Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I’m Andy Parker, the UX Coach. And this is where I share people’s stories of career success and failure from across the tech industry. Today, I’m talking to Marvin Hassan, a UX designer from Germany, who wants to pay back the community with his insights into design leadership, and navigating the different phases of tech startups.
What is the role of a designer when a business is operating on VC money? How do you create great products when the mission is to pay back your debt?
We’ll be talking about all of these things and more in this episode. Before I hand you over to Marvin, I wanted to share some news about UX Coaching, we’re running a special offer to help you rewire your mind for success in 2024. If you book a coaching package between now and the end of January, you will receive a 20% discount. To find out more head over to theuxcoach.com.
Over to Marvin.
I’m someone that didn’t, didn’t consider themselves to be very creative. When I left school, I originally got my Abitur is what they call it in Germany, and then went on to study business, I actually went for an MBA. And since I come from a working class family, I always had to kind of work on the side and, you know, make sure that all the bills were paid, I worked in a travel agency. And while I was doing that, you know, the this was like the early times of travel agencies going online and kind of checking out what the market was doing there for them.
I experimented with HTML and kind of just writing my first kind of websites on my own. And my boss, at the travel agency said, well, if you’re doing this at home, and if you’re interested, why don’t you just, you know, build our website, that’s kind of what got me started.
And then I noticed that I was working quite a lot. And I wasn’t very focused on my educational mysteries anymore. And I quit, I quit studying business administration. And then after a while, I went to private academy to, to study design. And then I found myself in a, in a crowd of hugely, immensely creative people. And that was like the first time impostor syndrome really hit.
But I was, I was getting the grades I was, you know, kind of being successful. And in Yeah, I got my degree to as a designer for new media, it was called back then. And basically, from then on, I kind of did a lot of web design and marketing design and stuff like that.
So new media, I think it’s kind of the same as what we have here in the UK, covers everything from like photography, to print works to videography, like film work and things like that. Is it still the same for you?
Yes, it was, it was really, really broad. And I think that’s also a real benefit to you know, how education works today, and a lot of areas, right, where it’s so focused on just, you know, getting the programs out, I really had a chance to explore what part of this creative life I wanted to get into.
What happens next? What happens after that? You’ve graduated, you’ve already dabbled a little bit with web design in a previous job before sort of heading back to those studies. What What was your first sort of step into that creative career?
Well, unfortunately, the travel agency, you know, was hit pretty hard when a lot of large companies started, you know, going on on it, they just weren’t able to compete. So I left that job. And right out of the Academy, I basically went self employed, we started a small agency with a few friends and did a lot of websites, a lot of, you know, marketing related stuff, and anything from corporate design all the way to kind of first online shops for a bunch of SMBs. So anywhere from roofers that would you know, just doing though, that handiwork, to shops, selling beanies, and stuff like that, so I kind of immediately went into, okay, I’m gonna do this on my own.
I think that’s really cool. And it’s something that I try and encourage a lot of people to do now if rather than going and looking for the job with the big corporation and all of that, I’ve just to try and do something yourself. And I know that you’ve kind of come full circle in a little bit and are starting to move in that direction again now.
You’ve also worked for a number of businesses and you’ve you’ve very much developed a a career, not necessarily in the traditional sense, but you have progressed in terms of your seniority and capability. And then obviously focused very much into a user experience design field. Whereas I guess when you were starting out, you were kind of doing everything you were building sites working out hosting and doing all of the other things or what was the sort of motivation from working for yourself to then going and finding employment in you know, in a larger company.
It was a few things for one i relatively soon kind of noticed that Oh, all this marketing work was kind of nice. It was a lot of creating pretty things. But we started design had this unique capability of making complex things understandable for every, everyone out there, right. So I wanted to do more of that. And then a friend of mine actually introduced me to UX, through the UX BarCamp, Europe, he was one of the very early members of that kind of group. And he said, Well, why don’t you join us there. And ever since I went to that first bar came up, and I was just hooked, that was just this immediate feeling of these are my people, this is what I want to be doing, and have left it since.
So that was really, you know, one of the big things and then joining the corporation, I actually was in politics for a while as kind of like a side gig, if you will, I ran for office here in Berlin. And I noticed that my freelance work, and you know, politics, and kind of all of that, in having a life outside of work didn’t work as well as I thought. So then I kind of went to into this secure area of full time employment at a company, working with a team when I didn’t have to wear all the hats and do all the things all the time, I could really focus on UX and creating products and stuff like that.
