Being The Only Designer On The Team

{ 📢 } – Interview with Dave Feldman

Some of you might be working on design teams with at least a few peers. Or maybe you’re a freelancer working with a few companies at the same time.

But among us, there are also those of us who are the only Designers in their company. How do you handle that?

We asked for Dave Feldman’s help. He’d co-founded Emu Messenger and used to be a Product Manager at Google and Facebook.

Now, as a VP Product Design at Heap, he runs a one-person design team. Here’s our interview with him about that very experience.

Daniel: Before we start, can you say who you are and what do you do?

Dave: I’m VP Design at Heap in San Francisco. For the past few months I’ve been the only designer here, though that’s about to change.

Being the only designer on the team is quite unique. What’s the most challenging part of it?

I’m lucky enough to have a team around me that respects design and is interested in improving the product design-wise. But I don’t have people with significant training or experience as designers. There are times when it would be nice to be able to ask advice or opinions from people who have similar experience, but they’re not around. That can feel a little bit lonely.

Do you discuss work challenges with designers from the outside? Do you have a mentor?

At the moment I don’t have a design mentor, and I don’t feel a deep need for that. I do turn to the team around me. I’m able to get good advice that way.

On the mentorship side, what I need most now is ongoing mentorship and feedback for management and leadership skills. Those are what I’m most focused on growing and improving. I’m looking to actually put in place some executive coaching to help me with that.

How about looking for help in the design community?

I haven’t focused heavily on that, though I do have former colleagues I catch up with from time to time—though again, as much for leadership skills as for design. There are interesting design problems to solve here, but I haven’t had a desperate enough need for periodic mentorship on those solutions.

It would be just nice to have somebody around and in real time to talk to and to bounce those ideas off. Outside resources are not necessarily going to help you with that.

What’s easier to do without a team and what’s harder?

The easy part of not having a team is that you don’t have to think about any of the logistics of having a team. You don’t have those meetings, you don’t spend time mentoring people, having 1-on-1’s, helping people grow their careers or providing feedback on their designs.

All that time can be spent on work. There is a whole level of coordination and leadership that doesn’t have to happen.But that’s also what I signed up to do, and what I’m most excited about doing—so while it’s easier, it’s not desirable.

What’s harder, is that I don’t have other designers to bounce ideas off. Also, when I’m not doing a thing, it’s not getting done.

There is a lot to do, and it would be nice to have some help. I was hired to create a team, and until it happens, everything has to be done by me.

Is working alone giving you more room for experimenting and exploring new ideas?

To some degree – yes. The “no” part of the answer is there is so little time. I want to be spending more time building a prototyping practice and figuring out how can it fit directly with our engineering process.

I want to spend more time exploring new tools and building new techniques too. It’s not that I don’t have time for that, but it’s limited.

The “yes” part of the answer is that I don’t have to think just yet how those tools and techniques are going to fit within the design team. I can think of how it might work, how we might want to do this. I can experiment without having to think about the impact in real time on other people – I can figure that out later.

If an experiment in the process fails right now, the only designer that it affects is me. I can be a little bit fast and loose with what I try because I’m only convincing myself.

What’s the impact of working alone on your design process? Are you not able to spend as much time on some things as you’d like to?

I don’t think it takes more time. It goes back to what I was saying before – I like to work on a team. I have engineers and salespeople to collaborate with. That’s all great, and it’s been rewarding, but I don’t have any designers to collaborate with.

I go through the same steps as a lot of designers. Working with product managers to map out the problem statement, coming up with the high-level documentation explaining how we might solve those problems. Maybe I do sketches, mockups, wireframes, animations, prototypes. I use the same toolbox that I think most designers use, but the difference is it’s all on me.

There is no point when I’m sitting with some other designer critiquing my design. I might be sitting with engineers doing that, but it’s a slightly different conversation.

Can you imagine working as the only designer for a longer period?

I can imagine it. Earlier on my career, I spent many years as a freelancer, so I have a lot of experience working as the only designer on a team, and as an outsider in that case.

Some things are nice about it, but I don’t know if I want to go back to it long term. I enjoy collaborating with other designers and being a part of a team. My biggest career goals right now have to do with leadership, mentorship and management and you can’t do that as the only one.

Also, in the case of Heap, I was hired explicitly to build the team, which means right now I feel like I’m in an interim state. This isn’t a role that’s about sitting and doing design – it’s about doing design until I can hire and lead people to do design.

Can you say more about Heap itself? What do you do and what’s the role of design in the company?

You can use Heap to collect data on what your users are doing. Where they’re clicking, what are they tapping on, when they’re submitting forms, what pages are they visiting or if they’re visiting this page after the other – all those things.

We have a powerful way of doing it. If you have worked with a lot of those platforms, you know that there is a process of instrumentation or tracking that needs to happen.

I’m interested in these 20 events that my users are doing.

So I’ve to write a line of code that says:

Okay, when this event happens, send the event to my analytics platform.

