process, and didn’t need buy-in from anyone in order to obtain resources or change the direction of my work.

When you are part of a product delivery team, your work has to align with it. Understand well the rationale behind the team objectives, processes and rituals, and make good use of them. Spotted some inefficiencies in the delivery process? Raise it in the retrospective and discuss it with the team. Hesitant with some design decisions because you need to understand more about the feasibility? Schedule a session with the engineers — you may be surprised how generous people are with their time and their expertise (especially when it may help prevent future headaches!) Building a great team is a shared responsibility. It is never wrong to be an active member who constantly strives to improve the team’s processes, autonomy and wellbeing. Improve the team, reinforce the positives, and celebrate the successes together!

When I first joined my team, I tried to understand everyone by their job titles: Product Manager, Front-end Engineer, Back-end Engineer, Full-stack Engineer, QA Engineer, Tech Lead… As my relationship with my team nurtured, I have viewed them differently: a versatile cook with two cats (one of which is particularly fat and the other is particularly thin), a talented baker with the aspiration to open an Airbnb in the heart of nature in Romania, another cat-lover living at the seaside who is also a master of Iranian roasted meat… Over time, I realized that they are no different from me — we are all human.

In the book “Inspired”, Marty Cagan writes that strong relationships are a fundamental element of a strong team. This is not only because of the business outcomes yielded by the relationships, but also because through developing personal relationships it becomes easier for the team to challenge and support each other both personally and professionally. (I’ve found this especially important during our terrible London lockdown!) Try to genuinely understand your team members on a personal level, be a nice person, and proactively support their needs. Ultimately, your team’s success and happiness is your success.

Own your growth

No one is responsible for your career — except for you. You might be lucky and have a good manager who is a fantastic coach. But even so, they would never have as much visibility into your work as you do, nor feel your needs as strongly as you do. You are the person who has full control.

To start owning your growth, think first about where you want to be in one year, and then in five years, and what will have to be true to get there. Next, think about what your strengths and weaknesses are. (If it is hard, then treat yourself like a user and ask yourself “what is your favorite and least favourite part of your work?” and then “what is the easiest and hardest thing for you at work?”) Identify what the gap between you and your goals is, and then you can create a plan based upon filling that gap.

If your company has a progression framework or skill assessment for performance review, take advantage of the existing framework to understand which skill level you are at, and which career path you might be interested in. As company-wide frameworks are usually designed to cover a broad spectrum of employee needs, they could be written in a way that might seem too generic for personal goals. Break the big principles and directions into small chunks of goals, and make a plan that caters to your specific needs.

Once you have a rough idea, remember to ask your manager for advice: “I want to improve my skills at X, and my idea is Y. Can I show you my thought process and get your advice?” If you are not sure what your gap actually is, just simply ask: “I often find myself less confident when I do X and I want to change that. Do you have any advice that can help me get better at it?” Being honest and transparent — with your manager and with yourself — is key. After all, your growth is in your manager’s best interest. Use their experience and knowledge to help you refine your thinking, and make sure that your goals are realistic, that you are focusing on the most important things at your current stage, and that your action plan makes sense.

The journey continues

Being a product designer is certainly more challenging than I expected, but the sense of accomplishment I have gained along the way has helped confirm to me that I have made the right decision. The journey still continues; I am still learning and I am still making mistakes — countless mistakes! But at the end of the day, I know I will appreciate how much these mistakes and lessons learned have helped me become a better designer, and a better person.

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