Do you find yourself in working in a business? Were you one of many people in design? Or was did you experience the challenges of like, I’m the only person that does this thing in this company? What was that? Like?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I wish I would have been in an organisation where there was, you know, there was a lot of support. And a lot of people I was able to learn from at the beginning, you know, you get into UX, I think it can be quite a steep learning journey. And if you’re doing it on your own, I mean, you have a great chance of being impactful and kind of learning on the job. And I think that helps build practice really quickly. But it can also be very lonely, because you’re the only one in the organisation that kind of things like you do and kind of approaches problems like you do.
So now, at the beginning, I was the only designer in the team. And yeah, that kind of has, has stayed consistent. I was always one of them, the more senior people, if not the most senior UX person in my, in my job ever since then.
That’s a big challenge that many people face. Right. And it’s definitely one that we’ve talked about a lot on the show in the past, there are quite often instances where you are the design team of one. And it doesn’t really matter how big that company is either. Right?
Sometimes really big companies, you might be the only person that’s that’s involved in that particular role. You mentioned started to explore user experience design through going to UX BarCamp, what kind of role do you see that peer development, having in your ability to be able to expand your skill set and your capabilities, things like that UX BarCamp?
I think it’s crucial to exchange with the network in the community. If you want to progress for me, it’s always been on the one side kind of check in to see how I was doing what was the you know how up to par was I was the stuff I was learning really, even maybe more importantly, was the connection you felt being in this, you know, as you said, team of one, you finally got to exchange with someone and get a bit of a reality check on how they were approaching things.
And what they were struggling with always say these youth camp you’re up here is like a family gathering. And at the first day, it’s everyone’s like, Yeah, I’m great. And you know, everything’s going great. And we’re being so impactful, then, you know, once people have done their guard a bit, Saturday evening, everyone’s like, Yeah, but then I have to struggle with product management, giving me kind of orders and I’m, you know, I don’t get to do the full processes. While it can seem like frustrating, we have this kind of curve of letting them guide and then being honest, and then sharing our, you know, our, our challenges as well, I think is really, really helpful to see that, you know, it’s not on you necessarily. It’s just the state of the industry in a lot of cases. And there’s ways to work around that there’s ways to learn from each other. And I think the best thing you can do at any stage in your career is stay connected to the people who are like you and Warren Springfield.
You mentioned before that you you’ve always been the most senior person within the organisations that you’ve been at. And sometimes that is down to size, not just the fact that you have decades of experience. I’m very curious to sort of understand the differences in some of those roles and responsibilities. Because if you were to go and look at your career history, you’ve held quite dynamic job titles. So there’s like art director, and head of design, head of UX design, Director of user experience, those kinds of titles, are they all saying the same thing or do they have different responsibility?
First of all, I don’t think they are On the same, but I do think that the we don’t yet have a standard for all of them. Right. So what what’s ahead of design in one organisation can be a director in a different organisation, I’ve seen that happen and or just the team manager and a different organisation, what I’ve experienced is that ahead of usually, or often is the leader of the design team, if there’s no one else there, right, if there’s if the team is small enough, then usually that person becomes like the head of, of the team and the head of the department.
This directors, however, are much closer to executive management and not quite at that level yet, so your VP yet but what you are responsible for is a larger part of the organisation, usually, you would need multiple teams of design, right? So you’d, you probably would just be managing managers, and as a Head of, you’re still kind of working a lot with individual contributors, but your responsibility for the outcomes of a larger part of the organisation’s kind of shift, right, as a Head of Design, I found myself being largely responsible for what the design team was able to deliver, what our processes were, how, you know, the output really, that we were able to do, but as a Director of Design, my job was much more aligning with I was actually product and engineering, Arjun, you know, I was held responsible for what the entire product design in you know, and engineering departments would be able to deliver.
So the real product that we are putting out and the outcomes are, you’re much closer to company’s strategy and influencing that, and being a part of those kinds of decisions and discussions, where if you look towards, you know, career building, and what someone that is trying to move up by might look for, I think there’s a few things that you really have to be careful of right, where designers for reason, one of the things I had to learn, the hard way is that the more you move up the ranks, the less you actually get to work with just designers and work on the stuff that you’re, you’re passionate about. And you have to do other things. So letting go of not only hands on design, but also of working with your people, your crowd, can be difficult, you have to be prepared for that. And we in design, especially in UX, we always talk about having the seat at the table involved in discussions about strategy and where the company should head Well, I see that being impactful and important to things in my opinion and need to need to be there we need to be aware of one is the company, the organisation needs to be ready for design, to have that discussion that doesn’t just, you know, happen organically, if you just invite it to the table, that doesn’t necessarily mean you being impactful, you’re just sitting there, friend of mine says well, we’re in a when we’re in a kid’s seat at that table. So it doesn’t really, you know, doesn’t really help much.
