Is my designer slow? And do I tell him?

In my startup, there are 2 full time developers and 3 part time. We only have 1 designer, and then me (PM).

But our designer is our bottleneck. He produces amazing work, but it takes a long time - and we would be able to get much more done if he was faster. I try to help him out by making quick prototypes to communicate my ideas, which speeds him up somewhat. But it’s not enough.

First of all, is it simply because 1 designer is too little? I don’t feel like we have that many developers when you compare to designers.

And if he should be able to do it faster, how do I tell him without sounding like a jerk?

Bonus info: We are a small SaaS company, and we launched our product around 3 months ago. So still trying to achieve product market fit, which is why we need to move fast at the moment.

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  1. Write down what “faster design” would mean to you. Does it mean wireframes instead of pixel perfect? Does it mean more conceptual work than actual design? Does it mean focusing on the user experience rather than the design?
  2. A product designer is not a UI-producing machine but your closest product companion. You should think how to have a workflow with him where you both bring in your competencies best. Write down your competencies first.
  3. With your thinking being clearer now, set up an expectation setting workshop with your designer. Set up what you expect of each other so everyone has a good work setup.
  4. Regularly reflect with your designer how to improve your collaboration. Involve devs as well. Do it as a bi-weekly retro.
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The law of triple constraints is real. Speed, quality, cost - those are your levers.

You want it faster and maintain your cost, you need to decrease quality.

If you want to increase speed and maintain quality, you need to increase cost (hire another designer).

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@RisaButler, God damn. This is so basic, but I still didn’t think about it. Thank you for pointing out that I need to go back to basics.

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Is there other designers in the company to benchmark against? Assuming your part time devs are 0.5 time, that’s 3.5 devs to 1 designer. Although it’d not the worst I’ve seen, many companies strive for 1 to 3, or 1 to 2 ratio.

Also, is your designer doing the research too or do you have a separate researcher? If they’re doing it all I don’t think this person is slow at all.

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@MarioRomero, We have a separate researcher, and we do workshops together where we end up with a well defined feature and wireframe (after several iterations of wireframes). I also look at the data, and use that to understand the user besides what our user interviews say.

But no, he is our only designer.

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It takes time to design appropriate deliverables! Maybe lo-fi designs can communicate what needs done in increments. Not knowing if a design system exists or designs are being built from components that can be used to build upon.

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@YuriRoman, Yes, we do have components and a style guide, which sped up the process. And I do of course understand that it takes time to make quality stuff - and he really does. I absolutely love everything that he shows me.

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Context needed: How much time does he take to do amazing work? How much time is he given? What scope of work is delivered and at what level of fidelity?

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@PriyaVarma, So, he typically uses around 1-2 weeks to come up with a really nice looking pixel perfect design, that is made for both desktop and mobile. Per feature - for example we just redesigned our search result page.

But since we had a “workshop” the two of us, we ended up with a wireframe of how it should look within maybe 2-3 hours. And after that it took him maybe 8 work days to make it into the mockup that we could give to the designers.

It might not sound that bad, but I don’t really understand how it can take more than a week of concentrated work time, when we already discussed basically everything when we did the wireframe.

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I think the problem might lie with you and the devs using the designer as a scapegoat.

Why are you looking for pixel perfect designs to kick-off dev? Usually you finalize the flow, which is what you did in the 2hr workshop, and onboard devs so they have something to work with. Its an unreasonable request from the devs tbh, and something I see come up quite frequently. Backend work doesn’t need finalized designs.

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Yup, exactly. @AhmadBashir, is the designer insisting on delivering super polished designers or are the developers insisting that they need them to get started?

How much time is there between when the designer (and ideally the developers) first learns about the need for a feature and when you expect the developers to begin working on it? Is the designer learning about a feature within the same sprint that they’re expected to deliver it?

Also, how much experience does this designer have? Whose idea was it to have a “workshop” to end up with wireframes?

