Letter to a future product designer from UX Designer at Shopify

Vivienne Kay,Product Designer at Shopify

Dear future product designer,

I’m so happy you’re interested in product designer career. I fell into it by accident myself, but the past couple of years have been the best of my life. In this time I’ve grown as a designer but also as a thinker, a problem-solver, a teammate, and a person. But is this the right career for you? And (if you decide the answer is yes), how can you get the right skills and then find a job?

To answer these questions, I’ve divided this letter into three main parts: getting started in product design, getting a foot in the door, and next steps (along with some final words of encouragement). I hope that wherever you start, and wherever you end, some of these thoughts are helpful to you along the way.

Getting started

The beauty of product design is that you can find your way to this career from almost any background. For example, the designers I work with studied Sociology, Anthropology, English Literature, Industrial design, Graphic Design, Multimedia, Computer science, etc.). There’s no formal prerequisite for schooling, but there are core skill-sets that will serve you well in this role. Here are three I’ve observed to be fundamental:

  • Critical thinking
    • The ability to connect the dots between sometimes distant, or seemingly isolated pieces of information. For example, can you balance data insights, design patterns, and product vision in your mind, when solving for a specific problem.
  • Communication skills
    • How you organize and present ideas matters for your own sanity, but also to share context and involve your team in your design process. Two heads are always better than one in this job, and a clearly stated problem is practically half-solved.
  • Design principles
    • You don’t have to be a trained graphic designer, but you need a strong foundation in the basics like spacing, typography, colour theory etc. It’s a bonus if you’re familiar with design patterns on web and mobile devices.

And here are a couple of additional skills that will give you an edge above the rest:

  • Technical knowledge
    • An understanding of technical tools, basic coding skills. This is helpful to understand the limitations, and possibilities, for designing on web and mobile. It will also give you a leg-up when you’re collaborating with front-end, back-end, and mobile developers.
  • Writing skills
    • Good writing is powerful because it brings clarity to complex ideas; this can help you record and document decisions. Writing briefs or decision logs is also useful and also share context and encourage alignment within a team. There’s also a golden rule that’s so often broken: no designer should ever (ever) use fake text, or Lorem Ipsum, to fill in space. Using real content, sometimes in a range of languages, will impact your design decisions).  
  • Ability to analyze and apply research and/or data to decisions
    • Our role is as product designers is to champion the needs of the end-user. Our decisions should, as much as possible, be informed by real-world problems and needs. If you don’t have a researcher on your team, you’ll become a huge asset to your team (and company) by getting out there and talking to the people that use your product. Share what you learn with your team, and use that knowledge to power your design thinking.

So those are the core skills that will set you up for success. You can develop some of these skills in university programs, but others can come from less traditional places. Wherever you are today, and whatever your past experience, is a fantastic start. All work experience matters— all of it can be used to make you a better product designer. Here are two examples from my life:

Example one:

In college I worked in the campus bookstore for a year. I was a mature student (coming back after my undergrad) and worried that this job was two steps backwards instead of forwards. I never could have predicted this, but today as a product designer on the inventory team at Shopify, I lean heavily on my first-hand experience scanning products, searching the back-room for boxes of inventory with matching SKUS, and participating in the annual store shut-down where we closed our doors and counted inventory quantities all day. This experience helps me keep real world use-cases in mind as I design interfaces for managing inventory today. It also allows me to develop more understanding with ever research conversation, interview, or piece of user feedback.

Example two:

As a second example of the value and potential relevance of any life experience—after my undergrad I decided to take a year off to travel the world. This was an incredible experience that ultimately shaped who I am today. As part of my travels, I spent three months living in Brazil and taking intensive Brazilian Portuguese classes (when I wasn’t lounging on the beach sipping on coconuts, of course). Learning another language and being immersed in another culture, has given me a great foundation to start thinking about localization — something that’s really important in product design right now. If you’re not familiar with it, localization is how we adapting our products to fit with different cultures and communities around the world. Localization includes translation, but can also impact tone-of-voice, colour, imagery and more. Having travelled to different countries, and experienced different cultures, gives me a helpful start to thinking about localization in my day-to-day work.

In a nutshell, wherever you are today you probably already have lots of skills that would be valuable in a career as a product designer. If you read the list of core skills I mentioned above and notice any gaps, this is your opportunity to fill them! There are so many fantastic online programs to help with a range of skills (design, coding, product management, writing) — check out Lynda.com, Treehouse, Codecademy, Udemy,  and Skillshare to name a few.

Getting a foot in the door

When I’m searching the internet for product designers that would be a great fit on my team, the first thing I notice are great UX case studies. Visual designs skills are also great to include, but first you must show how you think about design problems.

Here’s what I’m thinking when I look at a good UX or product design case study:

  • What’s your problem solving process — do you start with enough context in that area and are the challenges and constraints clearly stated?
  • What causes you to iterate, or change directions as you get deep into problem-solving mode? Are your changes purposeful, insightful, and do they lead to a better solution at the end?
  • Can you clearly communicate (and test) your ideas in low-fidelity? This can be with sharpie-on-paper sketches, scrappy mockups, or digital wireframes using Sketch,  Balsamiq or Adobe illustrator or photoshop.

