Why Should Every Software Development Team Have a Product Designer?

Pedro Bacelar
March 24, 2023
<p>In a venture capital-constrained environment, businesses are looking for ways to reduce costs and risks while still achieving their goals. One cost-saving strategy is to exclude designers from software development teams. While it can reduce your burn rate, it can also vastly increase the level of risk in your product and business.</p><p>Despite all of the arguments and articles explaining the value of a designer to a project, the truth is that it is common for project managers to ask themselves: <strong>why should I invest in design? Can’t developers take care of launching product features on their own?</strong></p><p>To help you answer these questions once and for all, I've put together the lessons I've learned over my work as a design consultant for the past 10 years.</p><p>In this post, I will show you <strong>why designers are an essential part of a software development team, </strong>while also giving you some tips on how to seamlessly integrate a designer into your process.</p><p>Enjoy!</p><h2 id="why-should-your-software-development-team-have-a-designer-onboard">Why should your software development team have a designer onboard?</h2><p>Well, there are a million arguments about the value of design for the tech industry.</p><p>As a design consultant working with B2B startups and innovation projects for the past 10 years, the most common scenario I’ve encountered in software development teams is a <strong>group composed of founders plus a couple of engineers, and maybe a manager or a tech lead</strong>. They’re focused on bootstrapping the product as rapidly as possible, pivoting, searching for a market fit, and working hard to make investors happy.</p><p>So why does a lean team like this need a designer onboard? Well, it’s fair to say that <strong>you should invest in design because it foments more viable and profitable products, quicker even.</strong></p><p>And why is that true? First of all, flexibility.</p><p>A competent product designer knows that <strong>there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach.</strong> The product design process must be flexible enough to accommodate factors such as budget, maturity, and velocity, among others.</p><p>This means that we should not impose a rigid design process. <strong>Designers should fit into your business strategy to be able to deliver value.</strong></p><p>There are several benefits of having product designers that are capable of adapting their processes and providing business value, such as:</p><ul><li>Designers can prototype your ideas really fast (think days not months);</li><li>Designers support sales and/or customer success to align early adopter customers with sketches, mockups, and presentations;</li><li>Designers can foresee risks and guide the product and engineering team into delivering features with the most strategic value to drive business growth;</li><li>Designers can organize complexity from several conversations with stakeholders and customers, aligning goals and needs and translating that into assets that will guide the feature architecture (prototypes, user flows, specs for engineering, etc.);</li><li>In the long run, designers will help you build a cohesive and trusted product that communicates very well with your business and your market.</li></ul><p>Besides flexibility, <strong>having a designer onboard also helps you avoid unnecessary costs.</strong></p><p>The cost of building the right features in the wrong way is big. Engineers will spend weeks – even months – coding, debugging, migrating, and launching before it’s even clear to everyone if that’s the product the team should be building.</p><p>After all that effort, <strong>there’s the sunk cost</strong>. Engineers will keep maintaining and optimizing features that may not even be adopted or liked by your customers. By the time you get it right, <strong>it may be too late or too expensive to fix it</strong>, and that’s where a product designer comes in handy.</p><p>So ultimately, If you want to <strong>scale from having just a functional MVP to becoming an actual robust business</strong> that thrives in a fast-paced always-changing digital market, having a design operation is pivotal.</p><p>But how do you onboard a product designer into your software development team? Let's take a look at some real examples I had the chance to experience and what I have learned from them.</p><h2 id="how-to-onboard-a-product-designer-into-your-development-team-a-quick-guide">How to onboard a product designer into your development team? A quick guide</h2><p>Alt Legal is a cloud-based software company that helps American businesses to prepare and manage global IP filings. They came to us looking for a complete overhaul of their platform.</p><p>They’ve updated their brand and engineering architecture and wanted to impact the whole US market for IP management. Today, 1000+ offices are powered by Alt Legal, which is recognized as the most elegant and clear product for managing trademarks, patents, copyrights, and more.</p><p>PlusPlus, on the other hand, is a knowledge platform that fast-tracks productivity. They came to us wanting to launch their ideas fast, incorporating large customers like Netflix, Shopify, and Salesforce.</p><p>They wanted to reach all the big tech companies, and the challenge here was to iterate fast, becoming a one-stop shop for learning managers to build training courses, knowledge repositories, company events, mentorship hubs, and much more.</p><p>Based on these and other experiences, <strong>I came up with this handy guide on how to kickstart design in a software development team</strong>:</p><h3 id="1-deep-dive-into-the-project">1. Deep dive into the project</h3><p>First off, the designers should <strong>study the company, their market segment, and their product branding very thoroughly</strong>, even before joining the team.</p><p>Any resources are welcome at this point: pitch decks, marketing research, business plans, internal documentation, brand books, access to demo instances of the product, etc. By doing this brief research, they should be able to understand the overall business intention, general audience, tone, language, and marketing angle (landing pages, social media, etc.).</p><p>Later on, the designer can make deeper research to increase the team’s shared understanding, helping set up a more accurate user persona. But for starters, this should be enough.