That’s brutal, and it’s not iterative.

At some point, you come out with follow-up questions you are not prepared to ask because you didn’t instrument that part of the product. You have to go back, instrument it, and wait. It’s like having a conversation in letters back and forth between two different continents. You can ask questions, but you have to wait for two weeks for the thing to get back to you.

At Heap, we collect all this data in a raw form.

We collect every tap, click, page view, and screen view. After the fact, in our product, you can go and “track” those things. What you’re actually doing is taking this raw data and effectively activating it – we call it virtualizing. I can create virtual events around data, and I don’t have to wait – it’s all retroactive back to when I installed Heap.

It’s also less dependent on changing the code. People who don’t have access to the engineering team or can’t get resources from it can still ask questions of the data. We have a lot of analytics modules– you can graph things, do retention graphs, do funnels. You can even take all the virtual data and sync it with your existing data warehouse.

For design at Heap, there are some very interesting opportunities. Here’s an example. If you think about the way data is used in organizations, the right way to do it is starting with a hypothesis. Maybe it’s a product strategy, maybe it’s a business strategy.

This notion of assumption and testing is a core of what you do as a team. You have this hypothesis, you have to translate that into questions you want to ask your data.Then you have to interpret the response from the data and feed that back into your hypothesis and the product strategy.

That’s a conversation that involves data and a lot of people. It’s difficult because information can be lost along the way. If you get it wrong, you end up going with your gut when it would be nice to back that up with data. On the other side, you end up becoming very incremental. Looking at the data, and using that to drive your product’s strategy is never going to give you a big bold hypothesis.

One amazing design opportunity in that space is to take a moment when the information is lost, or people aren’t communicating well around the data, and make it possible to have a better conversation. I’m talking very abstractly, and the part of it is that we are still trying to figure out what that means.

Of course, on a more tactical level there is an opportunity to level-up our UI across the board.

Do you believe that being the only designer in the company pushes you to have deeper relations with developers and other teams?

Inevitable. There is just no option to go and hang out with my team because it’s not there yet. I think that’s been good more than it’s been bad.

This is a company that does not yet have a strong sense of what design is and how it works. It’s crucial to me as I build up the design practice at Heap to make it collaborative. If we want to establish that, there’s no other choice but to make designers and developers work hand in hand.

Do you think that being the only designer makes you responsible for educating the rest of the company what a role of design is?

Absolutely. There is more than one way to do the design, and there is more than one definition of what design is. My responsibility and responsibility of the first few designers that I hire is to establish what do we mean by design.

What’s important about it, how is it done, when is it done, how can we make cross-functional colleagues – product managers and engineers, and marketers, and salespeople, and everyone – a part of that design process.

That’s fascinating, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how can I make that happen, because now is a unique opportunity, where none of that is set in stone yet.

What responsibilities do you have as the only designer working at Heap?

The easy answer is that I’m responsible for all the design work. The bulk of the time and energy – and this is true now and will be true in a larger team – is going to be around the product.

That is where the greatest need for design effort is right now, and it’s where it’s essential that design be fluid and collaborative and iterative. We have an agency that we work with on web and marketing and that partnership has worked well. That’s not a process that’s going to work as well with an agency when it comes to working on the product itself.

So because our engineering team is internal, we need to be collaborative. The bulk of my work and the bulk of my team’s work shortly is going to be on the product. But we will be involved in other stuff as well—for instance, I work closely with the marketing team and the agency on our website.

As those needs and priorities shift, so our time might shift as well.

How do you optimize your work not to get overwhelmed with all the responsibilities that you have?

The easiest thing is trying to permit myself to say no. It’s a very easy thing for me, and of course, I’m not alone with this, to try to address the situation by taking on as much as possible. Working harder, squeezing more hours into the day, and that’s self-defeating again.

The quality of work goes down, you become stressed out, you get grumpy, and people keep asking you for things, because you keep saying yes, so there’s no end to it. I try to think very hard about where my time is going to be most leveraged for lack of a better term, to apply that time there.

The other rule of thumb that I use, which sometimes works, is I want to be a person that people can come to. And I want my team to be that as well. I will sometimes drop a high-priority project for an hour or so if somebody comes to me and says:

Hey, I’m having a lot of trouble with that slide in my PowerPoint deck, can you help me out?

Is that the most leveraged use of my time? Maybe not, if we are simply thinking about getting work done. But regarding being a person – and eventually being a team – that people can say:

Oh yeah, I can rely on them when I get stuck on a slide for a sales presentation. They will give me an icon or some advice.

I believe when designing products like Heap, that have complex dashboards, you need to be focused on making the product consistent. Does working alone make this task easier to achieve?

The product has been around for several years now, so I think the biggest challenge in making it more consistent is what it always has been. It’s already got some inconsistencies. You look at it and say:

Man, I wish I could make it more consistent.

Or you are working on a new design project, and you say:

I’m going to stick with existing patterns.

