Lessons from leading UX design at a seed-stage startup

Credit to Tim Gouw from Unsplash

I joined HireBeat in May 2020 as their first product designer. Joining a seed-stage company has been quite a challenging journey for me since I’m a new grad student with little industry experience. Life here was like a rollercoaster ride full of changes, mistakes, failures, successes, wins, and of course, learnings. Here are some takeaways and observations that I’ve gained from working in a startup.

Reflections of my 6 months experience ✍🏼

Making things look good and work well is not enough. The most crucial part of the design is creating a successful business.

In school, my UX checklist would normally look like this:

✅Design must be visually pleasing and create delightful experiences.

✅Design must help users accomplish the desired task.

After working with the startup, there’s one thing I added to it:

✅Design must help the company meet its business goal.

At an early-stage startup, where every moment is a fight for survival, you will be constantly bombarded with problems with prioritization. Sometimes you will be in situations where you must sacrifice the visuals or less-important functionality. Many great ideas end up becoming nothing due to little time and resources. That’s why it’s important for the designer to have business thinking, to keep in mind the immediate business needs and goals.

Being the first designer at an early-stage startup means I have a large amount of freedom. I can own everything design, from product to branding (I even refined the logo). But freedom always coming up with responsibilities. You should never wait to be told what you need to do. Instead, if you see something that you feel you can improve and it meets the business goals or improves the experience, talk to the CEO and other team and add to the plan.

Don’t be afraid of having less right to speak because of your experience level. At first, I felt scared when my CEO doesn’t like my design, however, I found most of the time you do have rational reasons to support your opinion. Believe you are the expert in design especially when you are the only one or two designers in the team. You need to be bold to stand out at the right point.

In a fast-growing environment, everything is unstable. Expect company vision, the rest- features, designs, everything can have a big change. I’m the person who prefers to plan things ahead. It bothers me way too much but I know I have to get used to it.

Tips for designing at a startup💡

As the lead designer (in a design team of 2) with good visual skills, I’m often praised by team members without any design background. For a junior designer, it’s so easy to feel accomplishment and achievement, but it’s much more important to think more about “what works” instead of “what will be liked”.

Don’t push yourself too hard. Pixel perfect isn’t bad but you need to make a compromise to the timeline. Startups often have strict product launching dates. At some point you must let it go, knowing that there will be subsequent iterations and releases for improving imperfections. Iteration is always on-going!

Communication is the key to a startup where team members have closer relationships. Remember to document decisions, processes, ideas, findings — everything that is useful, in case of letting anyone behind the update.

Product and UX Designer. A graduate student from Pratt Information Experience Design.