Thursday, April 12, 2012
Why your first hire should be a designer and not a developer?
You kick off your startup and you start generating some revenue or you raise some seed money to get things going and you are in a position that you decide to hire the first employee of the company. If one of the founders is not a business person, the first hire could be a business guy or an engineer. If one of the founders is a business person then it becomes a brain-dead decision: hire another engineer! Well, I think you should hire a designer and not an engineer! And here is my case...
Let me start by saying this is about a consumer application -- web or mobile -- and not some platform infrastructure or enterprise solution (although I could argue this as well). If your startup is your typical 2 or 3 founders, one is the “CEO” (aka, the business guy) and 1-2 are developers, adding a third (or second) developer to the mix will create a mini-earthquake on the company. There are the tools, the methodologies, the understanding of the value proposition of the product, the on-boarding of the existing code and the communication and cultural fit issues. It’s somewhat understood that for each new developer you add to the team, the productivity of the team will not increase by a full developer, but by a factor that is inversely proportional to the number of developers on the team already (check out the “The Mythical Team-Month” presentation by Justin Searls if you don’t understand what I’m saying).
Yes, if you keep growing your business, then hiring a new developer will happen no matter what, so you can’t avoid it, but what if you could make the developer(s) 30% more productive? That’s where a designer comes in.
Designers are not just there to make pixels pretty. If you think like that, you need to learn a thing or two about what they actually do. Great Graphical Designers or UX Designers, can bring a world of value to your business. Yes, they should be great Graphical Designers and aces on Adobe’s tools, but they can (and should) be also great at Information Architecture, Copywriting, User Experience, Interaction Design, and “soft” skills like the voice of reason (so you can get out of your own head echo-chamber), marketing strategy, and they can be a great boost to team morale – when things look right and you start getting praises for mockups, your homepage or your alpha product, the whole team feels a lot better.
If you don’t have great Photoshop or Illustrator skills, or even a good background in UX (and most developers don’t), you’ll spend countless hours fighting a task that you are not good at the first place. Even if you think it’s cool to do it yourself (and learn a new skill), you are making a decision based on what you want to do and not on what’s best for the company, which is fine as long as you understand that’s what you are doing.
I’d argue that you should bring a designer well before you actually have a product out there. A designer can help you think through the user experience and tasks (“user stories”) on the website, which in turn will drive a lot of the code architecture decisions you need to make. If you start by creating a (bloated) back-end infrastructure, you’ll be constraining what your product can be because there will always be questions about the trade-off of doing the right thing over a long period of time vs. doing the wrong thing quickly, like “Wow, this feature is really cool and users would love it, but it will take us 4 weeks to re-architect the data storage to get the data in the format we need”.
Finally, let me say that hiring a design firm is not the same thing as having a Designer sitting right next to you as you code features. A design company will not be present on many business meetings and lunch conversations. They will never “get it” as much as someone in the office would. And I’m not saying they don’t add value, but their value is primarily based on executing someone else’s plan, not coming up with product features themselves.
I did what I say on this post. The first hire for EveryMove was Amanda, our awesome UX Designer.