Co.Design

From Google Ventures: How To Hire The Best Designer For Your Team

The key to recruiting for a startup is to craft a realistic job description. And stop looking for unicorns--they don’t exist, writes Google Ventures’ Braden Kowitz.

Finding the perfect designer to join your team is tough--there’s no way around it. I’ve struggled for months searching for the right designer. And if you’re an engineer or MBA without a background in design, hiring a designer can be daunting, frustrating, or even downright scary.

We can talk about how to review portfolios, how to interview candidates, and how to persuade a designer that your team is worth joining. But before all that, there’s a fundamental question you need to answer: What kind of designer are you looking for?

The field of UX design is still young. And because it has grown so fast, practitioners have largely immigrated from neighboring fields. A given designer’s background might be rooted in ethnography, journalism, art, cognitive psychology, engineering, or other disciplines. You might find one designer who can illustrate with ease, while another can barely manage a stick figure, but both are competent UX designers. The same dramatic differences can be found in any number of other skill areas. The group of people who call themselves “designers” is remarkably diverse.

That’s why I don’t find the term “designer” to be useful in describing the skills a candidate should have. When people ask, “I need to hire a designer, do you know any?” I fire back, “What kind of designer?” Because knowing what kind of designer requires breaking down the role into more granular skills that are easier to describe in a job listing and easier to evaluate during an interview.

What skills do you need?

The first step to hiring a designer is to list out all the skills necessary to build your product. Here’s my short list of the most critical product skills, and the questions that those skills help answer.

• Research: What do customers want? Can they figure out how to use our product?

• Product design: What are we building? What are we not building? What’s in this release?

• Copywriting: How do we describe our product to customers in a way they understand?

• Interaction design: How does the product behave? How is it organized?

• Visual design: How does the product look and feel?

• UI development:How do we build quality interfaces quickly and flexibly?

There are many other skills you might need: facilitation, content strategy, storytelling, game design, editing, iteration management, etc. You can find a longer list in Jared Spool’s excellent article on assessing your team’s UX skills.

If you’re hiring a designer, start with a skill list. From there, it’ll be easier to see which of those are already covered on your team. And it’ll be possible to prioritize skills based on the product you’re building. Some of these skills might be more or less important. For example, if you’re building an internal tool for IT departments, you probably need product design more than visual design. With this narrowed-down list, we now know what type of designer we’re looking to hire.

Hunting the unicorn

Have you ever read a designer job listing that sounds like this?

Seed-stage startup looking for rockstar junior designer to sketch wireframes and design beautiful mockups. You’ll be responsible for crafting our logo and brand and writing UI copy. Must know how to run usability studies, prototype and write production-ready HTMLand CSS.

When I read a post like this I think, “Great! There’s a team that understands all the skills they’ll need!” But I also think, “They’re looking for a unicorn--a magical designer who can solve all their problems.” It’s too bad unicorns don’t exist.

There’s nothing wrong with being aspirational, but job listings like this don’t work for a few reasons:

• I have never met a designer who is an expert in all those skill areas. Listing a bevy of skills can discourage people from applying, even though they are good fit for your team.

• Designers that respond to that job listing will differ greatly in their skill coverage. In order to decide between them, you’ll still need to prioritize what skills you need. It’s better to do that first, rather than after the interview.

• Even if you find a unicorn designer with all those skills, actually doing all those things at your company is a huge amount of work. One full-time person probably isn’t going to cut it.

• The best designers, the ones who are experienced, will read a job listing like this and be able to tell that the author is asking too much from a single person. It’s a signal that the author is not familiar with user-centered design, and it can scare away good designers.

Tough choices

When I prepare to hire a design team, I decide which few skills are critical and should be covered in-house. The rest of the skills can either be covered by part-time help or can be done without. There are difficult trade-offs to be made. Here are some of the toughest:

Should we hire a designer who can code?

I believe it’s important for any designer to understand their medium, and that means that software designers should understand the basics of software development. (I have an engineering background, and it has served me well.)

But usually I think it’s a bad idea to ask your designer to write production code. First, since many designers can’t code, you’re limiting the pool of candidates. Second, startup teams are typically engineering heavy. The rest of the team is often better at front-end development than any designer. In terms of skill coverage, when you hire a designer who can code, you’re doubling down on engineering when you could be diversifying and getting other skills on your team. But most important, design is a full-time job. If you’re asking your designer to write code, you’re asking them to spend less time designing, studying users, prototyping, and doing all of the other activities that lead to great products.

For very small teams (three engineers or less), I think it can work to have someone both designing and writing code. But it’s often better to have a full-time designer paired with a front-end developer who cares about design. This way each person focuses on their core strength, and they share a common language in design that’ll make working together easier. Don’t find a designer who can code--find an engineer who loves design.

Do we really need a user researcher?

A good user researcher can be your eyes and ears. She can help you understand what your customers really want, and why they might not need your product. She can measure whether your customers even understand how to use the software you’ve shipped. All of this data is essential in finding product-market fit.
And on larger products, this data gives teams the confidence they need to make changes.

