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In-house vs. agency: battle for the best UX

There’s a point in the life cycle of every digital product when UX design becomes top priority. So what are the options? Should a product team take on the task themselves? Is hiring a dedicated UX designer to join the team a good move, or will a UX agency provide the best value?

Full disclosure: We might have a tiny bit of inherent bias towards the agency option. 😉 But at the same time, we’re objective enough to know that it’s not the best choice for every possible situation.

Can we DIY it?

Would you rewire your own house or extract your own tooth? Generally speaking, people prefer to get expert help when they feel a job is important, and if your organisation understands the value of user experience, UX design should come into that category.

That being said, many of the skills involved in producing good UX design can and should be learned by a non-specialist. It’s certainly a good idea to start baking them into your business from the off in order to keep user-centricity in focus.

If budgets are really tight, motivated generalists trying out some UX themselves is still preferable to doing nothing.

These aren’t some secret techniques we like to keep under wraps – any UX agency worth their salt will be delighted to hear that an organisation is interested in upskilling staff in areas outside their usual job description by working on design thinking techniques and ‘soft skills.’

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However, trying to blindly go it alone without any assistance is probably not to be advised. A relatively small investment in solving a specific problem, for example prototyping or user research, and some training on tackling these tasks can provide great value.

But which route should an organisation go down when they face larger UX projects? Here are our thoughts…

In favour of in-house

Ease of collaboration
It’s stating the obvious, but an internal team is only working for you. You’ll have their undivided attention (during normal hours obviously, don’t be a midnight messager!), so communication and building a solid working relationship is likely to be fairly straightforward.

Carving out time in each other’s diaries tends to be easier when you share an organisation, even if you don’t share a physical space.

Deep dives
This undivided attention also means the UX-ers on your staff can go deeper. Knowing your organisation and industry from the inside out is likely to give them a deep knowledge of its wider goals, values and constraints to inform their work.

This is something that’s practically impossible to ‘order in’ from an external agency, but the time it takes to build up can’t be underestimated.

Embedded user-focus
Hiring someone whose career is focused on your users’ needs fairly early on can be a smart move. A modern, agile company should be putting design principles into practice across their whole organisation, not just one siloed department.

Having a UX designer on the core staff can help with that.

Feeling ‘real’
On a somewhat related but more basic level, surrounding yourself with the right people feels good (and fends off any lingering ‘people might think this is just some saddo in their pants working from their mum’s back bedroom’ thoughts).

Growing a company with a ‘teamwork mindset’, a sense of shared purpose and culture from day one means hiring early, and if you follow that school of thought, UX is a decent area to hire.

Agency advantage

Ready-made team
An established agency will already have a great workflow in place. They’re a well-oiled machine who know how they like to work together, and how they work with clients.

You don’t need to expend any significant effort working out how they slot in, and there’s no time lost as they get up to speed.

Speedy release
Talking of speed, you know the saying ‘many hands make light work’? Well it’s true. Partnering with an agency gives you access to lots of brains, and gets lots of expert hands on your work. They are likely to have multiple specialists across a lot of different elements of design who work to a high standard.

An external UX agency will almost certainly mean moving at a faster pace and ultimately releasing something sooner than would be possible with an internal team.

Impartial input
A good UX agency will push back and ask hard questions that no employee ever would – they are being paid for their unbiased input after all!

Very often, the people involved in a product are too close to it to see it for exactly what it is, and it takes someone outside of their organisation to get things on the right course.

When an agency is well-established, they’re likely to have seen and worked with absolutely all sorts of products and companies. The value of everything they’ve learned in doing so is considerable, and it’s a wealth of knowledge they can then be put to good use on subsequent projects.

Clients sometimes come to us with an idea, thinking our role will be to help with their product’s visuals on quite a superficial level. They soon find that because the design process dives deeply into what they do, but from an external perspective, their direction and focus changes for the better in ways they couldn’t have predicted.

In conclusion: Why not both?

Two characters from the animated film 'El Dorado' ask each other 'both?' before turning to the viewer and saying 'both is good'.

It sounds like a bit of a cop out on our part, but honestly, the best solution to solving even the toughest UX challenges is generally a combination of hiring internally and partnering with an agency.

If you deploy the safe hands of an experienced agency to get momentum going whilst you build out a talented team for the long term, you’re more likely to make good hiring decisions, bringing people onboard because of what they’d add, rather than to plug a hole.

Any agency worth their salt will take care to set up documented processes, shared assets and established principles to work from, making handing over to an internal team as and when they come onboard a doddle.

Your trusty agency partner can then support, steer and augment your new hires, allowing both sides to learn from each other and ultimately deliver the most value.