Design Leader Insights - Femke van Schoonhoven on Product Strategy

November 27, 2023


Alex Smith:  Design Leader Insights is brought to you by Fuego UX.  Fuego UX is a leading UX research, strategy and design consultancy.  Hey Femke, thanks so much for joining the show today. 

Femke van Schoonhoven: So excited to be here. Thanks Alex. 

Alex Smith:  Yeah, no doubt. And to get started, can you give the audience a bit of context into of your experience with design? I know you do a lot of interesting projects. 

Femke van Schoonhoven: Yeah, for sure. So I'm currently a design lead at a company called Gusto. But my design career started maybe about eight years ago when I was working at a really, really small startup. And that was kind of my first exposure into building products, what is design like, where can I have influence in, in the creation of, of tools and products throughout that role, I started kind of a little side entrepreneurial journey of how can I share my experience in my journey in design and getting into this career to help others who are in a similar position, trying to get into design. So around that time, I started blogging. I started an email newsletter eventually that led to creating videos on YouTube which I've been doing for a few years now. This year, I launched a course all about product strategy for designers. So I've been growing a lot on the side of my career through, through the, those different sort of platforms and outlets. But yeah, throughout my career, I've spent a few years at Uber working on driver experiences, working on Uber Eats as well. I worked at a Canadian FinTech called Wealthsimple for a year. So yeah, just have touched a few different parts of product and it's been really fun to kind of grow and share my journey along the way. 

Alex Smith:  Yeah, I love that. And thanks for, thanks for the background context. Tell me about starting a side hustle. Cause I think so many, not only designers, I think, I think people in all walks of life want to do that, but specifically for designers, how do you think about doing that while you, while you still have a job that you care about? 

Femke van Schoonhoven: Yeah, obviously there is a bit of like that work-life balance, right? And like making time for it and having a full time job as a designer takes a lot of your time and energy and even. I don't know about you, but as a designer, like I have a creative tank too, right? That like can drain. And so making sure you have enough of that creative energy to, to give to your side projects as well can be challenging. It can be difficult to find that time. And so that's been a learning journey for me is sort of thinking about, okay, how do I prioritize things? How do I make time for things that are really important or that I really care about? So I just kind of capitalized on where, where I had most energy, where I could make the time in my day to focus on side projects as I was kind of growing early on in my career and it's been a really great learning journey for me too, in terms of being able to take what I've learned in my day job and pass it on and share it with others is you know, I feel really lucky to be able to do that. And it's been great also to connect with a lot of designers all around the world. And you know, these days I offer mentoring as well. So helping them one on one and their careers and their growth has just been really, really awesome. 

Alex Smith:  Something that sparked my interest was you mentioned your course, correct me if I'm wrong, was on product strategy. Is that right? 

Femke van Schoonhoven: Yes, for designers. 

Alex Smith:  Yeah, for designers, right? And that, that's something that I don't think designers... At least a lot of designers I talk to and especially new designers entering the field, like, think about enough is like, if I observe a lot of the clients we've worked with, or just a lot of companies across the industry, I feel like product oftentimes in SAS or B2B software carries a stick, aka maybe designs even reporting to product, which I don't know is taught in these programs. So tell me about, you know, what you're teaching and why with the course.

Femke van Schoonhoven: Totally, I mean, you're right. A lot of designers come into this career and I taught a lot of the craft side of design, right? So, the hard skill of like, how do I use these design tools? How do I create and build out these product experiences, how do I, you know, what's my design process? But something I was starting to notice as I was kind of growing in my career, moving from a sort of junior role to more mid and senior, was that my influence in product as I was growing was becoming more important. So I find when you start in your career as a junior designer, probably 90 percent 100 percent of your role is going to be that craft piece, right? Like you're pixel pushing, you're executing on briefs or product requirements. You're, you're designing a lot of the time. But then as you grow there, that time you spend in craft starts to lessen a little bit. That's not necessarily that you're doing it less, but maybe you're just becoming more efficient where you can make decisions more quickly. And then, so there is more room and space in the role to now start having more influence in product. And I think that expectation also aligns from what I've seen in companies. They have more expectation of mid to senior designers having more influence in products, more impact and strategy. You know, earlier this year, I got to a point where I was feeling pretty confident in my product and strategic skills and influence. And I thought, hey, you know, I've been hearing a lot of designers also struggling with this. They want to level up. They want to grow, but they don't have the skills to, to grow on their own in this area. And so that's when I decided to create the course and it's been, it's been really awesome to help designers grow in their product strategic skills. 

