Four ways UX Designers can make their mark on an established product

Nayna Trehan

November 14, 2014

This post was made possible by having insightful conversations with a few great Toronto designers: Ricardo Vazquez, UI/UX Designer at Mozilla (@iamrvazquez), Alex M. Chong, Product Designer at Pivotal Labs (@alexmchong) and Huda Idrees, who has experience as a Product Designer at both Wave and Wattpad (@hidrees).

Every UX Designer I’ve ever met with has one thing in common: they all want to leave a mark on the product they work on. A designer’s design philosophy is often deeply personal, you might even say religious.

Working at a startup where a designer can shape a product from scratch offers a wealth of opportunities to shape UX. But if you’re a UX designer moving from a startup where you’ve had a lot of influence to a growth-stage company with an established, more mature product with a significant user base and UX approach, the opportunities for creative impact can be less obvious.

How can a UX Designer leave their mark on an established product? Here are four ways.

1. Influence begins with trust.

UX is as much about change management as it is about creativity. Consider how product decisions are made and how your recommendations will impact product, sales, support and development teams (not to mention the user and customer). Amazing products are the result of stakeholders working together. To work together, your team will have to trust your UX process and methodologies and ability to deliver real results.

One way to build trust is by understanding the technology. While not all UX designers can write code, it’s important for your credibility to understand your medium: how the platform is architected, the components of the technology stack and its limitations on accommodating design changes and A/B testing. Speak a developer’s language and understand their pains and not only will you have more success communicating your ideas and building trust, but you’ll also create an access point for developers into the design process and give them a chance to contribute valuable feedback (e.g., on performance).

Another way to build trust is to show that you respect the past. It’s important to understand the content and pain-points of how the design process has usually been run (these are also great questions to ask during an interview to avoid surprises when you join the team). How did the experience get to where it is today? Was it hacked together based on gut feel and a developer who had a good eye? Or does the company have a firmly established UX process which delivers proven results? Choose your words carefully when talking about the existing experience – you don’t want to insult the lead engineer by telling them that the existing UX is sub-par.

2. Leave your ego at the door and let the data do the talking.

Joining a growth-stage company might require a bit of wrestling with your ego and creative instincts at first, especially if you’re used to calling the shots at an early stage startup, but it’s also an opportunity to flex your research and data-driven design skills. Successful UX designers I’ve spoken to are quick to emphasize the importance of being humble – what’s best for the product should always be your main concern, not putting your personal stamp on everything.

While user research might not always align with your creative urges, the ideas for improvement will be firmly rooted in data, giving you credibility with your team and confidence that your contributions are informed. Successful startups engage in consistent feedback loops with customers and users. They achieve this through data-centric products like Olark, Zendesk, Mixpanel, KISSmetrics or Lean UX activities like weekly, in-person user testing days, creating a stream of user research that is always available for analysis.

In a professional services environment, leaning on user research has the added bonus of being a good arbiter of decisions when a designer and client disagree (inevitable, since design decisions require a lot of assumptions). Referring to user research is a good way to move forward from a design decision stalemate and prove yourself as a great client-facing designer.

3. Add delight with microinteractions.

Microinteractions are the “tiny, humanizing details” that inspire a feeling of delight, novelty and surprise when using a product, and are another opportunity for designers to leave their mark. These details aren’t something to be underestimated. According to author Dan Saffer, when they’re well-executed they can increase adoption and customer loyalty because they make an otherwise mundane task enjoyable or fun (like the “time left in chapter/book” icon in the corner of your Kindle screen). The power of microinteractions is apparent when you think of those that have become a signature part of a product experience – think of the Facebook Like, or for an old-school example, AOL’s “You’ve got mail” notification.

4. Ask for ownership of a small part of the product.

Flexible leaders make a big difference in allowing you to put your creative stamp on a product. Is your new leadership team open to letting you own a small portion of the product that could use a refresh? Take advantage of your boss’ delegation style to get creative. Even a company with an established product and an existing style guide and creative direction might have a less-frequently used page of their platform that could use a little TLC without disrupting the overall experience for existing users.

Are you a UX designer who has successfully made your mark on a more mature product? Have a great piece of advice to add? Leave us your thoughts and feedback below.

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