From Germany, Alex Muench spends his days working as a product designer for Todoist. In his spare time he works on several side projects and enjoys tinkering on the side.
As a product designer at Todoist who also manages their own side project – how do you balance your time?
To be honest I still struggle with keeping balance. In general what helps me is structuring my weekly to-dos. Every Sunday evening I go through my “done” list and add new tasks I have in the pipeline to a new list for the upcoming week.
The tasks I couldn’t finish go on that list as well. It’s important for me to prioritise and be open to changes that could come along during the week. It’s hard to stop when I’m in the flow. Setting reminders on when to actually stop working helps me set time aside for other side projects.
How did the idea for the side project Short come about?
The project “Short” resulted from an actual personal need. At the time, I was studying communication design, reading a lot of articles and saving them for later. After a while I’d saved so much content that I simply couldn’t keep up. My app of choice was Pocket (the read-it later app). But I wanted an app that motivated me to keep reading.
So I decided to imagine what this could be. When thinking about situations where I normally read or times I could kill more productively, I stumbled upon the idea to create an app that offers articles measured in short reading time. So whenever I commuted to university or while waiting for the train, riding the bus or just waiting for the courses to begin, I could work on my reading list and shrink the queue, one short article at a time.
I thought if I have this problem, maybe others have it too. So I reached out to friends and people on Twitter and Facebook to validate the idea. Most of the feedback was positive.
Also at this time, I had to find a final bachelor thesis project to finish my degree. Thankfully, I found a developer who helped me develop the app on the side next to his day job and bring my dream app to life. Short was basically a student’s project and everything about this product was developed and designed by students only including the product video. It was just a super fun project that I found extremely rewarding because it actually managed to solve a personal problem.
Product design is slowly entering the educational curriculums at design schools. Any advice for how a young designers looking to get into product design could start learning on their own?
I love this quote by Steve Jobs: “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.” So, be curious and ask why your favourite app does certain things. To start off, you can try to find a problem you want to solve for yourself first and try ask yourself how you can solve it.
Connect with as many people as you can; Twitter is a great way to find like-minded designers. Also, ask the designers you look up to for specific advice – don’t just ask “how can I make it better.” Product design is more about the “how it works” than the “how it looks”. You have to be able to reset your mindset to a first-time user. In general, it’s about helping people get stuff done. If you find this interesting product design might be for you.
Has product design always been something you’ve been interested in?
I’d say not at first. When I graduated college – logo, graphic, especially print and web design were the fields I was most interested in and wanted to focus on. I had designed a lot of logos and magazines in college. So I completed a few internships in advertising just to find that it’s not exactly what I want to do all day.
When I got my first iPhone I began to love apps and their interactions. I tried a lot of them and fell in love with digital products.
I didn’t study any product design, I just focused on exploring apps as much as I could in my free time. My love for marketing is still there so I try to come up with helpful social media images or ideas that can help people understand our products. Internships and freelance jobs during university helped me find the field I wanted to focus on.
You seem to tinker a lot and mockup ideas and improvements for other products. As a product designer, do you find you’re always looking at things objectively?
That’s the challenge. You’re only a good designer if you’re able to look at your own designs objectively and are able to handle feedback. Most of the time you don’t design for yourself but for the users of the product. When I use products I love I sometimes stumble upon an interaction that makes me think: why is this so complicated? Could this interaction be improved? My desire is to try to work on a solution right away. When I feel strongly about it I basically drop everything to try and come up with one. I love to give feedback and receive feedback. It’s kind of an obsession I have.
I try to give feedback on products I know and am familiar with. You always need to have enough context and knowledge about the whole product. Without this understanding it doesn’t really make sense to criticise. There might have been a lot of thought processes involved in every decision from design to marketing to development.
Also, if you’re not the target group or haven’t really used a digital product, the only thing you can do is do a lot of research. As far as I know these two mockups have helped me land my current job: Today Task (Apple Watch Concept), Todoist Today widget concept.
As a designer, how important do you think it is to have a side project?
Very important. It frees my mind and let’s me explore ideas I’ve had on my to do list for a long time. I feel like side projects help you dive into different topics. It increases your experience, allows you to take a break from your day job, get to know and learn from other products and ultimately get better at what you do. It’s like enlarging your vocabulary in terms of design and creativity.
What I like the most is when designers share design resources or work on helpful little products on the side. It adds value and can help others as well. It’s also a great way to learn user interface design.
Currently you’re working remotely for Todoist – any tips for other remote designers how they can stay engaged with their team?
Communication is always important no matter what type of work environment you’re in. Though I think it’s even more crucial when working remotely. At times it can be a challenge. Our team has members spread around the globe so we don’t all work in the same time zone.
When waiting on feedback it’s important that you have your own agenda and list of projects that you know you can work in the meantime.
Prioritizing your tasks and always knowing when to work on certain projects is extremely important. It helps everybody’s workflow and ensures that every team member is always in the loop. Everyone can move forward with different projects while using their own personal time in the most productive way.
It’s also helpful to keep the local times of your team members in mind you interact with the most. This helps establish timeframes where you know you’ll most certainly get quick answers (check out apps “Clock” for Mac or “Klok” for iOS).