Design Your Career the Way You Design Products – Interview with David Teodorescu from Fitbit

Fitbit Senior Product Designer David Teodorescu has more than ten years of professional experience under his belt and a refreshing perspective on it. His career has followed a unique path. He started out as an entrepreneur while being in medical school, yet he ended up in advertising, and later in UX and product design. We asked him about success, freelancing, working for famous brands, case studies and much more.

Could you please share some details about your career path and milestones? How did you start out in product design and UX? How did you end up as senior product designer at Fitbit?

I started out by designing my own products. Around 2007 I became fascinated with tech startups so I founded a couple of products and sold them after a few years.

I didn’t really consider myself a product designer at that point. I was trying out strategies, talked to customers, created system maps and designed interfaces mostly because I learned that successful startups approached things this way and it actually made sense.

The funny thing is that I was a medical student at that time. But I already knew what I wanted to do from there on. So I gave up medicine after I graduated as an MD and started from scratch. I graduated again with a BA in advertising and worked as a UX designer and digital project manager at Saatchi & Saatchi and The Geeks right after my startup experience.

I continued as a UX designer for a few digital companies in Bucharest and New York like Amplicare. There I had the chance to work on a large-scale product in digital health serving millions of patients. 

Joining Fitbit made for a natural step based on my previous experience. I’m working on a couple cool products that aim to improve people’s sense of security, making it both interesting and challenging work.

You have worked with some huge brands throughout your career. Do you think that working with them gave you a plus that freelancing or smaller companies couldn’t have provided?

I’m also debating this topic with some of my friends. Some of them freelance, some work as full-time employees. Each role has its pros and cons.

As a freelancer, you usually have the freedom to set your own schedule and choose the projects you want to work on. But you also have to manage these yourself. Full-time people don’t have the flexibility but their focus can be directed exclusively towards their craft and let the organization take care of the rest.

I had the chance to work as a freelancer, remotely and full-time for small and large companies. What matters the most is what fits your lifestyle best at that particular moment in life. If the way you work doesn’t reflect the way you want to live your life, you won’t be happy. And designers have the rare opportunity to choose, which not many industries offer. So it’s worth experimenting with different setups.

If the way you work doesn’t reflect the way you want to live your life, you won’t be happy. And designers have the rare opportunity to choose, which not many industries offer.

Having done this myself, I find freelancing too tiring, remote working too isolating and working full-time for a small company too chaotic. 

At this moment in time, working for a large company has more pros than cons in the context of my life. Sure, big companies and responsibilities come in different types but overall, the opportunity to work on huge products and the positive impact you can have on the lives of tens of millions makes it unique. This comes around rarely.

What skills do you consider the most important for junior UX designers to achieve success?

I consider having a plan to put skills to use equally important to acquiring them. I would advise them to design their career much the same way we design products. And I would probably highlight two main steps.

One: Define what success means to you. Working for a well-known company? A high-paying job? Becoming a thought leader? Mastering your craft and teaching others? Set up a goal that fits your personal values and follow this North Star whenever you feel lost and confused.

The other: Create a long-term plan on how to get there and focus on what you need to do at each step. This means analyzing your personal traits and skills and working on improving or building them one-by-one. Defining these milestones will ultimately help you visualize your progress and keep you motivated throughout the process.

In the end you have a variable combination of hard and soft skills, coupled with passion and determination. There isn’t a list of secret skills you need to check to become successful because that is mostly based on your set expectations.

There isn’t a list of secret skills you need to check to become successful because that is mostly based on your set expectations.

Based on your decades-long experience, what personal tricks/soft skills do designers need to become and remain successful?

Problem-solving, empathy, communication, presentation or collaboration skills are very important but, for the sake of diversity, I’d like to point towards two less visible ones: perseverance and adaptability. These two are part of that startup mindset that had an ongoing influence on me so I find them essential.

Perseverance is probably the biggest test for designers not only when entering the market but also throughout their careers. It counts among the main traits that help us achieve things that we wouldn’t normally. I haven’t yet met an extremely persistent person that failed.

And while perseverance sets the intensity, adaptability sets the focus. Navigating changes that happen in your life, the company you work for and the industry, in general, proves absolutely essential for staying on top of the game. You need to adapt quickly, learn new things and know how to reinvent yourself over time. 

Just look at how things have evolved in design over the last fifteen years. If we didn’t have the ability to adapt and constantly challenge ourselves, most of us would’ve gone the way of the dinosaurs by now.

You speak at design conferences, teach courses and share your knowledge in writing. How did these activities become part of your professional life? Why do you find it important?