The other thing is that you and your design organisation really have to be ready to discuss at that level, right? It doesn’t make any sense. If your processes, your your own UX maturity isn’t at the level where you, you’re free, and you have enough headspace to contribute to strategy. If that is the case, I’d rather keep focusing on getting your own stuff running first. And then when you’re ready, come to the discussion with at the executive table, or at the strategy table. Because, you know, it doesn’t make sense to bring Figma first and kind of discuss that that’s not something that should be discussing at that level. So make sure your organisation is ready to have design at the table and have you know, have you joined discussions, and make sure that you as a as a design team are actually ready to have those kinds of discussions. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of time. It’s just a waste of capacity. That’s frustrating for everyone.
I wanted to ask you what the motivations or the triggers were for you to move out of being an individual contributor, being a practitioner who was developing, designing and testing the products and services that you had in the company, to looking at the operational side of things?
Is it something that has happened? Because a roll became available? And you apply for it? Because you’re talking about being aware of what the maturity is if the business right, and and the people that are running the business? Was there someone there already that was doing that job they’ve moved on? And so the opportunity is there, or have you created it?
It’s actually a bit of both the first time I stepped into management role was was rather unexpected. I joined a company where there was someone on board that I thought I could learn from that person left like nine days after I joined the company. And so the position opened up. So yeah, there was no one there to manage the design team anymore. And the position was open and I have a tendency to just kind of jump in in the deep end. So I applied for it, got the job. And then I started, you know, building the design team, the processes in, you know, UX maturity from the last role. I was basically hired to do that. They noticed that they had a few designers on board but they weren’t, you know, delivering at the level that they were expected to and the only As he was growing, and so they just needed someone to come in and kind of handle that. So I’ve always kind of been more of the builder of design teams and organisations and also wherever, you know, kind of find my, my comfort zone I, maybe not everyone would agree that that’s the most fun part. But for me, it definitely is.
And in terms of motivation, and this is something I, I just realised relatively late in my career, and looking back kind of is that for me, it’s largely been about the people, I’m working with the people more than what products were building. And I always wanted to have a team of designers that could just, you know, come together and inspire each other and do great things as a team. And since that hadn’t been handed to me in a way, I just started building those teams wherever I could. And I still enjoy that today.
Do you think that that being in this position, where what you’re interested in is being able to develop the capability and the environment for people to be able to do great things in? It relates to the maturity in general with of where businesses are in Germany? Today?
Interesting question. I think there’s not too much of a difference internationally. When I talk to designers and I work with designers International, they all kind of seem to, you know, experienced the same kind of struggles. And yes, depending on the organisation, and how big the takes and startup scene as in a certain area, there’s differences in maturity, right, you can be further along, even though you don’t have necessarily a great big team, it just depends on how committed your upper management and by this I mean, the C-suite, it has to start with them is to actually building products, every startup every tech company, has, you know, something along those lines of are we obsessed about our customers in their value set? Very few of them actually do that?
I think it’s in part because it’s just, you know, involved in you. That’s just a part of the story, you tell you these UBCs? Basically, yeah, I don’t think I don’t think there’s a there’s a huge difference in terms of Germany versus another country, maybe, obviously, the valley, right. But still there, I still see people coming up and say, hey, you know, I have all these methods here. And I only get to use parts of them. And, you know, the design process is never as good as I would like it to run.
One thing I’ve come to realise, especially in these tech companies is that we have to be honest about companies often are in kind of two markets, right? One is the market where they actually run the products, and the other is getting money. And as soon as money runs out, your product is going to be less important, you’re going to have to tell another story to VCs, to get more more runway to get more money.
And then, you know, attention kind of shifts away from customer obsession, and from building great products to how do we get, you know, great market share?
How do we hit our KPIs? So we have a convincing story for the people who give us money, you know, so once you’re aware of that, and you realise that that’s how businesses in that area kind of run, I think you can have a more realistic picture of what you can achieve,
it’s got me thinking quite a lot about whether there is an unmet skill set within the design community for the differences between designing for the product in the sense that you have a product. So like your description there, I’ve got an established business that has a returning profit every single year, we have a thing, we sell it, we make money, we continue to grow, because we make profit on what we sell. And that goes on for however long, you’re right is completely different to the environment that you step into, when you’re a startup in particular, where the amount of money that the company has effectively borrowed is significantly greater than the amount of money it’s going to return within a year.