A huge part of user-centered design and lean startup methodology is getting out from behind your desk, out of the office, and talking to your customers. Is there someone on your team who does this naturally, who loves talking to customers?

Everyone has their center of gravity. If I had a free hour, I’d spend it sketching. Engineers will spend their free hour coding. And every good team should have someone whose center of gravity is outside the office. This is the person who’ll chime in when you’re having an argument about features and say, “I’ll go out, ask some customers, and we’ll know by this evening.”

There are many roles that have their center of gravity outside the office: user research, sales, community management, business development, etc. And all of these people can help to gather data about customer needs in different ways. For the products I’ve worked on, user research has been an indispensable part of the product design process. And for anyone building consumer-facing products, I highly recommend working with a user researcher from the very beginning.

What’s more important: interaction design or visual design?

Luckily, it’s common to find UX designers who are good at both visual design (how it looks) and interaction design (how it works). Both skill sets are required to build great products, and both are core to how customers understand and perceive the product.

Any design candidate you interview will be better at one than the other. (I’m much better at interaction design than visual design.) So if you only have enough space on your team to hire one designer, you’ll have to decide which skill set is more important for the product you’re building.

Focus on visual design if your product:

• Must be more delightful than competitors (e.g., games).

• Needs to appear credible, well built, and high quality (e.g., finance).

• Creates a space people aspire to be a part of (e.g., communities).

Focus on interaction design if your product:

• Has many features but needs to feel simple.

• Supports complex tasks and flows and is used every day.

• Is mobile-based (and can lean on a mobile platform’s visual style).

Once you make some tough choices and pick the granular skills you need on your team, you’ll be able to write a much better job listing. And you’ll be better prepared to evaluate design candidates who interview at your startup.

[Illustration: Pixel People via Shutterstock]

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20 Comments

  • Farrukh Kamal Ahmed Siddiqui

    Very nice article: I always thinking why they do not understand with it.
    Specially in this article with this paragraph " The best designers, the
    ones who are experienced, will read a job listing like this and be able
    to tell that the author is asking too much from a single person. It’s a
    signal that the author is not familiar with user-centered design, and it
    can scare away good designers." clear a every thing that how designer
    thinks when they saw the advertisements.

  • Alxri

    There are unicorns. Google has at least one in google ventures. Actually google bought a company just to get him and other guy that is also a unicorn, but not in design. But if your startup isn't really interesting, don't even bother trying to get them, unless you get them really young.

    Yes, startups should make a list of things they need, but that works for every other area.

    Will name a few unicorns just so you can know: Wilson miner, Mike Matas, David Burka, Alex penny, Peter Vidani and I'm sure there are even more out there.

    Unicorns are likely to be generalists and usually they are just waiting/looking for an opportunity so they can put there hands in something really interesting.

    There are unicorns in every field, if there wasn't, there would be no google, no square, no spaceX.

    I'm done.

  • Johan Ronsse

    Braden, once again an excellent article.

    As a freelance designer I don't think the mentioned job listing is so "unicorn".  If you are in the industry for 5-10 years I don't think it's too much to ask for to know more than a few skills. For a UX designer this might mean both coding and interaction design; for a more visual designer this might mean a foray in 3D, motion, illustration, photography or some other creative endeavour.

    What's faulty of these companies, as you point out, is to ask a junior profile to know everything. The point you make that when an experienced designer looks at a job listing that asks for too much, they'll think the company doesn't know their biz is absolutely right.

    I'm a UX designer with 7+ years of experience. I can do visual UI design, interaction design, interactive prototyping with HTML/CSS/JS (for prototyping and basic interactions, no voodoo like writing libraries like d3js), write production ready code that is performant, have some photography chops, product knowledge, manage my own business. I don't feel like a unicorn at all. I'm just a guy who keeps on learning.

    Kind of like in an RPG where you keep levelling up: my AngularJS is only 1/10. Next year it might be 2/10. In 5 years because of all the exposure to Javascript in prototyping my JS might actually be at the level of someone coming out of college. But I'll still have the interaction design skills I had. Does that make the future me a unicorn? I think it just makes them versed in multiple skills, a natural thing in a career that spans 45+ years.

  • alfredli

    Unicorn is exist, but rare. whether you need it of not, it depends. And I beleive unicorn and hybrid designer and developer. Their thinking is much better then one expert in certain field. Since they will not filter out the possibility and functionality. They much worth to hire, usually not double the pay...

  • Jon Gold

    Designers shouldn't write production 'code' (when you've defined 'code' as HTML & CSS)?

    Is this 2002?

    You pretty much lost me there, sorry. I'd be nervous about hiring a designer who can't write production HTML & CSS; and prefer production MV* JS & Ruby skills. Gotta move with the times - we're building products, not posters of products!

