How to Take More Initiative at Work with Product Designer at Doist, Alex Muench
The Grit

How to Take More Initiative at Work with Product Designer at Doist, Alex Muench

Juraj MihalikJuraj Mihalik

Hi Alex. Let’s start with who you are and what you do?

Currently I’m a senior product designer at Doist working remotely and based in Nuremberg, Germany. We create tools that promote a calmer, more balanced, more fulfilling way to work and live with our two products: Todoist, a task manager and Twist, an asynchronous team communication app. Though each designer has a specific area of speciality, we operate more like generalists. My work includes a lot of different areas including UI, UX, mentoring, and project management! My main focus is working on product specs for new features, frame ideas and solutions to problems in design specs, perform quality assurance for all our products, and support the design team with feedback, inspiration, and improvement ideas.

I’m passionate about problem solving and helping people in whatever way I can. Also music. I couldn’t work or workout without music.

In my free-time I like to practice calligraphy. You can follow my Instagram account here. Besides that, I’m always trying to engage with fellow designers and create helpful design resources like my document templates which you can find on my website. I used to have more side projects related to my work, but it feels good to totally disconnect from my laptop and do something entirely different.

Let’s start with your design journey. How did it all start?

I’ve been interested in art since I was a kid and I loved painting and drawing. Designing came a bit later, around 7 or 8 years old, when I began school. I started designing soccer kits for my favorite teams. This continued into school and university. I collected some freelance and internship experience during and after university. I worked in ad agencies as a communication and graphic designer, creating corporate designs, specializing in logos, and creating concepts for print, digital ads, and commercials. All the product design experience I’ve gained to this day is self taught. When I finished university, I shifted my interests more and more into app design, exploring my fascination with the iPhone and iPad. Then, right after I got my bachelor thesis, I started my current full-time job at Doist as a product designer for Twist and Todoist, products that I love. I’ve been here for five years now. Time flies!

Right after high school was the moment I knew I wanted to work in design. I knew I loved being creative all the time, especially making art and crafting anything tangible that let me express myself. Then I discovered jobs like “graphic designer” and explored this deeper. I think it was the moment I realized that designing means to create something beautiful and useful that can help people. Even if it was just designing a flyer that communicates information about a juggling business or creating a brand and a website for a local university that conveys their mission.

What did you do before you joining Doist?

A lot of internships, but mainly studying and freelancing. I also worked on a side project called “Short” for my final bachelor thesis project. The app was about reading short articles that you’ve saved for later anytime you have a spare minute. Articles were pulled from read later services and filtered by 5 or 10 minute reading time. I produced this promo video. Unfortunately the app isn’t alive anymore, but the problem it solved was a personal one for me. I really enjoyed working on a product from start to finish, including conceptualization and marketing. The developer was Enric Enrich (@enricenrich) who I now work with at Doist!

You’re now a Digital Product Designer for Doist working on the productivity and to-do app Todoist and the team communication app Twist. How did you get to this role?

My path to getting hired at Doist was a bit unconventional. Before and during my time at university, I started working as a freelancer on my own and within ad agencies, collecting work experience with multiple internships.

I was about to finish my bachelor’s degree in communication design and needed to work on a final project. I had an idea for an app that I wanted to bring to life – a read later app called “Short” that filtered articles by reading time and surfaced the shortest articles with reading times of 5-10 minutes. On ProductHunt I found my future colleague, Enric, who worked from Menorca, while I worked from Germany. This was my first “remote work” experience. Also, we communicated entirely in English which isn’t my native language. My time collaborating with Enric prepared me well to collaborate with other international designers and developers and brush up and improve my English.

Through Twitter I connected with my future boss Amir (@amix3k), the Founder and CEO of Doist. After I finished university and graduated, I was asked if I wanted to work for Doist. I was already a passionate Todoist user and I’d been using the app to manage my day-to-day personal and work life and got hooked. I didn’t hesitate and accepted the offer to start as a product designer.

Our current hiring process is definitely different and more advanced. The company at that time was around 30 people. We had a different structure to what we have now. Being referred is still one way to get a job, especially in the design industry. But, we also have a more standard hiring process where people can apply through our website, answer questions and go through a hiring committee and mentoring process once onboarded. You can find current open roles here:

What is the biggest challenge of working in a remote product team?

Communication between different departments, building a tight-knit remote culture, and keeping an overview of what’s going on are the biggest challenges. I think strong communication is still an under-appreciated part of how a remote team functions. Simple things like updating someone on your progress or just making decisions transparent is so important. When you release a change in the product you need to make it clear to everyone, including the marketing and support teams, and explain your decisions clearly. They communicate directly to our customers and need to be kept in the loop. That’s why documenting designs and decisions is crucial. On a personal level, having discipline to follow a productive routine can make or break your day. Setting clear expectations is important, including informing teammates if you don’t feel well and need to take the day off or can’t meet a deadline and why. It’s also important to describe your ideas, including the smallest details, so everybody can understand it without lots of back-and-forth and questions.

Great communication takes a significant amount of time each day. However, the advantage here is that all decisions are written down so you can always refer back to discussions.

Are you working in different timezones?

Yes, our design team spans across five timezones ranging from Denver in the United States to Taipei City in Taiwan. So, clear communication is important.

How big is the team now?

We’re a team of 75 full-time team members representing 35 nationalities residing in 30 countries, and 61 cities.

The Doist team - Azores retreat 2019

What projects are you currently working on? What is your main focus?

As a product designer my main task is to work on design documentation for a new or improved feature of Todoist or Twist. It ranges from visual design work like icons to defining complete user flows, prototypes, competitor analysis, observing customer feedback, and more.

