Startup Life: Unscripted #33 with Vani Balasundaram, Product Designer at Doctor Anywhere

Navigating industry shifts from ed-tech to health-tech, Vani shares her journey of adapting and innovating in the fast-paced world of startups.

Startup Life: Unscripted is a TNG Media newsletter, as part of The Nudge Group, where we feature candid conversations with startup operators about their career journeys and experiences. If you received this email as a forward, you can read all our past interviews and subscribe right here.

Welcome to another edition of Startup Life: Unscripted! This week, we’re chatting with Vani Balasundaram, a Product Designer at Doctor Anywhere, a Singapore-based telehealth startup.

Vani's career trajectory in the startup world is a fascinating one, having transitioned from the educational technology sector at Cialfo to the rapidly evolving health-tech space with Doctor Anywhere.

Key interview takeaways:

🌐 Transitioning Between Industries: Vani discusses her switch from working in ed-tech at Cialfo to health-tech at Doctor Anywhere, exploring the differences and parallels between these two sectors.

🚀 Embracing Startup Dynamics: She talks about the fast-paced and ever-evolving startup environment, highlighting the challenges and growth opportunities she's encountered.

🎨 The Evolution of Product Design: Vani shares her insights on the changing role of a Product Designer in the startup world, drawing from her experiences at both Cialfo and Doctor Anywhere.

🌟 Advice for Aspiring Product Designers: Vani offers practical advice for those looking to break into product design in startups, stressing the need for adaptability, ongoing learning, and a deep engagement with the startup culture.

Hi Vani, it's great to have you with us today! You've had the experience of working both at Cialfo, an ed-tech startup and now at Doctor Anywhere, in the health-tech space. Can you share some of the similarities and differences between these experiences?

Cialfo and Doctor Anywhere are fast-paced environments that strive to provide end users with innovative solutions. Their ultimate goal is to make the existing experience more personalised and preferred. However, the difference lies in the nature of the product and the audience.

The former focuses on improving the college admissions process and making it more accessible to students, while the latter is dedicated to providing accessible and affordable healthcare services to patients.

Based on my previous work experiences, I am able to adapt easily to startups. I found both experiences to be challenging, yet rewarding, and they allowed me to develop and learn new things.

I'm curious, have you had any unexpected twists or surprises along your career journey that brought you to where you are now, especially given how startups often change and evolve so quickly?

I have been working in the startup environment for five years, developing different products from diverse perspectives. I admit that it took me some time to understand that each startup faces its unique difficulties, such as design debt, rapid changes in the roadmap, and a lack of engineering experience. Despite the unexpected surprises and challenges, working in startups has been rewarding for my career. Here are some of the key learnings:

  • Take ownership when you have limited resources.

  • Adapt to a fast-paced environment, which can be challenging, but learn to maintain a work-life balance.

  • Pivot your tasks whenever there is uncertainty because startups are known for rapid requirement change.

I constantly remind myself that no startup is perfect and that its structure can constantly evolve. This level of understanding balances my confidence and expectations regarding the startup, and I grow as a professional along with the company's growth.

We often hear about the hustle and bustle of startup life. Can you paint us a picture of a 'typical' day for you at Doctor Anywhere? How do you juggle all the different things you've got to do?

Working at a startup is like playing a game every day — it can be both exciting and challenging. To succeed, it's important to know which tasks to prioritise, anticipate unexpected events, and be ready to pivot at any moment.

Each day is unique and surprising. I begin with important tasks in the morning to stay focused and set meetings for the afternoon. I also reserve 20% of my time for design support.

Some days are really hectic with more meetings. It's important to note that this structure may not always work in a startup environment, but adopting it as a practice can be beneficial for designers.

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In the process of designing a product, how do you ensure that you're keeping up with rapidly changing tech trends while also maintaining the core identity and goals of the startup?

Continuous learning is key. It's always a good idea to do some contextual inquiry about what other products are doing and compare our process to theirs. By keeping a finger on the pulse of emerging technologies and trends, we can potentially impact our product in a positive way. E.g. AI and ChatGPT evolution — should be considered from the perspective of how these trends can help and improve your product. Because with each year products are getting more complex inside and simple on the outside.

Doctor Anywhere is working on the big task of disrupting the healthcare industry through innovation. Is there a particular project you've worked on that you're really proud of? I'd love to hear about how you tackled its design and development.

I recently joined Doctor Anywhere and every day is a new opportunity for me to learn, but since I am new to the healthcare domain, it is taking me some time to understand the business goals and vision.

Currently, my focus is on a crucial B2B project called DA Vantage. This project is a significant step towards Doctor Anywhere's long-term goal of building a digital healthcare ecosystem that will enable better patient outcomes and shape the future of healthcare in Southeast Asia. Personally, I feel there are a lot of opportunities for me to scale up as a product designer and it creates a larger impact at the business level.

On the other hand, we are working to further improve the tele-consultation experience flow, making it even more seamless. Before starting our process, our team conducted a heuristic analysis of our app, which led to the discovery of more opportunities for improvement. I am excited that we can use our design strategy and follow the double-diamond design process. 

This involves a lot of validation before approving the design, and we are currently in the ideation phase. One of the highlights is that data points drive more informed decisions, making the process even faster. I can't wait to see the final outcome of the design.

Given your experience at both Cialfo and Doctor Anywhere, how have you seen the role of a Product Designer evolve in the startup space?

Yes, this role is evolving every day because the world is changing with more opportunities.

While working at Cialfo, I started as a UX designer, but my role eventually shifted to a product designer. It took me some time to realise that these roles are industry-defined and not so clear-cut.

As product designers, we are responsible not only for visuals but also for the entire product experience, keeping the roadmap in mind. We work closely with product managers and are accountable for the outcome and impact of the product. I believe we shouldn’t limit ourselves as problem solvers. Our responsibility is beyond that.

Startups require more product designers, and we need to develop a strong sense of ownership and accountability for our work. In a small team, each person's contribution is critical to the success of the company.

Last question before we wrap up — if someone's thinking about moving into product design at a startup, what tips would you offer? Are there any particular skills or attitudes you think are key to really doing well in that fast-paced kind of place?

For aspiring product designers, I recommend building a strong portfolio that focuses on problem-solving through user-centred products with a sense of business acumen.

It's crucial to work collaboratively with cross-functional teams, be adaptable to change, and have a structured process for managing tasks and prioritising work.

Embrace the startup culture and be willing to work hard. Startups require a lot of effort to get things off the ground, and the environment can be intense at times. However, it's also incredibly rewarding to see your hard work pay off and contribute to the success of the company.

Stay updated with the latest industry trends and designs. By educating yourself and sharing insights and trends with others, you can become even more passionate about your job. I'm excited to officially join ADPList mentorship and continue learning, growing, and giving back to the community.

Lastly, be passionate about what you do, stay curious, and have fun with the process of creating something new and innovative.

From the Startup Life team

And that's a wrap! We hope you've enjoyed this edition as much as we loved putting it together. Stay curious, keep learning, and above all, enjoy the rollercoaster ride that is Startup Life. Catch you in the next one! 👋 Not subscribed yet? Do it here and don't miss out! Subscribe Now.

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