Last year I consulted some on hiring decisions: what kind of UX person do different start-ups need? It certainly is not a one-size fits all decision. Even if the all of us were perfect blends of insightful user researchers, interaction designers, amazing illustrators and graphic designers, and hardcore coders (also known as ‘unicorns’ since they do not exist or are very rare), we would still not all fit everywhere. In fact, for most start-ups that combination of skill at that high level would be completely over-specified and those unicorns would be both bored and overworked. Bored because not all the work would be at the level they like to do, over-worked because invariably they would be asked to do the work of 3 people.
From observing start-ups you certainly want someone who can grow with the company, has the right energy and endurance for start-up life, but also brings the right mix of skills at the appropriate level for where the company is. And just like as a founder you would research (if not already know) the various disciplines that go into creating working, maintainable, source-controlled code so that you know what you need, you also need to either be well versed already in, or at least research, the various design disciplines. The sentence “Well, we need the interaction made simple, but they could also design the logo and slide templates” makes me worry.
On top of that, “design thinking” as a system to create new and better products at start-ups is very fashionable, but it means more than hiring a Graphic Designer early, or even as a co-founder. If you do not have a background in design, learn who these people are—even if by asking an expert.
Founders who are tech experts really need to evaluate designers, interaction or service or visual, by the same lines as they would coders. What level would they hire, how much do they think they can teach or need already be supported by? Would you really pay a lower salary for someone who brings the look, the feel, the ease of use that sets you apart, the experience that makes your site memorable and instills trust in your website so clients spend money on your services? I was a little surprised at one point when the salary range quoted was equivalent to one for a junior coder.
If you are a Designer Founder yourself, you can grow together with a junior or mid-weight, but if you re a Dev or Biz Founder, you will not be able to really grow your junior designer; in contrast to what many think, “Make it pop!” or “Make it easier!” or “Make it like Facebook” are not actual design critiques that will get you a good result from your new worker nor will it make them better at what they do over time.
The level and experience need to be the right fit, but so does the approach to problems, and it actually should be different from the code or biz team, creating a frisson from which new ideas and directions will spring. Evaluate this from the portfolio, but mostly by asking how problems were approached, and approaching a current issue in the start-up together. Never ask a designer to do a lot of homework for the interview for free; in the current market it comes off as exploitative. Pay a free-lance rate for a few days to solve a bigger problem together and try. And ask other friendly UX Designers for help in evaluating.