Let us set the record straight. I was a design clueless entrepreneur. I would like to think, I’m better off thanks to a good dose of experience and some great designers who helped me. When I started my journey as an entrepreneur, I was fresh from experiences with products that didn’t focus on UI or UX design. They were all “functionality first” products that were painful to use. They solved pain points for our customers so we pushed on building features without worrying about experiences. This is quite common for enterprise products from a decade ago. There were limited options in the market and dominated by big players. The experience of watching customers struggle with products has stayed with me. It led me to push for a strong design focus from day one at our start-up. When I first started, I didn’t expect that the process to be so involved. There were so many questions for which I learned the answers through trial and error. I recently spoke to the founding team of another start-up and realized that they were in the exact same situation. I helped them with my learnings.
This is an article for companies looking to invest in their UI & UX. It is for designers who encounter design challenged techies. It is for start-ups with no clue about where to begin their design process.
This post will help entrepreneurs answer the following:
- What to sort out before looking for a designer?
- What sort of designer do you need?
- How to distil your requirements and clarify them to designers?
- What to expect from a designer?
- What should your deliverables look like?
This post will help designers answer the following:
- How to clarify your deliverables to design challenged?
- How to set boundaries around what you would be delivering?
- How to educate the client to make everyone’s life easier?
First things first. The difference between UI/Visual Design, UX, and Brand Design. I’ve combined UI & Visual into one because I don’t want to get hung up on the little nuances.
UX Designers: Understand User behavior and what they are going to do on your product. They work closely with Product managers. They design your user’s journey on your product. This includes screen flows, deciding where important things should appear, the language in the error messages etc. Basically, anything that involves understanding the user’s psychology & actions. The UX designer usually produces a low to medium fidelity wireframe. It details out how information will flow in the application, navigation, calls to action and messaging. The UX designer will focus more on experience rather than visual appeal.
UI/Visual Designer: These designers will usually work after the UX design is in place. They decide how the product must be styled, how the buttons should appear, what design pattern should they use, what should be the color of the navigation bars, what kind of icons should be used etc. They breathe life into your low fidelity prototype. A lot of times, they work with UX designers and produce interactions as well. Interaction Design is another subject, there are designers who specialize in interactions alone but as a start-up, I doubt you will be able to invest in each specialized field, so, stay with me.
Brand Designers: These designers create your logos, product brochures, launcher icons, templates for your presentations, Social media campaign images, t-shirts etc. Basically, anything to do with your brand. They will help create an identity for you that speaks to the user through color & other visual elements.
Which designer should you hire first?
Brand Designer. You will need a logo to trademark and settle on your brand’s color palette before doing anything else. My advice is to not go overboard. Get a decent designer to design your logo and brand identity but don’t to try to cover everything for the next 5 years, you may go out of business in 5 months. It is important to think through the most important customer segment, industry and where to show your logo. This is an important input to your designer.
Next, go for the UX designer, if possible a UI/UX designer( one that does both)
If your basic brand identity is frozen, the UX designer will have a color palette to work with. Colors are not important for low fidelity prototypes, they are usually papers sketches or created on tools like Balsamiq. This is what a Balsamiq mockup looks like:
If your UX designer is also doing your visual design, brand must be frozen before-hand.
Let’s talk specifics now.
Is a freelance UX designer good for your product?
Your product’s UX is a continuous process. If you use agile and lean methodologies, you are in a continuous state of flux. You are learning and makes changes to your product over several small iterations. Typically, you would expect the UX designer to be a part of the core team so that they can model your screens and features based on the changes you are making to your product.
That being said, it is not easy to find the right designer. There are several reasons for this. The most common one is that designers tend to not like being tied down to an organization. They prefer the freelance route to experiment on different projects.
Assuming you aren’t hiring one, the next option is to find a freelancer who can help you out. A good freelancer can be expensive because his/her skills are priced. It’s better not to hire one at all rather than hire a bad one.
