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The Modern GTM

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How to hire a product designer for early-stage startups

When we see startups pitch product-led growth as their primary GTM strategy with zero product design experience on the team, it’s an immediate red flag for experienced investors.”                
Sandhya Hegde, General Partner, Unusual Ventures

Enterprise software startups are often guilty of not hiring a product designer early enough in their product development journey. Unfortunately, developing a product or a feature without design could result in many wasted development cycles. Ideally, products are designed and tested with users before a single line of code is written because, in many situations, the designer can help define the scope of a feature. 


How does a product designer help early-stage enterprise startups?

Product designers do so much more than making tech look good. Product designers conduct user research, succinctly define the core problem, ideate a solution, create prototypes, and conduct user testing. Even when user research and problem statements are defined by a product manager, a designer should be involved in every step. PMs should focus on what problems to solve while the product designer establishes what the most usable and engaging solution would be. 

Before you start to source and evaluate product designers, get clear about the primary characteristics you’re seeking. Effective product designers are deep thinkers. The best designers have as robust an understanding of the product as a PM or an engineer and also have the eye of a marketer. 

In the early stages of a product startup, you can get away with just one designer. However, if the workload is heavy, you may want to work with a design agency for specified periods of time.

When should you hire a product designer?

If the only way to interact with your product is through UI (user interface), you need a product designer. Let’s say your product doesn’t have a UI — everything’s done through API — you don’t need a product designer. But as soon as you have your customers wanting to interact with your product through a UI, you have a clear need for a product designer. Why? Because you’re betting on adoption - your customer using, interacting with, and experiencing value from your product.


Keep in mind, product designers’ responsibilities tend to differ between large organizations vs. small companies. At small companies, product designers often wear multiple caps, including one or some of the following:


  • visual design
  • interaction design
  • product management
  • motion design
  • copywriting
  • working with customer success team
  • data analysis (to identify patterns from large volumes of user testing data)


To be clear, product designers may not have the skills to perform all of these duties, but they should be able to work with contractors or agencies to get some of this done — for example, hiring an agency to create a style guide or design system.


Define goals before creating a job description

 

“‘Can we make this button pop more?’” Good designers have always experienced bad CEOs who micro-manage them without clarity on what the product strategy is. If you have never worked with/hired a product designer before, educate yourself before you interview!”
— Sandhya Hegde, GP, Unusual Ventures

Before you sit in front of a blank screen to craft a product design job description, get clear on the answers to the following questions. Armed with this clarity, the hiring process becomes much clearer and you’ll be prepared to answer candidates’ questions during interviews.


Who would the designer work closely with?

Engineers, the founder, product managers?

What are the primary tasks that you want the designer to perform?

For example, user research, just prototyping, user testing?

Are there any secondary tasks that are “nice to haves”? 

For example, do you consider copywriting skills a value-add for the role?


What design samples do you want to see in candidates’ portfolios?

For example, do you want to see examples of design systems or wire-framing?


3 tips for writing a compelling product designer job description


1. Include a clear and compelling problem statement for your product

Inspire candidates to get excited about how they can solve the challenge at hand. An effective problem statement helps “sell the dream.”


2. Mention notable credentials

Does your founding team have a strong professional track record? Is your company backed by a well-known investor? Include details to help candidates visualize who they’d be in good company with. 


3. Describe your company culture 

Is your company or work style collaborative? Do you encourage creative problem-solving? Mention the good stuff. 


Examples of great product design job descriptions

If you're looking for inspiration for writing a compelling product design job description, check out this collection of product design JDs for roles at Superhuman, Figma, Forward Health, and Orca Securities.

Senior Product Designer job description, Superhuman


How experienced should your first product designer be? 

Dribbble and Behance are the two most popular design communities; although, Dribbble’s job board has a higher success in sourcing talent. These platforms are also ideal to source design agencies. You can also find talented contractors/freelancers on freelance services platforms like Contra and Upwork


Should your first designer be junior or senior level?

Your first designer should be senior — meaning, a designer who has delivered at least three to four successful products that have shipped. Ideally, your senior designer will have at least five years of experience, but you can also consider less experienced designers who provide examples of high-quality work.

