• Jessica Zhong

The Journey of Aumni's Only Product Designer

The number of hats I’ve had to wear as the only product designer at an early-stage startup would challenge even Dr. Seuss. Sometimes, it meant wearing a hat that wasn’t even UX-focused but, you know... early-stage startup. Being the only designer presents the same challenges as a larger team, but it stresses the autonomy of working independently in a fast-paced environment; this results in quickly seeing the tangible impact of your designs. 


With that said, surprise! I’m no longer on an island! As my solo time has ended, I'd like to reflect on the experiences I’ve traveled with.



The Beginning


What was I looking for?

In my transition from an HR Professional to Product Design, there were three things I was looking for in a company: 

  1. An expectation of exponential growth. I joined Aumni 7 months ago (as of August 2020) when they were closing their Series A round of funding. With a new industry that I had never before been exposed to, I was excited (and still am) to see the abundant room for exponential growth in both Aumni and myself.  

  2. A passionate group of employees that foster a sense of belonging. I found it refreshing to join a company where, despite not having prior experience in venture capital, my thoughts, questions, and opinions mattered. 

  3. A prioritized value for collaboration and design. During my interview, both Aumni's CTO and Head of Product talked about why they valued design; they asked about my design thinking and process and really focused on tangible design creativity. This gave me the confidence and reassurance that they were creating a space for designers to try new things; to be challenged and supported through the early beginnings of a design culture.

What would I bring to Aumni?

Storytime! I refound my love for creativity while I was an HR Professional. During my time in HR, I realized that it was collaboration with my colleagues and the complexities within humans that I enjoyed: What makes them tick? From the subconscious to the conscious, people make decisions from the moment they wake up to look at their phones.

It was collaboration with my colleagues and the complexities within humans that I enjoyed: What makes them tick?

The blend of my people-centric background and natural curiosity in humans combined with my versatility in handling different responsibilities made me a unique addition to the Aumni family. Hats everywhere.


Challenges of Being the Only Designer


Let’s take a quick dive into the top three challenges I faced as the only designer at a growth-stage startup:


Self-directed learning on venture capital

One of the biggest challenges I battle daily is learning the complex world of venture capital. In order for me to design a user-centric product, I need to understand what I am designing and who I am designing for. Some of the action steps I’ve taken to address this include:

  1. Asking as many questions as possible.

  2. Finding answers in books and online literature, aka researching everything.

  3. Trying to include myself into as many conversations between my coworkers as much as possible whenever they discuss domain specifics.

Lack of design collaborators

In the design world, even this cat can get lonely; we designers thrive on collaboration. As a designer in a new domain space, I suffered from not knowing if I had done enough in the various steps of the design process. There’s a constant feeling of uncertainty. Could there be something I’m missing that would be glaringly obvious to other designers? Some things that I might overlook would be caught by another designer before an unforgiving customer may encounter it.


Managing workload

Anyone can feel a bit overwhelmed, but it becomes particularly magnified when you're the only designer. I’d often be working on two projects simultaneously while separately tackling a one-off task under deadline. I wanted to learn more about myself as a designer: to get a sense of my work threshold, to prioritize business goals, and to understand my own ability to handle multiple projects at the same time. There were also days where I did not work on any UX-focused tasks; rather, I was asked to focus on redesigning a marketing one-sheeter or to design a standing banner for upcoming conferences. These were times where I had to self-impose more organization and prioritize and manage my own workload to be able to complete these projects on time—and with high quality. 


How to Thrive


Managing Expectations & Creating Balance

There are many facets of being a product designer: balancing your workload, following the UX process, collaborating and getting feedback, and designing around ambitious--yet grounded--product goals.


At my role's core, I am the voice of our users. On behalf of them, I balance their requests and the goals of the business. With that in mind, I do my best to implement the design process and create the most effective designs to address users’ needs.

What I’ve learned is to not get hung up on processes that don’t go “by the book.”

They never do. I've learned to operate by the Pareto principle where 80% done means that my designs are ready to go, just to keep pace with start-up velocity. The downside is that the other 20% becomes design debt, which I have to make sure we eventually address. This means that I take an iterative approach to design to produce more efficient and effective results.


Communication

At an early-stage startup, it’s essential to have feedback loops from my immediate team as well as coworkers from other departments. What I find refreshing at Aumni is my coworkers embody the humility and willingness to lend a hand. Whenever I am assigned to design a new feature, I believe it’s essential to bring my coworkers together to uncover some ideas and continue to iterate upon the design decisions to make the best possible product. All my coworkers in different departments see themselves as the product's first users. They want to win, they want to see this product succeed as much as I do but obviously with the lens of what our users want and need in their workflows. Therefore, getting their ideas and feedback for what could improve our product, plays a huge part in the design direction for many new features with no ego included.


Creating the Design Culture

Initially, I believed design culture only focused on designers, but the reality is that design culture is evident with everyone involved in the process of creating, developing, and interacting with the product and brand. As I mentioned earlier, when I was developing our design process, I wanted as many of my coworkers to be part of cross-functional decisions, from the feature design kickoff to the design reviews to the usability tests. Each department interacts with our customers in different ways—for different reasons—shaping their product perspectives. When we work together, we create a culture where we use design to meet both user and business goals. 


Final Thoughts

Being the only designer at Aumni was a daunting, exciting, and humbling experience. I had many points of uncertainty as the face of our design team. However, over the past few months, I've become more confident and comfortable by pushing myself to do better and seeking support and guidance from the people I work with. Through this experience, I've learned that being responsible for both designing and shaping the whole design culture is a huge undertaking. That challenge has helped me understand who I am as a designer and prepared me for the next designer who joins this team of cool cats.





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