How do I spot the right designer?
This is a tough one. There are loads of designers out there who want to pass themselves off as UX designers. They make pretty looking portfolios by creating product concepts on Behance & Dribbble. Scratching below the surface reveals that the designs are not grounded on any solid principles. Be wary of these. A good rule of thumb is to look at the portfolio and read the detailing of the flows for the project. If the focus on flows and user research is sketchy, stay away.
A good UI/UX designer will always ask a lot of questions about users and how every detail in the product’s functionality is supposed to help add value. If the designer isn’t doing this, you’ve gotten the wrong one.
How do I decide scope for the freelancer?
How to decide scope depends on the type of engagement(more about this in the next question) but you should have an idea of what flows you want.
For example, let’s say you were building an MVP e-commerce site for buying antique pens. You have already validated the market needs through an earlier test and now want to build a product. You want the following features/flows:
- Ability to see a list page for Pens on sale
- Ability to click on an item and view details
- Ability to checkout
For version 1, there is no integration with a payments provider. The money exchange happens through a Cash on delivery mechanism where the delivery boy confirms receipt of money. This high-level scope is a conversation starter and helps build out the scope better. From the flows, a designer can infer that there are at least 3 pages, a list page, a product details page and a checkout page. Using this, the designer will ask the next set of questions:
- What is the most important information the user needs to see about the pen? (Brand/image/Pen Type/Year of manufacture/Price?)
- Does the user need a search function on the list page?
- Have you thought about filters?
- What do we expect to show on the product details page?
- Do you want to show similar products on the bottom of each detail page?
- What sort of notifications do you want to show the user?
Something on those lines. The designer may also ask you questions to fill out a user empathy map. Using all the information you have provided, the designer will scope in the work and send you a proposal.
Should I go for a fixed price bid or a time & money contract?
Again, if the scope is frozen(For an MVP, if that means just a month’s worth of features, so be it) then go for a fixed price contract. If your scope is fluid, go for a time and money contract, which is pay-as-you-go.
What will the designer deliver and how do I evaluate completion of work?
Usually, the outcome that we expect from a UI/UX designer is clickable high fidelity prototype. The reason for this is two-fold:
- It helps visualize the actual product and allows you to test it with customers.
- It can be used as a spec for a developer to begin work
What constitutes a spec for a developer?
A UI developer doesn’t usually decide how the screen should look or where things need to be placed, that’s the job of the designer. Developers have a different set of problems. They worry about what technology has to be used to achieve the desired functionality, they worry about performance, they worry about how they can build the next 20 screens efficiently, they worry about how things can be rendered on different devices etc. It is their job to make sure the machinery is running smoothly.
They need handoff from the design team so that they can easily access the following information without having to second guess:
- Colors of every element
- Fonts & styles(bold, semi-bold, italicised, regular)
- Interactions & Appearance — How does the button look when pressed, what happens when the screen is loading, When you select a row in a grid, how is it differentiated from the rest etc.
There are plenty of tools that allow this, I use InVision for building my prototypes. I can’t tell you how much I love it. If the designer is using Sketch or Photoshop, there are plugins that will pull the styles into Inspect as well. The developer can actually see the CSS samples for each element. The great thing about tools like InVision and Sketch is the community. You can learn and get information about anything you can imagine. There alternatives like Marvel and several others. Both Marvel ad InVision come with free plans for a limited number of projects. As a start-up, you can’t ask for more.
Should I ditch the designer and go for a DIY method?
If somebody in your core team is willing to up-skill, learn some design principles & take up the mantle, then go DIY. To start with, you can engage a designer who can put the basics into place. Then build on those principles as you go along. If you pick a design pattern like material design, there is great documentation to help you learn. A simple approach for the UI is to buy a good bootstrap theme from a marketplace and begin your development for your MVP with it. When you know you have traction with your business, you can hire a designer and rework the product. Vet this approach with your engineering team, if the effort of moving away from a theme is huge, you have a problem.
