A guide to becoming a senior product designer

Now that you know the fundamental building blocks (i.e., design axes) of the career ladder and the key differences between the levels on the ladder, we’ve arrived at the most critical section in this entire article. Next, we’ll dive deep into the importance of a career plan and how to create one.

So, What’s a Career Plan?

Leveling up doesn’t happen by accident. It happens through an intentional process of documenting your weaknesses and creating a plan to strengthen them. A career plan is a document that tracks actionable steps for leveling up. The steps in the plan map directly to the six design axes and focus on only a handful of skills at a time. As a reminder, the six design axes are Product Thinking, Interaction Design, Visual Design, Intentionality, Drive, and Self-Awareness.

You should share this document with people and peers who can keep you accountable and give you constructive feedback on your progress. These people are typically your manager and mentors but could also be your mom. JK. If you don’t have a manager or mentor, you can always self-assess.

A career plan is actionable and based on the design axes.

The Career Plan is a Contract. Kind of.

I push my glasses higher up the bridge of my nose. This section is about to get really nerdy.

When you share a career plan with your manager, you’ve enacted an informal contract between you and them. You’re both aligning on what it takes to get a promotion and agree that if you meet the criteria spelled out in the career plan, the manager should pitch your name for promotion to the next level.

A contract is an interesting way to frame your career plan as the agreement works both ways. You must reach higher expectations to level up, and your manager must promote you as well. However, if your manager doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain and continually punts your promotion down the road, it can cause your career to slow down. This loss in momentum is an example of possible career stagnation. I’ll speak to this in more detail later on but know now that remedies to stagnation are a tough subject.

In a perfect world, when you meet the terms of this agreement in the career plan, it would always result in a promotion. That’s not reality though. I’m here to tell you that there are many external factors out of your control regarding promotions. For example, a company’s budget is one factor that can prevent you from getting a promotion and is entirely out of you and your manager’s ability to control.

Again, the agreement within your career plan works both ways. The flip side of this agreement is you must also hold up your end of the bargain. If you continually fail to meet the goals documented in your career plan, your plan is off track, and you’ll never level up as a designer. This loss in momentum is another form of career stagnation and is one of self-sabotage.

It’s not wise to dwell on this metaphor for too long, though, since your career plan isn’t actually a binding contract, and this metaphor can be kind of stressful. So instead, let’s move on to the exact steps needed to create a career plan.

1. Assess Your Current Level

Use this rubric to assess your current level.

To effectively use a career plan, you must know your current strengths and weaknesses in each design axes. This understanding is crucial as it gives you the perspective you need to level up. There are two ways to collect feedback on your skills to understand your current level:

  • Peer Feedback: Collecting feedback from multiple people you work directly with will give you an unbiased understanding of your proficiencies. You may hear this process called 360° Feedback in the corporate world. Your current level is more accurately derived from this feedback which is why it’s so common to see 360° Feedback at mature companies.
  • Self-Assessment: You should also document your current understanding of your skills and how you believe you measure up to the career ladder. To do this, you must be completely honest with yourself and ask which design axes you’re solid in and which you’re weak.

With your feedback in hand and your manager or mentor by your side, use the Product Design Level Expectations Rubric that I created for you to assign a level to each of your skills. Then map those skill ratings to the design axes within the Self Assessment sheet. Notice the star rating system within the rubric? These star ratings act as a rubric key that helps when mapping your level:

Create your career plan on the Self Assessment sheet.

Design Axes Ratings

★☆☆☆☆ = Weak
= Developing
= Solid
= Strong
= Exceptional
= Redefines

It’s an artform to assign a rating to each design axes. You’ll likely find a mixture of ratings, where you’re solid-to-strong in some skills and developing-to-weak in other skills within the same axes. This mish-mash of proficiencies is totally normal, by the way. Again, not all designers are strong in every skill within each design axes. So don’t be alarmed. The rating is only a generalization for quick reference.

This exercise of assessing your current level will result in a healthy conversation with your manager or mentor. You’re coming to a mutual agreement with them and in return, removing the uncertainty of how you measure up to the ladder. This conversation should never feel like an assault or one of stress or tension. If you feel comfortable and safe having this candid conversation, this is a sign of a fantastic manager or mentor.

2. Study the Expectations at the Next Level

Next, you need to study the expectations of the higher level above yours. Only focus one level above yours and not multiple levels above. Doing so helps keep your goals reasonable and achievable. Take notes on the skills you find most interesting and the ones you believe you can improve upon for the higher level. You should understand which skills you can influence and which ones you cannot. This study of expectations will become your guide for setting goals in the next section.

3. Set Your Goals

The final step to creating your career plan is setting achievable goals based on your current level rating and the expectation of the higher level. It’s best to set these goals with your manager or mentor to agree on the actions needed to level up.

Set actionable goals to level up.

It’s far too easy to overwhelm yourself with the goals you set. My advice here is to focus on the single most impactful skill and strengthen it until you’ve achieved your goal. Once you’ve done so, move on to your second goal, then your third, and so on. This singular focus is yet another way to remain on track and avoid straying away from your plan or feeling stagnate.

Your goals should include concrete actions that are tangible and rooted in the feedback you’ve received from peers. The goals should read almost like a checklist of action items. Here are two examples to demonstrate my point:

Good Goal

Current Level: Junior

Weakness in Intentionality: I recieved feedback that I can improve my ability to collaborate with others. I make some design decisions without team alignment and my work isn’t visible to all stakeholders.

