Being a startup’s first product designer

There are few things more tantalizing than taking the reins at a growing startup in Silicon Valley as the first Product Designer. The entire visual and interactive experience is in your hands, and everything a user sees and does happens through the filter of your work. Product design is more important now than ever, so it has become a huge responsibility. Bad design and user experience can sink a small company just as fast as bad engineering, but great design can be the hallmark of a good product.

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the last month and a half here at Kicksend as Product Designer. It’s been so much more intense than I could have imagined, and I’ve learned a lot about how working in a startup differs from leading a consulting team. These are a few of those things that stand out the most.

1. You are the creative product culture lead.

Just as important as good product design is good design culture. What does that mean exactly? It’s a way of thinking about product (and, I suppose, the world in general) with awareness of how things are designed, what about them constitutes good or bad design, and how it could be improved. It’s all subjective, and you don’t have to be ‘right’ – you don’t even need to be a designer or a ‘visual person.’ Engineers, biz ops, marketing, and whoever else on your small team should be thinking about design. If your team can get into the habit of noting usability and aesthetic problems (or successes) when critiquing another company’s product, they’ll be much more helpful when you ask them for critique on the work you’re doing with them. As the first designer, you can’t benefit from a strong team critique structure, so take advantage of  your great team by sharing your knowledge and passion for design, and ability to discern good design from bad design when observing the world around you.

Most small startups and early-stage companies are still figuring out the nuances of their culture. Company culture can’t be forced – it has to be discovered. It’s defined by the way product, business goals, and the team work together. If you exude design from the get-go, it will be forever ingrained in the company’s fundamental values and culture.

For example, I talk about design incessantly. Ask anyone on my team, ask my girlfriend, my parents, strangers… I just can’t seem to shut up about it. I see the world through this lens that makes badly set type literally impossible for me to read, and I instantly ragequit anything with bad usability. I can’t even use certain mobile OSes because the confirmation dialogues won’t make up their minds about which side the confirm button will be on.

I also bring design into the office…

(Amperbranch by Ryan Putnam and Ropersand print by Rogie)

(My baby baby grand)

Posters lying on the floor waiting to be hung. Can you believe we don’t have nails in our office?

Posters and letterpress prints aren’t the lynchpin to design culture success, but it gets me excited about design. By extension, it gets everyone else excited about design or, at least, exposed to it constantly. Culture is contagious… you just gotta start the fever.

2. Take religious and verbose notes before you dig too deep into the trenches.

This is something I wish I had done more of. For the first 72 hours you’re part of a new product team, write down everything. Think about how it works, what’s wrong with it, what stands out in a good or bad way, what you think the product can do for you, etc. The ‘newbie’ perspective is something you can never get back, and it’ll give Future You some great insight into how a new user feels stepping into your product for the first time. Think of it as doing user testing on someone with a great design vocabulary.

On my first day, I walked into the office and said “No one wants to send photos. No one wants to use Kicksend” and it’s the most valuable observation I could have ever made. It informs most of my design decisions, because I know people (especially our market of Average Joes and soccer moms) are adverse to using software. Their goal is for Grandma and Aunt Sue to see their vacation photos or Timmy’s first steps. How can I design Kicksend to help people achieve that goal? As we iterate on our product, you’re going to see it get more and more out of the way. There’s nothing revolutionary or shocking about that approach, but it’s informed by experience and observation, not jargon.

After your first week, present your notes and feelings to the team. It’ll give everyone a fresh perspective on something they’ve been looking at under a magnifying glass for (possibly) months or even years. Fresh perspective is crucial for any product to stay relevant and keep improving… ask any startup founder.

3. Never stop learning. You don’t know as much as you think.

Coming from a more traditional role as a design consultant, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how software / product design worked. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I was pretty much completely wrong about that.

Rarely as a consultant did I ever have to ‘clean up’ an existing product, and I never had to stick around after the first release to maintain, iterate, and bugfix. Stepping into an existing product with thousands of manhours and four passionate engineers behind it is an entirely different experience. At first, it’s almost impossible to make sweeping design changes. In the first week, I felt paralyzed by it. As I eased in, I learned the ins and outs of Kicksend for iPhone, then ‘realized’ there was a webapp, Android app, Mac app, and an Air app for Windows. O M G.

It was overwhelming, and even today I’ve only made headway on three of those five. Even on those I’ve only scratched the surface but fortunately Brendan, one of our co-founders, has always held high design standards, and Mike Kus has done some great consulting work for Kicksend before I got here. If you’re used to a fast workflow through consulting or freelancing projects prepare to slow waaay down, while working faster and more intensely than ever before. That’s not to say I sit at my desk twiddling my thumbs, however. I spend 90% of my time on product, and the rest…

4. Wear many hats.

My business card says “Product Designer” only because “Design ALL THE THINGS” wouldn’t fit. I’ve helped with iOS, Android, and Mac App icon design, created marketing collateral, business cards, landing pages, giveaways… the list goes on.

I expected (and desired) these responsibilities upon joining the team, but the workload adds up. Make sure you know where to draw the line, how to design for re-use, and always work smart, not hard. When the design team grows from guy-in-the-corner to Design Team, you’ll have the insight and experience to lead others effectively.

So that’s it. I’m still learning, failing, iterating, and insert-important-sounding-gerunds-here-ing at Kicksend. I’ll keep you updated.


  • Reply July 12, 2012

    Winnie Lim

    Great post, thanks for sharing. I want to +1 this:

    “Coming from a more traditional role as a design consultant, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how software / product design worked. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I was pretty much completely wrong about that.”

    Having a decade of design experience behind me did not prepare me for the rollercoaster ride I am having as a product designer. What a blast. 😉

  • Reply July 12, 2012

    Jeff Sizzle

    Cool. I come from the other side (software engineer). I’d like to learn more about design. What websites/tutorials do you recommend?

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  • Reply July 27, 2012

    Antti Eronen

    As a CEO and having very recently hired our first actual designer-of-everything, I must say reading your article gave me great insight into what it must feel like to start work at a small team where you have to first make your way through existing design (and sometimes, the lack of it). The laws of nature seem to abide also with Finnish startups, not just Silicon Valley 😉

  • Reply March 22, 2013

    I like your blog very much and gained a lot of knowledge from here. I am totally with you that product design is more important now than ever as it can turn a great invention into a real product that make a profit from it.

  • Reply September 14, 2013

    Mark Penver (@mpenver)

    Things I’d do to be a product designer at a start up company…

    Shame that Google only targets blogs and bad recruitment sites when I search it.

    Good article by the way!

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