How to Hire the Right Kind of Product Designer for Your Company, Right Now

senior product designer for meetedgar kevin crace Nobody doubts that design is important or that your product is important. But when was the last time you sat down and thought about hiring a product designer?

Thinking about product design happens eventually for most small business owners. The reasoning is different for different founders, but the “aha moment” is usually the same: They realize that good design is a BIG competitive advantage. It’s why design plays a primary role at 65% of all startups – even small ones.

After all, no amount of engineering, salesmanship, or Facebook ads will save your business if nobody wants to use your product, or if it’s impossible to navigate your site!

It’s product designers who turn ideas into reality – whether that’s developing the next game-changing app or creating a website that effortlessly turns visitors into paying customers.

Even if you’ve been feeling tempted to take on everything by yourself (and I’ll bet you have if you’re a small business owner), you’ve probably decided you want to hire a pro at some point. When do you know that it’s time to start looking? Who will have the biggest impact?

If you’ve ever been perplexed by what a product designer actually is, this post will (hopefully) help clear up some basics – or act as a refresher if you’ve gotten mired in the hiring process.

Think of this post as the 10,000-foot overview of who to hire and when to hire – whether you’re just starting to think about hiring or you need to build a product team to scale your business.

What is a product designer?

The mistake so many hiring managers and small business owners make all too often is thinking that a product designer is a single person.

Product design can mean a multitude of things depending on who you ask, and that’s why there is SO MUCH confusion about when the hiring process for product designers starts for companies.

Heck, you can read 10 different job postings, all seeking a “product designer,” yet each posting is actually targeting a different type of candidate! Here’s one example:

screenshot of job search for product designer

For when only a beautiful arrangement of flowers will save your e-commerce website.

Try it yourself to see how common the confusion is. It’s because “product designer” isn’t so much a role as it is an ecosystem, and “product design” isn’t so much a destination as it is a long path.

To me, product design is the pathway from ideation all the way to implementation, and a product designer is someone that walks on any one part of that long path:

product design pathway graphic

That long path includes problem analysis, exploration, product roadmapping, product planning, stakeholder insight, user insight, wireframing, testing, feasibility consultation, visual design, gestures, animation, implementation, and QA.

It’s A LOT, and it’s simply impossible for one person to be really, really good at all of those very specific, very unique skill sets.

Further, each person in your company might have a drastically different idea of what that potential product designer should be bringing to the table, or even what the new hire is supposed to be doing each day.

What’s most helpful at the outset, then, is to know exactly what skill set a candidate is bringing to the table so you can make the ideal hiring decision for your company – and for the designer!

To make this process easier, here’s how I classify each role – each “stop” – along the long path of product design:

Product Manager

These are product designers that are great at the planning phase and like to look at the big product picture before making decisions on an experience. They like to define the scope of the project as well as an iteration schedule, and they also have a firm grasp on who your competitors are and how to stay ahead of them.

UX Designer

These are product designers that are experience-driven. They aim to provide the best user experience possible and will fight against deadlines and feasibility concerns to get there. They really focus on the specific problem at hand and are resolute in solving it.

User Outreach, User Research, and/or Customer Experience Designer

There are many names for this skill set, but this is a role for those that are intensely focused on user testing and quantitative analysis of the product or potential design solutions. They KNOW the user’s voice and can quickly speak to what they need and want.

Visual Designers

Sometimes called simply “graphic designers,” these peeps are those who live in the details and who really enjoy making the most visually appealing product possible. They know trends and can spot the tiniest error or flaw. Their highly skilled aesthetic sensibilities are what make a page, product, or functionality really pop for the user.

Front End Developer

These are the technical product designers that live more in the implementation side of things. They actually develop the design, and are great go-tos when it comes to feasibility questions and time estimates. In short: they code as they design, and design as they code.

The “Unicorn”

There might be a person who has all of these skills – which would classify them as a legit “unicorn” in my book – but even if they do, they’re more likely to be most good at one thing and less good at another. I would spend just as much time looking for a “unicorn” product designer as I would looking for an in-real-life unicorn.

But I think it’s actually the idea of the “unicorn” that’s most useful in the hiring process. It highlights the very real question you need to ask before you even begin hiring a product designer: What is your product or your team missing?

How to hire the right product designer

which product designer do you really need graphic

It’s true that you can be a design-focused company by listening to your users and being consistent with your product choices. But bringing on a professional is only going to help you scale, and faster.

Before you start hiring, take some time to think about what is really important to your product and what you (or your team) is lacking. If it’s just you, in what area of your business would a professional designer’s help give you an edge? A website redesign? Competitor analysis?

When you’re ready to write the job description, take the time to ask for exactly what you need from this role.

The long path above lines up skills with job titles as best as I’ve figured it all out. Even if the terminology isn’t exactly right – YMMV, after all – at least you will be asking for what you actually need versus assuming you are by the job title alone. Pay attention to how the skills you need match the actual roles and see who comes up with the most “hits.”

How to prioritize who you need and when

As a product team leader, I always look for someone with strong visual design skills simply because I know that visual design is not my strong suit. This means they’ll automatically help round out any product team I’m part of. Generally speaking, however, here’s how I’d prioritize hiring:

  • Usability and product planning are super important in the early stages. If you are someone with a lot of ideas or starting a product from scratch with not much of framework to rely on, hire a UX designer first – or even a product manager – that can crank out simple designs. They are great at narrowing down ideas and staying focused on the core problem your product is addressing. You can worry about the aesthetics later.
  • If identity, uniqueness, or trendiness is really important to your business (or you make use of a product like Shopify or Squarespace that has UX best practices already built in), then you’ll want to look for a more of a visual designer to round out your team.
  • If you’re stuck somewhere in the middle of the design process, a user researcher is going to help you clarify what’s going right and what’s going wrong, and figure out what your users want to see.
  • If you have too many technical areas that are beyond your scope and are keeping you from moving forward, then you’re going to be looking for a front end developer. Especially if you’re a solopreneur!

Using the interview process to find the designer of your dreams

Once you get a candidate in your hiring pipeline, I would walk through a project with the candidate and see what they provide. Did they see things from a different point of view? Did they focus on an aspect you ignored or neglected? Did they ask questions you didn’t think to ask? Those are all great signs.

I look for someone who asks a lot of questions before even starting a project. I think it shows that they are really trying to understand our users and the problem at hand instead of immediately just trying to fulfill a project brief.

Then look at the outcome of that test project and see how it compares with the outcome you were hoping for. Was the expected outcome based on your own skillset or biases? Or did they do something unexpected that achieved better results?

Was the expected outcome something you were intangibly wanting but couldn’t visualize (or even verbalize) until they presented their project to you? If so, then this is the surest sign to hire them. They complete you.

animated gif of product design skills by role

TL;DR: Hire the designer that completes you

To paraphrase the brilliant John Cleese, “Creativity is not a talent – it is a way of operating.” Any size business can operate creatively and with good design in mind.

But creative ideas are nothing without creative implementation. Implementation is where the product designer ecosystem can make or break a business. (We’re overwhelmingly on the “make” side of things. We like making things!)

Whether or not you’re ready to hire a product designer, hopefully you now have a better idea of where to look, who to look for, and why product design is so darn important.

If there’s anything I’ve learned as Senior Product Designer for MeetEdgar, it’s to know what you are good at, so you can do everything in your power to make the product better!

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