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Designing for Big Tech

For many designers, including myself, working as a user experience designer in a big tech company is a dream job. These companies are known for their cutting-edge products and services, innovative design teams, and exciting work culture. But what does it really look like to work as a UX designer in a big tech company?

As a 26-year-old designer fresh out of college, I was thrilled to join PayPal™. I envisioned that I would work on a variety of designs and prototypes each day while collaborating with an amazing team of professionals. The daily reality was very different. There are many things I wish I had understood before joining PayPal as a UX designer.

In this article, I’ll explore what it means to be a junior UX designer in an influential tech organization. Moreover, I’ll share the top four things I learned from my two-year journey working as a product designer at PayPal.

1. Embracing the Unhappy Path in UX Design

Before I joined PayPal, I believed that my job as a designer was solely about creating a seamless user experience. Previously, my projects revolved around designing happy path experiences based on assumed user behaviors. As described in Timar’s article, in the world of UX design, the happy path is a vital concept that represents the ideal sequence of steps a user should take to accomplish a specific task with ease. This approach allows designers to focus on the most critical user interactions that are necessary for the product’s success. By designing for the happy path, designers ensure that users can easily complete the most important tasks while enjoying a seamless and efficient experience. However, in the real world, designers must have a holistic approach that goes beyond just creating perfect solutions.

During my first project at PayPal, I was responsible for designing a verification flow to help users verify their identity. Initially, my focus was solely on the happy path, and I didn’t consider any potential issues that might arise. However, after collaborating with the development team, I realized the importance of designing for all possible scenarios. I spent additional time designing five different unhappy path flows. The unhappy path in UX design is when a user encounters errors or obstacles that prevent them from completing a task as intended. For instance, issues might include failed verification, problems with scanning identification documents and faces, and alternate methods for completing the verification process.

Designing for the unhappy path is a crucial aspect of product design because it allows designers to create a positive and satisfying experience for users, even when things don’t go as planned. It involves anticipating potential issues and developing solutions to help users overcome obstacles or errors that may arise. After all, users are more likely to return to a product that makes it easy to achieve their desired outcome even if they encounter some bumps along the way.

In essence, UX designers must think beyond the ideal user flow and anticipate potential issues that may arise. This project taught me the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to design and the need to carefully consider all possible scenarios before delivering the final design to the development team. By embracing the unhappy path during design, I helped streamline development while ensuring a seamless user experience.

2. Getting Accustomed to the Fast-Paced Tech Environment

Like many people, I had misconceptions about the daily work of UX designers. While wireframes, prototypes, and usability testing are important aspects of the job, the daily reality was different working at PayPal. I thought that I would spend most of my time drawing diagrams, conducting research, and testing designs. However, in a dynamic and fast-paced environment like PayPal, my daily workflow involved collaborating with designers, researchers, developers, product managers, and stakeholders to solve problems together.

To ensure that I focused on the most important design tasks, I relied on a UX researcher to handle the user research work. This allowed me to address multiple projects in different design phases based on product and engineering timelines and priorities. Sometimes, I was given a tight deadline to provide an initial flow to my product manager, which required me to quickly ascertain the requirements and provide a design to the team. To accelerate my workflow, I always prioritized the most critical aspects of the design and worked on the essential elements first, such as the initial user flow and page sketches. I then allocated time to iterate on the design and incorporate feedback from different stakeholders to refine the design further.

I also have learned that the iterative process doesn’t always begin with UX research, but rather with a high-fidelity prototype that is evaluated by the product team. This process requires flexibility and a willingness to make changes as needed. Working in a high-speed environment like this taught me to adapt and make the most of my time.

Despite the challenges of working at speed, the collaborative environment provided valuable opportunities for growth and development as a designer. Working together to gather different perspectives allowed the team to solve complex problems and create innovative products that meet user needs. At PayPal, I’ve learned that effective communication and collaboration with the development team is essential to accelerate my workflow and create successful designs that are also technically feasible to implement. By regularly checking in with developers before delivering the final design, I ensured my solutions were doable, which saved time during the delivery meetings. Furthermore, this collaborative approach helped build a strong relationship with the development team, leading to a more cohesive and collaborative product development process. With a deep understanding of each team member’s perspective and working together, we have been able to solve complex problems and create innovative products that truly meet users’ needs.

