Hiring Your First Product Designer: A No-Nonsense Guide to Product Design Skills

Elena Borisova
The Startup
Published in
4 min readDec 23, 2020


Deciding to hire your first start-up designer is not easy, but it’s only the first step in the hiring process. With product design going far beyond “making things pretty” and even “making things usable”, how do you find the right person with the right skill set to help your business grow? From user research to UI design and coding, here’s a short explanation of what to look for in design candidates.

“Just make it pretty”

Why would you care?

You can play safe and aim to hire a strong generalist, but with everything that is normally required for a typical design vacancy, this will decrease the chances to find the right person and increase the needed budget.

Step back — what a product designer can solve for you

One of the sure ways to grow a business is by adding some kind of value for your customers (if we take an e-commerce example, helping customers compare different products might increase the likelihood of purchase). This can roughly be divided into 3 steps:

  1. Discover how to add value — is there a specific need you can address or a problem you can solve for an impactful group of users (it doesn’t necessarily have to be a big group as you can find solving problems for the smaller group of paying customers)
  2. Create a solution to the identified problem
  3. Validate the solution and understand the business impact
  4. Repeat steps 2–3 if needed

Depending on where your business is at, you will need a different skill set from a product designer:

  • if you have a good understanding of the problem you’re solving, you might want someone to focus on delivering your vision (mainly step 2 above)
  • if you looking for opportunities to expand your already running business, you’ll want someone to be more involved in the discovery process (step 1)

Product design skills required for each step

Product design skills map
Product design skills

Finding a problem

  • Understanding who your customers are, what their needs and jobs to be done through user interviews and surveys generally grouped into user research skill
  • Understanding your customers’ behaviors through quantitative research/data analysis with tools like google analytics/hotjar
  • Everything in between that might help discover a customer need or a business opportunity

Creating a solution

This is what normally is considered to be the core of a designer’s work, though arguably if you’re designing something without a clear understanding for whom and what problem it solves, no amount of interaction design or visual design will help.

Skills needed:

  • Ideation — ability to think for themselves along with facilitating bigger brainstorms/discussions to generate a myriad of possible solutions to a problem to pick from.

Design the solution — this is where traditionally the biggest focus on design lies:

  • how the product is structured and behaves — information architecture and interaction design. For very complex products an extra amount of user research to understand user’s mental models might be needed.
  • Visual/UI design — how the product looks and what does it communicate.
  • Getting the combination of how the product looks, is structured and behaves right ensures the usability of the product

When working on a complex product a designer would want to separate visual design and structure/interactions first to assess them separately — that’s when wireframing comes in.

Validating the solution

If you have traffic and the proposed solution is easy to build, A/B testing is a good way to validate.

For more complex products, usability testing is usually a good idea regardless of the ability to A/B test later on as it helps to identify issues early on and save development time.

To validate information architecture, interaction, and visual design without investing any time in coding you’ll need your designer to be able to create prototypes.


Knowing which skills are must-have and which are good to have will help to broaden the candidates’ pool and find a better match for your business needs. The next step is to learn how to evaluate product design skills as traditional methods like portfolio review often fail to do so properly. Here’s an overview of the common ways to assess product design skillset.

Read next

How do these skills map to common design roles?



Elena Borisova
The Startup

Combining data and psychology for product and design decision-making | Head of Design at DeepL | elenaborisova.com