  • Jay West

    I absolutely agree with the original post on this. This is two totally different brain functions. It's critical to have an understanding of code syntax, but you are limiting yourself a heck of a lot by cutting off any designers that don't write production ready code. I'd say "Is this 2002" to your thoughts on the whole flip side. Theres tons of outsource shops that will build high quality html/css for you for cheap, so from a cost standpoint it doesn't make any sense to pay a high paid designer to do code - and from a logistics standpoint, they should be freed up in time to design rather than be bogged down by an entirely different skillset. Even if/when a designer has all of the skills to write production ready code, I would never ever have them do much if any of the actual code.

  • Rongen Robles

    I always see job posts that hire designers who can code but never programmers who can design. Maybe you could help explain why.

  • Stuart Frisby

    Lost me at the same spot. We only ever hire designers who can write production quality HTML & CSS, and who don't mind getting their hands dirty with a bit of JS and templating stuff thrown in. 

    This is our medium, this is our platform. Having this separation of designer responsibilites in my experience (I've hired ~20 designers in the last couple of years) leads to idealistic design decisions which in turn lead to unimplementable or poorly considered solutions and eventually below-par products. 

  • therobosan

    An interesting footnote to this piece is that the art/design used was sourced via shutterstock.

    Could you imagine a start up trying to create this type of art from scratch? The process would likely cause a few fistfights if not even sink some companies.

    More evidence that you don't necessarily need a designer that can do
    everything, but rather someone that can translate and/or
    elevate your brand vision through various channels/resources, etc.

  • John Strott

    I agree with this post 98%. The 2% is where I say, "I believe in unicorns". I've seen and met some who excel at being end to end designers. And we've all read similar job descriptions to the example given. The kicker is always the Jr. or even Md-level caveat, which translates to we want someone who can deliver the world but are willing to pay you next to nothing. Unicorns are flying high and don't have 2 minutes to read your job post.

  • Dscovered

    Amazing input! I agree completely with the fact that it is often complicated to find designers that fit your needs and that will understand exactly your vision for your projects. It is very important to have great understanding and interpretation from both sides so that great things can be achieved. Very insightful!

  • RichardLipscombe

    Designers are almost none of the things described above.  All that stuff might work well in the Googleplex or at Facebook factory or Microsoft monarchy but it is not about design or designers.....

    Designers are people who understand other people.  Its that simple.  Perhaps the  best designers are children because they understand what others kids will like even before they know it, see it, or get to play with it.  Not all kids are creative geniuses but all kids know about other kids. Some adults retain that ability, perception, focus, clarity, and gift.  Most do not.

    Designers know that people love to hang with those who share their values, mores, fashion sense, language, etc.  So a good designer will come up with something that is relevant to the mob and their GroupThink but then make it remarkable.  Making it remarkable is what designers are really really good at doing.  They make something that is clunky and chunky into something that is funky. 

    Cheers, Richard.

  • Howard Stein

    Design from pre-internet ages did not vanish into the fog of the past. Design expertise that takes years to refine, is alive and well and looking for a job. We want to help, to share and collaborate, and make amazing things with our more engineering-oriented partners. We want designers to be shocked at the beauty of a design in coded space. The roads traveled by UI, UX, and visual design also have wiggy edges washing into each other. I thought Apple had adequately demonstrated that excellence in how a product looks, works, and is experienced, is ultimately one thing, and it's what makes great design. All together now! Great article.

  • Cari Turley

    This is great advice for hiring ANYONE: make sure you actually know what skills you need. I've seen so many job postings with unrealistic wishlists, only to be told later, "oh, we didn't really expect you to have all those things." Then don't request them! Prioritize the skills you actually need, and you'll get much better qualified candidates.

  • zschmiez

    Agree-- this isn't solely for designers.  I too see "unicorn" listings in other fields. And too often the employer wants skill #3 now, when skill #5 is stronger, and skill #3 can be learned quickly by the right candidate.  "why try to catch a big fish when we can eat this bait?"

  • Casey Weeks

    As an interactive designer I can really attest to this article. When I see a job posting  asking for the designer to also be a production developer I get the feeling this company doesn't quite have their act together. As you said, while a designer should have a firm understanding of the technologies he or she is designing for, development is best left to a front-end development specialist who cares about design (not that developer who gets angry when you ask for a little negative space around a button). 

  • Kristin Currier

    Great piece, however I really believe (web) visual designers *should* have a solid understanding of basic development skills. They should know how HTML and CSS work together and how JS can add further enhancements to their work. This will help them create better designs based in the real world and they will be able to communicate better with developers on their team. 

  • Melanie Richards

    Completely agree. Understanding these concepts helps the designer identify opportunities for really interesting and useful interactions; it's also easier to understand which design choices are frivolous and lead to inefficient code.

    I'm one of these people who designs and codes, and I have to say, it is AWESOME to take my design work straight through to the end. There are no misunderstandings between design and dev, because they're housed in the same brain.

  • Chris Raymond

    What a FANTASTIC piece that distills so many issues so succinctly, and offers specific advice to boot. Bravo!