"My startup needs better UX. Should I hire a full-time designer?"

A story about ketchup and the value of design.

As a tech designer, I have interacted with many companies and founders that deal with this question. When people ask this question or similar questions, I always tell them a small story about ketchup packets.

Imagine you're a small but innovative burger joint. You have an excellent burger and fries combo, and people rave about it. Your burger joint is a to-go place, so as part of their burger and fries purchase, you give your customers some traditional ketchup packets (those with barely any ketchup in them and that are hard to open and use).

I'm not too fond of that type of ketchup packaging. You could even say I hate it, but I still will use it and won't overthink it. It's not something that is going to stop me from going to your burger joint.

Most people fall into a similar spectrum. They don't care about it, or if they do, it's not something that they will use to object to the quality of your burger and fries combo.

Now, the problem is that you're not trying to build a humble burger joint. You want a chain. You want to scale and have a memorable brand. So you want to be meticulous about things other people are not meticulous about. That's your competitive advantage.

So you decide to make a difference there and in many other areas. You have several options. One is to be generous with the number of packets you give your customers. Instead of 3, you could give them 5. But that's not going to solve the frustrating nature of the package.

Or you could buy ketchup that comes in a bigger and more user-friendly package. However, that type of packaging is more expensive. In terms of packaging, two dip and squeeze packages are twice as expensive as five traditional ketchup packets.

You see, UX is a little bit like that ketchup problem. Hiring a UX Designer is a significant investment. And it needs to be significant because there's no worse first UX investment for a startup than hiring an inexperienced UXer.

The problem is that most startups have limited resources. When adding your first UX headcount, you're taking one away from engineering or sales. So it's tempting to delegate this work to contractors or, what's it's worse, to get in charge of the UX yourself.

Now, I have been incredibly unfair with this analogy because UX Designers have more impact on your business than a mundane ketchup package. UX Designers can bring a new level of clarity and correctness to your product that you won't get from your PM, your engineers, yourself (if you're not a designer), or that folk in marketing who knows how to create pretty marketing materials.

But what's helpful about this analogy is that it explains clearly why most people dismiss their needs for a design contributor at their organizations. Like in that ketchup analogy, sometimes it's just easier and cheaper to give more of those traditional packets than to invest in this abstract new thing. And that's the problem with the idea of investing in design at your organization. Sometimes design is so abstract that it feels unnecessary or financially antagonizing.

The reality is that most startups need UX design way earlier than they realize. We live in a world of commoditized user experience. Most popular internet services, apps, and professional software are highly optimized user experiences designed by comprehensive UX teams. They are all not perfect, but many of these organizations are seeking perfection.

If you're developing consumer software, that's your bar. If you're developing business software and want to win for real, that's also your bar. 

Offering software riddled with inconsistent patterns and confusing user flows actively hurts your chances of winning the trust and loyalty of your customers.

Most founders I have talked to know this, so their question is never if but when. The question is relatively easy to answer.

Make your first design hire now (assuming you have the headcount) when one or more of the following situations apply to your current state of affairs:

  • If you have used your software in the last two months and found something you personally perceived as confusing.

  • If you have been hiring UX contractors and at a certain point you felt that process could be faster or better or that it would be easier if that person were more involved and embedded into the team.

  • If you have a non-designer role like a PM or a Marketing Contributor, designing user interfaces.

  • If other cross-functional contributors have started asking for more design support than the one that they currently have (e.g: contractors)

Of course, not all situations are the same, and there could be scenarios where other hires are more critical to ensure the short-term success of your business. 

If that's your case, don't sweat it. Prioritize your essential hires, but document cross-functional needs and potential responsibilities for a UX hire. Once you have the liquidity to make a UX Hire, you will be glad that you have a clear idea of who you want and the impact you want them to make at your company. This scenario is especially true for VC-backed companies that are likely to face this urgency to fill voids once they raise new capital.

In any case, the message that I have for Founders is clear. UX Design is an important area of your product development model. Developing too much product without a UX professional will almost certainly lead to unusable software. The earlier you can embed this role into your working model, the faster you will gain the product quality you're seeking.