What makes a good UX designer?

What makes a good designer from a CTO perspective?


István Sebestyén

3 years ago | 12 min read


Many business leaders still don’t see the role of the UX designer: they consider it unnecessary, in a better case, devaluing it, typically limited to techniques, the clickable prototype. Due to their belief that they know their customers perfectly, they know what the problem is, and also how to solve it.

These justify to save money by omitting, shortening and simplifying the pre-prototype phases, so actually they think of themselves to be very good owners of resources, too. This is not a rare practice because they do not understand that the design process is fundamentally undermined that way.

It is more expressive to show what a company loses if it does not hire a designer. Typically, user stories do not have all screens, labels do not have names, and so on. These seem insignificant, very technical at first, but they actually stop or make the development process more expensive, at least.

The designer should filter out the most trivial fails in the processes that prevent development to be continued. Another typical case is e.g. an in-depth functional development of admin or other tools by IT developers solely that makes them practically unusable from the user’s point of view because their aspects were not taken into account at all.

This time, Tamás Kovács, CTO of Flipdish, and Róbert Oroszi, CTO of Vern Insurance Technologies, shared their thoughts in the xLabs webinar series moderated by Co-Founder & CEO, Balázs Komár. They gained relevant experience in all company stages and size, practically.

Their insights on the development of the designer function; what makes a good designer; what they are looking for in a candidate and how a designer works well in the organization are worth considering.

Their motto could be: “Start your company with a designer friend of yours. Or in other words: if you don’t have a designer at the company, it will develop a lot of useless things. ”

Organizational evolution implies a more complex designer function

Start-ups and small companies are resource-constrained in all respects. The time of the small core team of founder-managers is always the most expensive.

This should be spent developing the company, developing the product(s) and go-to-market, acquiring new business, building a customer base from scratch. It is an exaggeration for everyone to do everything out of love, wearing multiple hats and design is often one such love.

Enthusiasm, soft skills, and the chemistry between the founders are key in the beginning because of the amount of time they spend together, inevitably.

They use no or limited external resources, but there is also continuous value/effort optimization for the implementation of design ideas, as well.

After a while, there is inevitably a lot of conflict of interest and this situation assumes a very high degree of openness about what fits and what doesn’t. In a small team, there is no opportunity to learn new things, everyone has to do what she/he is the best at.

There are typically two cases. In one, one of the founders is either a designer or has a vein for design. This is typically more of a help in the initial period. These companies bought ready-made solutions and customized those, or the founder with the vein designed something and hired a freelancer to create the final UI.

With this model a company could work for 4–5 years. The specific reason for hiring the in-house designer later is the sudden multiplication of the number of IT developers. They addressed the ‘how to function and how to look’ questions to CTO who addressed it to CEO quickly resulting in a bottleneck, thus, developments halted.

Evolution of UX design towards the ‘desired optimum’

Source: compilation by the author

In the other case, there is no founder with such a design vein. In many companies, the product approach is always one of the most important from the very beginning. For a smaller company, there is typically no time for a complete UX design process.

The go-to-market for new products, the UI is more important than improving things of the past through in-depth research and analysis.

The company is simply growing too fast at this stage. The lesson, however, is that even companies with a size of fewer than 10 people need UX designers from the very beginning, and the customer experience needs to be addressed from the start. Up to 1–2 UX research trainees are already able to add significant insights to product development.

A typical consequence of this is that sales, through their insights, explore new areas and try to take UX researchers away from product development. While a UX researcher can be an intern or a junior, a UX designer needs to be “ready” at a small company.

UX design is close to the business because it satisfies the business needs. The business should be hurt if there is no designer because if there is no demo, no prototype, the product cannot be sold in the market. However, the specific trigger, as we have seen, may also be the operating bottleneck due to the dynamic upturn in the business. This clearly indicates the need for a full-time in-house UX designer.

From the above, it can be perceived that the role of the designer, the size of the designer team, the operating structure, and the tools changes in line with the company’s life cycle. Initially, there is no designer at all, then an external freelancer part-time, then full-time, then the in-house product designer appears.

When in a startup or in a small company, the whole company is like one big product, in the worst case, very few products.

