Building a Design Function

Audrey Crane is a Partner at DesignMap, and has worked with companies like Salesforce, Docker, NetApp, and eBay over her 25 years in tech. In this guide, she explains how to build out a design function, including how many designers you need, what skills to look for in a hire, and how to leverage third-party design firms.

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Questions covered in this guide

Why do software companies need to invest in design?

Design impacts pretty much everything – design is responsible for crafting a user’s experience within software (and even outside of it!). Good design makes sales easier, increases lifetime customer value, and even makes employees happier. 

Sales is a big reason – don’t hide your significant investment in engineers building a really powerful under an impenetrable user experience. I’ve seen companies lose to competitors that have relatively very limited functionality, but because the competitor brought in a designer earlier, their software was easier to understand and use, and looked and felt more professional.

Why does design matter for B2B products?

With SaaS, switching costs are much lower – Historically, B2B software design was terrible; software buyers were rarely the users. Someone purchased the license, and then the users were stuck with it, often for years. But, fast forward, and now most of the world is SaaS. Individual users can say if they’re having a terrible experience and cause a switch. So, design was embraced more quickly in SaaS because the risk was higher. 

People have become accustomed to good design from B2C products they use – we hear the phrase “consumerization of enterprise” or “consumerization of B2B” where there’s an expectation of “consumer-grade design.”

There’s a new way in with “bring your own software” – users are increasingly making buying decisions; 20 years ago, that never would have happened. An individual person will choose a solution they want to use, and then it can expand within their company, turning into a large client.

How many designers do you need? 

In general, 1 designer for every 8 developers – you might have more designers (e.g. 1:5)  if you have complex product to design, in healthcare, finance, enterprise, IT or developer tools, etc. 

If you have fewer designers, someone is doing design (maybe not who you want) – the alternative to good design is bad design, not no design. (Hat tip to Adam Judge.) So not only is design happening, but it’s not good design, you’re just paying somebody else to do it (e.g. your developers).

To see whether you need more designers, run an internal survey – ask everyone  (marketing, business analysts, engineers, project managers, etc.) how much time are you spending on design? Be sure to define what you mean as design work when you ask that question. Also, ask “why are you doing design work, is the design team not available?” Even if you’re a smaller company, it’s important to understand what’s happening in your org.

How does design fit in with and overlap with product and engineering?

Everybody should be the advocate for the user (not just design) – individuals in each department need to realize that each role is customer-centric. 

The engineer needs to own what’s technically possible today – and can see what could be possible tomorrow. They have the magic of being able to say, “we can bring in X to take care of this.” Engineers help designers figure out what’s technically feasible, and they do that best when they understand first-hand what customers are hoping to accomplish. 

The product manager needs to own business viability – they need to understand the market and market opportunities. They’re then working with the designer to identify a problem the user has and show how the team can solve it. 

The designer helps to reduce the risk that customers don’t like or don’t use the solution – designers make sure the team tries lots of solutions and iterates them, instead of picking the first solution the team comes up with. Designers help teams avoid jumping to conclusions by not testing prototypes. 

There’s overlap in the jobs of product and design – put together product teams where the skillset of individual PMs and designers complement each other. It’s a good idea to have PMs paired with the same designers all the time if they’ve worked well together on projects. It allows for more efficient work and more open creativity to happen because each has a better idea of how the other works, rather than figuring out their overlaps with a new team every single time.

What are the different skillsets within design?

Interaction design (often shorthanded as UX) – how the software acts, designing experiences that help the user achieve their goals. This includes thinking through all the permutations of that experience, whether it’s the user’s first time or 100th time doing this.

Interface or visual design (UI) – how the software looks. It’s taking that workflow and saying, “here’s what the screen is going to look like, and here’s how we’re going to convey visual hierarchy, clarity, and understanding.” UI involves building a visual design system and ensuring that there’s cohesion for users so people don’t get lost. While UI does include establishing fonts and colors, it’s far more than that because it’s about extending the branding and creating that sense of clarity. 

Experience or service design – the whole experience. For example, what’s the reason that you go to your favorite local coffee shop instead of the other one (where the coffee itself is equivalent)? Maybe you like the space, music, or people better. With experience design, you’re paying more attention to all the other stuff (often services-related) that surrounds the product itself.

User research – many designers are expected to do research to assist them in the design process. This involves both feed-forward and feedback. Feed-forward is the research you do before creating your prototype to learn about your customers, while feedback is taking thoughts for potential users for a prototype and incorporating those comments (e.g. usability testing). Designers or researchers are often responsible for qualitative research, while sometimes a product manager or BI is in charge of quantitative user research for a product.

What skills are most important for an early design hire?

For early-stage companies, hire your first designer and developer together – you could even hire a designer before you hire a developer because some of the prototyping tools out there now are amazing.

Look for an early designer who can research – research should fall broadly into two categories. 
  • Generative research (aka feed-forward research) – the research you do before you create your prototype. Here, designers can do a design sprint, do desk research, look at competitors, interview potential users, and learn from them. They can learn what challenges the users are facing, what a great day of work looks like for them, and how your product might help them become a hero.
  • Feedback research – taking feedback from potential users for a prototype and incorporating it into the next iteration. 

