What I learned working with a Silicon Valley startup

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After more than two decades of working in UI/UX design, I felt pretty about where I stood in the industry. Years of agency experience had me pretty darned confident with my skillset, and I was undeniably proud of my varied portfolio of work.

Earlier this spring, all of that changed. Overnight, it felt like the dial had turned back a good 10-15 years, and my wealth experience had suddenly lost its value. I realized how much more there was to learn. Portfolio pieces I used to fawn over had lost their charm. I was straight up humbled.

So what happened?

About six months ago, I began a project with a San Francisco-based SaaS startup as a product designer. It was the first time I had worked under this job title as opposed to the standard UX or UI designer role.

I'll be honest. It has been challenging, and at times, even demoralizing. There were many days when I felt like I didn't have what it took. And the imposter syndrome I had become so familiar with earlier in my career had suddenly reappeared after a good 20-year hiatus.

And you know what? It's the best thing that could have happened to me professionally.

Here's what I've taken from the experience so far:

There are always better solutions

In UX, it's so easy to become complacent with problem-solving. You design a pattern that users love; it tests well and delivers on its objectives. In time, it becomes your go-to pattern, and before you know it, you've reused it more times than you care to admit.

Of course, in reality, each problem is unique and should be treated accordingly. What worked once isn't necessarily the best solution for other, seemingly similar problems. You won't find the best answer, but there's always a better one.

My work with this startup reminded me of the importance of real design thinking. It made me appreciate the need to spend adequate time to understand the problem and exhausting solutions before trying one. To other UX professionals, this may sound obvious.

There is always more to learn from our users

The agency model typically involves one-off project engagements. While clients may have long-standing relationships with an agency, work is usually carved off into individual projects with a fixed budget and timeline.

So when it comes to testing our ideas with users, the single-serve project structure draws a clear line where user testing begins and ends. In other words, once we've achieved the desired metrics for success, we move on to design or engineering.

Working as a product designer changed all of this. With a collective focus on a single product, we never stop learning from users. New features are introduced, patterns evolve, functionality changes, but the validating with users doesn't end. And with this constant testing comes a steady stream of insights that allow us to keep learning and empathizing with our users.

There's always someone who knows more than you

I'm not suggesting that anyone thinks themselves to be the smartest person in every meeting, but self-confidence can indeed work against us. It's easy to think, "I've got this." because of our past experiences working through a similar decision.

My work with this startup has been humbling in so many ways, but this one tops the charts. The caliber of talent I have been fortunate to work with blows my mind. I'm regularly exposed to new ideas, new ways of approaching challenges that I would never have thought of before.

I'm working with many colleagues who are easily half my age, and yet each day I listen to them speak about their work with admiration.  These are among the smartest, most talented individuals I've ever had the pleasure of working with.

Product design is UX. Except it isn't.

Are user experience design and product design the same thing? Before working on this project, I likely would have said they are identical. And sure, many of the core skills are the same.

Product design sits apart in my mind in several ways, but it's the dedicated focus on a single platform that genuinely differentiates it for me. I work with a product design team of over 20 individuals, each who are responsible for developing very different areas of the product. And yet despite this apparent fragmentation in responsibility, designers regularly jump in to help, critique or brainstorm other designers' work. There's no hint of competition. Egos don't factor into the process for a second. And there's a collective acknowledgment that every detail, every component is worthy of attention.

Are you a user experience or UI design professional looking to level up your career? If so, I strongly suggest moving out of your comfort zone - exposing yourself to new ideas, new people, and new challenges. It can sting a little, but that's how you know you're growing.

About the author

Steve Coppola is a user experience & digital marketing professional - and founder of Input UX. With over 25 years of agency experience, he has worked with many of the world's most respected brands in various capacities including UI/UX design, customer research, usability testing, and front end development.
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