The hardest lesson I learned my first year as a Product Designer

Amanda Yee
5 min readSep 6, 2016

Man, I’ve learned a lot this year — and as a recent graduate I’ve tried to soak up as much as I can. During my first year as a Product/User Experience designer in the real world, one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is that your work is not about your own self-expression, it’s about your users.

You might be thinking, “well duh. User is in the name of user experience”. But it’s not as obvious as it seems — especially when there’s been a stigma around similarity in creative work your whole life.

I was sitting in 4th grade Art at a big wooden table, the sun was streaming in through the large windows and I was oh so excited because this was my favorite class. Yes, a designer who’s fave class growing up is art. How cliche. But did I ever make anything spectacular? Nope.


Anyways, our new project for the day was tessellations! (Need an example? Check out the cover photo of this blog post!) I remember cutting out a blob shape to base the tessellation off of and looking across the table thinking, “man, my blob looks a lot like her blob. I better change mine so that they’re different”. Now you might be thinking, “what does making blobs in 4th grade have to do with design?”.

Well, let’s fast forward a couple(+ a few more) years to when I began my journey through design school. All along the way there was an emphasis on artistry and being original. We were taught to be inspired by new, cutting-edge designs — and so we all wanted to create the next mind-blowing work of art that would be praised for years and years to come. Sounds kinda similar to what I had strived for in 4th grade, right?

And now let’s do one last bit of time travel and fast forward to present day. I’m a year out of school and like any new designer eager to learn, I’m combing the internet for some design inspiration. I came across this set of postcards; they featured illustrations of interfaces paired with useful tips for young designers and I thought “Wow. This is going to be perfect”. They were beautiful, handy and helpful… until I read one tip that actually made me mad.

It said, “be authentic and original”….and I remember thinking: “What? No. That’s wrong. That’s missing the point.”

Feeling mad made me realize that one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from my experience as a new designer is that I should be taking inspiration from history. The author of the postcards was missing one of the most fundamental pieces of design.

I shouldn’t focus on being authentic and original, I should be studying up on existing patterns and learning how and why they are successful.

Now don’t get me wrong, being authentic and original is great and all; I like to think of everyone as a snowflake — unique in their own way.

However, being authentic isn’t what matters to your users, (and it shouldn’t matter to you either). What actually matters is creating an experience that they will understand and be delighted by.

I know it might not be an ego-boost to take from someone else’s design, believe me — I felt weird doing it at first too. When you’ve wanted to create unique work your whole life (remember the similar blobs in 4th grade?) it was hard to realize that putting your ego aside and sacrificing your creativity can produce a better end result.

But I’ve learned that the place for creativity in UX design is in the way that you solve problems.

There’s a reason why there’s such a thing as UX patterns. Your users are familiar with certain interactions and have expectations about how an app should work, whether they know it or not.

Being at an early-stage start up (Drift, check us out! #shamelessplug) this lesson was crucial for me to learn. We needed to get our table stakes down in order to get our product out there. We needed to create a solid baseline and the best use of our time was to take patterns from existing products. For example, when designing our CRM we drew from HubSpot, who use a similar pattern to Outlook.

If you look carefully, you’ll start to notice that your favorite apps tend to re-use these same patterns. Check these out:

My first impression was man, those are ugly. There’s no way these awesome products could have been based on those.

Channeling my inner Jimmy Fallon

And after a closer look I felt like this:

Channeling my inner Kramer

And then I realized, if other well respected companies are looking at history, then man — maybe I should too. Sunrise and Slack focused on making the last 10% remarkable, not reinventing 100% of it. To quote David Cancel, “ignore the ugliness and think about what it empowers the user to do.”

So to all my fellow youngin’ UX Product people, I leave you with this: don’t feel pressured to be “authentic and original”. It’s no problem if your blob is similar to the other girl’s blob. I hate to be cliche and quote Picasso here, but it’s true — “good artists copy, great artists steal”.

Look at other applications when you’re stuck, find the common patterns that work well, take them and then spend that last 10% making it your own.

I’ve learned that no matter what you do or don’t do, your competitors will talk trash — so just remember to focus on your users.

Take these existing patterns and build on them — innovate, don’t invent.