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What Your UX Design Lead of a Growing SaaS startup Should Do in the First 3 Months

Introduction: Who am I?

Hi, I'm Behrad, the founder of Bonanza Studios, a growth agency for SaaS product startups. I have a Master of Science in Innovation and Sustainable Design, which was a two-year program based on the design thinking methodology. After graduating, I moved to Berlin in 2012 and started working in the Berlin startup scene as a UX designer. Since then, I've been part of two founding teams: Grover, a unicorn startup, and Kenjo.io, a SaaS platform for HR and organizational management that is ranked as one of the top five HR SaaS platforms in Germany. Over the course of my career, I've worked with over 100 startups. In the past three and a half years since Bonanza Studios was founded, we've completed over 120 projects for different startups and worked with many CEOs, product, and tech leads.

A conference presentation

There are two major symptoms I observe when working with SaaS startups that are hindering their growth.

1. SaaS startups often struggle to deliver on UX because they lack the know-how to guide their new UX design lead

75% of SaaS startups fail to grow beyond $1M ARR. Typically, you are expected to hit this revenue goal in 12 to 18 months to be eligible for the next round of funding. As a software business, your success is entirely predicated on the UX of your SaaS application. And UX design, depending on your experience in the software world, can mean different things. As a founder or executive, you may understand it as merely user interface (UI) design, or you may have a deeper understanding of it. Here is my definition to set things straight:

UX design is a branch of design. It is a craft. It aims to understand humans on a deep level, learn about their objectives, desires, personality, and pain points by applying empathy and leveraging research methodologies. Then, it aims to translate all of these insights into usable, novel, innovative interfaces that leverage technology to enhance user experience. UX designers are essentially advocates for your users, and their primary concern is to improve their understanding of those users.

Growing SaaS companies, given that they are in their infancy, often lack effective product development processes (I know you've hired a scrum guru, but your process is still ineffective in driving growth for your business). They also lack a nurturing culture that boosts employee retention. Given these two primary factors, most of your hirings are essentially ineffective, especially in core functions that drive growth for your business, such as UX design.

In this climate, your UX designer joins and often has to play a reactive role towards product initiatives rather than a proactive one.

2. UX Design initiatives can drive growth for your business if your design lead understand what key performance indictators are crucial

Another tension or frustration I have observed is that, over time, your UX designer's initiatives are often deemed to be inconsequential and deprioritized. This is often because their ideas are considered to be blue-sky thinking or all over the place. However, this is not their fault. Their ideas are ineffective because they lack a clear understanding of how the business drives revenue and what the cost structures are. As founders and executive team, it is your responsibility to educate your UX designers on these matters.

I wrote this article to reflect on my experiences working with different startups and to guide you on how to onboard your design lead more effectively in the first 3 months, arguably the most critical time period of their joining. Why are the first 3 months so important? Remember, you only have 12 months to make or break it. If your design lead does not onboard effectively, you lose the momentum to drive meaningful growth.

Interview your users

Here are 12 unique actions that the head of UX design should take in the first three months

1. Interview 60 users - 1 user / day

I would interview one user per day for the next 12 weeks. After the interviews, I would go through all the recordings and highlight the parts that I think everyone in the organization would benefit from listening to. I would create a compilation video of 10 to 30 minutes and set up a company-wide show-and-tell so that everyone can watch it together. Then, I would create a Slack channel and ask everyone to share their reflections in up to three paragraphs about what stood out the most for them. Finally, I would parse all the reflections and turn each insight into a sticky note and post it in the Figma jam.

This action has several advantages:

  • I would get to know my users.
  • I would get to know everyone in the organization.
  • I would generate a massive set of insights and ideas for further work.

2. Set up 1-1s with the founding team, and the executive team

I would ask them the following questions:

  • Who do you think our users are?
  • What pain points do they have?
  • How does our product solve their problems?
  • What are their most-requested features or complaints?

I would also ask them:

  • How does solving these user problems contribute to revenue?
  • What are our cost structures in the way of generating revenue?
  • What is our pricing model? Is it a fixed monthly fee, per use, per seat, per feature, per transaction, or license-based?

By asking these questions, I would gain an understanding of the following metrics:

  • ARR: Annual recurring revenue
  • ACV: Annual contract value
  • CAC: Cost per acquisition
  • Top lead channels that contribute directly to revenue

This action has several advantages:

  • Getting to know the executive team on a deeper level and working with them closely, showing my excitement in learning about the business.
  • Deepening my understanding of the DNA of the business and how it works.
  • Helping to prioritize design initiatives more effectively, thanks to my deep understanding of the business that I achieved through these calls.

3. Set up 1-1s to talk to everyone in the company

Probably your company headcount hasn't blown out of proportion. There are about 50 people or fewer that you can talk to directly. I would set up a 1-on-1 meeting for every day of the week. I would ask them these simple questions:

  • Who do you think our users are?
  • What pain points do they have?
  • How does our product solve their problems?
  • What are their most-requested features or complaints?

I would go through all the recordings, parse the information, generate insights, and turn each insight into a sticky note and post them into the Figma jam.

Oh, by the way, don't forget to press the record button anytime you jump on a call.

