Kickstart your design career at a startup

Marlene Schufferth on why agency work may no longer be the best route to a top web design career.

Many fledgling UX designers start their creative careers by joining an established agency because of the consistency that client-focused projects routinely offer.

With client satisfaction at the centre of the work, projects benefit from a clear goal and successful agencies can attract a variety of projects. Designers get to develop their craft excellence and design excellence brings the opportunity to bag recognised industry awards.

At a broader level, the creative exchange at the heart of a good design agency breeds innovation and team integration, while the practice of documentation which forms part of a project enables young designers to systematise their process and broaden their self-understanding and design habits as well as identify their creative strengths and weaknesses.

All the more reason to join an agency, you might think. And speaking at this year's TYPO Berlin conference, UX designer Marlene Schufferth agrees. But at the same time, she doesn't shy away from the disadvantages that her own agency experience had exposed her to.

Marlene Schufferth's website

Design gamble

"It can be a gamble, because you're not in charge of your projects," warns Schufferth.

"For a start, it's the client who dictates whether or not a project ever sees the light of day. The budget is usually out of your control, and what if the work begins to overrun it? If the client is okay then it may be possible to re-negotiate," she explains, "but if they aren't, you could end up doing endless amounts of overtime and hating the project."

Granted it's true that the success of a project breeds constant acquisition and personal as well as agency-wide validation. But how much does your client know about the end user – the very people you are designing for?

"Your client may rarely get feedback from its users, which make or break the ultimate success of any project," says Shufferth. "Working for a client means you can't see your users or pitch an idea to them, which can leave you clueless."

Which is why a start-up may be a better option.

What's a start-up?

A technology start-up is essentially "a young company that has a hypothesis or idea that can improve users' lives and wants to bring it to reality – to validate a hypothesis."

While agency-based projects often have a set path to a pre-determined goal, start-ups engage in the continual development of a product which always has the end user in mind.

"Start-ups offer an environment in which you can get to know your users and learn from them," explains Schufferth. "You get to take a user-representative role and apply the kind of UX toolkit that goes far beyond simple web coding."

Schufferth proposes that startups are better for learning than agencies

User research

"User research allows you to develop meaningful features in face-to-face communication with the people who matter most," continues Schufferth.

"Identifying user problems and motivations can then form the basis for you to expand that into a survey," which enables you to identify user 'clusters' and meaningfully integrate insights from Big Data sources such as Google Analytics.

"With user clusters you can create personas," Schufferth explains. "You exaggerate the cluster and give it a face and a name. Working with personas, you soon learn that most users are totally unlike you."

Identifying user clusters is key, says Schufferth

Ideation

Start-ups are all about nurturing ideation – and that usually means sticking to the analog world (at least initially), making use of whiteboards, sketchpads and post-it notes to help with creative brainstorming.

"With interaction design, these stages allow you to step back and think how it all works, using test cases, wireframing and prototypes," Schufferth continues. "You can then share these with friends and colleagues, and see if they really work."

Visual design

This is the point where your project develops its personality and emotion, adds Schufferth. Intelligent use of colour and typefaces brings about the feel and tonality of the front-facing UX.

Good UX has intelligent use of colour and type

Testing

Then the real-world experimenting begins. "You have to think about what metrics define the success of your test," she says. "You get to learn from your mistakes."

Worst-case scenario, your tests come back 'flat' – in short, the statistics you record only tell you that the user doesn't care about the particular appearance of a button, say.

Summary

Agencies, then, are client-focused, can be career-nurturing and offer plenty of creative variety, but they can also be either great to work for, or just plain annoying.

Start-ups meanwhile are user-focused, data-driven and allow for more measurable success. They have the potential to change users' experience in real and meaningful ways, and offer excellent feedback so that your fully-owned product continually evolves and improves out of this exchange. This also makes them more community-driven.

To finish, Schufferth noted that there's no right or wrong path to cultivating a UX design career. But whatever type of company you work for, ultimately "a successful product needs a great user experience and a great designer".

Words: Tim Hardwick

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