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How are product designers valued in tech startups?

I put together this list for my design mentees by reverse engineering multiple job descriptions and


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Dhananjay Garg

3 years ago | 6 min read

Covid-19 has hit some tech professionals really hard. But fortunately, the hiring market is picking up. I am fortunate to be in a place where I can actively contribute to mentoring Junior, Senior-level designers and hiring design talents who I can call my teammates.

I put together this list for my design mentees by reverse engineering multiple job descriptions and combining it with good feedback from designers managers trying to meet the design bar at their respective organizations.

Hands-On Skills

1. Visual design skills:

If you are applying for a product designer, UI/UX, or a visual designer role, then creating strong visual design concepts that are functional yet aesthetically pleasing is an asset that most companies value at this time.

1.1 This always includes some basic Editorial design knowledge to applying typography, building layouts/visual hierarchy, and the use of color. Any good visual designer is expected to play around with the brand colors to create visually appealing combinations and use typography basics to manage visual hierarchy.

1.2 Icon grids: You should have the ability to support yourself and your projects with the knowledge of creating your own icons. Iconography is an essential skill in product design because it is unrealistic to hire an icon-designer for fast-paced projects in startups.

2. Designing end-to-end experiences:

When you are part of an agile product team, you must think about the user’s product experiences end-to-end. This is different from the pet-project that design-course-students are used to.

Understanding user needs and hands-on skills for translating those into product design decisions is something designers should be very comfortable with. It would be best to empathize with the whole user context — user start point, emotional state, tasks to perform, and the journey to get there. A designer should also have the ability to identify a problem and have a process/framework to solve it with a designed solution.

3. Designing for iterations:

It is straightforward to design an ideal experience but can be quite challenging to design a solution that goes well with the current architectural constraints with stepped iterations planned for various release cycles and development sprints.

Designing for iterations requires designers to be cognizant of when to compromise and think through tough designers that can affect both the business and the user.

4. Knowledge & knack for keeping up with the platform design guidelines:

Platform interface guidelines for iOS, Android, and Windows keep getting better. They cover a wide range of edge cases and how those scenarios should be handled from both the development and design sides. Keeping up with these guidelines is a no brainer if you are actively looking at designing mobile interfaces.

But even for designers concentrating on service design or web-based interfaces, learning all about things like breakpoints for responsive web design is a must-have.

5. Working with and contributing to the design systems:

Product managers and feature owners are often looking for designers who can join their teams and apply the existing platform style guides to keep the experience, look, feel and brand familiar and consistent between platforms.

With the rampant use of design systems in all major tech startups, a new designer is expected to get the ball rolling with the first month of joining. Here’s an example from Airbnb that teaches you about design libraries and setting up a whole design system.

5.1 You should know when to design something new and when to respect the platform conventions. This means you should be making use of the design systems and contribute new additions to it actively.

5.2 Writing a design spec and documenting your design decisions in written form helps visualize your designs, clearly understandable by anyone on the team. Check out a sample design spec.

6. Prototyping and idea communication:

Having the ability to prototype is tightly coupled with presenting ideas to your team or even a large group of individuals. There is no shortage of prototyping and presentation tools available in today’s world — both paid and free.

Prototyping will clear up your thoughts, get used to transitions/animations, different states, and force you to think about how user journeys should be crafted for all listed and non-listed scenarios. While confidently presenting ideas will help you become a better storyteller and teach you tricks to engage your audience with simple slides and powerful words.

7. Working with UX Copy:

During the beginning stages, every startup expects product managers and designers to provide clear, concise copies for various application screens. This often induces empathy for the importance of copywriters in today’s tech world.

You will learn the worth of UX copy and how it gets applied. Once you have the UX copyrighted onboard, it is expected to work with them in the design, and the user needs direction, allowing the company to reach its goal.

8. Marketing and illustrations:

Basic knowledge of the use of illustrations, experience working with the marketing team, and design work is something that you should not shy away from during your early workdays. Working with the marketing design will teach you about branding, web design, sales target markups, and how to market your product or even an important feature.

8.1 Creating an online portfolio is like creating a website that markets itself. Learning how to write a case study is an important part of it.

9. Familiarity with user research practices:

Creating interview scripts, scheduling usability calls, conducting usability tests, filtering out needs, turning interview recordings into insights and design solutions are all valuable skills to have for a product designer. There is no reason for you not to make the research part of your routine design work.

10. Dig deep into accessibility frameworks:

Accessibility is the biggest reason for hefty law suites in the tech-world. It is a must for most consumer-based companies as well as enterprise products. As a design, the following accessibility guidelines will teach you about using colors with contrast ratios and understand how people navigate a product using keyboard shortcuts and screen readers.

Get started by learning about Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. Install an accessibility assistant on Sketch.

11. Give constructive feedback:

Giving specific, productive, and empathetic feedback is an art that every designer should learn. Cultivating this skill will make you a better people manager and a respected leader. Get started if you are new to feedbacks with http://howtocrit.com.

Soft Skills

Be kind, thoughtful, communicative, and show empathy.

  1. Helping others and finding solutions: Having a solution mindset is more valued than finding problems. The only way you will ever succeed at moving things forward is when you can help others succeed at their jobs, make their work easier, and come up with solutions.
  2. Obsess over details in everything you do: Visualize your users enjoying each detail you have painstakingly put together in the product. There is no better joy to a designer than seeing users happy using your designed solutions.

Bonus

Always take the time to understand the basics of other disciplines in the field.

  1. Contribute to product roadmaps: Oftentimes, product managers would greatly benefit from someone who can bring in some design perspective when looking a year or two forward into building a new set of features or even deciding which ones to tweak further. The ability to contribute to building powerful roadmaps is not an essential factor. Still, if you can showcase this skill in your work, it can pivot a company’s vision forward.
  2. Front-end coding and versioning: Being a product designer means you will often be working with the engineering teams, and you will need to work with them thru’ the logic of building your designs. Having some experience and knowledge of front-end programming/versioning languages like HTML, CSS (markup), JS, Github will give you an upper hand in empathizing with the developers and moving your idea forward.
  3. Being a leader: For some, being a leader comes naturally, while for others, it might take a whole lot of time to get used to working and communicating with different teams, following up on tasks, guiding them to end-goals, setting deadlines, encouraging them, supporting their ideas, moving forward as a team and leading large scale projects.
    Additionally, as an individual contributor and a design leader, you are expected to prioritize your own work and communicate your design reasonings/decisions clearly and concisely.
  4. Having a few pet projects: Engaging in pet projects teaches a designer to hustle, learn new skillsets, and think not just about design but also the business aspect. If you decide to work on a pet project that involves more than just you, that will teach you people management skills, which is critical if you want to become a people manager someday.

End Notes

It is understandable to look at the list above and think that it’s a tall order to have in one’s bag. Hiring managers having a big list of expectations means that these are critical business needs and that there are, in fact, individuals in today’s world who have most of the skillsets mentioned above. But they didn’t learn those in a day or two. It took them time to sharpen their craft and learn from their failures one day after another. It might seem daunting, but as a designer, I am positive that you will get there.

I will prepare, and someday, my chance will come.
Abraham Lincoln

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