Look for someone good at teamwork – look to see that they can facilitate conversations, especially ones that involve disagreements about what to do next. 

It’s really hard to find a “unicorn” who can do it all – if you need to compromise, relax your standards around:
  • You can skip marketing design skills – the kinds of people that love doing software design aren’t normally the kinds of people who love doing marketing (which is a really different skill set and view of the world). Website, logo, or other marketing design work tend to be pretty easy to outsource. 
  • If you have to pick between interaction design and visual design, pick interaction – because if you have something that looks “fine” and it acts great, that’s going to be far more successful than something that looks fantastic but acts horribly. 
  • You can skip management experience – I wouldn’t expect this person to want to be a manager anytime soon, but they should be excited for the team to grow in the future. 

How should you evaluate design candidates during hiring?

Test research skills – ask them to tell you about the last time that they learned something in research that surprised them.

Review their portfolio – to see their actual design skills. Ask what they contributed and how they worked with others. Whatever you see in a portfolio is going to be a result of some collaboration with the company or client they were working with. So what you’re seeing is not 100% them, which is good, because that’s part of their job as a designer. 

Ask them to walk you through a project – ask the designer to show you step-by-step how they went through the process of one of their projects. Go back though, ask them what job they were given, what was the input to the project, and what was the process they went through. This gives you a chance to see how they think and approach problems. 

Test their response to critical feedback – I usually say one critical thing. Not in a mean way, but I might say, “well I’m confused about this choice” or “I think this would make more sense.” What I’m hoping they’ll do is ask me a question like, “Oh, that’s interesting. Why do you feel like that would be better?” If they’re defensive, that’s a red flag. 

Look for curiosity about something besides design – part of what makes design interesting is how it fits in with everything else and contributes to the whole. So, I’d hope they’d ask about the business model, the technology, or anything else about the company. 

When and how should you use an external design firm?

Use a third party and internal designers together – when you amplify in-house talent with outside resources, you get the best of both worlds.
  • The internal designer feels supported – they’re not alone and they’re helped to level up. When they see that you’re investing in design today, that makes you a more attractive employer.
  • There’s an internal steward for external work – the internal person understands what decisions were made and why they were made historically, and they can then be a better steward for the work going forward, so you get more value out of that work. 
  • Third parties provide fresh perspectives they ask ignorant questions because they don’t know, and this forces the internal team to think about the answer more deeply. They also provide a breath of fresh air after your team has been looking at the same thing for so long.

For startups, use someone external to help with hiring – they can help you review your job descriptions, portfolios, and the types of interviews you’ve done in the past. 

If you have to pick, have internal first – because design is a core function for any software business. However, be open to both because they can really complement each other.

How should you keep design fresh and consistent?

Build-in time to prevent design debt – similar to technical debt, allow time to address accumulating design debt to prevent inconsistency. Designers are perfectionists, so if you tell them they can come back to a “problem” later, but then they never get to, they might become even more of a perfectionist going forward.

Consider a big redesign when the value of the product is opaque – if sales or a user can’t see the value of your engineering because the user design is inconsistent or impenetrable. This is particularly common:
  • After an acquisition – post-acquisition, you might decide that you’re not just a few products; you’re a platform. You might need to re-think design as a whole because you now have complementary products and a new business model to upsell and cross-sell things. 
  • If engineers designed as they built – the engineers might not have known where they were going to get to and now, everything works on the backend, but it doesn’t make sense to a user or they can’t see the value. 

What types of design standards or documentation should software companies develop?

A style guide – this is a visual design system plus interaction conventions. At the simplest level, it’s a PDF with the company’s main design “rules.” For different projects, designers and engineers can add their own templates as well.

A component library – this is a code library for commonly-used components. This can be stored however the team prefers; the most important thing is that it’s a living document and that engineers and designers keep adding to it.

Over time, you might even have design ops – at large organizations, design ops is responsible for consistency, and they manage the style guide or the component library.

What are the key tools in the design tech stack?

Design and prototyping tools – e.g. Figma, Sketch. These have become really powerful, and allow designers to create realistic, testable prototypes.

Collaboration conversation tools – e.g. Miro and Mural. These allow teams to virtually share highlight videos, sticky notes, and key takeaways.

What are the most important pieces to get right?

Acknowledge that design is happening – it’s still shockingly common to find companies that don’t even have design teams, but that doesn’t mean design isn’t happening. Better design won’t solve everything, but there are ways that we can help in almost everything. 

Make design a core competency – bring a designer on board, prioritize interaction design, and talk to customers in a way where you learn every time you have a conversation. 

What are the common pitfalls?

Don’t bring design in after you’ve already made a huge development/engineering investment – because the ship has already left the dock and designers can’t help you with the risk that you’ve already incurred. 

Don’t let charisma skew your customer research information – entrepreneurs and product managers are charismatic and are great at getting people on board, so they often sometimes interact with customers in a way that leads to (the appearance of) their hypotheses being confirmed. It’s helpful to bring a designer in for these entrepreneurs or product managers to make sure they’re going in thinking, “I’m not trying to be right, I’m trying to learn where I’m wrong.”

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