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How to succeed as a solo UX Designer in Startups

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Illustration by Maria Medem

What emotions and associations do you usually have when talking about a startup? Do you associate it with freedom, fun, decision-making, flat hierarchy, transparency, fast-paced growth, investment? Or, alternately, maybe it’s more about feeling of uncertainty, pressure, rapid change, fear of failure, time and resources limitation?

Working at a startup is a roller coaster ride. I mean it’s fun and exciting! You quit your job at a corporate large company and join a small startup, to be more flexible and free, right? I‘m sorry to say that…. but that’s not always the case, with most instances being a mere illusion of freedom and flexibility.

Startups are fundamentally focused on growth. For early-stage startups, the quality is not at the core yet, they should try to learn first.

Working at a startup is a challenge but what if we’re also adding another challenge of being the only designer on the team? Jumping on board of the User Experience Team of One is a tough journey, but one that offers a precious opportunity to grow.

Understand the Added Value

Often times the priorities of a startup are focused on delivery and features, no matter what the design looks like. A common scenario is when a dev team gathers and works on the product to have an MVP ready. Design and visual improvements don’t come into the picture up until the point when the technical side is set. The expectations from a designer coming on board such teams are quite limited: make it look nicer.

But let’s look into some research findings and see if it was all about the nice design.

In 1988, Tom Gilb’s research found that every $1 invested in UX returned an estimated $10 — $100. From an article NN/g published in 2008, they found that investing in UX improved KPIs by 83% on average. This works out to something like spend 10% to gain 83%.

Add the top reasons why startups fail to the mix: “No Market Need” (42%) and “Ran Out of Cash” (29%), both of which can be improved with the help of a Professional UX designer on the team. So, having understood the full spectrum of a UX designer’s responsibilities, having one on your team from the beginning, and setting up a solid UX Process will increase your revenue and reduce development costs.

“One of the important skills a good designer brings to the table is figuring out what the real problem is.”

Set up a UX Design process

When you’ve just joined a startup, don’t be surprised if it feels like there’s no process at all. Working for a startup usually means being able to adapt and change when needed. This is a great chance to set up your own process.

Lots of UX designer are in search of the perfect process to apply in startups and ask my opinion on which one to go with. The truth is, this question might just be a rhetorical one: there is no perfect process.

Set up a process that is ideal for your company, your team, your product, your goals. Experiment and evolve it.

Most process cycles are comprised of a set of consecutive steps: (learn > build>test, etc.) but the challenge here is that the process in startup differs. Oftentimes you have to go through multiple steps at once and have to build and learn simultaneously because of time and budget constraints. But even without an ideal process, try to find ways to practice any pieces of the UX process that are relevant and available at any stage of your work (research, usability testing, A/B testing, etc.). Flexibility is the core quality that leads to success. In this changing startup environment, the best thing you can do is be flexible.

Principles over processes

It’s important to set up the process, but too much emphasis on processes can be a distraction that takes your energy and focus away from relationships.

Relationships are at the core of any successful startup and company.

Build Relationships

Get buy-in with stakeholders: When you’ve settled into your new role, organize a meeting with stakeholders and chat to them about their expectations of your role and their vision of the product.

The UX process starts with empathizing with the users. But users are not the only ones who need empathy: our team members do, too. The designer, perhaps more so than any other team member, must empathize with stakeholders (to understand the business objectives of the project), developers (to understand its technical requirements), and, of course, users (to understand the nature of the problem they’re solving), all at once.

Besides the above-mentioned points, it’s your mission to educate your team about UX and its benefits and explain the value of UX processes. Don’t expect people to know all the aspects of the UX process, most of the time they don’t.

Team Collaboration

How many times have you heard the phrase “You are the designer, you know what’s best.” Remeber, design is a team sport: we win when we work together.

Delivering great UX is not possible without having a positive organizational structure and culture where people can easily communicate with each other, share their vision, make suggestions or give feedback.

Ask and get feedback from everyone, and learn.

There are lots of activities that can empower the team and will help you be on the same page, such as:

  • Sharing research findings
  • Ideation workshops
  • Design Sprints
  • Feedback (e.g. with feedback hats)
  • Inviting teammates to the usability testing sessions

Find your best buddy on the team

Illustration by Maria Medem

Who is your best buddy? The answer is pretty much everyone! (Product Owner, Product Manager, Data Analyst, CSM (Customer Success Managers), Developer, Quality Assurance Specialist, etc.)

There is a lot of responsibility overlap between the Product/UX Designer and the Product Manager. Collaborate to define the problem, understand the users, and work on solutions together.

What you should know as a solo UX designer

Be aware of both business objectives and user needs. Remember you’re a linking bridge between your users and the business.

You should know what problem you’re solving. The reason is that if you don’t, soon you’ll become a design resource who’s just implementing what’s in the requirements.

Become an expert in the field. You have to be an expert in the field you’re solving the problem for. If you’re designing a fintech product, you have to be aware of the whole workflow and every related process:

Design for the system.

Setup a process (we’ve already talked about this point).

Clarify your responsibilities early on. Being a UX Designer at a small startup means that you will wear many hats and do a variety of work (research, writing, testing, validation, and a lot more). Understand what the expectations from you are.

Be aligned with all the processes in the startup.

Be an initiator, don’t wait until you are told what to do. You’re learning on the job and you need to figure out a lot on your own.

Talk to users. This one is a golden rule and I think it does not need any elaboration.

Empathize. When we talk about empathy, we usually think about users, but we should also remember to empathize with our stakeholders and team members.

Get buy-in from the team members.

Evangelize UX. Educate team members about the importance of UX. Don’t expect everyone on the team to know and understand the UX processes and the value they bring in. You’re the one who can share that knowledge with them constantly.

Don’t design in a black box. Don’t disappear for a few weeks and come back with a solution. This is not how things work, especially for startups. Quick iteration and quick feedback are the best options. Be sure everyone in the team knows what you’re at currently and what they can expect from you soon.

Keep the happy medium between compromise and assertiveness.

Test soon and often.

Don’t be afraid of being wrong. Sometimes you can feel like a jack of all trades, master of none. You can also question yourself if you’re doing everything right. That is OK! If you are a team of one, you can always address your questions to your mentors or UX communities.

There is no learning without trying lots of ideas and failing lots of times.

– Jony Ive

The UX Design process never ends. Track the solutions at every stage of the delivery process.

Continue developing Soft skills.

The most important set of skills in UX is soft skills. This is what UX practitioners and hiring managers believe is necessary to succeed on the path.

So as you can see there is a lot to discover, lots of work to be done, a lot of uncertainty, and after all, you’re unsure of the result. Then, what is the benefit of being a Solo UX Designer in a startup? The answer is: significant growth and the endless ability to learn & experiment. That’s what a startup can offer you as a professional if you are ready to work for that!


How to succeed as a solo UX Designer in Startups was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.