I know, I know. Founders and entrepreneurs are already being told that they need to learn how to code, hire, raise money, and get customers.
Screw that. What founders and entrepreneurs should really do is learn how to build a useful product. And that means learning the fundamentals of research and design.
Don’t believe me? Here are six reasons you should be your own UX designer (or at least learn enough about UX design to fake it).
1. You need to know what problem you’re solving and for whom
GPS solved the problem of getting lost when going to new places. Kindle solved the problem of my entire house filling up with books I’d already read. Instagram and other similar tools solved the problem of how to share all those great photos on your phone with your friends.
Of course, not every product idea solves a problem, and not every problem is something that people are willing to pay you to solve. That’s why it’s so important to learn the fundamentals of customer development and user research.
If you know how to validate your product ideas, you’ll be able to more accurately predict which products solve important problems for large groups of people. This means that you’ll be more likely to build something that lots of people want to pay you for.
2. Communicating ideas is critical (and hard)
Some of my best ideas started their lives sketched on a cocktail napkin or quickly drawn on a whiteboard. But they didn’t stop there. To fully think through and communicate designs to other members of my team, I had to turn them into something that other people could consume easily.
Not every product change or feature idea needs a fully interactive prototype or a pixel-perfect Photoshop mockup. But learning about the uses of various design deliverables can help you to communicate your grand vision to engineers and other team members so that they can build it.
3. Build > measure > learn doesn’t go faster with more people
You’ve heard of the build > measure > learn loop, right? It’s a loop for a reason: you’re supposed to continue building, measuring, and learning. It’s iterative.
The faster you can make it through the loop, the more hypotheses you can validate before you run out of time or money. If you’re at a resource-constrained startup, this can mean the difference between finding product market fit and selling off the furniture.
As with many things, adding too many people to the loop can make you go slower. More people on the team means more coordination, more communication, more discussion, and more meetings. If you’re at an early stage startup, the less overhead you can have, the better.
Look, I’m not saying that having a designer will always slow you down. I’m just saying that taking people out of the decision-making loop often lets you move faster. By all means, if a dedicated UX designer will speed up your process, hire one, if you can…
4. It’s tough to hire people for jobs you don’t really understand
Have you ever tried to hire a designer? What sort of designer was she? User Experience? Interaction? Visual? Information Architecture? Or maybe what you wanted was a Researcher. Or a User Interface Engineer. Or a Product Manager who could build flows.
It’s incredibly confusing, isn’t it? The best way to understand what skills your team really needs is to try to fill the position yourself for as long as you can. You’ll quickly learn exactly what’s missing when you find yourself struggling with various aspects of the job. Maybe you feel that you’re doing a terrible job of talking to customers. Or maybe everything you make is hard to use. Or maybe people can use your product, but it’s hideous.
By doing as much of this as you can for yourself, you’ll learn what to look for in a designer. You’ll also probably respect her work more once you know how hard it is.
5. The only thing harder to find than a great designer is a unicorn
Let’s face it, even if you knew exactly the type of designer you were looking for, you still wouldn’t be guaranteed to find one. I get asked constantly if I know any great designers with immediate availability. The answer is almost always no. Sometimes it’s hysterical laughter.
6. Design is a team sport
As much as some designers would like you to believe it, great designs don’t come from isolated geniuses hiding in a room and thinking. Great designs come from collaboration—with users, team members, engineers, and everyone else. I’m not saying that great designs come from the democratic process or design-by-committee. What I’m saying is that everybody on the team should have input into the design earlier than you might think.
For example, involving engineers early in the design process helps produce designs that engineers can actually implement. Involving research early in the design process helps produce designs based on real user needs. Involving business people in the design process helps produce designs that make the company money. If everybody on your team understands the basics of design and research, they can contribute more effectively to the early design process.
How much do you need to know?
Of course, learning about UX isn’t easy. The most important thing to remember is that, as a founder or entrepreneur, you don’t have to learn to be the greatest designer and researcher in the world. You need to know enough about design to build something you can learn from. You need to know enough about research to get quality feedback from your users. You need to know enough about the process to hire and manage the right person to take over from you when you’re ready. If you need some help, UX for Lean Startups, can be a good place to start learning.
Editor’s note: Laura Klein will be presenting a webcast, “Essential Tips for Lean User Research,” on August 28.