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How to navigate the struggles of building a UX & Design function within your scaling business

We’ve found that scaling Design and UX functions within startups presents a unique set of challenges. As a result of our experiences, I’m writing a blog series that will largely reflect on our learnings so far and give advice to startups, to help them successfully hire design and UX professionals.

To make this easily digestible and as relevant as possible, I’ve divided the series into 5 parts, each covering a dedicated skillset within Design:


•    Part 1 - UX Design 
•    Part 2 - User Research
•    Part 3 - Visual Design 
•    Part 4 - Content Design 
•    Part 5 - Service Design 

 

For context, last year I joined a startup: Confido Talent.  Confido helps other startups and hypergrowths, scale their product design and engineering teams.  I’ve spent the last 4 years in recruitment helping companies make design hires, so I’m the resident Design Expert here at Confido. 

Prior to Confido, my background was recruiting design hires for large corporate clients and big established UX and design teams. Generous budgets and dedicated functions like UX design, visual design, content design, research and even service design were standard. As such they had a much clearer understanding of what to hire for and the means to hire effectively. The way in which these corporates engaged talent is just so different, compared to startups. 

The main difference at Confido, is that we typically engage with businesses at CEO, Founder and/or CTO level. Despite having many advantages, we’ve found that often, their understanding of the Design market and different skillsets available, is unsurprisingly, little to none.

And as everyone knows, recruiting in London is tough. The recruitment process most companies have come to adopt and accept is pretty poor, but we'll discuss that in a separate blog coming soon. Instead, I thought I’d write about the challenges we’ve encountered and solutions we’ve implemented to help startups make Design hires. I’ll cover how to qualify your need for a Design hire, through to how to decide exactly what level hire would be most suitable for your team. 

via GIPHY

 

The first challenges to overcome 

When making design hires for startups, there are two immediate challenges we tend to encounter:

 

1.    The startup either has no design function and is looking to make its first hire, or it has         a small and/or immature design function that it needs to scale. 
2.    We are typically engaging with a Founder or CTO to make the hire. 

 

In most instances, startups are founded by someone from a software engineering or entrepreneurial background. It is incredibly rare to have someone with Design and UX knowledge at Founder or C-level within a startup. Compare this to a large corporate with a well-established design team, that is run by a dedicated design leader; there is immediately a knowledge gap in your business. This generally translates into a misunderstanding of the value UX and good design can bring to your business – so before you’ve begun you’re search, you’re at a disadvantage.

Adding value through experience; engaging a design recruitment partner

The first thing I do when I sit down with a business (before I even discuss what sort of hire they want to make) is gauge the maturity of their design team, process and function. 

Typically, these are the questions that I’d ask:


•    Who leads / is responsible for Product Design?
•    What stage is the product at? (MVP, Beta, Commercial)
•    What is the company trying to achieve in the next 12 months?
•    Where have the product requirements come from to date? (internal vs external)
•    Who is validating the design / user requirements? 
•    What does the current design team and process look like?
•    How do requirements turn into design, then turn into developed features?

The answers to these questions builds my understanding of the customer - their level of maturity when it comes to design, where the gaps are and their priorities in terms of design vs tech. 

Frequent challenges we have identified by asking these fundamental questions are:


•    No product design or management function, the CEO or Founder is driving the Design       agenda
•    Design team’s lack of voice within the business, with product direction sitting with             Tech for instance. 
•    Lack of validation or engagement with users due to personal preferences or agendas         of those building the product. 
•    Lack of knowledge or appreciation for different Design skill sets (Content, Visual, UI,           UX) and subsequently what they really need to hire

 

This series will look to assess these challenges, focusing on the five core disciplines within a Product Design team, in the hope by sharing this information, you can avoid these challenges or misconceptions in future. 