If you’re already working in product design and have real-world case studies; please share details about the design problems that you solved. If you’re in school, share your class projects. If you’re switching careers, brainstorm about existing problems in your daily life, and solve them. If you need more inspiration, look in your local area for Meetups for UX designers, product designers, or other people in the tech industry. You might also be able to join as a designer on a team in a local Hackathon. And if you need inspiration, typing “UX Case Study” into google or on Medium will return loads of great examples to get you started. Another option is to think about existing websites or apps that you use, and write a thoughtful case study about that — this is a great way to think-through (and learn by observing) existing product design. Here’s one example I wrote about the redesign of Google Calendar.

The best part about a case-study is, you don’t have to be working in design, or studying design to get started. And you don’t have to have a fancy website either; some people have been scouted right from Medium (a free platform for anyone to read and share articles on practically any topic).

How many case studies should you have? One really well-thought out case study might be enough to get you an interview, but the more you have, the better. They’re fun to make, and you’ll likely learn new skills with each one. Don’t be afraid to push yourself with them either; move into high-fidelity mockups, play with both web and mobile native apps, maybe focus in on a well-scoped design problem like filtering, or how search works. Our world is bursting with juicy problems that are begging to be solved by strong design thinkers. The world is your oyster! The more you can develop, and share your quality problem-solving skills, the more attention you’ll get from other designers and recruiters. And the more examples you’ll have to share in your interviews! Remember, we’re looking for curiosity, enthusiasm, and thoughtfulness.

Next steps

The time is ripe to move into product design, and if you’ve decided you’d like to learn more the next best step is to talk to people in the field. Learn more about their day-to-day tasks, and start building relationships in the design community.

When I was finishing up school I was debating between graphic design and product design. I decided on product design after hearing more from an alumni in my program — she visited our class and talked about her job, and I was immediately curious. So I invited her for a coffee, and she said yes! I learned so much, and was even more intrigued. So I asked if she could recommend other people to that would be great to talk to, and I reach out to ask them for a coffee and chat as well. I also attended various events in my area that were related to design and tech, and chatted with as many people as I could.

Starting with coffee is a really easy first step; and a gateway to finding a mentor. If you click with anyone you chat with, you might want to ask if they have the time to be your mentor. Mentorship can be very flexible; maybe you’ll chat once a month on a google hangout, or maybe you’ll send them drafts of your case-studies as you write them. It’s really up to you and them to define what works best for you. Having a mentor who’s already working in product design is a huge asset —they can give you tips on applying for internships or jobs, preparing your portfolio, and getting ready for the interview. And, if they think you’d be an asset to their team, then they might even give you an internal referral for a job in their company. So don’t be shy, we’re a friendly (and very diverse assortment) of people in product design — reach out to us to chat online or, if you’re in the same town, grab a coffee. Everyone needs help getting their career started, I sure did! And as a mentor, it’s such a pleasure to be able to help someone else who’s genuinely passionate about the work that you do. I should note that your preferred mentor might not accept your invitation to chat — they might be too busy with existing commitments, for example. That’s ok! There are plenty of opportunities for mentorship out there, so don’t give up. If you don’t hear back from a mentor, or they are too busy, respect that maybe they really are too busy and find someone who has a bit more time to help you out.

If you’re a student, or switching careers, you might want to consider internships as a place to start. This is a chance to get real hands-on experience in product design — and if the company likes you, they’ll hire you full-time. I started as an intern at Shopify, and we offer paid internships a few times a year. If you already have experience and are ready to apply to jobs, get your résumé out there. Most tech companies hire year round, and Shopify is no exception — you can apply to be a product designer here.

Now, if you’re applying for internships or jobs and you don’t get into your dream company the first time, don’t give up! Use this as an opportunity to learn and improve so that you stand a better chance next time. A growth mindset is your greatest asset in this career (and, I’d argue, in life). For example, if you were rejected from a job opportunity, politely ask if there are specific skills you can develop that would make you a more appealing candidate in the future.


A few words of encouragement

The truth is that the world (and the tech industry) needs more skilled product designers. There are jobs out there for you, and you’ll get one if you have the drive and dedication to keep learning and improving your skills.

If you’re feeling discouraged, but you love product design, remember the end goal — your effort in developing new skills, learning more about product design, building relationships in the industry, and applying for jobs will all be worth it. I can tell you from my own experience, that working as a product designer is a wonderful, deeply satisfying, and immensely rewarding career. I still jump out of bed, excited to go into work every day! And you can have that too. Wherever you are today, the path towards a career in product design is an option if you want it (maybe we’ll even end up working together one day!)

End note
If you decide that this is the career for you, then I am super excited for you. But if it’s not for you, that’s ok too! I hope that whatever your path (product design or not), you find your way to doing work that gives you an opportunity to use your unique skills to bring new value to a team, a company, an organization, and the world. Whatever your choice and next steps are, I’m excited for you and wish you all the best.

— Vivienne

Vivienne Kay is a UX (user experience) designer at Shopify, a multi-channel commerce platform. She works with team of talented engineers, user-experience specialists, and product managers on juicy challenges in the realm of inventory and logistics. Viv’s also passionate about writing and public speaking. For links to her articles and talks visit www.vivkay.com.

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