What it’s really like on Designer Island

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Being stranded on Designer Island can be challenging, but it’s so rewarding. You’ll get real influence over how a product is being built, and that’s the best experience any designer could ask for.

I joined a tiny startup as the sole product designer a few months ago. I work alongside four engineers every day and it’s really difficult and really rewarding.

During my second week, I was confused and frustrated and desperate for help. Naturally, I ran to Twitter where I found some solace in a kind stranger (thanks Zach). It’s taken a few months, but I think a have a good grasp on this sole-designer-gig. Hopefully, this article will save someone a melodramatic Twitter rant.

Designer Island is Lonely


Engineers are weird. Case in point, the other day I overheard one engineer say to the other, “oh that’s where we’re getting the children from.” 😳 The crazy thing is, they weren’t making a joke!

Engineering jokes are even more bizarre. When I report a bug, sometimes an engineer will say, “Kayla, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” and then they all laugh. I laugh along too, but honestly, I have no idea what they’re talking about.

When you spend your days surrounded by engineers, it can feel lonely and confusing. The way we quantify our work is different, the terminology we use is different, our interests and product goals can look different. Even though we sit right next to each other, it feels like we live on different continents.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. When you’re regularly left out of the jokes and the office conversation, it’s isolating. Isolation usually leads to feeling lonely. So if you’re like me and you’re feeling lonely, here are a few things you can do:

  1. Talk to your engineer co-workers about design. You may not know HTML from Python, but everyone has an opinion about design. (If you don’t believe me, ask a stranger how they feel about Norman Doors.) Show your non-design coworkers what you’re working on; ask the backend developer for statistics on users; ask the front end developer’s opinion on UI. Learn about the product from their perspective. You’ll become a better designer and you’ll get to talk about your work with someone other than your whiteboard.
  2. Make friends in the design community. If the engineering jokes go over your head, find some design friends and make design jokes! I recently had the opportunity to meet with a larger company’s design team, it was amazing. We talked about micro-copy, user testing, and our favorite design books. It was so life-giving to be with a community of people who think the way I think and work the way I work. I highly encourage you to use the design community to alleviate your loneliness. Here are a couple of ideas: join a Slack group, DM someone on Twitter, join a Meetup group, or find a mentor. It’s hard to put yourself out there, but it’s the only prescription that cures loneliness.

Designer Island Breeds Confidence… and Research

On my second day at 4Degrees, I realized that I was about to become a lot more confident. When you are the only designer on the team, there’s not a ton of going back and forth over different UI perspectives. You create it, they build it and ship it. The end.

Having more confidence is a great thing…if your confidence is rooted in research. If you’re feeling confident because your feature is “pretty”, you’re not doing it right. You should be confident because you know you have applied best practices and user research findings to your feature.

Where do you find all this confidence-building research? Haven’t you heard? You’re also a UX researcher now! Designer Island requires you to wear a few different hats. At a tiny startup, you don’t have a team of user experience researchers to supply you with empathy and perspective, it’s just you. You are the sole designer and step one is research in pursuit of empathy.

If you’ve never been a UX researcher before, that’s okay! Start by talking to your users; aim for at least one conversation a week. Then, seek out the person at your company who is talking to users regularly and ask to join their calls. Document all your findings and use them as your guide. Once you have some calls set up, dig into how other products solve the problem you’re trying to solve. But don’t stop there, do your own research by testing big features with users before you push them, and learn about usability best practices. If you do all these things, you’ll be a great UX researcher in no time, and your users will thank you.

When you’re the only designer, you learn very quickly to rely on your research and less on other designers.

Living on Designer Island Carries Responsibility

Designer Island is fun and all, but it’s hard work too. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with owning an entire island; most notably, communicating design decisions to the rest of the team.
It’s your job to fight for good design and to fight against bad design. When everyone is focused on writing good code, it’s your job to get them to see the product from the user’s perspective.
You have to be able to communicate why your design decisions are important, relevant and crucial to the success of the product. It might be tough at first. Use research and logic to make your point, and soon enough they’ll see the value of design. If you need more help, read a book about communicating the value of design, or watch a webinar about design decisions.

Be careful to not neglect this part of your job, your users are counting on you!

Don’t give up on Designer Island

Being stranded on Designer Island can be challenging, but it’s so rewarding. If you want to grow as a designer and as a human, it’s the best place to be (though I’m probably biased). You’ll learn how to work with engineers. You’ll become an expert UX writer, user interviewer and business designer. You’ll never ever be bored. Most importantly, you’ll get real influence over how a product is being built, and that’s the best experience any designer could ask for.

If you liked my article please 👏 , comment and share. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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