We’re sharing stories of people’s early careers. Everyone we interview has worked for a startup early in their career. We hope reading about others’ experiences at startups will help you make more informed career decisions!
At Otta, we’re advocating for working at fast growing technology companies. We think this is where learning opportunities and development potential are highest.
Susan Zhuang is currently a Product Design Lead at Koru Kids, a startup that is trying to build the world’s best childcare service. Susan studied Psychology and Human-Computer Interaction at UCL. She started her career in User Experience (UX) Design when it was still an emerging field, spending the first few years after university at various design agencies (In 2012, it was not very common for companies to hire in-house designers). After becoming frustrated with the agency world, Susan moved into in-house roles and has now worked at 3 different startups in senior UX design roles. I met Susan for coffee near her offices to talk about her career so far.
Tell me about why you decided to go into UX?
My undergraduate degree was in psychology, so I initially wanted to be a psychologist like everyone else on my course. Then half way through, I discovered that I really loved a subfield of psychology called cognitive psychology (a branch of psychology concerned with mental processes like perception, learning and memory). This led me to discover human-computer interaction and opened up a world of using applied psychology in industry, which is essentially what UX design is.
I was excited by this area and enjoyed academia, so decided to do a Masters specifically in Human-Computer Interaction. I also did a cool research internship in the Human-Computer Interaction lab at UCL, where I got to do proper experiments around usability and other research experiments. I was starting to get a real academic foundation for UX, and knew this was what I wanted to work in.
What did you particularly like about the field?
I liked that it wasn’t about using technology for the sake of it, it was about thinking how we can really leverage technology for the benefit of people. I also liked that UX is not tied to any particular technology.
UX used to be very narrow. In my first job, mobile-first design was just becoming a thing, and we were mainly focused on designing websites and apps for larger companies. I knew from my studies that UX was much broader than that and related to anything where a human interacts with technology. I learned about how people interacted with airplane technologies in the cockpit and hospital equipment, which are products not usually associated with UX!
With that in mind, I thought if I focused on a career in this space I’d be learning skills that would be transferable to lots of different industries.
Tell me about your first job
I was applying for jobs when I was finishing my masters and just applied everywhere to see what stuck. I ended up joining a design agency startup as their first employee, it was just two founders and me.
The founders had been in lots of big design agencies before, but wanted someone who specialised in user experience. The team stayed pretty small (growing to around 5 people), and I spent about 18 months there.
At the time, there was big demand for agencies with UX expertise because no one really had the skills in-house. We regularly used to get hired by bigger agencies to bring our UX expertise.
I was only 22 and was the UX ‘expert’ at the company. I didn’t feel like much of an expert, but was seen as one because of my academic background and because it was such a new field.
There was no mentoring or onboarding, I just had to get on with it. Early on, I got to go to Seoul in Korea for a week to work on a client project. I had serious imposter syndrome, but I learnt so quickly!
I hear from lots of people that the more uncomfortable you feel in those earlier days, the more you seem to be learning.
Agreed, I’m so grateful I went into such a small company for my first job. It had it’s pros and cons, but it really fast-forwarded my learning experience and gave me a steep learning curve.
Why did you decide to move on from that company?
I learnt really quickly at first, but soon felt like I hit a ceiling. I wanted to work at a bigger company to solidify my understanding of how things worked.
I also found myself a bit frustrated with doing lots of documentation of design work and then chucking it over the fence to developers. I wanted to move to a role where UX was embedded in the team rather than coming from an outsourced provider.
Lastly, I didn't want to be the expert anymore. Instead, I wanted to learn from people more experienced than me.
I ended up joining a much larger agency called DigitasLBi where I was on a team with engineers, product managers and other more experienced designers.
I stayed at DigitasLBi for 18 months, working on projects with big clients and huge teams. There was one project where there were 300 people around the world working on it. We were building out the global websites for 6 automotive brands. I learnt a lot about how complex design systems and stakeholder management can get!
What did you do next?
I then joined an agency called Poke as a Senior UX Designer, at this point I was only 3 years into my career, so still had serious imposter syndrome as I didn't feel very senior! Poke had about 40-50 employees, which felt like the perfect size of company for me.
They seemed to really have culture and diversity nailed. They had lots of women in leadership and would hire people from a diverse range of backgrounds and not just people from the best universities. Teams there were also small, with one person per discipline.
I really loved my time there, but I left because at this point I really wanted to work in-house at a tech company. In-house UX roles were becoming more common and I was getting frustrated with working for an agency. I especially didn't like the ebb and flow of the work. It would go from super busy to super quiet, and the quiet patches drove me crazy.
