Hardik Pandya, VP Design at Unacademy Shares his Design Journey

Hardik talks about his journey in design and his experience working in a fast paced product company. He also gives helpful advice for designers starting out in the field.

Hardik Pandya, VP Design at Unacademy Shares his Design Journey
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Hardik Pandya currently heads the design org at Unacademy. Previously, he worked at Google Search as the Design Lead for the Searchbox & Autocomplete experience, and G Suite before that. Before Google, he helped multiple companies in India shape the experience of their web & mobile products – most notably OlacabsWellthy Therapeutics and Instamojo.

Q. How did you get into design?

I finished my master’s in 2013, but I had already started designing around 2012. I started off designing interfaces with sketch and tried to replicate various iOS interfaces of different apps, among other things. I just wanted to do something different from what I was studying at the time- electrical engineering, which didn’t really interest me much.

Design started as an escape; I started picking up projects in web design for my university at the time and building apps for some of the student societies. And that’s where it started. I can say looking back that I’ve gotten lucky and it all fell into place exactly at the time when I needed it.

Q. How did you get a foot into the industry once you finished your master's and you came back to India?

There was no “industry” at the time, at least not in design. I had a friend of mine who was a really good developer. He used to code and I had a little bit of experience in designing, so we started an interface design “company”, and started helping out my dad with a few industrial projects that he needed help with.

For that, we had interfaces to be designed and behind it, there was code to be written and machines to be controlled. We were working on that and we also launched an event management company at the same time which was operational until very recently.

I designed their whole website for the event management company, and all the experiences like login, logout, creating an event, etc. All this work started to steadily contribute to my portfolio. Although calling that a portfolio is highly questionable considering how high the standards are these days, it gave me enough work that could help me get a real design job.

Q. How did you get your first job in a “real” company?

I had my domain, I had my portfolio up and wasn’t really seriously applying anywhere. Instamojo was one of the companies that I had looked into for a little bit because they were super early in the game.

At that time, I was discussing something related to Spotify on Twitter and one of the engineers from Instamojo noticed that I had a website where I had listed a few projects. All of them were live projects that they could actually go see the implementation. Folks at Instamojo reached out to me expressing their interest to have me on their team and that’s where things took off from.

Q. What would you recommend to folks with one to three years of experience to look for in the design field?

For folks who are looking for a job these days, I don’t think chasing companies has worked out for me very well. I think I’ve been lucky enough to find people who I wanted to work with.

There are a lot of people in the industry that you want to work with. If they are convinced that you would work hard, and deliver. They will not let you fail and would invest in your career.

I’ve been lucky enough to have such people who have invested in my career, which is why I was able to fast-track to a lot of steps. So I think one should be looking at something like that which is also why I do not recommend people who are early in their careers to choose companies with large design teams because it gets harder at that scale for people to really invest in individuals.

Q. There are a lot of people leaving organizations early, how do you think organizations should be reacting to that?

Let me first share the employee-facing side of it. In my early days of work, I have been extremely scared of the work that has been given to me. I was honestly not ready for any of the opportunities that came my way. But I took them anyway. For Instamojo, I packed my bags and came to Bangalore but I had no idea what my role would be. I had no idea of my responsibilities at all. The same thing happened with other companies like Unacademy, google, etc. Just having the right attitude and having helpful people around helped me figure it out.

Specifically speaking about the organizations reacting to it- I believe that organizations should always know which type of people they are ready to hire and support. Hiring a lot of junior people in a small team can make them struggle depending on the kind of work. If you are willing to invest time in them and give them daily feedback, you can gradually groom them and make them better aligned with the organization.

Q. What are you looking for when you are hiring early-stage designers?

When I was starting out, I myself had a lot of fear in terms of reaching out to companies. And it’s normal for people to feel like it’s too early to reach out. But it’s also okay to reach out and share your work. Every week, I always have at least 3-4 people sending me their portfolios that are their work in progress and I am happy to take a look at that. I may not always be able to reply, but that outreach is always helpful. So just put yourself out there and reach out.

Another thing is intent. I think intent is probably the number one thing in the personality trait that we look for. When we hire them, they weren’t always the best, the most talented designers out there, but they had extremely great intent. They are always up for challenges. They always take feedback so well that they are really easy to work with. There are no strong opinions, loosely held. And that’s what makes the work enjoyable. And then you know that you would have a window to work it out with them. So I think that the right kind of intent, being open to feedback, and putting yourself out there are three things that we look for in work.