David Teodorescu interview

I predict that one of the major improvements in design in the years to come is going to come in the form of this superior-level understanding of the people we design for.

So I started writing articles with the sole purpose of doing some in-depth analysis of very specific topics related to design and psychology. It became more of a way to challenge myself to explore this cross-industry knowledge, make new connections and present very technical information in a way that is easy to understand and apply in our day-to-day work.

Later, writing turned to speaking, following the same path. I was far from comfortable at the beginning but, once it happened, I found it exhilarating. I took it as a challenge to present and communicate the concepts I was researching so that it’s worth listening to when giving a talk.

I value these activities a lot because they literally force me to stay focused, learn new things and develop soft skills that wouldn’t have happened without stepping outside my comfort zone.

In your opinion, what ingredients make up a good portfolio?

When you see people telling their stories and showing more than just a list of projects they worked on. So I always look for things that can create a picture of that person’s values.

Whether articles they wrote, talks or podcasts they got involved in, courses they did, books they recommend, activities they like or anything else that could highlight their passion for a particular topic and design in particular, I want to read about it.

In an industry that’s becoming very competitive, making yourself stand out is an essential aspect of any portfolio right now.

When it comes to showcasing work, I’d also recommend limiting themselves to a maximum of three case studies. Make these your strongest, most complex and most interesting public projects. They should act as a practical application of your way of thinking and work process. Good case studies take time so I think it makes sense to invest this effort into making fewer ones better.

[Case studies] should act as a practical application of your way of thinking and work process.

Banner showing a screen with an open portfolio

When it comes to case studies, do you prefer a structure or consider some sections essential? Could you please tell us more about these?

Ideally, the structure of a case study follows the design process you usually go through. When it comes to product design, I split things into three main parts and offer details about them: product strategy, interaction design and visual design.

Product strategy involves explaining the problem, describing the audience, presenting the vision, strategy and roadmap for the product or feature and showing what metrics you decided on to measure the success of what we were trying to achieve.

I then go into more detail about the rationale of each step of the interaction design. That can cover customer journeys, feature prioritization, interaction maps, wireframes or prototypes. And I explain why I decided to do them and how they helped me come up with a better solution. 

I use low-fidelity prototypes to test and iterate, which makes showing the iterations and talking more about the findings and how you approached changes extremely valuable as well.

I always present a timeline of screens and the reason behind the changes to help people understand and visualize the progress.

Once I’ve fixed everything and users don’t seem to uncover issues anymore, I start working on the visual design. This usually also involves a lot of iterating so I always present a timeline of screens and the reason behind the changes to help people understand and visualize the progress.

An extremely important last step comes in showing the impact of your work. Did those metrics improve? Did your product or feature bring any value to the users and the business? Not all outcomes are quantitative and that’s perfectly fine. In that case, talk about how users reacted, what they said, what feedback customer support got after launch and so on. Use these to your advantage.

You seem to have a clear-cut design process that you highlight in your portfolio. Do you find it important to communicate that in your case studies as well?

Absolutely. The design process shouldn’t just consist of a list of buzzwords but your actual way of approaching things. If you followed it throughout your work at least partially, then your case study should reflect that.

But, more importantly than that, always keep honest about what you’re presenting. OK, you didn’t go through all the steps or some of them came from a team effort. We all know designing a product gets messy and doesn’t always run according to a cool diagram but adaptability is actually part of our job. So just present things the way you dealt with them.

Do you consider it important to have your portfolio online at all times even as junior designer?

Yes, even more so for junior designers. When you’re starting out, the best way to build trust comes from presenting yourself to your peers and creating that basic connection with them by allowing them to get to know you.

When you’re looking for a job, you need an online portfolio. It will make things so much easier both for yourself and the people you’ll probably interact with, like recruiters or hiring managers. 

But it does bring a lot of value even when you’re not searching because it usually acts as a conversation starter. You will inevitably connect with people that appreciate your work and want to stay in touch. Whether that will lead to future job opportunities or just sharing each other’s experiences, it doesn’t really matter. In the end, those connections will help you grow.

[Having an online portfolio] does bring a lot of value even when you’re not searching because it usually acts as a conversation starter.

When you become a bit more senior, online portfolios also become more like a collection of achievements and experiences which you’re forced to summarize very briefly. And doing that really puts things in perspective and makes you evaluate the things you indeed take pride in.

Where can people hear/meet you next? What topics will you cover?

I will be speaking at Mobile UX London on 21 November about the way other people’s choices influence our decisions and how this applies to design. It should get pretty interesting. Find more information on Come and say hi if you’re around!

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