We just released the beta version of our web product to our sign ups. Our product design is moderate since at this stage, we are mostly looking into validating our product, but we understand that it needs major UX/UI work soon. Like most start-ups, our team consists of one developer and a CEO with limited financial resources; which leads us the question: when do you think an early stage start-up with a web/mobile product should seriously consider bringing a full-time designer on board (equity/cash) and how should they get design work done before that stage?
That's a good question. As a senior UX Designer I got to work both full-time on startup projects, got hired freelance to help startups review their UX and launch for milestone improvements.
There is a slightly new model that I would recommend, and have been successfully implementing with my startup clients.
The model is to bring a UX Designer on board on an ongoing basis, and even if it is with very minimal contribution at first.
I personally believe that great teams create great companies, which is why I would recommend that you think of that UX designer as part of your team. It is slightly different than you thinking of them and hiring them as an outsider working on a project, because once that project or phase is done, you and your developer will struggle with future iterations.
It would help for you to have a conversation with your potential UX designers. You would focus the conversation on one very small and specific area of your startup (ex: a section in the sign up page). It will be an opportunity for you to see how they think about UX problems. It would also provide you both with a sense of how it would be like to work together.
If it feels like a good fit, then give them a small UX design assignment that doesn't take more than a couple of hours for them to show a difference. If the result shows signs of a good direction, hire that designer to join you for as little as one hour a day. Then, you can increase that based on actual value and when you have a growing need for more of their contribution.
I would be happy to talk more about your startup, offer advice on the type of UX designer that could be a good fit and what simple next steps you could take that would make a difference.
Speaking as a UI/UX designer, I think at your stage you should do as much of it as you can. In reality, it's your only choice if your finances are limited.
The CEO and/or the developer should be learning as much as they can to try and make the product as attractive and easy-to-use as possible.
Look at other apps for inspiration. Use CSS frameworks like Bootstrap. Read books and blogs, take online courses to learn the fundamentals of user-experience research (how to prototype, common design patterns, how to perform user-testing) and web design (typography, color theory, usability basics).
Will you be as good as an established professional with years of experience? No, but you don't need to be right now. Focus more at this stage on whether or not your product solves a pain for your market. Make it as great as you can make it on your own. The first versions of Facebook and Google looked like shit and it didn't matter.
Once you have proven your market, perhaps you've raised some money or have revenue from your product, then go out and hire a designer to make it look beautiful. Most of the fundamentals of UX research can be learned by anyone. As an entrepreneur, when you are low on cash you need to be that much more scrappy and DIY to get the job done.
As a UX Designer currently, I would bring in a UI and UX designer as soon as possible. Reason be, if work goes to far, you could be looking at higher expenses to restructure and/or redesign everything to fit the requirements that provides a great user experience for your customers/clients. Understanding the financial resources are limited working in an Agile approach may help to determine the structure of the design work, web / mobile. This way the team can develop within stages (or called in Agile, sprints) to accomplish the project within a timely manner while sticking to the budget. Also, look at developing the web product in a responsive format design to minimize cost.
I would recommend to do it yourself at this stage. I've found Amir Khella's UX course on Udemy to be very helpful: https://www.udemy.com/ux-for-founders/
It's a structured, methodical approach that most people are capable of applying. You won't beat the pro's of course, but it will be good enough to start with.
In terms of UI, try to keep it simple and minimal for now. Consider starting from a good template. Less is more.
Your main focus at this stage should be on validating the core idea of your app and iterating that to achieve product-market fit. That will be way more important that professional grade UI/UX right now.