As a UX lead on Google’s ever-expanding design team, I see a lot of resumes. And one of my priorities when sorting through them is diversity—of thought, of experience, of background…you name it, I want it.
Which often leads me to hire first-time designers.
I love hiring inexperienced designers. They come in with fresh eyes and desire to make change—and I get to help shape their careers. But, in lieu of experience, I find myself looking for a few unteachable “soft skills” that have little to do with design, can be cultivated with some coaching, and will help you out throughout your career.
If you’re a beginner designer looking for your first job, this post is for you. Learn your advantages and rock them out.
We’ll be going into:
- The value of fresh eyes
- Developing empathy
- How to take feedback
- When and how to stand up for your work
- Developing creative confidence
1. Ask ‘why’ while you work
Do not accept the status quo without question. Ask questions! Ask why. Ask a LOT.
One of the best selling points of new hires is the value of a fresh pair of eyes. Use them well. It’s possible that we, the senior designers, have systems and rituals in place that are not valuable anymore. If you, the new hire, don’t understand why something is done the way it is done, ask why. It might help us uncover inefficiencies that need correcting.
Did I really need three weekly team meetings to cover adjacent topics? No, I didn’t! But it took a fresh designer asking me why we had all three for us to consolidate them.
“Just because a product is designed a certain way doesn’t mean it needs to stay that way.”
This applies to product too. Just because a product is designed a certain way doesn’t mean it needs to stay that way. Instead of accepting that the product’s current form is its final, perfect ideation, ask questions about why things are the way they are and imagine the way they can change for the better.
For example, I usually have new hires document unintuitive interaction patterns that they pick up on as they learn about the product. This has helped us simplify products, reduce redundancy, and optimize workflows for first use.
If you’re wondering why you should be asking why, check out this very cool post by Pablo Stanley on the 5 Whys. You’ll be taken down the Why, Why, Why road of uncovering reasons and facts.
2. Have empathy for your cross-functional partners
This one is hard to learn in design school, but so important in real life. Especially in tech, you’ll find yourself working with non-designers. Every design decision we make is made in collaboration with engineers, product managers, sales, marketing—the list goes on.
Though they may seem foreign, learn to understand these non-designers’ motivations, hopes, fears, and dreams. Use your design thinking skills to really understand what their roles are and what they are hoping to accomplish. This knowledge will be your best friend as you work collaboratively with them.
“Though they may seem foreign, learn to understand non-designers’ motivations, hopes, fears, and dreams.”
Your design knowledge is your product and these non-designers are your users. Be as empathetic to their needs as you would any other user you had to break concepts down for.
For example, I was working with an engineer on a complicated table design, and he kept pushing back on the solution I was proposing. After a lot of back and forth, I realized it was because he did not want to break consistency by developing a custom component and much preferred using a component from the standard library instead. Once I understood the problem, I was able to work out how we could tweak the standard component for our use case and we were able to get the same end result for our users.
3. Be open to all sources of ideas
Yes, you are The Designer, but ideas about the design of your product/service can come from anywhere. If you feel resistance to others’ ideas, check in with your ego. Is it really a bad idea, or is your ego holding you back from a potentially good solution?
Don’t be offended if an engineer has opinions about a certain user flow, or if a product manager intuitively doesn’t think the tone of your visual design treatment will work for our user.
We do ourselves a disservice by being too protective of our discipline. After all, it’s important for everyone (not just designers!) to put the user first. Being protective draws boundaries, whereas being inclusive makes everyone feel involved—and care about the end result that we put in the hands of our users.
“We do ourselves a disservice by being too protective of our discipline.”
For us, this means that UX has to develop a shared vocabulary with engineers and product managers. When we’re united in thinking about use cases and user journeys, and when we’re all including UX milestones in our metrics, our users will feel the payoff.
4. Understand that no idea is sacred
So you’ve been working hard on a design solution and you have all the documentation that proves why this is the right solution—but while testing, your team finds out there’s a core problem with the value prop of this feature.
Now you have to throw everything out and start fresh.
It’s a bummer, but it’s the right thing to do. There is no idea so sacred that it can’t be discarded. Be okay with that.