So there’s this constant question about who you’re there for, as a designer, as a company as well, are you there for your end customer for that product? Or are you actually there to return the investment from a VC? And maybe maybe there’s something there that’s missing? Maybe that’s something that we should be exploring as designers is how do you communicate and design for venture capitalists and the organisations that sit with all of that money, you gave the description before of having your seat at the table, so to speak within the management team and the senior team and we think about that quite a lot.
What happens when there’s that additional tier that you might not be aware of, which is ultimately where the money actually comes from right now for this business until it makes profit? Have you had much experience with venture capitalists in any of the businesses you’ve built?
I’ve been in a few companies that have been financed by outside money that’s called that in both, you know, occasions and on all occasions that kind of, there’s always this, this shift when you see, you know, you’re not hitting hitting your muscles, but we’re building the building something that’s great.
But we see that there’s, you know, not as much traction as we’d like, and maybe shifting due to outside conditions. And then attention goes, goes away from building great products for the time being. And I think that’s totally okay. When you spoke about what skills are we missing anything? For me, it’s, it’s one very important thing. And that is, design is a part of that, that business, we serve the business. And yes, the business, obviously needs to serve customers and needs to provide great experiences, otherwise, it doesn’t sell. But it’s a means to an end, right. And if we put ourselves in service to that business, we can do that proudly, as designers always kind of struggle with the idea that designers seem to be always reaching for a way to be impactful way to do things that is, you know, that is different from design, why not just say, Hey, we’re great at design, we build great products, this is how we contribute to what this company’s achieving, period, right?
What is it always have to be something else something, in addition to design a thing, we’re kind of devaluing our own work when we’re not as proud as we used to be, when I started, there was the stars I look up to, and I don’t necessarily believe in design rockstars, I don’t want to work with any of them. But there was something they don’t designers were just proud of what they were doing. I don’t feel that as much anymore. It’s all about becoming more becoming outside of, you know, being impactful outside being the ones that drive the organisation, why not just drive design? Well, you know, just do great creative work, and be content with that, and then grow from there, and then engage others and involve others and grow the maturity from there. I don’t necessarily think we need to always step outside of our craft to be impactful.
That idea of like the inspirational designers in digital, that’s definitely a non existent thing. Now, like, if I think, even 10 years ago, there was still be a handful of people who I really liked, anything, any project they worked on, I really liked the way that it looks. I like the way that it felt it moved, it operated. That does not seem to be the case anymore.
I wonder whether digital design has become industrialised. Yo is more manufacture than it is art. If you think back to when we were pushing the boundaries of the capability of what can this medium do, you know, you leave school and education and you go and do your own thing. And you said before about, you know, we were doing things and it was like we were really happy with how they looked? And you know, they look great and everything. And I don’t know whether that’s still the case? I don’t I don’t really see it anymore.
What do you think?
I would totally agree, and I am I actually miss it quite a lot. I think it’s in part due to, like you said, right, it’s, it’s just so industrialised, you can you know, there’s so many systems and it’s really easy to, you know, produce something that is visually appealing. So that doesn’t like a commodity doesn’t really count anymore.
I also think that we focus so much on impacting organisations and going out of the those that all the people that have experienced and leaders are either frustrated and leave the industry, I heard one of my very good friends recently call it innovation theatre, he felt like we’re not actually doing anything anymore. We’re just, you know, repeating the same, the same kind of exercise without anything moving forward. And this is a person that has contributed to the field for 20 something years, so he he knows his stuff, but still, it’s like, yeah, this level of frustration has crept in there kind of stuck into those roles.
And I wonder if there aren’t roles that necessarily job titles and roles that were missing that we’d we’re not investing it because we don’t value them as much anymore. Like, you know, there’s obviously influences you know, creators now. And a lot of people are doing that as part of their marketing for you know, courses or whatever they sell. But I think there’s a real value in communicating great stuff in the in the in the community without in unnecessarily having a course behind it, right. Just be a UX Evangelist, if you will, for for us for the for the hole in industry, become educators, you know, stuff like that, and you don’t have to be the Director of Design of some company to be impactful in this field. It doesn’t really matter this just the job title.
