Update: this ended up being a very curious post for me. Much lower traffic and sharing online than usual, but has started more conversations in real life than anything I’ve recently posted.

I’m not entirely sure how to interpret that…but I do think I touched a nerve with some designers (in a good way) and with some product managers (in a not so good way). I’ve added my speculation to the end of the post.


How to attract, and keep, good designers

Tweakers gonna tweak, tweak, tweak, tweak, tweak.

I’ve been a designer for over 12 years. I’ve started a little web design shop, I’ve been a part owner of a marketing agency, I’ve been a freelancer/consultant, I’ve worked with several small startups, and I’ve worked in a senior position for a fast-growth company from around 150 to over 800 people and through an IPO. I’ve been in, and helped hire, many different design roles.

What I’ve noticed so far: as designers gain more experience and perspective and confidence, they are inevitably pulled towards the “fitness” between the product and the customer. Making something people find valuable and love to use.

The process around making something useful a little easier and more interesting is a game of adjustments and adaptations. Moving towards something people love can look an awful lot like tweaking.

Building ≠ tweaking

I believe building a workable prototype as early as possible is the right approach. Get it into the hands of your customer as quickly as you can. That way you have a solid reference point. You have something concrete to compare and contrast the feedback against.

Build hard, build fast.

Unfortunately, I think people tend to confuse the skills of building with the skills of tweaking. Often using the same information and background and skills to make the adjustments and adaptations. Which typically results in just building more stuff.

Tweaking, as opposed to building, requires more granular detail. Generalizations about what customers tend to do isn’t helpful. A real person, in a real scenario, under real circumstances, is what’s needed to flush out a good tweak.

Invest in tweaking

Sourcing the right granularity of information, properly processing and synthesizing that information, and making the appropriate tweaks is how you keep a good designer around. Demonstrating that you’re making those investments is how you’ll attract other good designers.

If you’re serious about hiring good designers, and keeping them around, ask yourself: if I had two software developers, a front-end developer, and a designer for two weeks, what would I do with them? The new thing or the tweak?

If the tweak sounds like a poor use of your company’s time, you’re not going to find a good designer. Also, don’t expect your current good designers to stick around much longer.


Speculation

A theme surfaced in my conversations about this post with both designers and product managers. I’ll dramatically oversimplify them for you:

“Hell yeah! Details matter.” — Designers
“I get it, but you have to balance refinement with growth.” — Product Managers

I think the clash is beginning to show.

[Warning, exaggerating to show contrast] Every product manager I’ve talked to seemed to feel that time spent adjusting and adapting was sacrificing potential growth and traction.

I disagree. Hard.

The tweaking I’m referring to above is intended increase retention, speed up adoption, bolster usage, close feedback loops, and help people build better mental models for success while using the product. All of these efforts are leverage for growth and traction.

I’m not saying designers are right. I don’t believe they’ve figured out a better way to grow and get traction. I’m saying that the conversations around the best ways to grow and get traction are often unclear and seem wrong to many designers. Occasionally they might be noticing something.

The designers I admire are desperate to tie their work back to CAC (cost of acquiring customers) and LTV (lifetime value) and all sorts of other growth and traction metrics. They want to know if their theories of design influencing growth and traction are real. They want to know if they’re good designers.

Maybe, just maybe, the people with the skills and desire to transition from an initial working product to growth have been there all along. We just keep misinterpreting it for tweaking.