Mid-Level Expectations: You are able to keep core team aligned and remain visible to stakeholders.

Goal to Level Up to Mid-Level: Setup bi-weekly design reviews with the team and invite all stakeholders to ensure alignment and visibility. Also, lead regular brainstorms to keep the team involved in design ideation and decisions.

In this example, the weakness is stated plainly, the level expectations are mentioned for context, and the goal has two action items. This goal statement is perfect since these action items seem manageable. Next, let’s check out a bad example of a career goal statement.

Bad Goal

Current Level: Junior

Weakness in Interaction Design: I want to become a better prototyper to impress my team with my wizardry.

Mid-Level Expectations: You leverage prototyping tools to create complex prototypes to test macro and micro interactions. You know which prototyping method to use for a given situation.

Goal: Influence the entire design industry with my skills in prototyping.

In this example, the weakness isn’t rooted in reality. The weakness is based on desire and not feedback received from peers. The goal is even worse; it isn’t actionable at all. Not to mention, it skips levels to unicorn status. There’s no chance this Junior designer can level up to that mythical level, hence why this is a bad goal statement.

Signs That Your Plan is On or Off Track

During your career conversations with your manager or mentor, you’ll need to determine if whether your plan is on-track or off-track. Here are a handful of examples indicating whether you’re on or off track with your career plan. Use these examples to guide your career conversations with your manager or mentor:

On-Track Examples:

  • You consistently get positive feedback from peers that directly relates to your goals,
  • You can easily demonstrate how your skills have improved,
  • People seek out your advice for a specific skill related to one of your goals,
  • You consistently level up on an annual basis,
  • And many more…

Off-Track Examples

  • You receive negative peer feedback that skills directly related to your goals are weak,
  • You struggle to demonstrate how your skills have improved or how they relate to your goals,
  • You consistently fail to achieve your goals,
  • You haven’t leveled up in many years,
  • And many more…

It Takes a Year+ to Level Up

Yup. You read that heading correctly. It takes longer to level up than you may have expected initially. Some of you will be impatient with the process I described in this article, which is understandable. But, the typical timeframe I’ve observed and experienced is in terms of years-and-halves, not quarters-and-months. So, I can say with confidence that it’s impossible to jump from Junior to Senior within a year. The silver lining in the longer timeframe is it further removes the overwhelming feeling a design career ladder can impart.

Check-in on progress at three months. Evaluate after six months.

You should expect to check in on your career progression within your career plan every three months to see if you’re on track. At the end of each half is when you should have a conversation about a promotion with your manager. Of course, this conversation is assuming that you’re meeting more than half the goals documented in your career plan. Realistically, you should only expect to level up once a year, and even then, it’s not guaranteed because our goals should be “50/50 goals.”

Skills often take longer to develop than we initially planned. Therefore, it’s inevitable that we miss the mark and fail to meet one or more of our goals within that year. This is normal, though, and is sometimes referred to as “50/50 goal setting.” If you’re achieving 100% of the goals you set for yourself, your goals aren’t aspirational enough. In that case, it’s time to reset your goals, which could lead to you leveling up faster.

If you’re achieving 100% of the goals you set for yourself, your goals aren’t aspirational enough.

Career Stagnation is a Tough Subject

Stagnation occurs when you’re no longer making upward progress on the career ladder. Many variables can lead to a designer’s career progress stalling—so many that I can’t capture them all. I’ve already mentioned a few examples in this article:

  • The company does not have clear expectations for its designers,
  • The company not having the budget to pay your worth at higher levels,
  • Your values do not align with the companies values,
  • You and your manager not agreeing on the terms of a promotion,
  • You are not achieving your goals,
  • You’re burnt out,
  • And so on.

If you feel you’re stagnating, you must first identify the cause of the stagnation to solve it. Here are the five solutions to stagnation in order of severity:

  1. Reset your plan: Your plan may simply be leading you in the wrong direction. Your goals may be unachievable or not aligned with your desires. It’s time to reset your plan by creating new goals that better fit your skills. Make sure to realign with your manager and agree to the new terms for promotion. This option is the most common fix to stagnation and one I’ve employed many times in my career journey.
  2. Find new projects: Keep your plan, but find other projects that support career growth. Maybe the current project you’re contributing to isn’t challenging enough or is just uninteresting to you. Step away from it and seek out a new project.
  3. Find a new team: If the company is large enough, keep your plan and find another team that supports your career growth. Maybe it’s the people you’re currently working with that’s causing the misalignment and slowed momentum. Consider moving to a new team with a better culture fit.
  4. Find a new company: Keep your plan, but move on from the company. Gulp, yes, I’m suggesting you quit your job. Maybe your values don’t align with the company’s, or maybe the company doesn’t need Senior level designers. Either way, it’s time to move on if you want to level up.
  5. Find a new career path: Blow up your current plan and find an entirely new career path that better aligns with your interests and values. This option is the nuclear option and I’ve seen many designers choose it. While it seems drastic at first, I consider it a healthy option. For example, maybe product design is uninteresting to you, and you love coding more. Maybe you love managing people instead of pixels. These are all valid and healthy reasons to change your career path.

Regardless of the option you choose to remedy your stagnation; you need to have a crucial conversation with your manager or mentor. They can guide your decision and help your transition if you choose one of the more severe options. A sign of a great manager or mentor is one that supports you, no matter how severe the option. They should always be looking out for your best interests.

And that wraps the product designer’s career plan. There is a lot here, so feel free to ask me questions.

Categorized as UX

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