</p><h3 id="2-align-business-goals">2. Align business goals</h3><p>Secondly, <strong>we need to align business goals so designers know where they should strike first.</strong> Set up calls to introduce the designer to all the relevant stakeholders – product owners, product managers, customer success managers, C-levels, etc. During these conversations, the most important question should be: what business goals are we aiming for?</p><p>Do we want to bring big logos to increase market visibility? Do we want to increase MAUs (Monthly Active Users)? Maybe we want to increase revenue by upselling features to our current customers, by lowering churn, or by reducing customer complaints.</p><h3 id="3-integrate-with-engineering">3. Integrate with engineering</h3><p><strong>The designers must be very close to the engineering team. </strong>They must hear their current struggles, and understand the complexity of the product, features that are requiring a lot of rework, hotfixes, or even the lack of frameworks for defining simple actions.</p><p>Ultimately, these issues cause engineering to work harder but not efficiently to deliver business value.</p><p>Understanding the technical limitations imposed by their current stack will help avoid any unnecessary conflicts between designers and engineers. The end goal is to make engineering more assertive in the features they launch because design helped plan and validate them earlier, increasing the team’s confidence and reducing overall noise.</p><h3 id="4-understand-the-product">4. Understand the product</h3><p><strong>Designers should be able to answer these questions</strong> about the product:</p><ul><li>What areas of the product are most valuable to customers and why?</li><li>What debts contribute more to a bad user experience? (check metrics, customer support tickets, and sales difficulties).</li><li>What design patterns are installed – intentionally or accidentally? They can find this through techniques like Design Inventory or a Heuristic Evaluation.</li><li>Are there any frameworks in place? (design system – third-party or proprietary, Bootstrap, Django Admin, etc.)</li></ul><h3 id="5-get-a-complete-view-of-the-planning">5. Get a complete view of the planning</h3><p>After these priorities and struggles are understood,<strong> the designers must be in contact with the product planning. </strong>If the client already has a defined backlog on a project management tool, it’s key that designers have access to it.</p><p>Designers should be able to get a sense of what’s to come, so they can plan ahead, anticipate issues and suggest validation methods. Are there any hard deadlines we’re trying to achieve? How fast are we moving in terms of launching new improvements/features? And most importantly, how are we prioritizing the next steps?</p><h2 id="how-can-a-product-designer-benefit-your-project">How can a product designer benefit your project?</h2><p>When a business seeks to incorporate design into its mix, it can have very different goals as we saw with the Alt Legal and PlusPlus examples. <strong>But those are not the only ways a product designer can be useful in a software development team</strong>. Here are some other benefits a designer can bring to your project:</p><ul><li><strong>Additional improvements: </strong>this involves making small, iterative changes to the existing product. This approach is often used to address specific problems or improve certain aspects of the product without disrupting its overall capabilities. Incremental improvements can be done faster and with fewer resources compared to a complete overhaul, and they allow organizations to make progress quickly and with minimal risk. However, it's important to keep in mind that this may not address the root cause of major problems, for example, “Why this specific customer segment is not using my product?”;</li><li><strong>Complete overhaul: </strong>a complete overhaul or redesign involves starting from scratch and rethinking the entire product or an entire section of it. This approach is often taken when one or multiple product modules are not meeting the needs of customers and need pivoting, or when new technologies or trends emerge that make the current design become outdated. A complete overhaul requires significant time and resources, but it also provides an opportunity to create a fresh and innovative product that meets the current needs of the market;</li><li><strong>Product spinoff: </strong>this involves creating a new product based on an existing one, but with a different focus or target audience. This approach allows organizations to leverage the existing product's strengths and resources while addressing new market opportunities or user needs. Designers can help understand and operationalize this spin-off, aligning with your core products while also shipping fast solutions to validate its potential.</li></ul><p>In conclusion, <strong>kickstarting a design operation inside an ongoing product is a crucial step toward delivering highly strategic and profitable products</strong>. Whether it's a complete overhaul, incremental changes, or a product spin-off, the needs of the product and its market angle will change over time.</p><p>We believe that it’s very important for product designers to understand these changes and adapt their processes and methods accordingly. A well-structured design operation will not only help keep pace with these changing needs but will also ensure that the product remains relevant and valuable to your customers. By being proactive and flexible, product <strong>designers can play a key role in software development teams</strong> by driving product success and delivering value to your organization.</p><h2 id="key-takeaways">Key takeaways</h2><ul><li>Different stakeholders have different leadership styles and product visions. Designers should be able to adapt focus and methods to build trust with them to be able to set up a successful design operation.</li><li>There isn't a “perfect design process”. It needs to be adapted according to budget, maturity, velocity, etc. Designers should not try to impose a process that is written in stone, finding the right balance is vital.</li><li>After successfully onboarding designers into your team, it’s key to understand how to streamline your operation, which is the subject of the next article: Preparing for Scale: Streamlining Your Design Operations.</li></ul><p>If you already have a design team onboard and want to know how to make it more efficient, check also the article Preparing for Scale: Streamlining Your Design Operations.</p>