File icons I designed for Todoist and Twist Android

I do a lot of quality assurance so I’m constantly testing our apps to see what we can improve and report it to the wider team. If new ideas come up, I try to visualize them and share them internally. I think giving feedback to other designers is also a strong-suite of mine. I’m involved in making product decisions, helping the support team out once in a while with answering tickets, designing social media assets, and more. It’s quite a diverse job.

File icons I designed for Todoist and Twist Android
Doist Remote Work office hours - an initiative to chat with our team

What can we look forward to from Doist in the future?

We have multiple big and small projects coming up. For Todoist we recently released a completely redesigned Android widget that I had the pleasure of designing, as well as updates to our Web app to prepare us for future features.

The new widget lets you customize transparency, has a compact mode, preset styles and more. It can be customized to your liking and fit to your wallpaper.

 Todoist’s new Android widget
Android widget settings

While designing the Todoist app, what’s like to design an app that helps millions of people organize life?

You know you have a lot of responsibility because many people rely on the app. Every decision and change needs to be carefully considered. One important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t design an app for everyone. There might be a lot of people who don’t like the way things work, request multiple features that you know just don’t fit or would make the product too complex.

We try to find ways to make our products better with every release but in the end you can’t please everyone. With so many users, the target audience varies wildly. We don’t design products for specialists but a very wide audience. We try to keep this in mind so the app is simple and intuitive.

What has been the most significant learning to date from your career path?

When you are more decisive you learn much faster. You shouldn’t overthink every decision. Instead, when you’re not 100% sure, commit to a design decision. There’s always an opportunity to tweak a solution or change your mind.

Additionally, self-initiative goes a long way in building your career. Opportunities aren’t handed to you, but are rather a consequence of being proactive. For example, if you want to be a design leader, act like one. If you see an opportunity to improve a certain aspect of the product, go the extra mile and propose an idea you believe in. Of course, all this demands a company culture where people’s opinions are respected and appreciated. But your job can be much more than what’s written in the job description. Your actions show your passion for your job and a desire to progress. This is how you can stand out and advance in your career.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it worth it and meaningful to you?

I deeply enjoy solving problems and creating solutions for them. We can help people with good design in so many areas of society. There’s a lot of room for improvement; it’s important to fight for it and challenge the status quo. Our products are helpful for people in their personal lives and work roles. If I can play a small part in making a meaningful and positive contribution to someone’s day-to-day it’s very fulfilling.

I also think the design community is there to learn from one another and make each other better. We are a team that can open doors for newcomers. So, sharing experiences and learnings can be useful and I would encourage designers to do more of this. Whether it’s a tweet or a blog post, anything has the potential to help or inspire someone else.

What would be your advice for other designers who are considering working remotely?

Train your communication and documentation skills. Engage with the design community on social media like Twitter. Build connections and show interest in others. This can be a great way to connect with more designers if you are working mostly from home or remotely. If you are used to an office environment and transition to an international remote team you must also know you have to adapt to your workflows. You can’t simply demand feedback and get it one minute later due to time zone differences. Plan your work and have multiple things to fall back on while waiting for feedback.

Did you have any good mentors that helped you shape your design career?

When I had my first internship at a design agency and didn’t know much about design, my mentor was incredibly supportive. As a newcomer, some people at the company didn’t take me seriously but she did. I was given assignments that reassured me that I could improve my design skills. She even made a small handbook with tasks for me. For example I learned typography principles and how to use apps like Photoshop and InDesign. This was an initiative she spearheaded, alongside her day-to-day work. I really appreciated all her support. I was incredibly well prepared for university because I didn’t have to learn basics and could dive right into my courses. Her guidance gave me an advantage when starting off my career.

Any advice for young/starting designers?

Be open to other opinions and always strive to learn more. Even seasoned designers don’t have everything figured out. You have a fresh perspective as a beginner. Giving and receiving feedback on your work makes you better, so don’t take critical feedback personally. If you’re not sure which direction to take, try out different things. Work on fictive projects and problems that you find worthwhile to solve and simply experiment. Read books about design and psychology, because design has a lot to do with how people think and behave.

What excites you about design in 2020?

Ethics and accessibility in design play a bigger role than ever. Designers feel an increasing responsibility to prioritize the user experience above growth or sign-ups. I’m personally very excited about this shift. For example, if a company is using malicious design, poor privacy practices, or shady tactics, the design community is calling them out. Designers are more aware of these misbehaviors, demand change, and and don’t blindly design things they know aren’t ethical.

What’s an interesting or fun fact about yourself we wouldn’t find on your social media?

As a child I wanted to become an archeologist and visited the museum countless times. I am still fascinated by dinosaurs today. I’m also terrible at math.

Another rather random fact is that I’m quite good at recognizing voices and people’s names. For example, in animated movies or translated movies it’s very likely I know who the voice actor is.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I have a few hobbies and interests! I enjoy watching movies and reading good books about design, creativity, self-help, psychology, philosophy, leadership, physics, social sciences and more (mostly on Audible or Kindle).

I also like spending time on my iPad on Procreate creating calligraphy pieces (@calligraphy_alex).

Additionally, I make time to for visiting the stadium to cheer for my football team, going for regular swims, and trying out new vegan recipes. Because I work remotely, I also like traveling and occasionally working from new locations.

I enjoy discussing design with fellow designers and being involved in the design community; I frequently answer questions or conduct portfolio reviews. I’m quite active on Twitter (@alexmuench), so reach out if I can be helpful to you!

Bonus Question: Avocado vs. Guacamole?

Guacamole. It’s more fun.

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