Alex Smith:  How can designers speak product language, I guess?  Is it, is it through, hey, we have a pulse on the users, which you care about in your product roadmap, or is it, hey, I understand the implications to the business. Like, what are those numbers to pull, or like, what is the language that PMs are speaking? 

Femke van Schoonhoven: Yeah, I love that you brought this up because I have a whole module just on communication in the course, like, how do you lead through communication because it is so important as designers, regardless of what level you are, like being able to communicate as a designer is so important because as designers, we need to get buy in for our work. We need to get alignment. People need to understand the why behind the decisions we're making so that we can build great products. And so communication, I think is important just for all designers everywhere. Specifically when it comes to product though, and your influence there, I talk a little bit in the course about how as designers kind of to what you were bringing up is, we are best positioned to advocate for the user because we are the closest to our users. Right? So we have so much empathy for the people we're designing for. And we're kind of like that messenger, I guess, from like the user to, to our product leaders. And so there's so much opportunity there for how we can bring the voice of the user into those product conversations that often gets missed or overlooked, or a lot of assumptions get made by a product leader. And then another area of communication that I think is important is storytelling. Right, as designers, like telling the story behind your work, kind of what I was talking about. What is the why behind this decision? Why is this important? How is this going to affect the user? How is this going to affect the business? That's also a really, really important one. And so being able to communicate those concepts really well, really clearly with your product leaders is going to get you a lot of trust.

Alex Smith:  I want to ask where you think design should report? 

Femke van Schoonhoven: I mean, I do think design should report into design. I have only ever reported into design. So that has been my only experience. 

Alex Smith:  And what about when that isn't the case, which I think unfortunately is probably still the majority. 

Femke van Schoonhoven: Sometimes it’s just the nature of where that company is in terms of its scale and growth and stage. And so it might not make sense for 10 people to have a head of design. And so depending on the stage of growth of the company, I do think there's a bit of flexibility there. sometimes that can also create a lot of opportunity for you as the designer. Maybe there's an opportunity for you to. Step into that role or build the design culture you want to see, right? That's something that can be really challenging to do at a big, large scale organization, but at a smaller scale organization, there might be more room for that. So I think there is some exciting opportunity in that kind of environment as well. And I would just encourage designers in that situation to advocate for design, advocate for what they need and build the design culture you want to see. 

Alex Smith:  Love that. I think you've already answered this question, but I'm going to ask it anyways, because I always do, which is what advice you have for new designers entering the field today, beyond obviously going and taking your product course, which I would recommend.

Femke van Schoonhoven: I mean honestlyI think my biggest piece of advice for those designers, if you're kind of just getting into it, maybe you've done a bootcamp or you've done like a little bit of learning, right? If not, that's probably what I would recommend is start learning design in some way. But once you've done that, I would encourage you to keep creating, like don't put the pencil down. And not only that, but keep sharing, keep talking about it. Whether it's in case studies on your portfolio and you want to reflect back and talk about learnings, whether it's an Instagram or like a dribble account you create, and you're just sharing snapshots and progress, work in progress along the way, whether you're in a Slack community or group and you're sharing stuff for feedback to get feedback from others, get out of that silo, keep creating and share your work as often and as regularly as you can, because you're going to learn so much from others in the industry.

Alex Smith:  Yeah, great advice there, Femke. Where can people go to learn more, find more of your content? 

Femke van Schoonhoven: Oh, yeah, you can go to my website, which is You can find links to everything there. If you are interested in the course, I don't want to like over push it. We run it a couple times a year, but you can go to that'll take you there and you can join the waitlist.

Alex Smith:   Awesome. Well, thanks so much for joining the show today.

Femke van Schoonhoven: Thank you. It was an honor to be here. Thanks. I really enjoyed it.