Evaluating the need and investment for UX hires
By Josh Christopher
UX Creative Director
So, you’re ready to make UX hires. Where do you start?
Right now, UX is so hard to staff for. On average, I review anywhere from two to six portfolios a day, which nets us roughly two candidates a week that we hope to bring in for our lengthy interview process. There’s a lot of competition for great candidates, so much so that some places will really struggle to staff and retain great UX resources.
How many do we need?
Caveat: Asking a UX Designer how many UX Designers we need
Internal design advocates beware: You may have difficulty selling this message internally (and inevitably get eyes rolling from certain executive sponsors) when your recommendation for additional designers is anything other than, “We have plenty of designers, everything is fine.”
I have had many C-levels simply chalk my designer headcount recommendations up to, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This is why so many people talk about getting top-down support in organizations ; it’s the best shot at driving organizational change.
Here are some tips on how to advocate, rationalize and estimate proper designer headcount.
Design-to-Dev ratios are a good place to start
Leah Buley did some great research with Forrester that gets mentioned a lot.
She presents that research indicates ratios in an org should never be worse than one designer for every 12 developers (1:12), but ideally, companies that consistently produce great experiences are usually more like 1:4.
So, let me take a step back for a second. Most organizations already have necessary roles like Product Owners, Devs (front- and back-end), and even a handful of other roles like Agile Coaches and Business Analysts. But the gap in most orgs today is in their ability to fold in designers (well, research, too, but that’s another post).
When teams switched from waterfall to Agile, most of the roles could pivot, and there were not huge gaps left that required significant additional headcount. The transformation to being customer-driven is far less painless, because it often requires hiring a UX team and budgeting for ethnographic research.
One thing that’s often missed when we, as designers, throw around the ratios and maturity models is that there are clear gains from evolving as a company toward having a more efficient ratio. The more designers there are in a company, the more likely design is to pivot from only being reactive and tactical, to it becoming strategic and quantifiable.
Generate a design backlog
One of the biggest reasons we fail to advocate for proper headcount in design is that we fail to paint the picture of the need. Decisions are made in organizations with budgets and roadmaps. If we can articulate that we’ll be unlikely to meet a roadmap item due to lack of budget, we immediately begin speaking the language of those who often control that budget. But, this also requires designers to get significantly better at estimating and executing the work.
Design leaders should be grooming and estimating against a backlog of new features, potential ideas and current product issues that need more thought (e.g., design debt; more on this topic later).
I try to show all the great things we hope to accomplish for the company, then follow that up with the amount of time estimated to accomplish it.
One thing I often recommend to other designers is to bucket-estimate (low, medium, high) hours needed to get to an initial design review. From there, I have a spreadsheet that automatically populates agreed-upon hour estimates for revisions and support for hand-off to dev. Those are two things we often neglect to accurately account for as designers. Other things that are good to estimate for large tasks are bulk ideation and requirement gathering.
From tactical to strategic
UX design isn’t just about aesthetics, it is fundamentally about relevance and results. Peter Merholz, Co-Founder of Adaptive Path and Co-Author of Org Design for Design Orgs, states,
“Design’s role is to bring an empathetic perspective that understands what customers will find desirable, and influence the roadmap to reflect that.”
Design is good for business. Every year, John Maeda does a great report called Design in Tech. It is absolutely chock-full of great content to advocate design's positive impact to business. One of the best points I like to mention often is from the most recent report — great companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM, Netflix, Square and Tesla are able to push the perception of their companies having great design, simply because of their willingness to invest in it.
“These companies (Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM, Netflix, Square and Tesla) all see design as a profit center, rather than a cost center.”
Another great article to reference on the value of design in business is the DMI design value index. Essentially, DMI selected 16 publicly-traded companies that are considered to be “design-centric” and has been tracking their value every year against the S&P 500. In the latest report, those companies have outperformed the S&P 500 by 211%.
But remember, in order for design to have the time to be strategic, companies must first stabilize their more tactical design needs.
One more caveat here: I have worked for software teams that have no UX Designers and a CTO that feels as though they have no tactical UX design needs. If you are in a similar scenario, then go up to one of the devs on the team and ask a question like, “I know this functions well, but how discoverable do you think this feature is?” The reaction should tell you how desperate your need for UX design is. Adding designers rarely takes away responsibility from developers that devs enjoy, are good at, or are confident in feeling responsible for. Mature software development teams have designers that are desperate to work with devs, and devs that are eager to work with UX.
Lastly, it is important to understand the reality in business — when advocating for the necessary UX design resources, we may be competing against needs for additional dev, project management, and project owner resources. One of the best cases I have seen for investing in UX comes from research cited from Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach, by Roger Pressman. The book describes that for every dollar spent resolving issues uncovered during design, you can expect to spend $10 fixing that issue once it is in development, and $100 to fix it after it is launched.
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