The ‘Junior Product Designer’ Dilemma
If you work in-house in product design right now I bet you’ve come across this issue: teams need product designers, there’s junior talent available, but the available jobs aren’t for juniors.
It’s a glaring issue in the field that doesn’t seem to be getting addressed. I’m working through a couple thoughts on this dilemma and want to share them today. They are:
The dominant structure for tech teams makes junior success a challenge
In its current definition, ‘product designer’ is an inherently non-junior position
Our definition of good work experience for a product designer isn’t inclusive enough.
#1: The dominant structure for tech teams makes junior success a challenge.
The most common tech team structure I’ve seen in the last 10 years is some riff off of the Spotify Squad Model: cross-functional teams with one product manager, one designer and several engineers. Just what you need to ship a software feature end-to-end.
It’s a very functional model for software delivery but it’s a bad fit for junior design talent because it makes each designer a de facto “lead”. To be able to effectively guide the design of a full cross-functional team on your own it helps to have plenty of prior experiences in your memory bank to draw upon depending on the problem your team is trying to solve.
It’s just hard to be able to see that big picture and have strong instincts when you don’t have the background of watching other, more senior designers make choices about how to run projects.
#2: In its current definition, ‘product designer’ is an inherently non-junior position.
This reminds me a lot of when I started as a ‘junior brand strategist’ at Leo Burnett in 2012. In retrospect it’s a job title that just makes no sense.
Being able to form and deliver brand strategies requires such a broad range of related experiences that it’s a hard job for a junior person. I remember thinking to myself “how the hell am I, a 22 year old college grad, supposed to advise creative directors on ad strategy when they have more years of experience making ads than I have years of life?”
In my opinion, it would have made more sense to start in a more execution focused role. This could have been helping to execute research operations, client service or creative output. Anything besides dropping a junior person into the fuzzy grey area of trying to connect the dots and guide strategy.
I feel like the junior product designer role is also stuck in that grey area. You need some depth of experience in about a half dozen separate design disciplines as well as an understanding of how to move work through the software development pipeline in order to ship consistently and make a big impact. That’s not to say it’s impossible for a junior person to do this, but it shouldn’t be our default definition and requirement for what makes junior talent hire-able.
#3: Our definition of good work experience for a product designer isn’t inclusive enough.
Job postings for ‘entry-level’ product designers often ask for years of ‘experience’. Sounds like a catch-22, but maybe not necessarily. Perhaps due to my own non-standard background, I interpret ‘experience’ a bit more broadly than others in the design community.
I attribute a big part of my own success as a product designer to my lateral thinking and ability to connect the many disciplines and environments I’ve practiced in over the years. My time in advertising informs how I think about research and branding. My time as a developer informs how I think about constructing UI designs. And my time as a more traditional UX designer informs many of the methods I pull from to help my teams solve user problems.
So for junior product designers I absolutely think that experience in other fields can be meaningful preparation for doing this work (even if they’re not as closely related to the field as mine). What I personally would like to see from a junior person is a combination of 1) the instincts to think laterally and translate the experiences that they have had into design insights and 2) a starter kit of technical skills to allow them to drop into my team and execute (likely focused more on UI execution). Then over time the strategic gaps will fill in through practical work experience.
So there you go, my three big thoughts on the ‘junior product designer’ dilemma. I’m intentionally not suggesting direct solutions here as I’m still working through articulating the problem myself.
What do you think? Do any of these thoughts resonate with you? How might we address these problems to allow for more inclusivity of junior talent?
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