This status changes drastically with business success. More products, the onboarding complexity increases, more features, everything tends to be more complex. Colleagues can no longer capable to overview the entire spectrum without losing focus.

Therefore, the companies broke down this complexity into silos, or functionally. There are even companies that have been thinking in silos before scale-up. The corporate culture matter, but cross-functional teams are not typical. Separated, dedicated product ownership ensures that the designer can focus.

With the complexity and the size, UX and UI are typically split, and then UX split further into research and design, while these all belong to a product design function within the organization, for example.

What makes a good designer from a CTO perspective?

A good designer creates a ’structured’ context-dependent beauty


Based on experience, there are some important criteria for selecting a designer that candidates need to pay attention to. However, only a small portion of these are objective and subjective considerations in hiring decisions are very significant.

It doesn’t matter where you got your degree. Companies are looking for practical experience, attitudes, and skills. The professional design knowledge is fundamental, an indication of which is already provided by a portfolio. Performing a test task is another element in judging it.

In addition to expertise, a sense of beauty comes into play. A sense of beauty is an expectation, but it can never be self-serving; solutions, screens need to fit into a given context according to the needs of the users.

Perhaps the most straightforward expectation of a good product designer is to create a ’structured beauty’. It is vital to be able to think in systems, in a structure, because the direct beneficiaries of this are the developers and it can be measured in money.

Most of the designers have strengths and relative weaknesses. A typical case is, for example, a weaker UI compared to a stronger UX vein, but there are plenty of examples to the contrary. With what kind of background and interest you arrive at UX is clearly visible in the above.

It is valuable if the designer is able to do its work on its own.

Strong motivation is not only the desire to learn something new but also that the designer is interested in the core business of the company, interested in what he is doing int the company, and can display it. Anyway, this is increasingly an expectation towards the developers as well.

The personality is important, and the presumed ability to fit an existing or expanding team.

What makes a good UX designer?

Source: compilation by the author

It is not an advantage in itself if the designer has coding knowledge because normally the designer will not develop, is not hired to do so. You may have some development experience, it can be helpful if you understand how CSS works.

However, on one hand, you typically don’t really need to use it, and on the other hand, there are tools available, for example, to build websites without a developer.

The non-core UX design but niche knowledge like eg. animation or other may be good for some design features, may make designs original. However, it is typically not a continuous activity and is best used at the marketing function, not in user experience design.

Depending on company size or complexity this function is in-house, otherwise outsourced, can be incorporated into a larger agency, or practiced as a freelancer. A well-specified, easy-to-grasp niche task is typically outsourced even at a mid-sized company.

Despite the criteria listed, the hirings are often more nuanced in real life. When the company does not yet have such experience and knowledge, hiring the first designer is almost a matter of luck. Instinctive decisions that are difficult to explain are made out of intuition.

Based on the first contact and the portfolio, one can fall in love with a designer. At the very beginning of the interviews, one can feel if there is chemistry, or maybe the candidate is simply introverted, but relaxed and opens later, or adversely, they can’t imagine working together at all.

Of course, this is not unique to this profession. If one has the expertise, the very strong motivation, a domain knowledge beyond UX, and the aura that typically leads to a successful hire, the company is lucky.

Thinking, structure, flow, and relevance are key beyond the eye-catching UI in the UX designers’ portfolio.

Source: compilation by the author

In a UX designer’s portfolio companies are looking for thoughtfulness, if they can understand the flow, the thinking of how to use that particular application, and also that multiple screens are made nicely.

If the designer approaches the same problem in various ways in its portfolio, it reflects its adaptability, a presumably good fit with the needs and goals of the users, and the business.

When preparing for an interview, the designer should send a relevant portfolio that fits the particular company and the particular project. If it is about banking or fintech, are there any portfolio items related to financial applications, etc.?

How does a designer work well in the organization?

A good designer involves the developer from the beginning of the process

One of the fundamental benefits of the designer function is the rational management of development resources. The better the designer operates in a company, the better the above resource management is.

While the design is based on customer research and needs, it is also optimization: the designer must have a sense of how much developer resources a design may need, and by and large, can have a rough understanding of the development capacities.