3. Balancing UX Design with Product Management

On my project working on a verification and authentication flow design, my product manager noticed a 3% user exit rate from the entry page or FAQ page. My product manager requested a design change without considering whether the drop-off could be addressed through design. There are many ways to approach this issue, depending on the project scope and timeline. To better understand user behavior, I proactively asked my product manager to provide more analytics data.

After analyzing the data, I discovered that the majority of users click the Agree and Continue button, but there was a 3% dropout rate at the FAQ stage. This suggested that some users may be confused about the content or did not have the required documentation to complete this step. Utilizing analytics data allowed me to understand the key behavior behind the design and the potential consequences of any changes. This approach was crucial because changing the design is risky and could result in losing existing customers, even if it attracts new ones. Discovering the source of a problem is key to designing a better user experience. It’s important to note that your product manager may not know every data point or every requirement, and they may not consider the user experience implications of their requests. I received seemingly random design change requests without the context of the business goals or an understanding of the end-to-end user experience. I provided good designs, but it turned out I was solving the wrong problems or trying to meet the wrong goals.

Luckily, PayPal values designers who take ownership of the products they design. Today, as a lead product designer for a product, I am responsible for both the long-term and short-term design work, including optimization and future product expansion. I have been able to take on product management responsibilities, such as defining product requirements, managing the product development process, and measuring the product’s success. I have been able to take responsibility for helping my product team understand the root of users’ problems and stakeholders’ requirements through a UX perspective. This involves thinking strategically, understanding market trends, and effectively communicating with cross-functional teams. For example, by using data to identify potential friction, we develop better long-term product strategies. Staying up-to-date with the latest trends and technologies in the industry is also essential to inform our designs. By working closely with cross-functional teams, we can gather feedback and ensure that everyone’s perspectives are taken into account. Ultimately, balancing the needs of the end-user with business goals and objectives is crucial for creating successful products.

4. Learning Continuously as Part of the Professional Journey

When I first joined PayPal, I faced a steep learning curve. Unfamiliar with how to collaborate with product managers and navigate complex design challenges, I eagerly pursued every opportunity to learn and grow. I sought guidance from my colleagues, never hesitating to ask questions or seek out their expertise. This tenacity propelled me forward, enabling me to become a proficient designer in a short period of time.

Working in a large tech company demands a strong commitment to ongoing education. Throughout my time at PayPal, I have honed my ability to work with diverse stakeholders, offer a UX perspective, and handle multifaceted design challenges. My continuous learning journey has been fueled by my passion for my work and my unwavering curiosity. While my formal education in UX design was limited, I recognize that professional networking and practical experience have been my most valuable teachers.

In addition to leveraging the expertise of my colleagues, I attend conferences, enroll in courses, and seek out new connections to further refine my skills. I am fully committed to never being complacent in my role as a product designer in the tech industry. Rather, I approach each day as a new opportunity to learn, innovate, and advance my skills. For me, there is no such thing as a completed education. Every day, every task, and every interaction present an opportunity to grow and develop my expertise further.

In conclusion, I have gleaned invaluable lessons during my two years at PayPal. I learned to design with the unhappy path in mind, a necessary skill in the unpredictable world of technology. I have grown accustomed to the fast-paced tech environment which requires adaptability and efficiency. Additionally, I have realized the importance of taking leadership over one’s projects, effectively collaborating with cross-functional teams, and driving the product to success. Finally, I have come to understand the significance of continual learning and self-improvement, an essential quality for success in any field.

Through my role at PayPal, I have had the opportunity to grow and understand the responsibilities of a product designer. While I recognize that there is still much more for me to learn, I hope my experiences have provided insight for those curious about what it truly looks like to work as a new product designer in the tech industry.

Further Reading

Happy Path 101: A Short Guide for UX Designers” by A. Timar on (May 16, 2022)

Jason Zhou

Zilin Zhou is a product designer at PayPal building human-centered experiences to positively impact people's lives. His goals are to utilize the power of design to connect concepts, cultural moments, and people in a compelling way. He seeks inspiration from observation, conversation, and formal design research to stretch his perspective.