Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

Why most South African tech startups don’t hire designers

It seems like everyone was looking for developers at this year’s Tech4Africa conference. We heard some fantastic startup ideas, and each pitch was usually punctuated with something like, “And if you know any good developers, please let me know.” Cennydd Bowles made the following observation after the first day of the conference:

Cennydd Tech4Africa

I understand and support the rush to find good developers because I love all the local ideas entering the market (much of my own talk at Tech4Africa was dedicated to improving developer environments). But I’m concerned about tech startups[1] going on the hunt for developers without also looking for quality User Experience Design skills at the same time[2]. In Tart Up Your Startup! Erika Hall explains the dangers of ignoring UX in startups:

You are making UX design decisions as soon as you specify anything you expect another human to interact with, as soon as you specify anything that has implications for how a human might interact with it. Of course, you are are also making system design decisions, but we assume you are comfortable with that sort of thing. So don’t pretend like you aren’t making design decisions already. And don’t make them by omission. You cannot NOT design something. The floor of Silicon Valley is littered with the crumbling husks of great ideas””useful products and services that died in the shell before they hatched out of their impenetrable engineering-specified interfaces.

So if this is so important, why are most South African tech startups (and large companies, for that matter) not looking for UX designers? In this article I’d like to explore what I believe the three main, interconnected explanations are, and how this is actually an opportunity for the design community to prove the value we can add to product development. I’d love to hear your thoughts and observations on this topic as well. If you think I’m missing the boat, please let me know.

1. Hiring is expensive

A very legitimate concern most startups have is that hiring people costs a lot of money, and making the wrong decisions on who to get involved can be extremely costly. So naturally the first requirement is a developer who can actually build the product. It’s logical, and the prudent thing to do. The danger is that you could end up wasting a lot of money by going down the wrong path if you don’t have design skills on board from the beginning.

It also has to be said that in some cases, startups take the considered approach to, as Erika Hall puts it in her article, “Get your nerds to swot up on usability principles and muddle through, yo.” It’s definitely an option, but if it doesn’t work it can turn out to be an expensive detour.

2. Limited visibility into the value of User Experience Design

As we were discussing this topic over breakfast at the conference, @ndorfin brought up the point that for most people, Design still means Graphic Design, or more specifically, Graphic Design for print. So it’s no surprise that tech startups don’t think about the need for a designer – they don’t see the value that something like billboard design could bring to their interactive product.

UX is, of course, a much larger concept used to describe the process of understanding a market and finding solutions that work for that market. User Experience Designers solve problems by uncovering user needs and helping to create products that meet those needs. Until an understanding and appreciation of the benefits of UX become pervasive in the South African tech space, it will not be highly sought after.

I want to be very clear about this. It’s not the tech community’s fault that the benefits of UX are generally not well understood. It’s our fault. As designers it is our responsibility to show others the value of what we do in a convincing way (i.e., irrefutable evidence of revenue/conversion increases). We can’t expect people to come ask us what we do like w’re at a high school dance waiting for someone to notice us. We have to make ourselves known, and do it loudly.

3. The current maturity level of User Experience Design in South Africa

UX is still in its infancy in South Africa. In @cennydd and @boxman‘s session at Tech4Africa called March of the UX Designers they shared their views on the maturity cycle of a particular skill set in an organization. They talked about six distinct stages:

  • Unrecognized
  • Interested
  • Invested
  • Committed
  • Engaged
  • Embedded

Most organizations in the US and UK have reached at least the stage where everyone is committed to making UX a priority. Some are engaging people from multiple disciplines in the process, and others go so far as to have deeply embedded cultures of Design. In most South African organizations it feels like User Experience Design is still mostly unrecognized, or at best something ther’s mild interest in (with a few notable exceptions).

Again, I want to be clear that I’m not passing judgement here. I’m simply pointing out that we are at the beginning of a natural cycle that the UK and US have gone through as well. It’s a cycle we should be aware of, but it shouldn’t paralyze us. It’s actually an exciting place to be – we have an opportunity to make a real difference to how organizations do business.

What we can do about it

Ther’s one thing I know is not an option for us as a UX community in South Africa. We can’t play the victim and go sit in a corner, drawing sketches on napkins while we complain about how no one understands us. We know that when users struggle with an interface it’s our fault, not theirs. How is this situation any different? If w’re a misunderstood or unrecognized industry, how is that not our fault, and our problem to solve?

The only way to get UX to the next level of maturity in South Africa is to do what the US and UK did: we need to become childishly loud about what we do and how we can contribute to better products that make more money. Whether you do research, write content, or spend most of your time in OmniGraffle or Photoshop, it’s time to explain to our companies, our clients, the Internet, and the public space in South Africa what UX is and what value a user-centered design process can bring. We need to make it impossible to ignore UX during product development.

If we do that effectively, maybe next year w’ll see demand for an additional skill set at Tech4Africa”¦


  1. I’m refering specifically to startups that sell physical/virtual products/services, not the agency model of selling time. â†©
  2. I’m making an and argument here, not an either/or argument – both types of skills are needed. â†©