It’s not an unknown phenomenon that some developers tend to “overlook” the UX designer: “designer draws beauties, but I have to develop those anyway”. If there are signs of such an attitude or lack of trust, it is advisable for the designer to involve the developer right at the very beginning of a project, even when formulating the research questions.

After that, it’s worth “sacrificing” 1–2 user interviews, bringing the developer in to directly address the user needs.

If a designer does so, is adaptive, communicates openly, and continuously, there is a significantly higher chance of being treated equally, understood and this is important for both the workflow and the end product.

Source: compilation by the author

As the company develops given birth to more products, the complexity clearly increases. Due to rapid growth, more product designers and UI designers will be hired, they may not even have the chemistry, they may not be able to work together. It is then advisable to brake apart the products and to specialize in certain areas.

Whatever the organizational structure is, from the beginning, active, iterative communication reduces the chances of difficult-to-implement design ideas being born, thus saving expensive resources.

The designer should push the use of Design systems

Design systems are still underrated, at least in the sense that even today it is not at all common that front-end developers know them. With its ready-made components, one can work very quickly and efficiently. Their advantage is quite clear when, for example, new developers or designers join the company.

Their first question is, in what direction are we going, what are we following? If designers and developers ask back because they don’t know the direction, it’s no longer good. One can always turn back to the design system in the product development process.

At small companies, in a design team with few people, there is also a need to use a design system. It is unlikely that a small company creates a better one than what is typically made at specialized companies with incomparably more dedicated resources. But if so, it is time-consuming to develop and to maintain it absorbing multiple FTEs on the design and development side. It is unrealistic, does not fit the operation.

Typically, companies use a known design system “customized” a bit. Even some of the large known systems have few components, behind which there is conscious, serious development work, thus, even in a mid-sized company, it is not advisable to dedicate internal resources for this.

Mixed operation model is the future with the equal proportioned symbiosis of office-home office

The impact of Covid19 on work organization is company dependent, and how colleagues experienced it is very personality dependent. Of course, a popular simplification is that the developers are rather introverted,

while UX designers are extroverted. But Covid19 brought out reactions from even more introverted colleagues after a while that it would still be better to meet and discuss a particular topic live and not remote.

Covid19 drew attention to two things. On the one hand, it has shown that remote development works perfectly in IT development, in UX design, if there is a daily communication channel that everyone is actively using. This relationship of the designer with both the product team and the implementation team is assumed, obviously. Productivity may even increase temporarily, with fewer interactions that are generally (but maybe, in part, erroneously) classified as non-productive.

At the same time, experience tends to project a mixed work model for the future, namely 2–3 days both in the office and in the home office. While companies with similar profiles solved recruiting remote and onboarded employees during this period as well, joining a company in remote is not easy.

The new entrant, especially the junior, requires human interactions, the mentor.

But in general, it can be said that in familiar, seated together teams, there is intense, subtle physical communication, which is completely lacking in the remote. It’s also typical that a junior doesn’t ask his mentor remote, while if the mentor is physically there, it does.

The effects of the current state on work organization, which we thought temporary, may remain with us in the longer-term in this above-mixed model.

The junior designer needs a mentor

Source: compilation by the author

A junior designer has a special position within an organization, especially if, although it is rare, being the only UX/UI designer in projects.

If the team has worked with UX/UI designers before, they can tell their needs to the designer. In this case, too, it is necessary to constantly synchronize with the others, to quickly understand and clarify the setup when the designer gets in the process, what they need.

If there is no such knowledge and experience in the company, it is especially advisable for the junior to ask for a mentor. For a smaller, resource-constrained company, inviting an external mentor is a realistic option. Management buy-in is needed to support this essential move.

Since the junior designer does everything on its own, it needs to go back to patterns, copy solutions, how she/he did it elsewhere, how others do it elsewhere.

The junior should keep everything simple, don’t get lost in the process, in the tools chosen. The junior must create the simplest processes, the least dependencies. Its adaptability coupled with continuous feedback and good communication is essential.

Originally published here.


Created by

István Sebestyén

UX | Digital Products | Strategy | Banking







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