Things I learned as Designer in Tech
As a brief introduction, I have been working in technology as designer for almost 9 years. I have been able to work in interesting projects, travel to interesting places and meet amazing professionals. At this point of my journey, I would like to look back and share some learned lessons I would have loved to hear when I started my career.
You are a problem solver first
Even if your career goal as designer is to work in a very specific field of the tech industry, keep in mind that your work is to solve problems. I started as a Graphic Designer, and I know how easy is to get distracted by the visual aspect of a product. The reality is that if your product does not address your user’s needs, they will care little about how well aligned your icons are.
Do not be a slave of the process, learn from it
Over the last years I had the opportunity to work under a variety of methodologies, from cascade to scrum, from sprints to pitches. During this time I have realized that organizations tend to be dogmatic about their processes for an understandable reason; it works “well enough” most of the times. However, these processes also could turn into constraints for the capabilities of the organizations and their teams to innovate, and that is dangerous if you are a designer. I personally think there are still a lot of things that could work better, specially between Design and Development, but I learned that you cannot reinvent the wheel every time you see something is not working well. Learn how to do something following a process, understand its principles, identify opportunities, make changes and measure them.
Your Figma/Sketch file organization matters, but the codebase is way more important
There is an insane amount of content outside about “How to create complex components structures in Figma or Sketch”, and even when it is important to keep your own work well organized, all that does not really matter. Your file is not connected to the codebase, therefore its value is limited. Your product is your codebase, so do not be afraid to explore it and learn from its structure. A lot of the issues in the process of handing off a solution from Design to Development can be avoided if there is a good alignment in workflows, driven by the way code is structured.
Don’t limit yourself to a tool
I started my career designing in Photoshop. It was painful. Then I transitioned to Sketch and now I use Figma. Over time, tools have become easier to use, and help us to make design work faster, but if the quality of your design work relies on the knowledge to use only one tool, something is not going well. In my opinion, good design can be done even in a piece of paper. Having that in mind helps to put into perspective the function of any tool, and the importance of keeping your workflow flexible enough to take advantage of a the variety of tools you can find in the market.
Validate assumptions all the time.
Let me share a harsh truth: Whatever you design in your Figma is NOT real. You are just designing an assumption. A guess about a solution that might help the user or not. The big challenge is how to reduce the cost of being wrong. A wireframe can be adjusted in minutes, a designed component could take hours, but a developed feature could take weeks. This is the reason why validating assumptions all the time is quite important. Most of these times your assumptions will be wrong, and that’s fine, because what matters is how fast you can learn, iterate and improve. Don’t try to be right all the time, try to learn fast instead.
You do not need to invent every interaction from scratch
When you are addressing a user need, you also need to consider the user’s knowledge. For example, if you are designing a productivity tool for professionals already familiar with other tools like Asana or Monday, you will reduce barriers if you give them interactions that they are familiar with, like the way to schedule a task, or assign owners. In the other hand if you are designing a product for young people, they are probably already familiar with recent interactions like the ones they can find in TikTok or Instagram. You don’t need to create everything from scratch because you will be forcing the user to learn something new from scratch as well. Be pragmatic.
Understand the purpose of a Design System
I always like to illustrate this advice as an analogy. Think of your product as a building. It is a complex, interactive, and evolving structure, composed by multiple interconnected parts that serve a purpose for a user. That whole structure is your Design System, and you want that structure to be able to grow properly, to be consistent, to have it under certain control and provide the best user experience. That is its purpose. Your beautiful arrangement in your Figma file is only a document. It is the building plan, valuable, but just a tool for communication purposes. Be sure your focus is always on taking care of your product structure rather than your documentation.
Take advantage of your teammates knowledge and creativity
This one took me a while to truly understand it, and I did it when I was in a lead position as Product Manager and Product Designer at the same time. Receiving multiple inputs from multiples perspectives helps a lot in order to achieve the best solution. Trust in your teammates. Interact with them keeping in mind that they are probably more creative and smarter than you, and have experiences that you do not have. This mindset helps to understand your role as someone who takes advantage of these different perspectives in favor of your product. You don’t need to have all the answers, but you could get them by asking the right questions.
