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A startup’s guide to building a strong product design team

A startup’s guide to building a strong product design team

Whether you just started building a product design team or have already hired a few people, you may be facing many questions about how to find and manage talents. While working as startups mentors at accelerators like Techstars and Seedcamp, we have always heard the same question: “How can we hire the best designers?”

The question of hiring for design stands tall — not only for startups but also for top brands with large budgets like Google and PayPal. While collaborating with these companies, we learned that designer searches lasted up to over 6 months! So you can imagine how difficult and time-consuming the process is.

To make things easy for you, we share these secret insights formed during our 5-year experience with dozens of startups. After interviewing more than 800 creative professionals this year, we’ve got both quantitative and qualitative material for an ultimate guide on how to build a strong product design team.

Types of product designers

For all startups, it’s essential to know that they will need these two types of creative professionals for their product design process. Let’s name them "design-explorer" Alex and "design maker" John.

Discovery stage: design explorer

At the project discovery stage, you need to research the market, perform a product investigation, and come up with the first design ideas. At this project phase, you should be looking for “Design explorer” Alex. He usually designs fast, but not as scrupulously as “design maker” John. However, Alex is extremely good at researching the industry and trends. He can create a pool of design findings that will help you choose the best concept for a successful product.

Design asset creation: design maker

This stage is all about creating design assets, and here’s where you will need to hire design maker John. He is skilled in building and maintaining a large design system that consists of, let’s say 500 screens, 100 icons, and 3 landing pages. John will help you organize a product-design process, prepare all the documentation, and come up with solutions to implement concepts created by design explorer Alex.

Design makers like John stay with a startup during its entire lifecycle and scale along with the project. For example, after a startup is funded, you will need to design a new website and iOS app (if you’ve only had an MVP on Android before). A design maker can help you manage all of these things.

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Design hiring problems you face as a startup

Problem #1. You need different types of designers

A startup lifecycle usually embraces the following stages: an MVP, seed round, series A, series B, and an IPO (initial product offering). At each milestone, a company faces different design problems and requires various combinations of design skills.

MVP

Design explorer. At the MVP stage, you will likely need only one “design explorer” who can quickly perform product research and generate many good ideas. This person should be able to develop an impressive and workable prototype in the shortest amount of time.

Seed round

Design explorer + design maker. A startup has already developed an initial design system, but still explores new concepts to evolve an MVP. You realize that life in creative chaos is no longer possible. A startup faces an urgent need for a professional that can put all design assets in order and create guides for software engineers. At this point, you should have both a design explorer and a design maker in a team.

Series A

Design explorer + several design makers. Now, your startup has even more design assets, and the product should quickly scale. For instance, your Android-based MVP should expand to iOS and web to address all customer needs. It’s difficult to make progress without the help of a few more design makers at this stage.

Series B and IPO

Several design explorers + many design makers. The product continuously evolves from different perspectives including UI, UX, marketing, and revenue-generation models. A company might have to design several landing pages per month to test various marketing approaches. Or the product may need more icons and other elements as it rapidly grows. These are just a few to name design objectives at this phase. A startup definitely has to hire more design makers to cope with all this work.

Solution

After reviewing more than 800 designer CVs this year, we realized that there is no one-fits-all solution. Every company requires a different approach depending on their budget, project stage, and product peculiarities. You can hire full-time designers and simultaneously collaborate with design agencies to close a knowledge gap when your internal team lacks specific expertise. Or engage a freelance designer to help your startup complete a particular project stage.

Working only with design agencies is not the best option for startups, and here’s why: during our communications with investors, we realized most of them are more likely to fund startups with full-time designers rather than those working with agencies. Hiring in-house significantly raises your company’s chances of raising funds.

Case Study

Humbleteam had to create a mobile app design for a big Pakistani digital bank. We developed cool graphic design know-how, but we lacked contextual experience in designing for local people. Luckily, we found a fintech designer based in Saudi Arabia with a comprehensive understanding of customer needs and banking app patterns specific to that region. We created an application collaboratively: he advised us on the context-related issues and we crafted the overall design.

Problem #2. As an employer, you compete with big companies

Startups usually struggle to hire good designers for an internal team because they compete with big employers like Google, Uber, Airbnb, and so on. Most designers more willingly accept job offers from large corporations since they provide a good social package, higher salaries, and a sense of prestige associated with the work at a famous brand.

Solution

Hiring professional and experienced designers isn’t easy, especially if as a startup without a big name or big perks to attract talent. However, these tips can help you to solve this problem.

Offer a favorable environment for professional growth. Usually, designers join a startup to challenge themselves to create something new and extraordinary, setting industry trends and making a deeper impact in the process. So, try to put down a job description accordingly to spark the candidate's interest in your project.

Look for designers that want to try themselves in a new niche. Another motivation for designers to join startups is their goal to make a transition to another professional vertical. For example, an illustrator may want to become a game designer. A game development startup might become a perfect place for an illustrator to start a game design career.