You realize that there are many competing patterns to choose from. It’s inevitable with a product that has been around for a while and hasn’t had a lot of design support.

I don’t think that would be harder with a couple more people. You can still coordinate a small group of designers pretty well. That gives us potential bandwidth to do a whole survey of the product, start to consolidate the design system.

The biggest trouble is finding the engineering cycles to do it. Combining the code-base in conjunction with consolidating the design system is absolutely the right way to do it. You come out on the other side with a consistency that’s enforced in code, instead of mockups.

I can’t say if that level of effort is worth pausing everything else to do, or if it’s better to do in the course of other work.

The questions here are: how do we insure consistency over time and where are the right points to stop and make a more conservative effort to become more consistent.

I think that would get only easier for at least the next 3 designers to join the team. It gets harder to force consistency when you have a team big enough that you can’t get them all around a desk and talk about something.

At what point you know that you have to start hiring new people? What made you realize that?

It was before I started. It’s been a goal from day one, and it’s something that my CEO holds me accountable for. It’s certainly become more evident over time.

As a member of the company’s executive team, I spend a significant percentage of my time on things that are not just working on the design of the product. Maybe that’s administrative details of how the company is operating, maybe it’s figuring out our strategy for the next 6 or 12 months.

But that makes the problem more severe in a sense because that’s less time spent designing things. Certainly, I’d say in my first couple of months, before that I had expected to have more time to do design, and it’s been even less than I thought.

But I’ve been hiring since I started.

What characteristics do you have in mind regarding your future colleagues?

I’m looking for a few things. I mentioned both a need for a design system and probably a need for not prioritizing it today. That reflects the fact that I need people who are really strong on UX, on problem-solving, on information architecture, on identifying user needs and coming up with elegant solutions for complex problems.

These days we hire full stack product designers, and we mean somebody who can do all the things but not equally well because very few of us do them equally well. If I’m looking for a spike, I want it to be on the UX side. Beyond that I’m looking for folks who are at least a little bit technical, somebody who has worked with JavaScript a little bit and is not afraid of a SQL statement.

Something I want to ensure as we grow is that the design team and the engineering team collaborate tightly. If the design team is at least a little bit technical, that opens up some possibilities to collaborate in the code-base.

Not necessarily in terms of designers checking in code, but more like checking assets, tweaking CSS values, working with React components. I’m also looking for designers who can write reasonably good UI copy. Those are the hard skills.

On the soft-skills side, I’m looking for people who are passionate, driven and care about what they do and are interested in growing. I’m also looking for people who are humble. That have a sense of humor and are ready to poke fun of themselves. They also have to be interested in being respectful and learning from the people around them.

That’s sometimes a tough balance to find – a passion on the one hand and the humility and humor on the other. But that’s something that we have at Heap that I want to make sure we preserve. It’s a lot of why I joined in the first place.

Last but not least, I’m looking for people who are pragmatic and professional. People who understand that every decision we make has to be a trade-off. I want them to be a part of the trade-off. I want people who recognize that our job should be fun when we stand back from 1000 feet, and we look at it. Our job should be rewarding. But at the 10 feet level, sometimes we have to do some crappy stuff, and that’s like any job.

I want people who can come along for that ride and who realize that their day-to-day job will be a mix of stuff that’s rewarding and stuff that’s just got to get done. They are going to have to operate with timelines and constraints.

What tips would you give to someone who is or will be working as the only designer on the team?

Finding the opportunity to talk to others about their designs. That could be going to meetups, creating a relationship with a designer from another company that’s in a similar position, so that you can bounce ideas off each other.

When I was freelancing, I learned a lot from myself, or from reading blog posts and books. But once I came into a team and became a part of that team I realized how much more I can learn by having people around me.

So find ways how to surround yourself with people who can give you perspectives that aren’t your own. That’s hard. It’s easy to say find other designers, but you’re busy – it’s hard. Make that effort.

Beyond that, cultivating feedback relationships within your company can be valuable. I do get input that’s incredibly valuable from our engineers and our product managers. You start to know who are the people you can go to for input on design that’s going to be on a level that’s valuable for you.

I also tend to turn people around me into kind of a de facto design critique team. We do design reviews, people show up, and I get input, and that’s valuable, even though they’re not designers. And I’ve encouraged folks outside the immediate team to come to those.

We don’t have the space set up yet, but I’ve considered having those design critiques out in the open, so people wandering by can be a part of it. It’s about welcoming non-designers to the team. It doesn’t necessarily mean they will be working in Sketch.

Dave, thanks a lot for the interview! There is anything that you would like to plug in?

I’m hiring! If what I mentioned is appealing for you and you’re reading this, drop me a line. I’m looking to build a team that’s going to be a lot of fun, and we are going to work on really interesting, challenging projects.

Follow Dave: Twitter, LinkedIn.

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Nick Budden / CEO @ Phase

Designer, and sometimes-writer. Canadian in Taiwan ✈ Berlin. Trying to help people enjoy being creative.