You can be a quarterback for you team
Related to the previous one, I have noticed the key role a designer could play if works as a good team player. Your team trust that you, as a designer, are exploring the right path, that your assumptions will lead to success, and you are also trusting that they will be able to execute it right. If that trust doesn’t exist, your team will not be able to score. Remember, building a product is a team work.
Work with an engineering mindset
Over the last years I have learned to appreciate and admire engineering work to the point that I regret not being able to pursuit that path when I was younger. One of the things I admire the most is their pragmatic mindset regarding problem solving, and that is something you should learn as designer. Explore, execute, learn and improve. This is a simple iteration cycle you should master in the most pragmatic way possible.
Communication and empathy matters a lot
I guess this is a general advice regardless of the discipline. Never underestimate the power of communication and empathy. Be a good team member, make an effort understand the needs and struggles of the person next to you, because empathy is the foundation for an efficient communication. Organizations sometimes do not put enough emphasis in cultivate empathy, and that costs money. A not-well-communicated feature might have as a consequence unexpected bugs that increase the developing cost, without mention that a healthy environment will attract the best talent and will keep everybody motivated.
Everything is about patterns
Design acquired a new meaning for me when I started studying what happened decades ago in Xerox PARC. In my opinion, the GUI is one of the best design exercises I have seen until this day. Using daily life analogies to reduce the learning curve of complex technology is brilliant, and they did it through the experimentation of patterns. Our brain is a beautiful machine that loves patterns. Patterns save efforts because help processing information faster, they work as a very useful shortcuts and that is the foundation for a good user experience.
Design sometimes can be a rabbit hole when you jump to early to work in the details. Never lose sight of the big picture, and the best way to do it, it is thinking about a solution as something that should earn fidelity over time. First focus on the problem to solve, then on the different aspects of that solution, and then on the specific features. If none of those things are well define at the right time, work on the specific use cases could be a waste of time. And even when working on these specifics, it is always a good exercise to continue asking the same questions you asked to your team at the beginning of the design process. “What problem are we solving here? Is our solution actually solving it?”. Never stop asking those questions.
You are paid by a company to generate value
This is a survival advice. At the end of the day, you are paid by an organization to generate value, which in most of the cases means how you work will generate money to the organization. Sometimes we face situations when the business perspective becomes a valuable input to define a solution. The final users are always the priority, but there are more stakeholders to keep in mind. Just a disclaimer, this does not mean you need to sacrifice your principles in case you feel the organization is forcing you to do things you are against. This industry needs professional with strong ethics.
Learn from everything
Some years ago I made the mistake to be put 100% of my focus into my career, I forced myself to forget about my hobbies and social interactions, but that only got me sick. After recovering, I tried to reconnect with my old interests; music, painting, soccer, among others. Even though initially my only intention was to remain healthy, soon I discovered how all those different experiences, playing in a team, producing music, creating art, were helping me to apply new things to my design work. Everything is connected. As more things you are able to learn, you will increase your capabilities to look at a problem and a solution from different perspectives.
Do not disconnect from the world
The world sometimes feels to move at a differently pace outside our small tech bubbles, and that should matter to us because we are designing solutions for that world. Don’t disconnect from it. Be conscious about the real problems to solve, learn from them, generate empathy and explore solutions. I still believe that we can generate a positive impact in the world if we make an effort to understand it.
Design with a purpose
Finally, as every professional, in some point of your career you will start questioning the meaning of your craft, or “why do I design?”. I think is important to have an answer to this question because there is no better motivation than finding a purpose to your work. In my case, I always look for improving people’s lives with the things I can create. This works for me as a north star that help me to make decisions when an opportunities touches my door. In most of the cases, choosing the right opportunities is what determinates how far you will get in you career. Chose wisely.