Good design is good business. Done right, good design solves business problems, supports customer needs, and delivers results. Designers have advocated for the power of design for decades, and now it seems we have a seat at the table. Nearly every digital company has an in-house team these days, especially user experience designers. It’s not just the big corporations that are beefing up internal UX practices, it’s mid-sized firms and start-ups, and for good reason. UX is now recognized as a vital part of business success in 2018.
So, with UX being so important, is it too important to outsource?
In 2019, if you haven’t already built an internal UX design team, you should be planning to do so. The regular care and feeding of your digital products and communications require UX talent. You need this talent inside your organization advocating for great customer experiences every day, this is how it becomes part of your DNA. Only then will design have an impact on your strategic direction and your competitive edge in the marketplace. I believe this whole-heartedly, even as a UX designer consultant and agency owner.
That said, expert-lead design firms are far from obsolete, they are as needed as ever. Many of our clients already have well established internal UX design teams and still hire us. But what about you? If you’re a product manager, marketing manager, or executive – when is the right time to hire an agency, and when should you avoid it?
Here are my thoughts:
You should hire a design agency when:
You need to make progress
Some of our clients simply can’t access the resources they have internally. It will take months, or years, to get the time they need, but they still need to deliver results quickly. An external agency becomes an expedient option in situations like this. When hiring for this reason, make sure you have a great fit with your agency team, and they can work with collaboratively on a timeframe you dictate.
You can’t hire quickly enough, or you can’t afford the talent
It’s a hot market, and if you need to launch your business for the Q4 holiday season you can’t wait to get started until you find the right person. Agencies can fill the gap while you build the team whether you are a well-funded startup, or a new business within a larger organization.
You don’t need deep experience over the long-term
Many clients hire us to establish their strategy and vision for a product then they move on to build an internal team with more junior level talent to do the care and feeding over time – it’s a great solution to maximizing your UX design budget over the long term. Another way to think about this is that you don’t need the architect to stick around just to put up the drapes.
You need skills or experience that you don’t have internally
If you don’t know anything about voice-first interaction design, high-consideration ecommerce experiences, or a specific platform, you can hire an agency that has exactly what you are looking for. In a world of increasing specialization, its not difficult to find an agency, or even a freelancer, that suits your needs.
You need an outside perspective
We’re human, so, we’re biased. I don’t see a lack of data as being a problem in-house with clients these days. What I do see is a biased attachment to how the data is being interpreted. It’s hard to change from within, sometimes a little nudge from the outside can open new doors and change mental models for the better.
You need breakthrough thinking
Sometimes you’re in a rut or just need to envision a future for your product or service to serve as a guiding star. Agencies can be great sources for projects like these as we haven’t been drinking the Kool-Aid. We sometimes call projects like these “concept-cars.” Handle these with care however as there is a reason car manufacturers don’t go straight from concept to mass production. Concepts are intended to be illustrative and inspirational and are not battle-tested for production. You will still need a proper design and testing process before heading into production.
That said, there are plenty of times when you should not hire a design agency:
You have plenty of time
If you have the luxury of time, and you don’t have any pressing deadlines, take your time to make the right hires. Be patient, find the UX leader you need to shape the vision and build the practice and allow the process to inform how you run your business and establish your strategy.
Your business goals are ill-defined
You have pressure to get started, a deadline, and a budget, but you do not have well established business goals or requirements. Design firms are NOT business consultants (even though you’ll find many designers pretending they are). Design firms are great at establishing a design strategy for a product once the business strategy is defined. Some are good at helping you define product requirements, but that can only come after clearly defined business goals and metrics for success. You’ll waste time and money asking a design team to begin work if you haven’t clearly defined the objectives. Then again, if you have money to burn, you’ll find plenty of agencies willing take it.
You’re not ready to be an active participant in the process
You’re busy, that’s why you hired an external team and plan to build an internal team too. But you’re too busy to participate in the process. You should expect to work with the design team to clearly articulate your goals, to review proposed solutions, and to lend your expertise as the subject matter expert throughout the process. Our best outcomes have clients that spend upwards of 8 to 10 hours a week working directly with us, are you able to give this amount of time to improve the chances for success for your project? If not, you may be disappointed.
You’re just looking for a team to execute your ideas
If you know exactly what you want, and you just need a team to execute, don’t hire a design firm. You need to be prepared to let go to get the best out of the experts around you. If that’s too much to handle, hire some junior designers and set their expectations clearly upfront that they are not in the driver’s seat at all.
After two decades as a designer and agency owner responsible for selling design services, it does pain me a bit to share this advice. What pains me more is seeing clients that are unhappy or not getting the results they’re after spending good money with design agencies. Ultimately though, the world continues to need better user experience design, and any direction you move in is better than nothing at all.