Mistakes I have made as a first product designer in a startup

Written by Bertrand on January 18, 2021

For a bit of context, I have joined Spendesk in February 2017 as the first Product designer and still work there when writing this article almost 4 years later.

Spendesk has started in the French startup studio eFounders. And at Efounders, there's a core team that helps founders build the first version of their product on different fields of competencies, notably UX & UI. So when I joined, there was already a product that was live with a few customers. I didn't join the company when the product was still a blank page.

Now that said, you'll understand that even I was the first hire in product design my mistakes.

This post is all about sharing my mistakes so you might avoid doing them.

Being too focused on "build mode"

Even I wanted to discover our users and what they wanted to do (I was always asking myself how their days could look like, what's their work environment, what they want to achieve, what were the pains they had...) It was hard to do.

Even I wanted to discover our users and what they wanted to do (I was always asking myself how their days could look like, what's their work environment, what they want to achieve, what were the pains they had...) It was hard to do.

My mind was focused on building the app. I thought that focusing on the design would be efficient and it was hard to convince myself to allocate time to meet our users.## Being too focused on "build mode"

I've trapped myself into a "build mode", which I guess can be common when you're the only design in an early-stage startup where there's a ton of things to do on the product (and elsewhere...). You're focusing on building things, making sure that we'll reach our deadlines, that engineers have everything to move forward, etc... And you don't see the value, or you see it but think it will defocus you, that you won't reach your goals by taking calls with clients or meet them.

And that's a huge mistake in my opinion, particularly at the beginning of a startup where you should focus on learning who your users are, make sure that what you're building is adding value to your users (or your target users). It doesn't make sense to build things fast if no one needs it.

A few years later, I realize that was I thought could be time-consuming was in fact time saving (in the long term) because if I have done it earlier, it would have considerably helped me on the following features.

Go meet your users as soon as and as often you can:

  • Join sales when going to visit a prospect
  • Jump on a call with a customer success manager and take a few minutes at the end to ask a few questions that will help you know them well).
  • Contact users that left a bad NPS review

Use any excuse to talk to them.

Put in place a Design system too late

Design system is a big word when you're in a company of 20 people but still, I've been to hesitant to start a design system and to stick to it.

I think a design system should put in place as soon as possible. It aligns everyone on how the component should look like and behave. It creates a unique language across the design & engineering team and will ease the conversation cross-team. But more importantly, you start thinking your product as a system meaning that you won't have two components that does almost the same job but have different names.

And what I didn't what I've just written.

Why? Because I wanted to still be able to explore new things, to not be stuck with an existing component when building a new feature (each time we were building new features, we came up with new ideas of components and always found excuses why not to reuse the existing one).

But in fact, constraints are a good thing when you start, your first users won't care if your components are the best match, the value you'll provide them with your solution won't be a blocker for them. And when it's start to be one, no big deal because you already have clean foundations and it'll be easy to update the existing one.

Well, you got it I guess, don't do like me.

2 reasons why you should start your design system as soon as possible:

  • You created debt, debt that gonna cost you over time.
  • You'll probably end up designing the worst experience for your users
  • You’ll take faster and better decisions

Not evangelizing the design soon enough

Evangelization is a word that might frighten you but it shouldn’t.

When you join a startup at a stage where you know everyone in the company and the product team is only a few people this is not one of your preoccupations. Some coworkers may ask you what your job is about from time to time but that’s it.

But still, you should take time sharing what you do, why you do it, how you do it, and what you learn from it. Even if your team is small. Because when your company will grow, you would have started to share this knowledge with a few teammates that’ll be able to do the same with the newcomers.

Also, it's a good exercise, it's always easier to present in front of a few people than in front of a hundred of people. If you take the habit to do it regularly you'll become good at it.

This post is from an ongoing exercise I’m doing so it may evolve.

Anyway, I hope it’ll help you, don’t put yourself too much pressure because you’ll make mistakes whatever happens but there are a lot of chances that these mistakes become your biggest learnings.

Feel free to share the mistakes you've made on twitter directly by mentioning (@nicelydoneclub) me or by DM.

Cheers,

Bertrand

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