A lot of young designers end up joining companies and are clueless about what the role of a designer is, and they ended up just riding along with the flow. They end up doing all sorts of work for the product. Do you have any advice for them on how they should be packaging the work that they did?

I think every job is an exchange. You’re giving them work and you’re helping them make money in return. But money shouldn’t be the only thing you give back to them. There should also be the enrichment of experiences, sometimes failures, and learnings from that.

So, if it’s like a pretty linear equation: you’ll get the money and your work is pretty much getting accepted as it is. You get no feedback, nothing to grow on to. And at that point, it becomes too easy for you to make money, but you’re not getting challenged. And honestly, in design, just like crypto, we are still getting started. I don’t think there’s any reason to settle at a certain level. And you should always look to grow and get better.

It can happen through external means as well. You can find somebody in the industry who you can show your work and get feedback. Try to find that structure within your own company first.

Q. Can you elaborate on the phrase: high agency?

High agency means taking control of things. Let’s say you are working with a designer who is spending a significant amount of time focusing on a problem that no one else has the bandwidth to work on. Are they able to uncover the details of the problem that no one else can uncover, simply because they are not focusing on the problem?

What I mean by high agency is connecting people to problems, where they are doing a better job than anyone else can and are taking ownership of that. Then you assign them a project, they find a few more things that are wrong with that project and they also propose solutions for the same.

That is extremely valuable. Can I trust you, and rely on you to get this done in the best way possible? You may get stuck in your ability somewhere and that’s when you approach your seniors in the organization.

I think that is the kind of people who end up being extremely successful. Somebody should not have to keep reminding you that. Because if that’s the case, then it’s negative for the organization; despite hiring a person, other people are still having to worry about the same problem.

Q. How do you think junior designers can improve their product thinking skills and how can a designer go about understanding the business of the company?

I think product and business are slightly different things, but the first important thing of course is understanding the product. A couple of things that I lucked out with was having an opportunity to work with some of the best PMs in the industry early on. So, working with PMs of course opens you up to how much there is to understand for a designer beyond design skills. Recognizing that just design skills alone wouldn’t really get you anywhere.

Another important thing to do is develop empathy. Design is an executive function, as much as a thinking function. Designers and engineering support products and what I mean by that is designers can also do as much of product thinking as a product manager, given they develop specific skills and I think those cannot happen unless you talk to a lot of product managers, spend time with them, and see what they are going to do.

If you read good product writing, you would realize that it actually is a lot about design. Really great product writing is about design itself. You can go through a great article and you will realize how much of what is written affects design directly.

Q. What specific skills should designers be developing in order to really stand out?

We hired a couple of people in our current team who reached out to me through casual coffee conversations that I used to do up until very recently. Before hiring, we had a chat to see if the vibe was matching and also see how proactive they were in answering questions. Whether they had done any research about the company beforehand; an indicator that they are serious about it.

The second was them just showing the work. For example, this guy who recently got an internship at cred, what did he do? He just posted a video on LinkedIn showing the prototype. I believe that that’s the single easiest thing you can do: Get the right people’s attention.

How do you get people’s attention? Show them you are good within as little time as possible. Can you show me you’re good in 10 seconds? Great. Do that. Can you show them you’re good in a single tweet, or a message, or an email? That’s all it will take to get people’s attention. If you are trying to convince somebody or get someone’s attention who’s probably busy, but you still want to work with them; just show them that you’re a great designer.

I’ve straight away called up a few people for interviews just because I like one single mock on their case study. I did not even read through the case study. I was interested because they had made great design choices that got me really curious.

So, if you have good work and enough work, just put it out there, share it online or share with a small video, gif, or a screenshot. I genuinely appreciate dribbble a lot more because what other proof of work is out there apart from the work that has already been shipped? It annoys me if I have to read through a long case study to get to see actual designs that you made. I usually scroll to the bottom and then browse the case study. And oftentimes I’m disappointed when I don’t get to see any mockups. At the end of the day, we are all designers; show some designs.

I genuinely believe that as designers we all are working extremely hard and, I see a lot of talented people in the industry all the time.

It just sucks that we, as an industry do not have enough companies, teams, and cultures that are open to accepting talented designers and making them successful. Maybe we’re not ready yet, maybe it’ll happen someday. But that’s not the case today, which is why a lot of designers end up being rejected and then go down a very different path.

So I would say don’t lose hope. People are there and the support structures are also there that just get a little lost in the noise. It’s the effort we have to put in to find a way to work together.

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