Here's my hot take: disengage from formalised ways of doing user research - those have a place and time but now isn’t one. At this nascent stage, you’re looking for cues that’ll help you decide which direction to go in and you’ll want to lean heavily on your design instincts.

A Founding Designer's Guide to the Early Days

The other day a fellow founding designer booked into my ADPList profile where I recently started offering mentorship to upcoming designers. seeking advice on navigating the challenges of being the sole designer in their company. While their domain differed from mine at Glowstick, the issues they faced resonated deeply. After two years in this role, I admire anyone braving the rollercoaster ride of early-stage product building!

The Early-Stage Design Landscape:

Whether pre-product or pre-seed, you'll likely be the sole designer, crafting everything from rough sketches to prototypes, often with limited resources, tight deadlines, and a dash of "shoddy" market research. It can be daunting, especially for newcomers, regardless of their prior design experience.

And imagine if you’re pre-funding the founders might put in their capital and hire a designer to come up with mock-ups that will fuel fundraising efforts. With limited resources user research is blocked out for 3 months (give or take) and the designer spends all their time on slick, Dribble-worthy mockups. The goal here is to imagine a positive future for the product, and learn enough about your total addressable market so founders are not completely out to lunch in front of potential investors! Product-market fit might not be the immediate priority at this stage.

With that context: here are some of my learnings and strategies. Fair warning, these are guidelines and not exactitudes. Eventually, you get a sense of what is good and right for the company and product you’re building but if you need another perspective, let this be that for you.

User Research while being Scrappy:

Traditional user research can be rigid when you're a one-person show, especially in B2B where access to users can be limited. Thankfully, at Glowstick, Masha Krol and Anwar A. Jeffrey the co-founders, set the precedent of having continuous conversations with our user group from day one, even through all the pivots. This meant we always had some users to show our working prototypes to and have discovery conversations with.

But that might not be your reality - I get that. So, here's the deal: get scrappy with finding your users. I'm talking about scouring Reddit communities and joining every online group imaginable - even if it means occasionally being a fly on the wall to gain insights. Contribute meaningfully.

Here's my hot take: disengage from formalised ways of doing user research - those have a place and time but now isn’t one. At this nascent stage, you’re looking for cues that’ll help you decide which direction to go in and you’ll want to lean heavily on your design instincts.

What does this look like in practice?

  • Embrace "low-fidelity" research: Want to interview someone but can't find anyone willing to commit to a 30-minute slot? Ask yourself, "What's the lowest lift way to get a signal?" Why the lowest lift? Because you don't want to create unnecessary roadblocks that stop you from learning and iterating. Here are some ideas: break down your interview questions into bite-sized chunks and conduct them asynchronously over email, or set up a quick poll on LinkedIn and message those who respond for a chat.
  • Share product screens, no matter how rough, with at least one or two potential users for every iteration. If you're lucky enough to have a huge customer base (dang, you!), aim for a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 5. I've noticed that by the time you hit 3 conversations, you start seeing patterns emerge, especially if your interview questions are consistent across all sessions. Truth bomb: sharing work in progress used to terrify me, but Masha, our CEO with an illustrious UX design background (IBM, Element AI), helped me see the value in doing it.

Design System: To be or not to be?

It's plausible you're designing everything from scratch. Even if you acquire a few screens, the majority of the product vision, UX flows, and visual language will come from you.

And guess what? It's all going to change as fast as you design it. So, in this scenario, a full-fledged design system is probably overkill. I would definitely consider this after a Seed Round post PMF. It's like trying to build concrete design principles when the foundation of your product is still wet cement!

But here's the thing: you can still set yourself up for success by building a component library. Establish your grids, padding conventions, button styles, and type styles – these are the things you'll use a lot. Depending on your domain, think about those often-used components: data tables, forms, or cards – build those next. Shout out to my brother Samudra Gupta, who's also a designer and a big proponent of setting rules and guiding principles. He helped me recognize the value of having a few core elements in place to keep things moving quickly, without worrying about scaling at this early juncture.

As you can see, you might be lonely on your Figma file but you don’t have to be off on an island - though that will be a reality as well. Find mentors when you need them, ping your designer buddies, and LEAN ON YOUR TEAM!!. Yes, your engineers, product and GTM colleagues know your users inside-out and therefore are in an equally great position to give you feedback. Learn to discern valuable suggestions from those that might not align with product and business goals.


We hear this often and it is so true. Founding designers can often feel isolated, but remember, you're not alone. Seek out mentors, and connect with fellow designers. Now and then, I do coffee chats with Founding Designers - so I stay in the loop!

This journey is wild, ya’ll. It's demanding, with its share of challenges and moments of doubt. But the rewards are incomparable. The founding teammates become your strongest supporters, and you learn to navigate curveballs, pivots, and uncharted territory with confidence. You gain a profound understanding of your domain, users, and customers, witnessing both the triumphs and setbacks of a business firsthand. It's a truly fascinating experience that can significantly shape your growth as a designer. So, embrace the unknown, keep learning, and don't be afraid to ask for help! :)

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