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A few companies back I was working in something similar to OP. Product was a feature factory driven by sales and random exec ideas that never had anything to do with each other.

Devs wanted pixel-perfect design and interactions but also wanted a word when something was not perfect according to them.

So of course execs blamed product aka me for not being fast enough while simultaneously making sure to change priorities daily. Fully knowing that a sprint takes two weeks.

So, as they knew it from their business meetings, a workshop had to be done.

Somehow they expected not only a full design that needed no more iterations but also a boatload of user stories for the next quarter.

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I agree. Companies have a tendency to spoon-feed engineers.

In a small-team setup like the one OP is mentioning, the only way for quick delivery is if everyone does a bit of everything. Fill in the blanks when necessary to make progress on things they know will not fundamentally change in final versions. However, this is more mindset oriented advice vs process.

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Both great UX and great visual design take their time. Are you using a design system like MaterialUI, or does he have to create each component from scratch? If you don’t have a full component library yet, then building all of this up takes a lot of time and 1 designer for 4 devs might not be enough.

If you do want to talk with him about being slow, I would first higher an additional, faster designer. If you can’t find one, then you know that your current designer isn’t slow, you just have wrong expectations. If you do find one, then it is easier for your old designer to learn from someone how to be faster.

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Why does he need to be fast in the first place? How much more would you accomplish if they were faster? Would you expect the devs to code faster as well?

And why is speed a KPI in PRODUCT that you decided to go after?

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@Lawrence, We need to go fast because we are at a phase where we need to iterate fast. The developers have time left, so in order to get them moving at the end of the sprint, they work on refactoring, more testing and so on. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I would rather push this a few months out when we have more of the features that we need.

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Other factors that I don’t think have been mentioned yet:

  1. How many screens are they designing and how complex are the designs? You mention it’s a search page, but depending on how you display your results but are there a lot of different scenarios they have to accommodate? Designing something that works for everything (edge cases, average use, types of content) takes time.
  2. Do they have a lot of other constraints you aren’t thinking of? How complex are the designs and do they have to work within multiple systems. For example, do they have to figure out ways to work with dev requirements; have to use existing UI libraries that don’t readily accommodate the work that they’re doing; are they making decisions now that they know they will have to live with later on and then life cycle of the product? Again, all of this takes time to think through.
  3. How experienced are they? Have they ever done anything like this before? Have a specialized in one area of design and are being asked to become experts in another? Are they trying to learn to use a new program? A lot of times places want the someone to be able to function as quickly as a senior designer, but only want to pay junior level designer salaries. And even then have they really only been a visual designer and you’re asking them to take on a lot of UX?
  4. Are you facilitating the design presentation and feedback in an efficient and respectful way? I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a design with a lot of potential get presented as a “work in progress” and then have it either be torn apart because it “doesn’t look quite right” or like “it’s missing something” because it looks unfinished… because it’s a work in progress. Or you bombard the designer with a million micro edits that they already know they need to fix. It’s infuriating and it can make designers really defensive, distrust any sort of iterative or collaborative process, and can feel like they need to hide everything until they know it’s ready.
  5. Finally, maybe you don’t mean to come across this way, but it doesn’t feel like you value good design in general very much – or at least not enough to inquire about his approach and process. I’m also picking up some undertones of blame and hostility towards your designer for not being able to be a creative factory. The designer is probably picking up on that too. You’re never going to facilitate an efficient team and a collaborative or iterative environment if you don’t fundamentally respect them or their contribution to the product.
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Really appreciate your comment.

I’m sorry that I come across as not appreciating the design (as you mentioned in your last point). I tried to write in the original post, that I think he is doing a really really good job. I think he makes designs that are good looking, consistent across features, and so on. I do of course give some feedback and ask questions, but I do give a lot of free room to think for himself - and I trust his judgement. I complement him often, to make sure he feels valued.

But I think that I - as someone else wrote - have been prioritizing a pixel perfect design, and not speed, when we have been communicating. So I think I need to actually tell him what I think (sounds so obvious now).