By Andy Budd, Designer and Expert in Residence at Seedcamp
For early stage start-ups, your first design hire is a super critical role. Not least because the product decisions you make at this stage will have long lasting effects which can be difficult to unpick later. So hiring somebody who has experience designing successful products is a sensible early investment.
How Designers Drive Acquisition
On a very basic level, designers are responsible for shaping the part of your product that customers see and interact with. As such they’ll be responsible for communicating what the product is, what it does and why your customers should care. If your visitors understand the value proposition there’s a good chance they’ll take your new product for a spin. If they don’t, getting folks to sign up becomes an uphill struggle.
Customer acquisition is probably the biggest challenge for early start-ups and can be the difference between raising that next round of funding or hitting a dead end. To get over this hump, founders will often spend a tonne of money driving traffic to a poorly performing site. While this brute force approach can work, it has a really negative effect on your cost of acquisition. It’s worth noting that cost of acquisition is something potential funders will be looking at closely, so making sure your marketing site is as effective as possible should be a no brainer.
As your approach to customer acquisition matures you’ll start doing some sort of funnel analysis. Examining where your customers drop off occurs and coming up with potential fixes. A good designer can have an outsized impact here; using their research, usability and problem solving skills to help plug the holes in a potentially leaky sign-up flow. This is where a growth oriented designer can add extra value; running constant experiments in order to improve the effectiveness of your acquisition pipeline.
How Designers Drive Retention and Lifetime Customer Value
Once customers have signed up, designers are primarily responsible for the experience of the product. Is it easy to use? Does the interface make sense? Can customers achieve what they came here to do? What happens when something goes wrong?
Early users generally don’t mind a bit of friction as long as your product solves the key problem they have. However as more discerning customers discover your product, they expect a much slicker experience that’s comparable with the other digital products they use. This problem is touched upon in the book, Crossing The Chasm; essentially as your product matures, customer expectations will steadily increase.
With a constant stream of new users coming to your product, customer retention shifts into focus. What can you do to reduce churn, and increase lifetime customer value (another important start-up metric)?
There are many reasons why people leave a product but some of the easiest ones to fix are user experience related. This is where user research starts to pay dividends. Watching customers use your product, and removing the roadblocks, annoyances and frustrations they run into. As such, designers are a major contributor to increasing customer lifetime value.
How Designers Drive Product Market Fit
Another reason why customers leave your product—or fail to sign up in the first place— is that it fails to meet their needs and expectations. This could be because the product is lacking important features, or that those features are there, but they don’t work the way the user wants and needs. This is another area where designers can provide outsized value, using their research skills to understand exactly what’s missing or not working correctly, and then using their design skills to come up with a potential solution.
This is the essence of product market fit. Creating a product with the right set of features to solve your customers needs, in a way that feels natural to your users. This involves understanding your customer needs (research), turning these into a set of problems to solve (customer development) and then solving them in a way that meets expectations (user experience design). Because of this, designers play a major role in solving the Product Market Fit puzzle. In fact I’ve come across many start-ups who have run out of runway and failed to reach Product-Market Fit because they failed to invest in design, early enough.
When should you hire your first Designer?
Which brings me on to the question I’m asked the most by founders. When should we hire our first designer? Ironically this question is often asked way too late in the game, when many of the core product design decisions have been made. If you’re looking to hire a designer and your product is already out in the market, you’re already playing catch-up.
For me, this question is a little like asking when you should hire an architect when building your own home. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Grand Designs, you know that it’s perfectly possible to build a home based off the back of a sketch and a talented engineering team. You just run the risk of making a bunch of silly mistakes along the way and wasting a tonne of time trying to fix them — assuming you spot them in the first place, which many start-ups fail to do.
So my advice is always the same. The right time to hire your first designer is around the same time you hire your first developer, ideally as part of your founding team. If you forgot to hire a designer at the start, the next best time to hire one is now, before too many more product design decisions get made.
How Much Design Resource Do You Realistically Need?
While the ideal solution is to hire a full time designer from the outset, start-ups often find their design effort front weighted. You make a lot of important decisions up front, but these tend to trail off during the production phase. So if you’re struggling to find a permanent design hire from the outset, you can always get somebody in to help set the initial direction, and then have them dip in and out as the product evolves. This isn’t a good agile process, but it can be a pragmatic approach while you scale up your design capabilities.
Ideally this person would be a design co-founder. Somebody who is able to help with the initial direction, and can jump on board full time once you start getting traction (or that next round of funding). Having an experienced designer at the helm becomes even more important when the team starts to scale. One reason why your first design hire should have leadership potential, rather than the first person you can find.
Failing that, a good freelancer is often the way to go. With design hires regularly taking 3-6 months, this will give you some valuable breathing space while you search for a permanent hire. It will also make it much easier to find that permanent hire if they can see you’ve been committed to good design from the start. That’s much harder to do if you’re 9 months in and your product went live with no design input.
So to summarise, designers play an important role in setting the product vision, creating the part of the product that your customers will interact with (and therefore evaluate) and ultimately help you get to Product Market fit quicker. As such, my advice is always to try and bring a designer onto your founding team, but if that proves challenging you can always back-fill with a good freelancer to help you get through the initial upfront thinking and into production faster.
In my next article I’ll talk about how you find your first designer, and in my final article in this series I’ll talk about how you go about fostering a culture of design in your start-up.