“There is no idea so sacred that it can’t be discarded.”
The design process is rarely, if ever, as linear as it was in school. My friend and co-worker Tom Broxton did these sketches that describe how the design process really goes.
5. Believe in your work
This is the other side of the coin. Be open-minded, but don’t change your mind too easily either. If you’ve done your homework and taken a principled approach towards your design, then trust yourself—because there’s a very good chance that you’re right. Or at least on the right track.
When you believe in your work and your skills, you can use negative feedback as a way to criticize your own work—as someone’s viewpoint, and not as an objective criticism.
❌ Don’t: dismiss negative feedback
✔️ Do: Dig deep into the feedback to understand where it is coming from and what exact problem they are trying to address.
Evaluate your design against that feedback, and counter with your POV if your design addresses their concern already.
A few examples of what this might look like:
💬 What they said: We can’t push the table to the bottom because no one will scroll all the way there.
🔨 What they mean: We need to ensure users know there is more data than what they see on first glance.
🔑 Possible solution: Some indication that there’s more data available upon scrolling.
💬 What they said: This design isn’t consistent with our design system.
🔨 What they mean: A user might be confused about this new pattern.
🔑 Possible solution: Make a case for why the pattern you proposed fits right into the design system, or why it’s a worthwhile shift. If you have research to prove it, bring that along.
Don’t forget, there’s always the possibility that someone is being a jerk just to be a jerk or to haze “the new designer”—which is never okay, and something your manager should know about. If you keep going back to the data and research, synthesizing the user needs, business goals, and what is feasible, you’ll find it easier and easier to help you make your case.
The blessed union of user goals, business goals, and technical feasibility
6. Be resilient
You will hear no a lot—from stakeholders, senior leadership, maybe even your cross-functional partners.
You’re new, they’re experienced. They have a lot more product knowledge than you do, a lot more history, and they might even be stuck in their ways.
Fairly or unfairly, you will face resistance to your ideas.
Keep showing up anyway.
Don’t shy away from presenting your ideas.
When I was just getting started, I went to my manager for a modular website design that I thought was a pretty clever solution for our client. It was hard to build, so my manager and the developer team weren’t too keen on it, but I was certain it was the right choice for the client—who manufactured modular sliding doors and closets. After several rounds of iteration and much research, I proposed the same solution again, but this time came backed with a list of pros and cons and ways we could make development easier.
“Fairly or unfairly, you will face resistance to your ideas. Keep showing up anyway.”
My manager agreed to present that to the client as one option, and guess what—it was a hit with the client and the option we ended up going with.
Toughing through these situations helps teach you how to present your ideas in a way that will win over clients, managers, engineers…anyone who can’t be won over by your obvious design genius.
7. Learn about the business
The sooner you begin to understand the business, the sooner you can present more convincing ideas to non-designer stakeholders.
Understanding the business means understanding three things:
- Your product
- The competitive market
- The business realities of your company
Understanding the product means you know its history.
There’s the general gist of the product:
- How did it get started?
- What’s next on the roadmap?
- What problem is it solving?
- What are its goals?
- How have they changed over time?
Then, of course, what’s critical to your job:
- Who are the users?
- What are they saying about your product?
- What are its technical limitations?
- Where is the technology headed?
Understanding the competitive market means all of the above, but for products out there that might compete with yours. This is a tricky space, and well worth a blog post of its own, but the tl;dr is: keep updated on what users are saying about those products in the community
“The sooner you begin to understand the business, the sooner you can present more convincing ideas to non-designer stakeholders.”
Understanding the business realities means knowing things that would matter to the owner of the business.
- What is the mission of the company?
- What are their annual goals?
- How much headcount does your product have available?
- Are there promised deliverables the team is working towards?
This will all help you understand your stakeholders better, and the role design plays in the product. As mentioned above, the more you know about their goals and constraints, the better chances you have of creating solutions that work for all of you.
It’s been a long time, but I still remember how nervous I was when I started my first design job straight out of school. It can be overwhelming, sure, but focusing on these skills can help take the pressure off.
Feature image by Mikito Tateisi