GV Library Design

5 things you should do to keep new design hires sane, and insanely engaged

Photo by Jason Mrachina

I’ve been fortunate enough to hire and then work directly with some excellent designers in startups and during my tenure at Google.

One draw to attract the right staff to your company is a solid outline of what they might be expected to accomplish, and take ownership of, in their first 90 days in the role. (In a startup’s early days, other than “we’re building a product that’s gonna bedazzle humanity,” you may not have concrete longer-term plans to offer.) This outline makes it easier to get excited about what early success might look like, both for the new designer and for you as their hiring manager or exec.

As the leader responsible for hiring the unicorn your company needs, you can boost their chances of a more successful start by getting them involved in the following five activities within those critical first 90 days.

(Are you a designer working with this new hire? You can help them along the way, or shamelessly forward this article to the hiring decision-maker.)

Starter project: act like the customer

Give your new designer a scenario that puts them directly in the customer’s shoes (if they aren’t a customer already). Do you have APIs or developer tools that you expect customers to use? At Twilio, new employees build and ship something on the company’s platform in their first week.

Not only can designers flex their creative and analytical muscles in this first project, along the way they might uncover gaps in documentation, confusing error and status messages, and other fiddly bits that more seasoned users have endured and perhaps calloused over.

Some example project scenarios to consider:

  • Use it in an unexpected context: in transit with a mobile device, or with no network connection. Does the product fall flat, get by, or excel?
  • Getting started: people start using your product at some well-defined point. Is this critical first impression out of date? Is it clinging to technical conveniences or shortcuts you can safely abandon?
  • What happens when a link in an email alert leads to a product workflow from this unexpected angle?
  • (A reach) Are you a non-native speaker of the product’s default language? How well does the experience hold up if you run it through browser translation?

Taking this approach allows your new designer to immediately see areas for improvement and start thinking about how they’d make those improvements happen.

Help them ship something to production

The first point is all about user experience and product design. But your new designer needs to build credibility with product and engineering, understand internal infrastructure and shorthand, and generally feel as comfortable on the factory floor as the people who built it. Give them a chance to ship something to production, ideally in their first full week.

At FeedBurner, one designer’s first project was to improve some really ugly information and error messaging. A walk in the park? Only if you don’t consider all the steps:

  1. Install a local development environment
  2. Build your own mental model for how the user interface is implemented in code
  3. Learn the source control system
  4. Design the solution
  5. Ask for help, get to know the team
  6. Lather, rinse, and repeat until it’s working
  7. Press the Big Red Button to push to production

The design expertise is concentrated in #4, but the surrounding steps ground the new designer in the company’s core how-tos. I firmly believe designers who are closer to the machinery more quickly understand what is (and is not) quickly doable and become much more well-respected partners with engineering and product management.

Get them involved in local startup community

Networking begins at home. Or at least it begins with the companies and partners that are at the meetup just a short cab ride away. If your new hire isn’t someone who’s already actively involved in the local community, strongly encourage them to join you for at least one event and see how it goes. There is almost nothing to lose:

  • They get to see how other designers and professionals are making their way and (hopefully) are sharing their own tips for success.
  • Your company’s name, and the community’s awareness of it, get a boost.
  • If it’s a speaking opportunity, panel, or Q&A, they have a chance to challenge themselves to establish credibility in a public setting.

Some of my favorite examples of these types of events are UX Happy Hour, Creative Mornings, and Startup Weekend. (But feel free to have them infiltrate developer-focused events, too.)

Ask for their advice and direct collaboration

Having a lineup of projects for your new designer to tackle is great. They get down to work and your product and engineering teams make progress with them toward shipping. But it’s also important to give that designer more than just a waterfall of to-dos.

Seek out your new designer for some one-on-one whiteboard time with a new concept you’ve been struggling to articulate or validate interactively. Think of it like a jam session. They’ll gain confidence. You’ll learn about how they improvise, rationalize, and defend their decisions.

And you’ll likely learn a little more of the same about yourself.

Give them the ammo (and permission!) to defend their decisions

Designers who are willing to fight for the users are going to do more good. Encourage your new designers to actively develop a point of view; they shouldn’t be a pliant service bureau. You’d expect an engineering lead to push back on a technically dubious plan, and designers should push back just as hard on a poor user experience.

(I don’t know why anyone would desire yes-men in a fast-moving market with nimble competitors. This is a cultural point: A company with transparent leadership encourages more open, healthy debate, and designers can bring both expertise and hard data to the party.)

These five points are admittedly broad outlines, but the details are there for you to fill in. Are there other things you’ve done to introduce new designers to their role that you’d like to share? Seen any instances where the advice above actually caused trouble? Are crisp right angles the new rounded corners? Pick it up in the discussion below.