Integrate Design into a Tech Startup for Efficiency & Quality


TLDR: Introducing design into a startup's software release cycle earlier will improve efficiency and scalability, not slow it down. With the right preparation, hires, and commitment from leadership, design can become a competitive differentiator and an accelerator for business growth.

tartups often worry about slowing down feature releases when hiring their first designers. However, sidelining design only hinders growth by generating complexity in the product and an ever-growing backlog for design to tackle upon arrival. This article delves into the significance of early design integration, pinpoints the qualities of a skilled founding designer, explores the ideal designer count for startups, and offers insights on incorporating design into the production process to improve the successes and efficiency of burgeoning tech companies.

The Problem with Delaying Design Hires

Without design, engineering operates as the sole producer, building reactively to feedback and churning out piecemeal features in the name of testing and learning. While this approach can lead to some important discoveries for product-market fit early on, it has an exponential impact on the amount of work designers have to do to expand on product features and refine the user experience.

When designers are brought into a startup that has been operating this way for more than a few iterations on the MVP, they are stepping into an environment with heaps of unknown work to establish a scalable user experience. Standardizing user patterns, global styling, and a series of connected, intuitive experiences are basic foundational elements that are typically neglected in lieu of speed. Continuing to forgo these foundational elements complicates the user experience and bogs down efficiency for both design and engineering when building new features.

Designers are often hired specifically to refine and pump out new features quickly, but their bigger job is to play archaeologist and tour guide. As an archaeologist, they dig through layers of previous design decisions and existing patterns in order to correct the complexities in the user experience. They become a tour guide by carefully easing users into new ways of interacting with the product without irritating them by changing too many things at once.

As someone who has stepped into this scene multiple times, I've seen complications arise from totally avoidable challenges that result from delaying design input:

Treating the product as a collection of individual features or "screens" Rather than designing pathways for users to accomplish tasks throughout the product, this approach leads to convoluted experiences that are easy to forget. It may also produce multiple ways to accomplish the same task, often with slight variance that confuses users.
Not investing in a streamlined user onboarding experience The time it takes for users to get value from the product will impact product stickiness, growth and virality.
Blending together components from multiple design systems, and habitually using in-line styling rather than global styling Slows development and multiplies efforts to make small updates. Mismatching pages and features are common, which can impact the credibility of the product.
Poorly written or frequently occurring error states Errors are frustrating for users. Additionally, if the errors don't include coherent descriptions of how to resolve them, this often leads to a barrage of customer support calls or user complaints.

Design Debt

The longer a startup waits to hire designers, the more design debt they incur. Design debt isn't just a backlog of features waiting to be developed. Design debt includes the more significant considerations of product architecture that has a sweeping impact on user experience: information hierarchy, user experience patterns, naming conventions, roles and permissions.

Finding the right designer who understands how to balance speed and scalability becomes more and more imperative for the business to succeed in using design as a competitive differentiator. Addressing design debt is key when landing enterprise customers in order to deliver a certain level of quality and customization for their needs.

Hiring the Right Designers

One common way that startups unwittingly slow down their software releases is by hiring the wrong kind of designer, or worse, hiring multiple junior designers simultaneously. This, in addition to a lack of considerations for how design will need to fit into the software development process, are the biggest ways that startups suffer when bringing design in house for the first time. By making an effort up front to understand how to work with designers and avoid these challenges, startups can enjoy the benefits of a much more efficient and happier team dynamic.

What to Look for in a Founding Designer

Founding designers are unique—they are not like other designers. The best founding designers don't just represent the voice of the customer and create prettier visuals, they possess a business-centric mindset and a diverse set of skills to craft user-centered designs:

  • Excel at managing ambiguous requests, prioritizing design decisions, and possessing both UX and UI design skills
  • Demonstrate patience, negotiation skills with engineers and executives, and an ability to design with technical limitations in mind
  • Conduct productive user research that provides strategic insights (not just asking for feedback on a design they just made)
  • Able to manage themselves and defend their work to those who are not as familiar with their discipline, while still maintaining a humble and open attitude, and the communication skills to collaborate effectively

You won't find these kinds of designers coming out of UX bootcamps, or even from senior positions at larger corporations. Many of these skills are learned from being thrown into live projects with high stakes, and in the absence of supportive structures. In other words, look for someone with grit and experience from taking risks themselves—designer entrepreneurs, startup veterans, and in some cases, agency designers. They are used to wearing multiple hats, figuring things out as they go, being quick to act, while being thoughtful of quality.