 

Vol 1: We want to hire a UX Designer 

The what and the why

A UX designer is concerned with the entire process of designing and integrating a product, including aspects of branding, design, usability and function. The designer’s remit begins way before the interface or device is in the user’s hands.  Yet in startups, having a UX designer can be deemed a luxury or an excess. Often this is through a lack of understanding of the term ‘user’ - Founders may perceive themselves as the user and therefore not prioritise external research. Or, simply it is not deemed a priority compared to hiring software engineers to build a product.

 

‘With Startups we find this perception is as common, as it is ill-advised.  UX Design is a necessity in any business where you have users, it’s as simple as that.’ 

 

You could have the slickest software in the world, but if something as simple as your sign-up page is painful, you will immediately lose customers.  

UX Design

By definition, good UX design seeks to improve the product’s usability, accessibility and capability. In turn, the effects of this can generate users, revenue and market awareness from both a consumer and talent perspective. Ultimately good UX practice attracts better talent. 

Look at the changes to Amazon’s mobile product as a prime example of this, something as simple as the addition of a “swipe to order” shopping action has positively impacted the user in two ways: 


1.    preventing people from accidently purchasing with the “one-click buy” 
2.    reducing the conventional “basket-checkout” (where most customers are typically lost
)  

 

The simple argument for hiring a UX designer comes down to competitive advantage. A UX designer can be instrumental in creating a solid product roadmap and user journey from the offset. Your first UX design hire should have access to key decision-makers and ability to engage with users to ensure you have the correct features , functionalities, accessibility and corresponding aesthetics within your product . 

There has been a lot of discussion on the cost of bad UX vs good UX. Don’t just think of Good UX as an investment, but also think about the impacts of bad UX, which is covered in a great article here. 

Are your customers happy with your design? 

If you’re going hire a full time UX designer, then it is important to understand that their role will be to improve the user experience. 

 

Customer satisfaction with User Experience and Design

 

We hear regularly, from Product Owners or Designers within startups, that Founders have a tendency to assume the wants and needs of the user and create a gap when it comes to validation. This is one of the quickest ways to ensure your product will not reach its full potential and lose talented people. 

Being design and insight-driven is the simplest way to improve your product, your business and your profits. 

If you’re looking at building out a UX function, be prepared to enable them to engage with the user and effect positive changes with feedback. We’ll cover user research in a later blog, but it comes back to that notion of building a consumer product without user validation; it is like getting in a taxi and just saying drive. Do you expect to reach your destination?

We want our product to look pretty

UX designers add a lot more value than ‘making the product look pretty.’ 

This is one of the biggest flaws in a design hiring strategy. 

“User Experience Design” is often grouped with “User Interface Design” in its definition or remit. User Interface design is its own skillset, one which UX designers cover in part, but which is not, and should not be a core part of their role.

UX designers do not want to join a business and become siloed into a UI Design position.  Fundamentally, if you are looking for someone to come in at the end of the build and improve the look of the product, you are wasting resources and time on hiring a UX designer. If this sounds familiar look to hire a visual designer. 

Is your product “the finished article? “

When it comes to large businesses and consultancies delivering client projects, the answer is: rarely. 

When it comes to startups, the answer is nearly always no. This is nothing new, developers spend on average, 50% of their time making changes after initial development to any product.

There will be long term plans and a UX designer can also support in developing a product roadmap and optimise the user journey.  Giving a UX designer a degree of autonomy to validate or change the product will have a powerful impact on marketing, retention of customers and ultimately: profitability.

As a business, you should be taking a hypothesising approach to product development, ensuring that you are constantly looking to improve and optimise. Taking this approach will improve a product’s lifespan as it continues to evolve to the market’s needs and, again, improving your profitability. 

Do you fully understand or appreciate the value of a full-time designer? 

In short, it is perceived that the cost of fixing usability problems is 10x higher after development, 100x hire after release.

Fixing usability after the fact release is almost 100x more expensive than design and developing with good UX practice from the off. The case for a strong UX function in your business as soon as possible is clearly measurable and common sense!

