Lessons from leading design at a startup

Authors: Uday Gajendar
Posted: Tue, September 16, 2014 - 10:01:28

In the past 100+ days I’ve led the successful re-invigoration of a fledgling design capability at a 2-year-old startup into a robust, cohesive, solidified practice with vitality to carry it further, with unified executive support. This includes a revitalized visual design language, visionary concepts to provoke innovation, and strategic re-thinking of UX fundamentals core to the product’s functionality. Being my first startup leadership role, this has certainly proved to be a valuable “high learning, high growth” experience filled with lessons, small and large. I’d like to share a few here that made the most definitive mark on my mind, shaping my design leadership model going forward. Hopefully this will help other UX/HCI/design professionals in similar small-team leadership situations. 

Say “no” to preserve your sanity (and the product focus): It’s critical early on to set boundaries demarcating exactly what you’ll work on and what you’ll defer to others. As a former boss liked to say, “You can’t boil the ocean.” Be selective on where you’ll have design impact with immediate or significant results that you can parlay into your next design activity. “Saying No” also builds respect from others, telling colleagues that you have a direction and a purpose to deliver against.

Remove “like” from the discussion: Everyone has opinions about design—that’s simply natural and expected. One way to mitigate the “I like” (or “I don’t like”) is to remove that word and instead focus on “what works” or “doesn’t work” for a particular persona/context/scenario. This forces the discussion to be about functional nature of design elements, not subjective personal tastes.

Role model good behavior from day one: It’s only natural for a startup starved for design expertise to immediately ask for icons and buttons after the designer found the bathroom and got the computer working. After all, that’s what most interpret design as—the tactical items. As a designer in that context, it’s your opportunity to demonstrate the right behavior for engaging and creating, such as asking user-oriented questions, drafting a design brief, sketching at whiteboards, discussing with engineers, etc. 

Build relationships with Sales, your best friend: Yes, sales! You gotta sell to customers and your sales leader will point you to the right folks to learn about customers, markets, partners, etc. Understanding the sales channel, which is the primary vehicle for delivering a great customer experience, is vital to your success as a design leader. Build that rapport to actively insert yourself into the customer engagement process, which is a gold mine of learnings to convert into design decisions. 

Don’t get hung up on Agile or Lean: These are just process words and mechanisms for delivering code, each with their particular lexicon. They are not perfect. There is no ideal way to fit UX into either one. Yet the overall dynamic is complementary in spirit and should enable smooth, efficient, learning-based outcomes to help iterate the product-market fit goals. The gritty, mundane details of JIRA, stories, estimations, sprint reviews, etc. are simply part of the process. Keep up your design vision and learn how to co-opt those mechanisms to get design ahead of the game, like filing “UX Stories” based upon your vision. 

Think in terms of “goals, risks, actions” when managing up: Maybe as part of a large corporate design team it was acceptable to vent and rant about issues with close peers. However, in a design leadership role on par with CEO and VPs of Engineering or Sales, you need to be focused and deliberate in your communications with them, to amplify the respect and build trust/confidence in you. I learned it’s far more effective to discuss things in terms of your goals, what are the key risks affecting the accomplishment of said goals, and what actions are desired (or asks to made) to help achieve those goals. This is way more professional and valuable of a dialogue driver. Don’t just rant! 

Finally, get comfortable with “good enough”: As Steve Jobs said, “Real artists ship,” meaning that you can’t sweat all the perfection-oriented details too much at risk of delaying the release. At some point you must let it go, knowing that there will be subsequent iterations and releases for improving imperfections—which is ongoing. Having fillers, stop-gaps, and temporary fixes are all expected. Do your best and accept (if not wholly embrace) the notion of “satisficing” (per Herb Simon) of doing what’s necessary yet sufficient. 

Design leadership is incredibly hard, perhaps made more difficult because of the glare of the spotlight now that UX is “hot” and finally recognized by execs and boards as a driver of company success. While you may be a “team of one,” the kinds of learnings itemized here will help enable a productive, design-led path forward for the team.

Posted in: on Tue, September 16, 2014 - 10:01:28

Uday Gajendar

Uday Gajendar is Director of User Experience at CloudPhysics, focused on bringing beauty and soul to Big Data for virtualized datacenters.
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