5 Things I’ve Learned as Head of Product Design at a Startup

It’s been almost four years since I joined the team at Gaiam TV. I started just weeks before we launched and have now been through countless improvement cycles, a few failed experiments, one full redesign, and the incorporation of two acquisitions. Along the way we’ve grown into the largest streaming yoga service in the world and I’ve learned a few things about leading a design team and succeeding in a startup.

When the team is small everyone has to play lots of roles. Job descriptions are more like rough outlines (at best). Success comes for you, and the team, when you are prepared to do what needs to be done to move the company forward, even if it does not always align with your job title.

Be flexible with your design process. Things move fast in the early stages. Being dogmatic about your process will set you up for endless headaches and put you at risk of being labeled as ineffective or obstructionist. Having a diverse set of design approaches in your repertoire will give you the flexibility to move quickly without sacrificing all of your principles, but also be methodical when time allows. Eventually the time will be right to put some rigor in place. Until then, being flexible will help you figure out what does and does not work for your team.

We all want to be data driven. We all want to make decisions based on research and analysis. But sometimes you have to let go of that desire. Early on, you probably won’t have much budget for research. You also might not have a real data analyst on staff. Instead, you have to be scrappy. Talk to your users, observe what you can and be willing to have faith in your instincts. Sometimes you’ve just gotta go with what feels right and see what happens.

As head of product you spend your days balancing short term needs with long term strategy. Often this means “selling” your view of the future, especially if everyone is not in alignment. For me, a big part of this process is what I refer to as “planting seeds”.

Everyone’s view of the product trajectory evolves at different rates. This means that some things that may seem obvious to you might not even be in the consideration set for others. If you have an idea of where things should be going, one way to move things along is to just start talking about it. Don’t worry if it is fully formed, and don’t make the conversation something formal. Talk about your ideas early and talk about them often. Like a seed, an idea can’t grow until you plant it. Talk to anyone who will listen.

Planting seeds achieves two things. 1) It makes your ideas better by vetting them through multiple viewpoints. 2) If an idea has merit, it helps it take root in the organization. It gives people time to wrap their heads around how an idea might impact their part of the business, and because they were part of the conversation early it allows them to put their stamp on it and feel a level of ownership. This way, when the time comes to make decisions it’s more likely that everyone will be aligned. The process can take time (literally months sometimes), but be patient and keep talking. If an idea is solid, eventually it will sprout.

The world is overflowing with resources about the latest best practices, lessons learned and the hottest new design and business trends. You could spend all your waking hours reading and still not get through it all. A lot of these articles, books and videos have great insights and can shed light on things you may not have considered. But it is important to remember that no two organizations, and no two products, are exactly alike. Keep yourself aware of emerging trends and lessons learned, but be sure you always consider the unique complexion of your product, organization and target market before you apply them (these five included ☺).

Written by

My newsletter: https://designlikeyoumeanit.substack.com/ | Director of Entrepreneurial Design @cmci_studio | Founder @ Design Like You Mean It

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