Problem #3. It’s difficult to recognize a good designer

It’s difficult for startups to find a good designer due to a lack of specific design expertise. A candidate might have an appealing portfolio on Dribble or Behance, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to solve complex design problems and scope basic business requirements. So how do you know you’re hiring the right person?

Solution

Define your specific design needs right now. Create a test task that will help you check the appropriate skillset. Keep in mind that a task should be fast to complete, while also examining multiple design skills simultaneously. Most candidates simply bypass companies if they perceive that they’re being asked to complete time-consuming tasks for free.

Once, we asked candidates to complete a task that involved designing widgets for a ticket-buying app oriented towards Prague-based users. Take a look at two solutions developed by two different designers here.

Solution #1 on the left side includes a single app screen. The second solution on the right is a 27-slide presentation that covers problem research, the scope of requirements, investigation of user devices, and much more. This is how a simple test task can help you find a person with a broader skillset and an extraordinary way of thinking.

The more candidates you interview, the more chances you have of finding the right one. After reviewing hundreds of CVs and test tasks, you’ll find it’s much easier to recognize a good designer (take a look at our test tasks as an example).

We asked many founders about what they pay attention to when hiring a product designer. Most of them said that it’s 1) visual design and 2) product thinking. But this answer misses a range of other important skills.

At Humbleteam, we approach a design hiring process more comprehensively and assess a candidates competence across 12 types of skills (see image below). Without considering all of them, employers take a risk of employing a person who lacks a bunch of knowledge and experience that are key to the product design process. On the other hand, they may lose a professional who excels in a very specific niche but doesn’t have mastery across all design skills.

Common mistakes that startups make (and how to avoid them)

Hiring people that don’t share your goals

Most startups aim to build an MVP as fast as possible. It allows them to test different ideas and engage investors in the shortest amount of time. You will need to hire a designer that shares your vision and can help you deliver on these business goals. In larger companies, designers sometimes have a month to only develop a logotype.

On the contrary, a month of startup life may bring a full pivot in the product concept or even a complete team restructuring. It’s crucial to clarify your business objectives at the very beginning and confirm that the designer’s personal goals match yours during the first interview.

Hiring “cheaper” designers

Startups may want to hire less professional and “cheaper” designers due to a limited budget. However, you must consider that these people will have to lead your design team in the future. So, it would be more beneficial to engage professional designers from the very beginning of the project.

Experienced design leaders will help you hire better designers and ensure faster company growth. On the contrary, the less professional the specialists you hire are, the less professional employees they will engage in their teams in the future. This stems either from intuitive behavior or an evident fear of in-team competition.

How to find a product designer

As mentioned above, all designers have different functions. How and where to find the right specialist depends on the skillset you need for a particular startup stage. Hiring a practicing designer and a design team leader requires two different approaches.

Hiring a practicing designer

When hiring a practicing designer, don’t just look at their CV, review their portfolio as well. This is where they showcase actual skills and knowledge. Pay attention to professional communities where designers publish their creative works, such as Dribble and Behance. Another option is to explore freelance platforms like Upwork or Toptal since many designers often look for job opportunities there.

Hiring a design team leader

All design team leaders started their careers as practicing designers. Over the years, they have occupied management positions and stopped producing new designs. Consequently, there is little chance of finding an experienced team leader on creative platforms like Behance and Dribble.

Search instead for them on business networks like LinkedIn and Upwork. In this case, a traditional CV and track record reflect more information about their actual expertise than a design portfolio. Even if you find team leaders’ creative work on the Internet, they are likely too outdated to be insightful regarding the person’s real experience.

Key takeaways

You will need two types of designers for the product creation process: 1) “design explorers” for the discovery stage and 2) “design makers” to create design assets. As a startup, you should be ready to face the following design hiring problems:

Problem #1. You will need different types of designers at various project stages.

Solution. Hire full-time designers and simultaneously collaborate with design agencies to bridge any knowledge gaps at particular project stages. Or you can engage a freelance designer with the necessary expertise to advise your internal team on a specific issue.

Problem #2. Startups compete with big employers like Google and PayPal.

Solution. To engage talented designers, offer them a favorable environment for professional growth. Look for designers that want to challenge themselves in a new niche.

Problem #3. It’s difficult to recognize a good designer.

Solution. Define your design needs and create a test task that will help you check the appropriate skillset. Choose short and simple tasks that allow you to investigate many skills simultaneously.

Avoid these 2 mistakes when building the first design team: 1) hiring people that don’t share your goals and 2) hiring “cheap” designers. This will help you avoid many negative outcomes that could harm your business.

Product design is all about the people on both sides of the table: the product creators and the users. Hiring the right people for a project directly impacts the quality of your product and overall business success.

Put these tips and tools to work. In our experience, they are the lynchpin in hiring the right powerful professionals to build powerful products.

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