Leaving the Agency World: Advice for New Product Designers

Most designers don’t dream about working on one brand, one website, and one UI. They crave variety. That’s why I joined an agency right out of school and didn’t think twice about going into product design. Nobody really did; agencies were where all the cool kids were. Designers could breath life into so many different (and sometimes sad) corners of the internet at an agency. They could work on Nike one day and BMW the next. Exposed brick, thick-rimmed glasses, and a portfolio full of big brands: That was the dream.  

I worked at various agencies for about five years and for the most part, I loved it. But I started to feel like something was missing after a while. The colorful variety and revolving door of projects became less and less fulfilling. I realized that making things beautiful is a passion of mine, but so is understanding how design actually impacts the people using it. Were my designs improving someone’s day-to-day or did I inadvertently make it harder with what I thought was an amazing redesign? It’s hard to know what kind of impact your work has (if any at all) when you’re focused on solving for the client, not the customer. So I decided to leave the agency world a few years ago to become a product designer.

Product companies are invested in their customers’ success and happiness. That means designers are tasked with crafting the best possible user experience not just because it’s pretty, but because it will actually help someone. When customers use software every single day to do their jobs, one little UI improvement can save them a ton of time. That kind of opportunity was what drew me to the product world. Now I’m part of a team that’s maniacal about what customers are thinking and feeling, and is on a mission to solve for them.

Transitioning from agency designer to product designer wasn’t a simple flip of a switch, though. Most design skills and talent are transferrable, but there’s a huge learning curve in switching from an agency setting to a product environment. Everything from working with engineers to managing timelines is different. For anyone new to product design or thinking about making the move, knowing what to expect makes a big difference. So to help with the initial culture shock, here are a few things I would tell myself if I could go back in time to my first few months in product design.

 

Work With What You (and Other Designers) Know

When I first joined HubSpot, it quickly became clear how much I didn’t know. I was used to being part of an assembly line at agencies; UX designers would hand me wireframes and I would pass my designs off to engineering. Product designers, on the other hand, are part of the entire process, from researching user flows to shipping the final product.

There was so much to learn: What was a flow? Is editing in place better or should you use a form? What are best practices for user settings? Is it wrong to use a modal here? I had intuition about things but no framework to help me apply it in the product world. Combine that with the fact that UX is a relatively young field where best practices can feel like a moving target, and I was lost. Not surprisingly, impostor syndrome was tough to shake for the first few weeks. 

Instead of obsessing over everything I didn’t have experience with, I decided to work with what I knew, and with what my team knew. I leaned on my own visual design background, sketching constantly and getting feedback quickly. I made high fidelity mockups and when something didn’t work, I went back to sketching. I remember looking up a lot of patterns (once I had learned what a pattern was) and using that as a starting point. To really get caught up though, I had to look outside myself and ask for help. I was lucky to be paired with a veteran product manager who gave me guardrails to work with and helpful designers who are experts in the areas I’m not.

At the end of the day, no designer has mastered everything there is to master. Design is too broad of a skill set. That’s why it’s important to leverage your area of speciality and keep an open dialogue. Getting feedback from your team, showing them your designs early and often, and never being afraid to ask for help will make a world of difference in your first few weeks.

 

Focus on Iteration, Not Deadlines

Anyone who has worked at an agency knows the adrenaline rush of deadlines. Working under pressure is business as usual and the biggest question driving a project is, “When do you need this by?” You go from deadline to deadline with pockets of time in between, waiting for crunch time to start again.

At a product company, iteration is the most important thing. Designers are focused on staying several steps ahead of engineers so they can put the necessary infrastructure in place. That means the pace is fast, but it’s steadier and less influenced by outside forces. Instead of deadlines, product people talk in terms of who will be “blocked” if they don’t have a design direction within an approaching timeframe. This is all internal team pressure. It can still be stressful but designers have more control over what gets out the door when and how priorities get shaped.

You’ll probably feel some tension at first not knowing when people expect deliverables from you. Am I taking too long? What if I spend too much time researching this problem and not showing actual designs? You might have a strong urge to show something tangible as quickly as possible. That’s great  but remember that as a product designer, your most important step in the process is defining the problem. If you don’t take the time dig deep into the core problem, every line you draw and pixel you nudge won’t matter. You’ll just be going full speed in the wrong direction.

Getting to the root of a problem can take some time, and that’s okay. They key is to communicate and set expectations. Collaborate with your team by sketching out ideas, whiteboarding scenarios, or talking to users together. When everyone is engaged in the process and you’re solving the problem together, there’s less worry about deadlines or blocking. Your team and colleagues like to see progress, and if they don’t have to ask, even better.

 

Take Feedback with the Future in Mind

One of the best parts of working for a product company is that feedback comes from the end user, not a client. As soon as your design gets shipped out into the wild, it’s time for the ultimate stress of hearing how it was received and how users are interacting with it. You’ll get all kinds of comments and a variety of user scenarios, and because you empathize with users, you’ll want to jump on them. For example, maybe there’s a button several users can’t find and your instinct is to fix it immediately. My advice here is simple: Don’t.

As much as you want to squash everyone’s pain points, it’s best to just wait. Let the feedback roll-in and start looking for patterns. There might be a hundred different comments that end up pointing to the same underlying issue. That’s the one problem you want to solve. Otherwise, you’ll end up chasing a million tiny surface requests that will make a few individuals happy but compromise the experience at large.

Being so close to user feedback has made me realize that product designers have to help people manage change. Parsing the difference between bad design and a user who’s stuck in their ways is hard, but it’s an important distinction. If what you’re designing is drastically different, be prepared for a lot of people to hate it. Just remember that no design will ever be perfect because designs solve specific problems, and those problems evolve over time. So don’t let fear of change stifle progress. Design with the future in mind, not the past.

 

Design with Empathy

Working on one brand, one website, and one UI used to sound crazy to me. But if you care about the humans you’re designing for, product design makes perfect sense. Making the switch from the agency world to a product company doesn’t happen overnight, but remember that solving for the customer is what you, your team, and your company have in common. So lean into that.

There’s going to be an initial culture shock but it wears off faster when you know how to navigate it. Identify your strengths and find ways to use them to your advantage. Ask a lot of questions and lean on others who are stronger in areas you need help in. Channel your speed into fast, proactive iteration, and learn how to digest feedback.   

At the end of the day, it’s all about empathy. I became a product designer because I care about the impact my designs have on people. There are a lot of tools, processes, and UX practices out there. They all come down to the same thing: finding ways to walk in a customer’s shoes and hopefully make their journey a little easier, and little happier.

Jonathan Meharry

Written by Jonathan Meharry

Jonathan is a Product Designer at HubSpot.

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