Hiring an Optimal Number of Designers

Hiring multiple designers simultaneously, particularly without startup experience and lacking a senior design leader, will always lead to efficiency delays and an imbalanced workload across the designers.

A more productive approach is to hire one founding designer with startup experience, who meets the criteria mentioned earlier. Someone with a greater capacity can initially take on the work of multiple less experienced designers, saving time and helping to avoid the complications that arise when establishing cross-functional process.

The question of how many designers is needed for a startup should be assessed by an experienced designer before more hires are made. This could either be done after a period of working with the founding designer and getting their input, or hiring a consultant to investigate the need and provide recommendations for how the team could be architected and assigned tasks to deliver on the roadmap. When a startup is unfamiliar with design as a discipline, hiring a contractor in this capacity before making the first design hire can save a world of a pain resulting from poor hiring or planning.

Integrating Design into the Production Process

Inefficiencies that occur after bringing design in-house aren't due to the design process itself, but are more likely due to misunderstanding or not accounting for what designers need to kick off their work. Unless an experienced design leader is at the helm of this transition, this role is commonly left to non-designers who may not know how to get the results they're looking for when working with creatives.

Designers need sufficient information, time, and collaboration with engineering to make informed decisions and avoid potential rework. The time it takes for a feature to be designed well is dependent on the quality of the information the designer has to work with. This is why non-designers often struggle when assigning features in 2-week sprints, as some requests are as simple as a 2-hour tweak, whereas others require months of effort to research, explore and refine with feedback.

Rather than using a strictly waterfall or agile approach, top designers will advocate for shorter feedback loops with engineering. I also recommend that designers practice ongoing user research sessions, as often as 2 sessions a week in the early days, rather than trying to schedule interviews in big bursts for specific feature work. This serves to shorten the up-front cost of research that would otherwise occur when assigned a new feature to tackle.

Effective Design Requests Help Avoid Delays

The fastest way to improve feature release efficiency is to include important details when requesting design work. Requesting design is not like commissioning an artistic rendering. A successful new feature is designed through hundreds of micro decisions that rely on validated information from users and engineers, as well as prior experience designing for similar functionality. Features aren't simply conjured up by a creative mind, but deduced through understanding the functional nuances, use cases and technical limitations that will allow it to exist neatly inside an existing product.

Design requests should include essential details such as:

  • Timeline: this helps the designer define how to approach and prioritize the amount of effort put into the design
  • Core use case and user pain points: Solving for one use case may not solve for others. Be sure multiple use cases are evaluated and prioritized before picking one to design for, and be available for designers to ask questions about them
  • Technical requirements: Designers will provide much more effective designs when they can understand the costs of their design decisions. Having an engineer available to answer questions about different design approaches saves everyone time.

Encourage Exploration

Designers will deliver better work when they have freedom to explore different design options. While productive product designers shouldn't be fantasizing about the endless possibilities of what could be, they also can't explore just one option and expect it to be an adequate solution. There is always a need for some amount of experimentation—however minute it may be—to weed out less successful design solutions. Often, the first solution presented will be the weakest. It is rarely the strongest.

Make Room for Design to Collaborate Effectively with Engineering

Design is its own unique discipline. It comes with its own process, tools, personalities, and nuanced challenges. Integrating design into a startup becomes overly complex when design is led by non-designers, or when design is mandated to work the same way the engineering team works.

