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Where Should Start Ups Look for User Experience Design Help?

At Fell Swoop we work with a lot of internet start ups in Seattle and elsewhere. Most start ups in 2013 realize they need to offer a solid user experience design when it comes to their digital products and services, but when it comes to finding good help they often times don’t know where to start. As a small business owner of a user experience design agency I hear many of the same questions from start ups over and over again. Here are a few of the most common questions and what I typically recommend.

I want to hire a user experience designer that also does visual design and front-end development, do you know anyone?

Yes, these people are out there, but they are rare, and very expensive. If you need help with any one of these three things you typically need to find someone that is good at just one thing. While it’s true that someone can be strong in one area (say interaction design), and still have skills in another area (perhaps visual design), it’s rare to find someone exceptional at both. Look for T shaped people that have deep experience in one area, but might offer a few bonus features in other areas.

Should I hire a freelance user experience designer or a full time employee at my start up?

It’s expensive to hire full time user experience designers and it’s hard to find experienced and talented designers in general. If you are at a start up that is angel funded or bootstrapped it could be too costly for you to hire a full time user experience designer that is going to be demanding salaries of $85k to $150k plus benefits. You can find decent individual freelancers in the Seattle area for $75 to $125 an hour. If you are a start up that demands high-quality work, look for a freelance designer that has five to ten years of experience. Saving a few bucks on an hourly rate to hire the cheapest designer you can find to launch your new business will yield poor results. If you are funded, profitable, and the design of your app or website is critical to the success of your business, hire a designer or an agency.

Should I hire an internal design team or a user experience design agency?

While it serves my business interest to point you to the latter, I don’t always recommend hiring an agency. Let’s say you are a start up with cash in the bank and a budget that can accommodate a senior user experience designer and a mid-level user experience designer. This will set you back anywhere from $150k to $200k total a year in salaries, more when you incorporate employment taxes, benefits, equipment and training costs. While this is an expensive approach, some firms know they will work best with designers in-house. Having a designer sitting in the same room can be a luxury in agile environments and with firms applying lean start up thinking. The problem with this approach is once the work runs thin, you can’t throttle back the expenses. Working with an agency can afford you the opportunity to adjust budget on an ongoing basis, so long as the firm is flexible and collaborative in the way they work, and many are. At Fell Swoop we routinely work with start ups and small businesses on projects and ongoing engagements that cost less but produce equal results when compared with a full time staff. We can do this because we’re a team of very senior designers and we bill time and materials on projects of all shapes and sizes. When a client hires us for a $30k or $60k initial design of a new app or website, they know they can come back to us at any point in the future to solve niche problems and bill a few hours here and there. The ongoing relationship means that we’ll be there when you need the design team, but we won’t be billing time and sitting idle when you don’t need us. The cost benefit analysis really comes down to your product, your budget, and your preferences, but both approaches can be appropriate.

Why would I pay more to hire an agency than a freelancer?

It’s true, most agencies charge hourly rates or flat fees that are more costly than a lone gun freelancer. Freelancers might charge anywhere from $75 to $125 an hour while agencies charge $125 and up. At Fell Swoop, we charge a blended rate of $140 an hour, slightly more than freelancers, but much less than our previous employers billed us out for at other firms where rates can climb into the $200+ range. When you hire an agency, large or small, what you are paying for with these rates is the collective experience and brain-power of the team. Having more than one designer’s brain on a project is important. Freelancers are often times working in a vacuum, tucked away in their basements where they don’t have as much interaction with other designers. This means when you hire freelancers you as the client spend much more time reviewing unrefined ideas. When you hire a team, the ideas are more refined right out of the gates. As a result, a senior experienced team may actual bill less time and deliver more bullet-proof work more quickly.

Should I hire a small or large user experience design agency?

At Fell Swoop, we’re a team of six senior interaction and visual designers. Every project we take on gets scrutinized by the team internally and the resulting work is elevated by our collaboration. The same thing occurs at large agencies that charge much higher rates, but you need to be careful what you are paying for. The ‘bait-and-switch’ approach is more common at large agencies. Just because the director of user experience met with you during the pitch doesn’t mean she’ll be on your project. When an agency is larger, it doesn’t mean that they are more collaborative either, so you might end up paying $200 an hour for a user experience designer that has two years of experience and works in isolation amidst a staff of 500. If you are evaluating large vs. small agencies, get familiar with the individuals that will be on your account or project, and if you are a start up with limited funds, don’t bother looking at larger firms at all.