This action has several advantages:

  • Getting to know everyone in the company
  • Tap into their experience working with users and get their insights. In my experience, if you pick two people from any team and ask them about users, they would give you different answers. The marketing team has a different understanding from the customer service and business teams. It's crucial to tap into the experience of everyone on the team, especially if your company size is small. In smaller companies, everyone in the company tends to interact with users in some way or another.
  • This would help you develop a more comprehensive understanding of the relevant design initiatives that could move the needle for your users.

4. Product Audit

I would conduct an extensive product audit and create a Figma file. I would take a screenshot of every app screen that is currently online and organize them into different user flows centered around the core functions of the app, such as onboarding, booking a call, requesting time off, and publishing a job post.

This Figma file should be different from the one that captures all the insights from user interviews and 1-on-1 interviews internally. These two Figma files would act as a source of truth for me. One would be for capturing insights, which I would keep in Figma Jam. The other would be for capturing screens, flowcharts, and creating wireframes, which I would keep in a normal Figma file.

5. Study performance dashboard

I would look into product analytics and marketing analytics, and have 1-on-1s with anyone who can explain it to me, in order to quickly reduce my learning curve.

I would then generate insights, turn each insight into a sticky note, and post it on the same Figma jam. These post-its are different from the previous steps. They should be very precise, and each one should have a number or hard fact.

Depending on what kind of insights I'm getting from product analytics, I would capture and organize those insights in the other Figma file where I stored and organized the screens, so I can have the insights organized contextually.

6. Study market and competitors

I would conduct an extensive market analysis and competitor analysis. I would do the same thing that I did for our own app: take a screenshot of every screen of their running app and store it in a Figma file.

I would create a competitor analysis table and compare ourselves against our competitors. I would grade which app is doing better in respect to every feature and store the table in a Figma jam. I would also extend the table and add all market gaps that I identified that no competitors are addressing. These market gaps are either ones that I picked up from my trend analysis or user interviews that I conducted. Also in this table, I would mark those features that matter the most to our current users.

One of the outcome of this exercise should be creating a comparison table like below

7. Define Product Strategy

I would facilitate several product strategy workshops through which we need to prioritize based on our current capabilities and the above table.

We need to answer the question: On what criteria can we compete? For example, the superhuman app is renowned for being the fastest email client out there.

Based on this shared understanding, I would prioritize the following:

  • Which user pain points would we deprioritize and disregard?
  • Which user pain points would we own and prioritize?

I would then introduce our first version of the product strategy statement. There are multiple templates available, but I prefer the following:

8. Align on product development process

I would set up one-on-one meetings with the CPO and CTO, or any other relevant roles, to understand:

  • Our discovery process.
  • Our design process.
  • Our delivery process (typically a scrum).

It is likely that there is no official discovery process or design process in place. That is why they hired me. And most likely, the delivery process is something like a feature factory: ship, ship, ship, no measurement, random backlog, and loose prioritization.

9. Introducing weekly Design Sprints

Weekly Design Sprints are a methodology that we use at Bonanza Studios, and we see massive results for our clients. Essentially, we break down the work of agile discovery and design into weekly sprints, and at the end of each sprint, we must generate significant outcomes. This process also fits in smoothly with a typical scrum process. Often, we engage with our clients by having them run their implementation scrum process in parallel with our weekly design sprints, and our inputs fit into their work.

The primary pillars of a weekly design sprints are

  • Continuous research
  • 2hr ideation workshop to prioritize and ideate
  • Lean testing to prototype and test

I would hold a show-and-tell and introduce everyone in the team to the concept of weekly design sprints. I would explain how it feels to go through the discovery, design, and discovery process.

10. Hire an internal team

I would ask HR to publish three job ads for a UX researcher, an interface designer, and an artist (graphic designer, illustrator, etc.). I would set a target to complete these hirings within the next six months.

Here are the specific roles and responsibilities for each role:

  • UX researcher: The UX researcher would help us with continuous discovery and insight gathering. They would conduct user interviews, usability testing, and other research activities to understand our users' needs and pain points.
  • Interface designer: The interface designer would translate these insights into clickable prototypes and wireframes. They would also work with the development team to implement the designs and ensure that they are user-friendly and effective.
  • Artist: The artist would provide graphic support for our product. This includes creating pitch decks, marketing materials, and graphics that make our app aesthetically unique.

11. Hire external support in the meantime

I would hire a design agency for the next 6 months to help me run weekly design sprints. The reality is, there is a war on talent out there. Although I set the hiring goal for six months, it is highly unlikely that we can hire for all of the said functions in 6 months. What should I do in the meantime? In the meantime, I would engage a design agency to help me with discovery and design initiatives.

12. Get to work

I would prepare the environment to start the work of discovery and design, informed by all of our research and strategy work.

I would set up our design system and align with the CTO that we would use these components from now on.

I would ask customer service to book me two calls per week with new and old users, so I always receive first-hand insights. These steps need to be automated.

I would have a set of prioritization workshops to align with the executive team on the core initiatives that I believe, based on my extensive research, are worthy of exploration.

I would start the first weekly design sprint, even if we have not done any hiring or engaged an external agency.

This article outlines a set of clear actions for you to turn your app into a growth vehicle. If you have any questions, feel free to book a consultation call from our homepage. We would be more than happy to offer our support.