When design is first introduced into a company, designers are working from a deficit. Sprinting ahead with new features will only pile on more work to redo later because there is no foundation on which to build. This forces designers to do a lot of guesswork, and throwing together designs without testing how everything will work in combination with each other. Until foundational systems are established within the design of the product—standardized patterns, information architecture, naming conventions, components and styles to name a few—churning out new features perpetuates design debt. Design will produce a better quality outcome if they're given more time in the early days to gather context and make sure their decisions are well-informed.

How to get better quality design and smoother collaboration between Design & Engineering:

  • Work up to collaborating in parallel in 2-week sprints. For small features, design may be able to turn around quality work within 2 weeks. But most of the time, design needs to work at least 2 weeks ahead of engineering's scheduled sprint, and even as long as 4 months ahead of engineering for complex features. Design should have the opportunity to consult with engineering throughout the feature design phase to be sure they're aligned on approach, and to examine design approaches before they're committed to be developed in a sprint. The misconception that design should work in parallel with engineering for startups is typically the result of observing this practice in well-established companies. Design needs time to settle in before this is an effective working arrangement.
  • Start with small changes, not large feature releases. Allow design to spend time addressing the underlying system while making smaller feature updates. This will lead to better quality design, and a better experience for the users because it will mean fewer surprising changes to the existing interface.
  • Stop copying other company's designs. Design appears to be straightforward and is easily mimicked, especially with today's tools. In fact, many startups hire designers to simply repurpose layouts, taglines, or onboarding flows they’ve seen other companies do. While this can seem like the fastest way to arrive at a workable, validated solution, it shortchanges the value design could bring to the company, and is unlikely to solve the startup's unique problems. The solution presented in one design solution won't necessarily solve the problems faced by another company.
  • Be aware of expectations for designers to cover a wide range of skills beyond design. It’s not uncommon for designers to be expected to work well beyond the parameters of UX and UI design. By default, they are often required to write copy, design icons, present pixel-perfect interactive prototypes for client feedback, animate transitions, and conduct user research interviews, among other things. In larger companies, each of these skills equate to a full-time job of specialists. It shouldn't be assumed that a designer will be gifted in all of these areas—it may be hard enough finding one that can simply provide solid visual and UX skills. This full range of skills is ideal, but should not be assumed a "normal" part of design work. It is exceedingly difficult to find and attract such versatile, high caliber designers. If you find one, do whatever you can to keep them.
  • Designers can work very quickly, but be careful not to build it into the culture. There’s typically a period of triaging that takes place before design has the opportunity to tackle projects with less urgency. Problems start when designers are never given relief from this way of working. Having a seasoned designer guide the workload and develop a strategy for balancing the delivery of hair-on-fire requests and long-term strategic feature development effectively is one way to transition from a reactive approach to a proactive, customer-centric product design process. No designer wants to stay in a role where they are asked to do menial tasks in an emergency setting. It’s unpleasant and unfulfilling for any serious creative.

Prepare to Bring Design In House

Transitioning from what is typically an engineering- or marketing-led implementation process to one that incorporates design can cause a series of disruptions if not orchestrated well. So, before drafting any job postings, first understand your organization’s reasoning and expectations for bringing design in house.

  1. To help outline expectations and explore any necessary reorganization of team structures, consider hiring a design expert to consult.
  2. Conduct an audit of the existing product and roadmap. Again, this is where an outside consultant with design expertise can be particularly helpful. Examining the extent of the workload, skill sets and responsibilities required to meet expectations will ensure right mix of designers are brought in to the company.
  3. Consider how the existing organizational structure may need to flex to make room for designers. To do their jobs well, designers need accommodations of time and the permission to follow best practices for design. The most common blockers to this occur because design is squeezed into an existing workflow without being consulted on how they can best offer their services.
  4. Finally, clarify how processes will evolve to include the necessary time, tools and approvals to ensure a cohesive, streamlined experience for all. Each of these factors play key roles in your success, and in minimizing disruptions.

Every team is different. But as long as leadership starts with clear expectations, makes room for designers to operate, and commits to including design in the process, the results should speak for themselves. ⚑