5 Observations of Designing at Abnormal
Nearly six months ago, I joined Abnormal as a Product Designer, doubling the size of our Product Design team from one to two. In this time, we've shipped products that protect people against email threats, updated our design system, launched a new brand, and improved many processes. It’s been an exciting time to be at Abnormal, and the experience has made me a better designer.
Looking back, I'd like to reflect on five observations.
1. Abnormal is Truly Customer Obsessed
During onboarding week, I was encouraged to sit in a handful of customer meetings, which I continue to attend at regular intervals. Why? Customer feedback is invaluable. Seeing people using our applications firsthand allows us to capture moments of frustration that otherwise might be lost. Learnings from these sessions have informed our designs and translated to system enhancements, ultimately improving the product for our customers.
On my third day at work, I met with a machine learning engineer to talk about my first project. He opened the conversation with “How will our customers use this feature?” In the next project, my engineering counterpart asked me to sit in on user interviews. At weekly engineering, product, and data science demos, every presentation ends with an explanation of “why this is good for our customers,” encouraging us to always keep that customer need in everything we do. The company-wide focus on customers and their experience with Abnormal aligns teams, making it easier for designers to prioritize user experience.
2. Fast Growing Start-Ups are Fun
It’s exciting to grow with a start-up. The company and products are nimble and adaptive—we ship products, learn from them, and then iterate to provide an even better experience. Team members brainstorm improvements and jump into solving problems instead of waiting for others to address them. The challenges we face will change over time, from how to deliver high-quality design with one or two designers to how to scale the design organization.
The flip side includes the challenges of working with ambiguity, competing priorities, changing landscapes, and tight deadlines. After five months, my decision-making tendencies went from “measuring twice and cutting once” to “just do it,” highlighting how valuable velocity is at a small company. While this type of environment can be difficult for those who prefer stability and certainty, I enjoy the opportunities that present themselves in this fast-paced environment, and I know that I’m always making an impact with everything I do.
3. A Collaborative Design Team is Key
Even though I was only the second product designer at Abnormal, our team has continued to grow in the past few months. Collaborating with others in my field has been one of the highlights of working at Abnormal. It is a magic combination to have talented designers who care deeply about the products but also understand and respect other perspectives. We have passionate debates about visuals and workflows, but discussions are always underscored by the desire to understand each others' viewpoints in order to provide the best user experience.
And despite a 400% growth of the design team while working virtually, we stay connected through weekly planning meetings, asynchronous daily standups in Slack, regular critique sessions, and laughter-filled retrospectives. We are shaping the future of the design organization—from standardizing our Figma naming conventions and updating the design system, to optimizing collaboration with engineering and streamlining bug tracking. We also use regular design operation meetings to hone our crafts, by sharing the Figma tips, exploring new tools, and inviting speakers from other organizations to present on interesting topics.
4. A Remote-First Approach is Important
I joined during the COVID-19 pandemic, as did over half the company. Immediately, I felt connected to colleagues through virtual activities such as the GIF-filled weekly town hall meetings, highly anticipated weekly personal talent demos, fun Slack channels (#pets, #workout, #anime, and #bookclub, to name a few), virtual social events, and exercise challenges. For people who want to safely collaborate in person, Abnormal has offices and shared workspaces wherever the employees are, as well as informal team gatherings.
This remote-first approach enables the company to hire the best talent wherever they are. Having talented employees worldwide enables diversity in experiences and perspectives, which shows in our company culture and in the products we provide to our customers. As for me, I appreciate the flexibility of working from home, and I do not miss long commutes.
5. Supportive Leadership is a Must
One benefit of joining a startup early is that I have more opportunities to work closely with great leaders and thinkers. In my experience, the leadership team at Abnormal has been approachable and communicative. Even though some of them have decades of experience and have managed large corporate teams, they share their perspectives with respect and solicit feedback with open minds. They care about employees’ goals and aspirations, and they are open to investing in training and mentoring.
And since a good number of colleagues are aspiring start-up founders, Abnormal started a monthly “Abnormal Business School” fireside chat, which brings in outside experts to talk about leadership, management, and entrepreneurship. Moreover, the general organizational culture is transparent and positive, evident through the weekly company status emails, town halls with frank Q&As, accessible meeting notes, as well as daily company-wide shoutouts from peers and leadership.
Overall, my time at Abnormal has been incredibly enjoyable, and I've already learned so much. As the team grows, I'm looking forward to adding additional people to our team, so we can grow, learn, and provide the best possible experience for our customers, together.
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