What is a ‘well-rounded’ startup designer?

Jude Fulton
Jul 31, 2014 · 5 min read

A few weeks ago, an intern I had worked with at a previous startup asked me for advice on how to interview successfully for UI/UX jobs. Then just yesterday, a developer friend with a young startup asked me for my advice on hiring an all-purpose, well-rounded UI/UX designer. What makes a designer ‘well-rounded?’

Through these two conversations, I came up with these priorities for how I might search for a well-rounded, versatile designer who is process-and-data-driven. One caveat about traditional interviews. The nature of the beast is that many interviews are about portfolio reviews and conversation. But I think the key to a ‘successful’ interview process for an early stage startup is to make it as interactive, collaborative and productive as possible.

So here are my thoughts on how I might engage a designer applying for a job at an early-stage startup seeking product-market fit.

Seek a thoughtful designer who can design tests and experimentsnot just a page or screen

- As a startup, you’re looking for as many data points as possible on your product.

- Ideally, you want a thinking designer who is able to extract as much data as possible from every user they encounter and show their work to.

- Do they seek feedback as they work, or do they sit alone, huddled over their screen for days on end agonizing over perfect pixels?

- Do they ask the right types of questions (seeking new inputs) that lead to insights?

- Do they have strong soft skills? By soft skills I mean social intelligence, good communication skills, and an ability to empathize with users. Hard or technical skills like PSD, AI, Fireworks, 3D modeling, html, css, are vital. But when running experiments to test your product with users and make necessary adjustments quickly, I find that it’s often the designer with great soft skills who can uncover the best insights.

For founders: before diving into an interview, outline your priorities as a team now

- First, figure out which part of the design stack is the most crucial to your startup now.

- Don’t assume that a UI designer is a UX designer, or vice versa. In the same way that you’d ask a ‘full-stack’ developer what part of the stack he enjoys working on the most, designers too have their preferences and strengths.

- Surprisingly, I know many ‘pixel perfect’ graphic designers who are terrible at user experience, and frankly, prefer pixels to people. They could not design, plan, or execute a feedback session with users if their lives depended on it.

When designers show you their portfolio, pay close attention to what they choose to talk about and then how they do it

- Do they choose to talk about only the visuals? Ask them about their process and the ‘backstory’ to the images/graphics/interface/screen that they produced.

- Are they able to clearly verbalize or articulate to you what steps they took in their design process?

- Does it feel like they are ‘selling’ you on their work, or are they working hard to engage you and seek honest feedback?

What hypotheses were they testing, and how did they test them? Were they logical, process-driven?

- Did they seek feedback? Was it from real users, or primarily ‘authorities’ — like professors, fellow designers, and insiders?

- Did they listen to feedback? What changed as a result of the feedback they received?

- How do they handle data on their products? Do they show an interest in user-generated data? You don’t want someone who is purely about the numbers, but do they talk about how engagement went up 25% as a result of their re-design? Can they explain why they think this happened?

- During this process, remember to push back and push forward. See how they respond to some constructive criticism. Why did you make this decision? What would they do differently?

If possible, try to run a 30 min — 1 hour work session in person

Take home assignments are the norm at later stage companies, but if you are a small, early stage company, you might be able to ask for a more high-touch, collaborative process that shows how this candidate works.

- I’ll talk more about this in my next post, but try and work with them in a collaborative session and timebox it. Learn what this designer is capable of with just an hour of time to work with and how they work. But be sure to break it down into 3-4 segments.

- One segment might involve writing up interview questions for a user; another might be sketching out a user journey for a particular product; another segment might entail listing a series of assumptions embedded in a product. They shouldn’t be difficult, but short segments that help you understand how they think before pushing pixels on a screen. They should be able to advocate strongly on behalf of your customers in product discussions, and have a user’s distinct POVs in mind.

- Does this designer knows what to do with feedback? Data? As an early stage company you often have more feedback, stories and qualitative evidence than hard data. During the interview, ask them about a time when they received conflicting feedback from users. How did they resolve this? You want a designer who is a strong ‘editor’ or critic, with an ability to focus on the right feedback. This requires sharp analytical skills, priority setting, and frankly, lots of gut-checks.

- Ultimately, this person will be responsible for the products that users will see, touch and interact with. Work with someone who has a clear, distinct “design POV” and voice, who isn’t just following the latest trends on Dribble. This person will essentially be designing the dashboard in the ‘car’ that is your product. Make sure they can also be a good communicator and design ambassador of your brand.

Jude Fulton

Written by

East coast gal who wandered west. I used to design buildings, now I design experiences. judesue.com

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