What are my long-term considerations?
UI & UX are very important for your product. Even when your product-market fit is great, the poor user experience will eventually slow you down. Having a good design team is not a nice to have, it is a must for a great product. If you are a start-up, you will build a lot of new features every sprint, this means new screens and flows. The longer you wait before embedding a design function in your organization, the bigger your design debt is going to be. If you get a freelancer for a fixed scope engagement, think about what you are going to do for the subsequent sprints.
How do I provide feedback to designers?
This is a tough one. In general, when you give feedback to anybody, don’t be vague. Here are a few common patterns:
- “I don’t like this, do something and make it look good.” This is poor feedback. It’s like somebody logging a bug without describing the issue. You don’t know what to fix. You need to be able to point out exactly what you don’t like.
- “Make the button like this.” Point out what you don’t like, don’t tell the designer how to fix it. You’ve hired them to do the job because they are good at it, your feedback is a requirement, not the solution.
- “Look at this website, I want it to look like this.” Don’t get hung up on something you’ve seen. You don’t want to create a replica. Designers usually ask for a few similar products so that they understand the space you are in. That doesn’t mean you have to evaluate their work based on those products.
By now you know design is a scientific process. Stop trying to treat it like a hippie painting a bus :)
What do designers need to know when a tech team without any prior background in design approach them
From personal experience, the search for a designer was tough. It ended up being the reason we froze on the scope. Without the scope frozen, we couldn’t get quotes from designers. Obviously, we didn’t want to get into an open-ended contract. A full-time hire wasn’t an option because none of us were full-time employees at the time. Each time, we had to explain the concept to someone, we were getting them to sign an NDA. It was too much of an overhead and after 20 failed attempts we finally got to a point where we had ironed out the issues. I must add that many of the designers didn’t even reply to us. No freelancer wants to work with an aspiring entrepreneur who could go broke any time and default on payments.
Finally, we found somebody with 18 years of experience who was willing to work with us. Thankfully, he was patient with us unlike some of the younger designers. I spent a lot of time discussing things with him and picking up some design myself to supplement his work. This was a huge learning process for us. Here are some tips for designers who meet people like us.
Firstly, with no prior experience in design don’t expect the team approaching you to be clear on what they want. In fact, more often than not, they will be confused about what a designer is exactly supposed to deliver.
To make things worse, a lot of designers tend to be very snooty and treat developers like they are low life species. I’ve seen cold war situations develop between development teams and design teams. This is largely fuelled by the lack of understanding of what the other party does.
Some pointers for designers:
Set clear boundaries of your work: If there are things you don’t do explain it to the team. Have a standard checklist of things that you cover and don’t.
Get access to decision makers: Often, there is somebody interacting with the designer and a different person reviewing the work. This causes a huge inconvenience. You are discussing with somebody but every time you come up with the designs, it’s getting thrown back at you. Always involve the deciding authority.
Explain your methodology: Explain how you will come up with your first version, what parts will you accept feedback for & how you will iterate there on. The entrepreneur may assume you will work with the engineering team in sprints. You may prefer to flesh out the initial concept before you begin iterating on the features and specifics. That is fine, set the expectations.
Don’t see yourself as an outsider: Embed yourself in the core team. Ensure that the final outcome is in-line with your vision of what the product should look like. This is where most of the design work fails. The designs are handed off and then development happens in isolation(esp. in a freelancer scenario). As a designer, you should try your best to stick around and show your commitment to the outcome. Your output is not your project on Behance, it is the product.
Educate development teams: Do this subtly. Show them examples of your work and what slippages can occur. Show them exactly what you will be delivering and how they can access it. Ask the end recipient(the front end development team) to vet the deliverables.
I had the opportunity to work with some great designers, some of whom have become friends and mentors. I’m still an amateur but design is one if the most fulfilling and fun things I have learned.
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