What was the first company you joined in-house?
I joined a startup called Mendeley that had been acquired by a large global corporate. Mendeley was a reference manager for academics. I was in love with this product when I was at university. I really liked the vision and especially the user base, which was primarily academics and researchers, who I got to spend a lot of time with.
Mendeley had a really strong product function and the people there taught me most of what I know about product. They also had continuous user discovery, and the design team would do 8 user research sessions a week, which was amazing. When I worked at agencies we never spent enough time with users, I think interacting with users is a super important part of the job.
The downside was that I was a shared resource across 3 different teams. Each of the teams would have their own Product Manager and I would go to all the morning stand-ups, but it was hard to know where I would be most impactful.
Ultimately, I left because of the tensions/frustrations of working for a startup owned by a huge company. The strategy was coming from the larger corporate owner and it was influencing the product decisions that were being made. It also meant we were slow to deliver value to users.
Where did you go next?
I then joined a scrappy startup called Trint, which makes transcription software. I was the only UX person there along with 16 engineers, so I was still spread pretty thin! I loved how fast moving it was; I was shipping and deploying work within 2 days of being there.
My main contribution was to bring my previous experience of usability testing and discovery to this startup, which I really enjoyed. Initially I was running all of the usability testing and discovery myself, but then started encouraging other members of the team to do their own usability testing.
By the end of my time there I was fully focused on empowering the engineers to do their own testing, including sketching design prototypes, which was really satisfying. I really enjoyed empowering the whole organisation to be thinking about users and design.
So now you’re at Koru Kids, tell me about that
Koru Kids is a marketplace startup that matches families with nannies for long-term working relationships. We’re a one-stop-shop for both sides of the marketplace (e.g. we take care of all of the admin).
I’m the Lead Product Designer on the Growth squad. The concept of a designer dedicated to growth is quite unusual, and the role isn't well defined (I’ve only found 3 blog posts relating to growth design!), so it feels exciting to be at the cutting edge of something new.
Ultimately, the goal of my team is to acquire more nannies and parents, although currently our focus is on nannies. I really like the clarity and purpose of the goal I’m working towards.
What are the big design challenges when thinking about acquiring nannies?
We’re changing our focus away from acquiring students to become nannies, to focus on acquiring nannies with more life experience.
Previously we were asking questions like: How do we speak to students to encourage them to become nannies? How do we build technology for students? Now we’re thinking about a completely different set of people. We have to adjust how we think about our tone of voice, the imagery we use, and the expectations for different groups of people. I find this super interesting.
There are a lot of designers at Koru Kids for the size of the organisation, is it nice to work at an organisation that’s very design-led after all your time in agency?
I love it. I’ve usually always been the only UX person. Koru Kids is currently about the same size as Trint, but there are a lot more designers. I love having other designers to challenge me on my ideas and give me feedback. When you’re the only designer in the room your views are often taken as if you’re an authority on the topic.
It’s also interesting working for an operations-led company, which means it’s important for the product and design team to think about what should be productised, and what should be left to the humans.
What advice do you have to people considering working at startups?
My first tip is to be opportunistic. A lot of people spend time trying to figure out where they want to go or what they want to do, but you’ll learn something wherever you work, especially if it’s a small company that’s growing. The job market moves so quickly that you should be able to find new challenges if something doesn’t work out.
Secondly, if you’re looking for a role in a startup you need to be ready to embrace ambiguity. At startups things change every week. The product changes, and sometimes even the direction of the company changes. It’s really good to get comfortable with that kind of change, because it makes you really adaptable.
You’ve moved every 18 months in your career so far, how do you reflect on that?
I used to feel so horrible about this! I would join a new company and think “this is definitely the place where I’m going to spend the next 2 or 3 years”. Now I’ve just realised that I have a personal cadence of 18 months.
I like going into an organisation, enacting a change (like democratising user discovery at Trint) and absorbing as much learning as I can while I’m there. If I stop learning I feel like I become mentally rotten and restless, so I enjoy regularly moving onto new challenges. One of the big reasons I joined Koru Kids is because they understand this.
Just before I joined, I went to a product design breakfast meeting ran by the team. One of the icebreaker questions asked was “When you leave Koru Kids, what are the two main learnings you want to take with you?”. There was a clear expectation that I was there to do a job, and they were there to help me progress and learn before taking my skills somewhere else. It felt so great that they were thinking about working relationships in the same way as me.
Want to share your story? We’ll buy you a coffee whilst we do the interview, and then give you £25 in Amazon vouchers as a thank you. If you’re interested, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a bit about yourself and your career so far (a few short bullets is fine!).