Small team with a SaaS web app - when to hire a designer? / another role?

  • 11 August 2022
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Hi! I work at a pretty small SaaS software company with long experience with our legacy Windows-based app in an industrial space. Currently, we are working on this B2B / Enterprise web application as a next-generation system for the same market. Not exactly a startup, but this is a big next step for the company to stay relevant.

🤔 I was inspired by a recent post about PM:Engineering ratio from @rajiv.tanna 

Our company is less than 30 people including two marketing people, a handful of salespeople, a very small customer success team (focused on the legacy product), and support and engineering teams (again, the legacy product). And then the 4-person Executive team.

So our team is:

  • 1 PM (me) who is doing
    • Roadmap
    • Backlog authoring (Product Owner-type role)
    • “Business Analyst” work (?) 
    • Sprint demos to Sales and Exec team
    • All the stuff you do in Productboard
    • Authoring more of the Help Content
    • A bunch of the testing
  • 1 Director of Engineering AKA Engineering Lead
    • Architect, Pull Request reviewing, and some coding
  • 3 Engineers doing everything from
    • Backend work
    • Front end work
    • Security testing and scanning
  • 1 Intern, currently focused on front-end test automation

Design-wise, it’s all pretty basic stuff so far. Nothing too special, just working from examples of your basic B2B applications without a lot of attention paid to aesthetics, animations, etc. I feel fortunate to have the resources we have for this brand new pathway for the company. 

OK so the questions:

  1. How do you know you need a designer?
  2. Are there any tips on how to tell if another role, like a subject matter expert or business analyst, might out-weigh the importance of design?
  3. Just assuming I don’t know what I am talking about here but - how can I find similar job listings for what a designer working with a B2B SaaS web application is and does? I feel like the term “designer” itself is very open ended. Are the same skills applicable for someone who designs a website as one who designs for engineers to develop applications?

My fear is that my whole company is inexperienced with this. The only exposure to the word “designer” they really know is that we used to have a marketing person who was also a fairly good graphic artist so he would design images and logos and uh.. PowerPoint presentations for our VP. 😬 

 

Thank you for reading this far. You are the best. 

 


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I’ve actually addressed this exact scenario with industrial application migrations a handful of times. It’s a really exciting challenge when the org is committed to strategic success. It’s miserable when they’re not.

Here’s my probably too long take on the situation …

 

tl;dr

I can’t emphasize strongly enough how critical a well-executed product design is to your success!

 

IME, “Product Designer” is the magic title you’re after. “UX Designer” is a runner up, but these candidates often lack the broad experience you need. This role will complete the classic product trio you need: Strategy, Design, and Engineering.

Two products in particular immediately came to mind when I read your question. They were both hung up in an early beta roll-out stage. The organization had “designed” and built a solution with the assumption that a product for technical users can be built solely by technical people. They cut corners on the definition end of things because they “already knew the market” from their laudable legacy experience. In both cases, the early user exposure (beta launch) nearly killed the company’s reputation and I was brought in as part of a Hail Mary effort (which was too late in one case). 

This scenario might sound familiar:

  • The legacy product is making money and has “paid for itself” but …
  • It’s not aging well and is highly susceptible to disruption.
  • Using the legacy learnings as a foundation, a new product is envisioned.
  • A small team of engineering-centric resources builds a mass of features that hit all the requirements and directly address legacy and competitive concerns.
  • Unfortunately, the market has changed in important ways over the years. For one, there are a lot less skilled operators available to your customers.
  • The next gen product is about to perform very poorly in the real world and cost someone a lot in on-boarding and training -- which will eventually translate into expensive implementation fees or a bloated subscription price.

This impending doom screams for a solid product designer yesterday. This person understands “jobs theory”, “activity centered design”, enterprise workflows, user testing, technical capabilities, and just plain good design.

An experienced product designer will bridge the gap between legacy expectations and current opportunity. They’ll dig into the jobs your market needs addressed, understand the real world context, and divine tactics for delivering perceived value to the buyer. It’s a complicated role in any market, but highly technical B2B markets only compound the challenge.

On a small team, you probably want a consultant at first because you aren’t likely to have the finances to carve out a staff position with the right experience (150-200k + good benefits in the US). That said, if you have the resources, it’s incredibly valuable to have the whole trio on the team. I’d outsource just about anything else to “own” the product trio.

To your question about a “subject matter expert”, I’m afraid that’s going to be you powered by a giant heap of customer and user conversations. That said, I’m sure an organization like yours has lots of SMEs in the building, but you need to be the one to bring them together. 

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@plainclothes Is it unfair to mark “Best answer” if others haven’t chimed in? 

It’s spot on. 

The only thing buying us time is the competitive space and the user expectations in our little niche are SO bad, that anything vaguely deemed “modern” is 10X better than what they are dealing with. Well, at least 5X.

I agree with the SME scenario. We might need some outside consulting for that as well. Maybe some retiring metrologist will have a passing interest in SaaS software. <sigh>

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@Mmcclain I don’t know if there is a best answer in these cases 😂

A mix of “old guard” and fresh thinking from the SME space is really valuable. The old-timers haven’t always successfully handed down their experience. There might be opportunity to bake some of that wisdom into your solution!

You really can create a 10x product with transformations like this. The one where I had the most success addressed the modern environment more successfully and was modular enough to address previously un-tapped adjacent markets. We ended up with better adoption in the original space and cracked into several others.

There is light at the end of tunnel -- just make sure it’s not a train about to mow you down 🚇

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Absolutely agree with the top response. Maybe it’s implicit but here’s something that I think might need called out on its own though: what’s your understanding of what a designer does?

I’m going to read between the lines of this:

“Nothing too special, just working from examples of your basic B2B applications without a lot of attention paid to aesthetics, animations, etc. “

Will you have trouble selling the benefit of a designer if this is what the team believes they bring?

I think the impact of design that @plainclothes  mentioned is taking for granted a different understand of what design is / does that’s not about aesthetics and animation. It’s about the entire structure of how the whole thing hangs together and flows. If you don’t have buy in on that, in your own head or anyone else’s, it’ll make the whole journey wayyyyy tougher.

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Thank you @JulieInCork that’s another great aspect. Truth is, I probably need to know what it is I’m looking for!

At the moment I’m worried about all of it:

  1. How useful the product is:
    1. Flow,
    2. Responsiveness to the user’s device (?)
    3. Accessibility...
  2. But also how it looks
    1. color choices,
    2. font sizes,
    3. margins
    4. layouts...

Item #1 will undoubtedly help with retention, but I feel like Item #2 helps with acquisition. 

 

Thanks all for giving me some more things I need to research.

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