But I think that’s it almost feels like that’s the only thing we see up the ladder and become managers so you can have that big pay trigger an exit at some point, or have a seat at the table. Why not just ladies owners, right,
That traditional career ladder always sees people move out of that space into more of the areas that you’ve explored. So thinking about people management, organisational design, and things like that, and moving further and further away from the tools and the craft, and perhaps that’s where some of that commoditisation is coming from, you’re starting kind of a similar path move, stepping away from that more traditional management sort of role within organisations.
Tell us a little bit about that.
Like so many, I was let go at the end of the year, and my team was, pretty much all of them had been let go. So there was no no real people management role, because there were no were people there to manage. I found out that, like, like I said earlier, right. For me, it’s always been about the people and enabling people and empowering designers. And I found that through mentoring, which I had already been doing on the side and a bit of coaching, I actually worked with the students with the coach myself, I found that I could still do this work, but not necessarily only in our organisation, and reaching out to different people in the community, helping them find their path and design and kind of deal with the challenges that we all had gone through.
And also kind of rekindle the flame a bit right, was something that I love doing. And you know what, let me be impactful. Beyond just my immediate team, I’m going all in this year, I’m going to be self employed again, as a coach and team coach and in terms managers, so I can reach out to different teams and organisation individuals in the UX industry and see how I can help them progress, build maturity, find a path and that’s true to them and their values.
Do you think that it will provide you with an opportunity to get back to actually like, thinking some things through and designing things as well,
You know, in a way it is because I now get to design different kinds of products, or products that just serve our industry directly, right. So it’s, I have to work on, you know, my coaching methods and how those function, I have to kind of hands on design, my own kind of material, and I see a lot of joy in that.
You’ve worked for yourself, you’ve been a freelancer, you’ve been a contractor, you’ve started businesses, you’ve worked for other organisations, how do you make the decision as to whether that is something that you want to explore is, is it something that’s natural? Do you think to people there’s some people that just feel I want to do my own thing? Would you try and encourage people to try and build their own thing? What’s the sort of guidance and advice then the thought processes of when faced with the question of do I?
Do I start my own thing? Do I start my own business? Do I go freelance? Or do I find a job in a company?
How do I answer this without sounding fencing? Well, the first thing is, at the beginning, I probably wouldn’t, wouldn’t do it anymore. At the very start of my career, it was really tough, there was a lot of ramen profitable, and kind of just, you know, not making enough money. And I wish I would have given myself a bit more time to learn because as so you know, as soon as you go self employed, you wear all the hats, you have to you know, just just do so much out of outside of design that I wish I would have given myself more time to just explore that field that I was so passionate about that I really wanted to be, you know, doing so yeah, that’s probably my advice.
Don’t Don’t do it, like as your first thing. But once you have a bit of you know, skills under your belt, you’ve experienced a few years of doing the work. I think it’s always great to try out side projects, I think those can be really enriching, I always encourage the designers on my team to do other stuff on the side, because that work in the company can be very bread and butter, and you still want to have a bit of creative outlet. And those can turn into products and can turn into big companies. Yeah. And once you once you have that under your belt and you feel comfortable and kind of diving in the deep end and just trying things out, go for it, especially if you don’t have too many things that you have to kind of be careful of.
I mean, I now have two kids and the wife that need me to contribute to our family income in a way in a substantial way. So that puts a bit more pressure on but I also have, you know, more than 20 years experience in industry and I’m calm in a way that I wasn’t before so you can kind of levels that out I guess. I think it’s worth a try.
I think it’d be really really rewarding for designers to go freelance because you know, you get to focus on your skill without necessarily We’d gone through all the politics of an organisation. But if you’re very risk averse, maybe stay in the company and that, you know, just stay in a comfort zone, you can still be doing great work and, you know, have a relaxing life kind of with a lot of designers, I see that we very closely identify with the job.
And we’re like, it’s more than just a job, we are designers kind of right. So there’s a large tendency to, you know, take that outside of an organisation as well. But I think there can be room for people to just have a design job, and be something else on the side, be a soccer trainer be you know, whatever, that’s totally fine as well. Beware what it is you want what’s important to you, what really drives you? And if then, that turns out to be Yeah, I want to run my own design studio. And that’s who I am. That’s what I want to do. Great. Go for it.
Big thanks to Marvin Hassan for joining me on the podcast and thank you for listening. There’ll be more episodes coming soon and as always, if you’d like to talk to me about coaching or to be a guest on this show, you can email me Andy at the theuxcoach.com or come find me on Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn. See you soon.