From client-service to startup

December 8th, 2016

Up until May 2015, I had always worked in some form of the client-service model, offering design-related services to anyone from sports teams to the largest corporations in the world. I had spent the first 12 years working, for the most part, in a freelance/contract capacity in the Advertising and Digital Marketing (Creative) industry. But in 2013, I decided to take a full-time offering as I wanted to be more immersed in projects, take ownership and form a closer bond with a team.

After 14 years of client-service, I wanted something different, something that got me closer to the users of products. In client-service, the client is usually a proxy to the user, which made it difficult to understand their needs at the level required to design great products. I was also bored and fairly sure that I wanted to start a product company of my own at some point.

Wanting to learn the inner workings of startups, I took the position of Product Design Lead at a Fintech startup with the additional goal of doing something I hadn't seen very much of at the time - make a financial services product an enjoyable experience to use.

Given my background and the support I had (i.e., Account Managers) or having worked solo, I assumed that everyone's knowledge of the "Design Process" was a given and that this would be like any other project I'd worked on before, just longer. Immerse myself in the business and get to know it inside and out, review any data that was available, audit the current offering to see what was working and what wasn't, and start producing a story map, some interaction models, and wireframes.

In hindsight, it sounds so obviously wrong as to be absurd to think this, but it was at least six months before I became aware that I even had these assumptions — something about a forest and some trees should probably go here. It was at this point that I was trying to understand why I was so frustrated working there. I'd never even considered what I'd been doing for so many years as something that required much explanation to others, and that I even had a "Design Process" (let alone formally document it). So, of course, it makes sense now that it shouldn't be a given.

It was at this point that I was explaining my dilemma to a friend I had previously worked with and he summed it up perfectly - I was a fish out of water. My way of working had been so engrained that trying to explain a "Design Process" was like trying to explain how to breathe.

As with many startups (from what I've read), this one was developer-led, and the development team had their problems trying to form a process that worked for them. Requirements would usually go directly from the business to the development team. Not recognising that I even had a Design Process until it was too late to "rock the boat" enough to get it into the mix, it was tough to make a positive impact on the product, from a UX perspective. To be honest, I had taken up a defeatist attitude at that point and didn't particularly want to push as hard as I needed to have a Design Process be part of a holistic product development process (more on that concept in another post).

From a Product Design perspective, that just left me ensuring there was some thinking that went into anything put in front of users that didn't violate basic usability rules. Not the least bit challenged, or interested, I was ready to leave when we decided to pivot. Oooooooh, a Pivot! Seriously, though, I was here to learn about startups, so I saw this as a great learning opportunity.

Not being able to influence the UX in a way that I wanted to, I took this as an opportunity to influence the CX (Customer Experience) side of the business. The differences being subtle (in my opinion), this was a chance to add the tooling necessary for me to create an enjoyable experience for users, outside of what the development team built. Mostly in the form of chat, email, and analytics.

For the last nine months, my role was more of a Product Manager/Customer Success Manager. I went on an event tracking rampage, adding Segment tracking calls for almost everything in the new app. Completely obsessed with all of this, I integrated Intercom for customer engagement and support, Mixpanel for funnel tracking and segmentation, and a plethora of other tools that gave us great insights into what users were doing – a level of understanding we never had before. Adding all of this gave life to an entirely new way of approaching how we handled the Customer Experience and gave us the data to support suggested changes to the product.

This change and the abilities it afforded us is what I'm most proud of during my time there. I put us in a position to be able to ditch a very expensive CRM, use data to make decisions and answer intelligent questions, be more informed about what was happening and when with regards to the product, and empower others to uncover new insights. I can now do the same things for many other startups as a new service offering.

Reflecting on my experience, I learned a lot. My design skills were not improved at all (which I expected), but I learned how (and how not) to do my work in an entirely new setting. The importance of explaining to others your process and how you work is critical if you want them to see value in what you do. I also realise the need to improve my ability to recognise problems earlier and find ways to get unstuck.

Some learnings that might also be useful to others in a similar position or even to startups looking to hire their first designer are as follows:

  • If there isn't an existing Design Process, be prepared to create, rationalise, fight for, and enforce one.
  • Be prepared to back up your process and follow it.
  • Educate those that have not worked with designers on how you work.
  • Measure everything, it's cheaper than calling everyone.
  • Call everyone.
  • Use "The Window" in the first few weeks to take your position and stand your ground.

If you're a startup:

  • Insist that the designer explains their process and why they do what they do.
  • Question whether or not this process is something that you see value in and are willing to incorporate into any existing processes, given what stage your company is at right now. There's no point in hiring them if you're not willing or able to.

The outcome of all this has been great for me. I've been able to crystalise much more clearly what it is I want and what it isn't, which I'll probably write about at some point. I've also discovered a new offering that I'd never even thought of before this. Product analytics – strategy and implementation. If you're interested in learning more about this, get in contact.