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How to Design for the Unknown: Designing for Abnormal Without Knowing Email Security

Hear how Lily Li, Product Designer at Abnormal, broke into the world of email security and learn how you can successfully start a role in a new industry.

March 31, 2022

When I joined Abnormal Security last year, I had a background in B2B enterprise design but had relatively little knowledge of email security. Reality hit me hard on my first day at work: my manager set a goal for me to design and present a wireframe in two weeks, but I couldn’t even read through an email without stopping a dozen times to look up acronyms ranging from SEG to MD5.

The moment of panic quickly turned into curiosity. How fast could I ramp up? After all, Abnormal hired me knowing I didn’t have a background in email security, and this wasn’t the first time I designed enterprise applications with no prior domain knowledge.

Spoiler alert: I survived my mockup presentation and am still with Abnormal Security. Here is what I did.

Double Down on Learning

It felt like the first week of college again. I attended a dozen onboarding sessions—from a company roadmap session to a detection model overview—where I took notes and I looked up every foreign concept. Don’t know anything about Microsoft mail flow? There is detailed official documentation as well as a myriad of training videos on the topic. Unsure how Abnormal is different from a traditional secure email gateway? There’s a white paper for that.

I also asked every colleague I met for learning resources, and the ones they shared were immensely helpful. To learn about our products, I spent half an hour each day using the portal and jotting down minor enhancement ideas, such as adding “sort by” indicators to tables. Within a week, the “boot camp” enabled me to speak the same language as the rest of the team.

Understand Our Customers

To design a world-class experience, product designers need to understand their audience. Fortunately, Abnormal has design partners who meet with us regularly to discuss their work processes and pain points.

I received invaluable insight by joining several customer meetings a week. I also met with our CISO, as well as our customer success team, to learn about their worries and priorities. These interactions shaped my design tenents for my work at Abnormal and helped me stay customer-focused in everything I do.

Collaborate with Knowledgeable Teammates

Because I was used to the “measure twice and cut once” mentality from my experiences in healthcare and finance, I was nervous about jumping prematurely into feature design. My concerns eased when I started collaborating with humble and passionate product managers, engineers, and subject matter experts who have decades of experience in the field.

It was easy to align with teammates because the user experience is a true priority for everyone, and every project discussion was centered around better enabling our users. Speaking of collaboration, I would be remiss not to mention that the founding designer knew the product inside and out. As we grew the design team, routine critiques ensured design quality and consistency.

Do What Designers Do

Designers are trained to solve problems they are not familiar with. The discipline is about problem-solving as much as, or even more than, it is about aesthetics. People often ask, "How would you design for something you have no experience in?" I would say, "The same way I design for everything: by going through the design process to research and test." Good design processes push us to understand the problem, explore, test solutions, implement, and improve.

At Abnormal, we interview our users to understand gaps in our product. We work with other teams and stakeholders to formulate our best solutions, which are usually phased into crawl, walk, and run stages. We then conduct usability tests and refine these solutions. After building and launching the product, we gather customer feedback to plan for the next iteration. This user-focused process guides us to find and solve the right problems, regardless of our backgrounds.

Benefits of Diving Into an Unfamiliar Domain

With a learner’s mindset and a supportive environment, it can be exciting to design products in unfamiliar domains. For one, because I couldn’t index on domain knowledge, I focused on learning and tuning in to customers’ needs. At the same time, I had a multitude of transferable skills, such as designing effective user interviews, considering user journeys for alternative scenarios, and strategic feature prioritization.

Seemingly different domain spaces can share user problems. For instance, banking authorization management and software role control both aim to regulate user access and improve security. Healthcare and email security both care deeply about privacy.

More importantly, a fresh perspective can bring new ways to solve problems, which leads to innovation. One example is Abnormal Security, where our founders took their background in advertising technology to effectively detect threats in emails. Within the Abnormal design team, we value innovative ideas and anchor our decisions based on our users’ needs.

Lastly, designers draw inspiration from every aspect of life, not just prior work experience. Not being able to rely on existing domain experience heightens my sensitivity to scan for relevant design patterns outside of work. From a delightful micro-interaction in an online shopping experience to an exceptional search experience in a mobile game, I see learning opportunities everywhere. When designing products, habits like this help me to think beyond common design patterns in the industry and get closer to our goal of creating the best-in-class experience.


If you are reading this and you are an email security professional, we would love to learn about your processes and pain points. If you are our customer, share your feedback about your product with us! And if you are an entrepreneur or designer, don’t let a lack of domain knowledge stop you from creating amazing products. If you’d like to design and build with Abnormal, check out our open roles and apply today.

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