Coming back to my earlier point, I appreciate there is a knowledge gap in this part of the industry and there is a simple fix for that. If it’s not your field of expertise, then my advice would be to engage with consultants, attend meetups or even discuss hiring with recruitment consultants that work in this field.

You’ll get a quick sense of where there are gaps in your product and where a UX design function will be able to fill them. 

Which level UX hire could be best for your business? 

Consultant – typically £450-550 per day.
Freelancers or contractors are a way of “dipping your toes” into design. They come with greater short-term costs, but they bring a degree of authority and expertise to lay out a solid foundation with a design strategy. They can also validate the path you plan on taking with the product and design hires. The day rate might initially be a shock, but they make living going into businesses quickly adapting to new products/environments and having an instant impact. 

If you are not an expert in UX design, then do not presume you’re making the right decision with the product and the hire, if there is any doubt, seek advice. The safest bet is to hire a UX consultant on a short-term contract, anything between 1-3 months to map everything out with you. You could even build a partnership with a freelancer who will come in once a week across 2-3 months to continuously provide feedback and give yourself more time to mature the product.  We have seen companies hire consultants and quickly realise that they need an entirely different hire from what they first thought. A consultant gives you the time to both drive the product forward and ensure you’re defining the correct hire for your business; they can even advise on this. 

Junior-Mid level hires – 35-55k.
A smart choice for businesses who are confident with their product design direction. There is an abundance of talented junior designers that will be able to act on provided direction. Be wary that it will require a certain mindset from a candidate to be self-motivated; not everyone will be up to the task of working without the support & mentorship that a more established business could provide. 

Working as the sole UX designer at a junior level will require a degree of nurturing – consideration around attentiveness, personal development, training budgets etc. And, of course the work may take longer, as they are less experienced and less efficient, but arguably more likely to be hungry to embed themselves within the product and develop it all the same. Again, these hires will be more feasible to your business if you have created a solid product/ design roadmap, so perhaps consider having a consultant or freelancer for an initial period, to set up the pins and enable the junior-mid level designer to come in and knock them down. 

Senior- Lead level hire  - £60-90k
The value in a Senior/ Lead Designer comes when you’re looking for leadership and direction on the product’s roadmap and user experience. They will typically enter the fray at a point where you will need to afford them more time in order to make the right impact. (This is why the steps made to establish the need for this sort of resource, such as those with a consultant, are so important.) 

These are typically the hardest hires to make as it would appear that “every man and their dog” are looking to hire a Senior/Lead Designer. You will be going to market with minimal presence or knowledge and candidates are not going to automatically engage with your brand the way they would with your Amazons or Facebooks (who already have huge internal talent teams by the way). To navigate this, it is best to engage with a talent partner who knows enough to validate your hiring strategy and wade into an incredibly competitive market with a clear message about who you are, what you do and how their impact could be felt on the product in the short and long term. 

Scale your UX function with our help

 

“No product is an island. A product is more than the product. It is a cohesive, integrated set of experiences. Think through all of the stages of a product or service – from initial intentions through final reflections, from first usage to help, service, and maintenance. Make them all work together seamlessly.”

— Don Norman, inventor of the term “User Experience”

We are under no illusion that startups are constrained to funding and budgets limitations, so it’s  imperative the timing is right. One of the biggest things to figure out is what you’re trying to achieve with this hire and what value you’re going to get from a UX designer. 

If you are thinking of going to market to scale a UX function within your business, then we are here to help. You are competing in an unfair game when it comes to recruiting talent. We are here to provide clarity and a steer on this, to help you find the right UX designer for your business.

If you’d like some more information, advice or example case studies of the lessons we’ve learned working with startups in the last 12 months, then feel free to reach out to me at andy@confidotalent.com, otherwise I’d love to hear if any of this resonated with my connections within the industry! 

Keep your eyes peeled for the next instalment, where we focus on the value and hiring challenge for User Researchers.

 


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