Learnings from my 6-month design internship at a startup

This text is a personal collection of lessons learned while working at the Munich-based startup tado°. Disclaimer: This was my first experience working for a high-paced consumer product startup — these lessons might not be big news for everyone. ;)

Tado° creates smart heating and cooling solutions to help the savvy consumer save money while keeping the comfort of returning to a warm home. Although tado° is quite large now — around 80 people work here — the design team is pretty small. There are just a handful of people responsible for the industrial design, product design and marketing. I was with tado° as an interaction/product design intern for 6 months.

My goodbye to tado° in June 2016.

Digital products can change fast 🏎

I had never worked on a living product before. Coming from an internship at a different digital agency working with close to no communication with the developers, I was baffled by the speed things in the product could change.

On a Friday afternoon I created a small prototype for a known request. I helped to refine and implement it the following week. A release was cut, and in just over a week I downloaded the update in the App Store that included “my first feature”! The realization that nearly all tado° users would now be downloading the same update was both exciting and scary. All this with no loop of creating and endlessly detailing a spec guide in InDesign! Phew.

Your job title is just the first part of the story 👔

At tado° nobody cared that I was just an intern. There was so much going on, that it wasn’t important what I was really appointed to do. We just tried to “get shit done”. I was given a lot of responsibility and wore hats I didn’t know existed during those 6 months.

Once it was clear I could punch above my weight, I was assigned the task of redesigning the Smart Schedule, one of the product’s most complex elements for the user. I conducted quantitative and qualitative research, prototyped in various tools, exported final assets in Sketch/Illustrator, and tried out Zeplin with the developers.

There was a steep learning curve, but the designers and developers were awesome to work with and our high level of communication made up for any mistakes I made. When there’s no one else to stand-in for you, it makes it much easier to step up and give it your best even when you’re not yet sure whether your best is something to be proud of.

The updated Smart Schedule was the result of an iterative process of research, prototyping and testing. We removed a lot of complexity and made it easier for the users to grasp how tado° works.

In the updated version on the right it becomes clear that tado° can either be in “Home” or in “Away”. We removed complicated states and exceptions. It is now easier to adjust the temperatures and understand the system as a whole.

User research is not only insightful for designers 🔬

Through our initial phase of trying to deeply understand the problems and challenges our users face with the Smart Schedule, we conducted a lot of quantitative and qualitative research. Through this research we were able to create statistically relevant personas. Those personas were especially helpful when deciding on feature requests and information hierarchy together with developers, managers and customer support.

Prototypes help a lot 🛠

I can’t recount how many prototypes I’ve built. From small detail interactions faked with JavaScript to full-blown information architectures done in InVision. I always had most of them with me and showed them around to everyone I could grab while having a coffee break.

They helped for gathering feedback from development, customer support, management, user tests, and even just for just trying something out myself.

My two cents on prototypes:
If the fidelity fits your goal, the tool does not matter.

Designers need to connect people and thoughts 📝

During the redesign of the Smart Schedule I found myself talking to a lot of different people with different concerns; ideas and concepts coming from customer support, constraints given by development and reminded of the overall strategy by the management.

Bridging all those ideas and people while keeping the actual user in focus can be difficult, but all the more rewarding when it works out.

Thank you to everyone at tado° who made me feel welcome and gave me not just the opportunity to learn — but to truly contribute!

Written by Nikolas Klein, 01|2017
Thanks to Rapha for feedback and proofreading.

The text is a personal collection of things I learned while working at the Munich-based startup tado°. Feel free to hit me up on Medium or Twitter.

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