In my experience as a product and marketing leader, great designers were the fiercest advocates for our customers’ state of mind — how do we make product X approachable, usable, and engaging? How do we create joy for our end users? If your design candidate is asking these questions and has working hypotheses for solutions, hire them! 
— Sandhya Hegde, GP, Unusual Ventures

How to evaluate a product designer’s skills and experience

Evaluating and hiring a product designer can be an involved process, especially if you don’t have experience in product design. This three-phase approach will help you make an informed decision.


Portfolio and experience evaluation

The majority of design portfolios on Dribbble, Behance, and other design communities have a high emphasis on visual design. Look for portfolios that include process-oriented design pieces like wireframes, mockups, style guides, design systems, interaction design, iconography, etc. 


You may also come across “What if” projects, which are assignments that designers take on themselves to improve popular products. For example: redesigning the Spotify app, or a banking app, is considered positive as long as they include the process. 


Relevant experience is important but not a deal-breaker. Look for designers who have interesting past experiences; for example, a product designer with game design experience could create an engaging product for users. Candidates must be up to date on design trends and design tools; make sure they’re proficient in prototyping tools like Figma (a must these days), Sketch, or Adobe XD. Because product designers work closely with product managers, engineering, and marketing, they also must be excellent collaborators. 


Once you’ve identified a potential candidate, schedule a 30-minute phone or Zoom call, ask them about their past experiences in products from their portfolio, and ask them to describe their design process. 


Ask questions whose answers will reveal the designer’s appetite to understand your product. For example, designers with consumer product design experience can also design for enterprise products if they make an effort to understand your customers and their unique challenges, and vice-versa. 


If candidates meet your criteria and are excited about your product, they’re ready for a design challenge.

Design challenge performance

Giving candidates a design challenge or a design test is an essential part of the evaluation process. This will help you evaluate the actual work the designer would do for your organization.


The design brief should contain challenges related to your product. For example, a firm with a data analytics product should not give an assignment for an ecommerce product. Instead, the challenge should be about data tables, data visualization, or other product features. 


The challenge could be an anonymized version of your product or a feature of your product that you may be planning on implementing in the future. Provide as much information about your product as possible.


Be specific on how you would like to see the submission, we recommend a click-through mockup or a wireframe, along with a video walkthrough. You should feel the product/feature has come alive. 


Also, give the candidate sufficient time to do the work. The task may only take five hours but give them three to four days to complete.


Design brief example


How to evaluate candidates’ design challenge work

Think through these questions as you review their work:


  • Did the candidate follow the brief?
    If they got side-tracked, it might be a sign that they’re not good at following directions and should give you pause.

  • Did they take time to research the industry and competitors, before they started designing?
    How did they convey their understanding?

  • Does the designer have an appetite to understand your product?
  • Did they follow a design process?
    For example, did they include conceptual sketches, wireframes, high-fidelity mockups, or interactive prototypes?

  • Did they exhibit strong fundamentals like the hierarchy of information, typography, accessibility, etc.?

  • Did they show empathy toward your users?

  • Did they suggest compelling ideas to improve your product?


Live working session

Watching a candidate work live is the most crucial phase of the evaluation, and the goal is to come out with a strong feeling that a candidate is the right person to drive your product design vision forward.

Here are a few ideas to consider: 

  • Anyone functioning in a product manager role may do the final evaluation.

  • Make this a collaborative working session — in-person or on a video call.

  • Design a feature of your product together. The outcome should be a wireframe version of the product or just conceptual sketches. This session should reflect the day-to-day working between the product designer and product manager. An ideal candidate should take charge of the meeting, as you provide the requirements. 


  • As the session progresses, expect the candidate to ask a ton of questions — about your user base, technology, or general questions about the industry. This is their way of conducting user research. Give insights about the direction of the product.


How do you make the final decision to hire a product designer?

If you come out of the final evaluation envisioning the person working on the product and adding value, you’ve likely found the right person. Collaboration is key for the working relationship to work well. This session needs to improve the requirements as they’re talking. 


As a final step, contact the candidate’s references and if all checks out well, make an offer.


Written by
Suraj VenkataRaman
Head of Design
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