The role of a Product Designer in early-stage Saas startups
Before joining an early-stage startup as a designer, it's crucial to understand the role's challenges, which could affect the company's growth trajectory.
If you've had the opportunity to work as a product designer in different business environments, you've probably observed that there are significant differences between working in a startup and a well-established company. Joining an early-stage startup before achieving product-market fit can be a mixture of immense satisfaction and significant challenges, depending on your preferences in terms of missions and responsibilities.
During my time at a startup studio, where the core principle is to create and support startups from various spaces, I gained valuable lessons about working with startups. Balancing speed and quality, collaborating closely with cross-functional teams, and managing technical debt are crucial skills in this environment. Follow along as I share some learnings that I have gained, hoping to provide you with a clearer understanding of what it brings to join an early-stage startup as a designer.
Deliver user value
In a pre-product-market fit environment, being a designer means focusing on validating business assumptions rather than striving for perfect designs. It's about understanding customer needs, iterating quickly, and prioritizing business goals over personal aesthetics. By adopting this mindset, designers can play a crucial role in driving a startup's success in its early stages.
It's imperative to find a balance between speed and quality, understanding that delivering timely solutions is often as important as creating a perfect one. When working on tight timelines, we need to identify the critical features/elements that will provide the most value and focus on those first. There are many solutions that will help you define your roadmap and prioritize what you deliver to your users. Here are a few examples:
- Establish a short feedback loop with your users for actively seeking and tracking feature requests and user feedback. By staying closely connected with your user base, you can gain valuable insights into their pain points, desires, and expectations.
- Implementing tools like Hotjar sessions allows you to observe how users interact with your product in real-time, providing valuable data on specific behavior and pain points.
- Being data-driven through product usage metrics to help you making decisions based on actual user patterns and preferences.
However, there is also a need to be aware of potential technical debt and find ways to address it proactively, ensuring that quick design decisions don't compromise the long-term stability and scalability of the product. By considering speed, quality and technical debt, designers can create efficient solutions that bring immediate value while also setting a solid foundation for future growth and development. It is essential to document even what you did not include in the scope of your sprint. This helps maintain traceability for the day when you have more resources to manage these improvements.
This can be quite challenging to adopt and implement, especially for a first early-stage design experience, as it can lead to frustration. It’s very easy to be tempted to spend a large amount of time creating the best possible experience – something that is often taught in school and large companies. This behavior is normal, but it's essential to take a step back at times and adjust this mindset to the context of your company or this could lead to misalignment or time waste.
Building a cohesive and strong design culture
Creating a strong design culture is all about building a space where everyone can shine by working together to overcome challenges. It's not just about creating a good-looking product and brand; it's about sharing a mindset that prioritizes user-centricity and collaboration.
Always keeping the user in mind during the design process is not just a good practice; it is crucial to deliver solutions that truly meet their needs and habits. By empathizing with the end-users and understanding their pain points, preferences, and behaviors, companies can create products that resonate deeply with the target audience. At Tailwarden, we have implemented several measures that allow us to stay in daily contact with our users as a team:
- We host community calls to bring our users together and foster a sense of community. These calls allows us to explore some features through interactive demos and relevant discussions, announce new releases and conduct Q&A sessions for user feedback and showcase various topics of interest, always providing valuable insights and discussions
- We defined weekly office hours to engage with users directly, focusing on their needs and challenges. With a "technical" team member and another staff member present, we get insights on how users utilize Komiser/Tailwarden. We encourage open dialogue and aim to end with actionable items.
- We have created a public roadmap because we believe in the importance of transparency. By sharing our upcoming features, enhancements, and long-term plans openly, we hope to not only keep our users informed but also empower them to actively participate in shaping the future of our product.
Something very important not to neglect, is to always empower your teammates. The entire team can actively contribute to delivering cutting-edge solutions and maintain a competitive edge in the market. The main way to include them in the process is simply to ask for their feedback on your research, mockups, or prototypes. We recently shared an article on how to give effective design feedback to your design team, providing five easy-to-implement tips. By including your team in the product design process, you enable them to have an impact, much like users can, but with a different perspective. Moreover, it fosters skill development and elevates the design culture of your company.
The power of versatility
Another essential aspect is multidisciplinarity; I wouldn't say it's essential, but it is generally highly valued. The needs of startups vary from one company to another, and a wide range of design-related topics can come to the table. In an environment where there is everything to be done, product design, branding, and marketing are very common topics on the table. While it can be quite challenging to manage these diverse roles, it is also an excellent way to grow in terms of skills and enrich your profile.
At Tailwarden, internalizing these skills can manifest in many ways, such as designing a landing page and seamlessly integrating it using no-code tools or creating marketing assets based on your brand. Additionally, it can involve creating release visuals, content thumbnails, and assets for community events. Another aspect is collaborating with open-source contributors to enhance project awareness by providing slides and assets for local conferences and meetups. This technical agility allows us to respond to needs very quickly, without having to outsource every task, which can sometimes be time-consuming.
Each context remains unique, and everything can differ from one company to another. However, these are points that are found in most new startups and generally apply everywhere. These principles apply broadly to early-stage environments and offer valuable insights for designers considering startup opportunities.
Hoping that this article has helped you determine if the world of early-stage is right for you! 👋