Springboard mentor and full-stack designer Matt Donovan began his career as a print graphic designer. He moved into UX design after teaching himself web design and interface with clients.
As the former director of product design at Zaarly—a platform connecting homeowners with home service providers such as plumbers, gardeners, and electricians—Donovan spent a lot of time observing employees and customers interacting with products. These insights, known as UX research, can save companies millions of dollars in lost sales or customer churn.
Below, he shares some insights about his career path and what he loves about UX design.
You refer to yourself as a full-stack designer. I’ve started seeing this term more and more often. What exactly is a full-stack designer?
It can mean different things to different people. Sometimes, it refers to a designer who can do everything from business analysis and product strategy all the way through UI design, or UI/UX design all the way through back-end development.
In my case, I can do everything from business and product strategy through UI engineering and a little bit of back-end development.
How did you acquire such a diverse skillset?
Mainly through curiosity. I am driven not by the need to know how things work, more like the need to see if I can do it myself!
My very first job was as a print graphic designer for a Christian nonprofit that does humanitarian work in Haiti. They were like, OK, so we’re assigning you the Christmas banquet brochures, and also could you take a look at our website and maybe redesign it and see if you can remake it? My best friend is a web developer, so I instant messaged him on AOL every day for six months and learned how to do front-end development on the job. And that’s always remained part of the toolkit that I enjoy keeping up.
Most recently, you were the director of design at Zaarly, a platform connecting homeowners with home service providers like plumbers and gardeners. What were your main responsibilities there?
Most recently, I was directing the design team and the design discipline at Zaarly, as well as doing a lot of product strategy. I started at Zaarly as a product designer. The very first project I worked on was on user profiles.
Zaarly was initially kind of like a reverse Craigslist. You could post a job offer for someone to mow your lawn for $30, and then people could make offers, but it was completely anonymous. I worked on creating an identity to build trust in the platform by adding Facebook identification, user profiles, and privacy settings. We also started vetting service providers and moderating every job.
What made you want to become a UX designer?
I sort of fell into design in general. I’d had jobs before where production people were just there to follow the specs and make the stuff. But then I joined a B2B drug company. They were updating the ordering software for all of their nephrology clinics, so I flew a little puddle jumper plane for a week all over Texas to these little podunk towns visiting these clinics and watching these nurses use the software. I saw their sticky notes for the links they could never remember and these giant binders of documentation for how to use the application because there was no help section. I was amazed at the clarity that the trip provided around what we needed to do to make a difference.
What has your experience been like mentoring for Springboard?
I think one of my greatest joys is my weekly Springboard mentor calls. I love being able to hear what a student is working on, maybe hear what they’re struggling with, and offer some perspective. Those moments where you can tell that you’ve helped someone—that’ll fuel me for a week.
Most Springboard students are career-switchers. One of the biggest risks for career switchers is they don’t really know what it’s like to work in an industry until they do it. Were there any surprises for you after you entered the field?
There are very few actual rules in this industry. I think there are a lot of strong opinions and those can feel like rules but there are so many ways to tackle problems. As humans, we all have something that is uniquely “us” to give to this world. Because design is such a new industry, there just aren’t rigid standards that have to be followed. Even the standards that are in place are constantly in flux. So you have this real opportunity to take the way you think is best and lean into it.
So designers do have a lot of creative license, even when they work for other people?
Yes. I love Don Norman’s definition of design, which is that it’s the “rendering of intent.”
Design is just showing what you want to make. As a designer, the more you can show instead of just tell, the more you push that conversation along, the more clarity your ideas gain in other people’s minds. When you can take your ideas and package them in a visual way that people can consume and get at a glance, it gives you incredible power.
New to design? Learn what designers do on the job by working through a project with 1-on-1 mentorship from an industry expert in Springboard’s new Introduction to Design course. Topics covered include design tools, research, sketching, designing in high fidelity, and wireframing. Learn more and sign up here.