When UX'ers talk, they tend to talk about process, but the ability to deliver an innovative user experience starts before kickoff and lasts after the launch. Repeatable success in UX depends on the right culture. This is particularly important in enterprise scale organizations, with long-lasting relationships.
Having worked as a consultant, at an agency and in-house, I’ve observed that the organizational location and economics of the user experience team can make or break them. When should you bring in an outside team, and when should you hire an individual employee? When might you want to grow an in-house agency?
As firms digitize their business, user experience has gone from marketing to a core business function. Financial service companies have come to embrace this (see "Your interface is your company"). When your products are invisible and complex, web and mobile interfaces define your customers' opinion. This increased value means increased responsibility: Designers need deep business knowledge, not just wireframing skills. Full "domain knowledge" starts with knowing the basic terminology to business rules, previous project successes and failures, and regulations.
Intimate organizational insight is critical to UX. In the course of a project, UX professionals dig up data and identify solutions to problems beyond the immediate project. A UX future vision accelerates short-term delivery, but also drives the product roadmap. By understanding how the business works, strategic UX'ers can connect them to fundamental insights on how to deepen customer relationships and win.
How to figure out the right team for a new project?
Here are three things to think about for a project's user experience team strategy.
Domain complexity. The more difficult a project is to learn by a new person the less happy enterprises are with "turnover." New people can mean more training, delayed projects, and missed deadlines.
Lifespan of project/portfolio. Generally, single marketing campaigns don't need as much investment into future-proofing. On the other hand, software can live for years; it's worth investing to make it scalable, consistent, and avoid design entropy.
Scale. An organization's scale determines the amount of impact a single UX practitioner can have. On small projects, a single designer can do it all, but in a large organization, a few scattered people will have difficulty influencing business strategy or maintaining a consistent UX strategy.
Because of these structural differences, agencies and in-house groups have different strengths and are suited to solve different problems.
The Ronin: Individual consultant
An individual consultant can be an effective solution for an experienced client, but too often a consultant's input does not get the traction it deserves. The temporary nature of the engagement makes it difficult to know the business in depth or to earn relationships that can influence the project. There is a high risk of being relegated to "surface" design. This is the most difficult position to extend into wide ranging influence, as a consultant often lacks the standing to create standards, nor the scale to work on many projects.
One area an individual consultant can have influence is speaking. There are many talented UX people who are happy to adapt their UX conference speeches to a business audience.
There are many related subjects, from mobile trends to analytics to SEO that overlap with user experience. Showing the connection to the latest hot topic to the fundamental user centered design process helps show how UXD helps accomplish a goal that executives have.
With the right introduction, these external experts can demonstrate best practices that can gain a competitive advantage.
The Ninja: Individual employee
A strong employee can positively influence their area of business; however, they also often lack the influence to change business strategy. Ironically, if they are successful at promoting a user centered philosophy, they are unable to satisfy the resulting demand.
Many firms employ isolated UX professionals in various departments, which can make it difficult to define and enforce standards and best practices. Individual user experience practitioners can face limited career paths and pressure to compromise design principles.
Many firms have UX interest groups where people talk shop and share techniques. One approach is to convert this to an "action" group to influence overall strategy. Bring in external speakers, write an analysis of the firm's user experience, create a user experience mailing group for interesting topics. Find like-minded executives who could champion user experience.
The Hessians: External agency
Agencies are an excellent option for a blue-sky rethinking of a product, for crossing lines of business, and providing a neutral third party. Not knowing the business requirements, laws, or what was tried before naturally encourages new thinking. Employees may be less optimistic, or perhaps too realistic, for radical change. Additionally, there is implicit perceived value in the neutrality of an outside opinion, especially from a brand name consultancy; internal stakeholders are more likely to accept mediation with an outsider. Additionally, agencies can deliver a large team quicker and easier than hiring consultants. Agencies can provide trend insights from scanning the field across clients to understand what is being emphasized.
However, the effectiveness of external agencies can be constrained by simple economics. An agency team costs significantly more per person. This limits the type of projects they can execute. Multi-year projects with multiple releases are often not cost effective. Small projects are similarly not possible due to the team approach of agencies: You can't just hire one person from an agency. Sort of like Goldilocks, projects too long or too small are left without UX assistance.
The nature of working contract by contract requires agencies to focus on different aspects of a project, for example, making elaborate presentations to help the client feel they have gotten value for their money.
Fixed-price contracts force enterprises to work to a rigid schedule, which can be good and bad. Spending money on an external group can bring focus, but it is rare that all groups in a large organization operate on the same schedule. There are usually several large initiatives fighting for attention and core developer resources at any one time.
Doing a large overhaul ensures that some of the teams will not be ready to work during the time the agency is there. An agency is often long gone by the time a software application is launched, preventing usability testing for the next phase and eliminating the chance to fix the UX for challenges encountered during development.
Being external increases the difficulty of getting to know the client's business. Information is shared less freely with outsiders and access to users is more tightly controlled. This can be as simple as getting a laptop on the local network or as difficult as being licensed or having security clearance. Each barrier reduces the efficiency of a temporary worker. They have to be twice as fast for each hour getting up to speed, travelling, and making presentations. Collaboration is sometimes hindered by an “us vs. them” attitude with agency people working in their office and the client in theirs.
Agencies may execute short-term projects effectively, but being temporarily engaged limits their effectiveness over the long term. Their recommendations may never be built if there is no one championing them in the company. The need for an impressive “big reveal” presentation at the end of the project can get in the way of a spirit of open, iterative design. They are well positioned to create a style guide but poorly positioned to see that it gets distributed, adopted, and maintained over time. An agency is great to make a slogan like "Quality is Job 1" but would struggle to make quality the top priority across a company.
The Soldiers: In-house agency
The in-house agency merges aspects of the external agency (scale, coordination, career path, best practices, and standards) with aspects of working in-house (stability, domain knowledge, personal relationships with partners) that can cause change over the long term. Investing in a UX department demonstrates the firm's commitment to its customers, but it is often simply a practical decision.
In this model, user experience people are located in one group but are assigned to projects when needed. This enables the team to provide the core UX service to projects across an enterprise, without the higher costs of an entire agency team or tie up headcount on a project that does not need to hire a full time UX professional.
Workflow projects with complex business rules are best done inside the company. The business knowledge discovered during analysis is precious and expensive. Stakeholders rarely agree to be interviewed again because a person leaves mid project. Getting a UX professional up to speed is slow and expensive. Hiring an agency is a sure-fire way to lose this information when a team member is moved to another project.
Worse yet, given the higher turnover rates in agencies, the knowledge invested can be permanently lost. From remembering why decisions were made six months earlier to knowing the rules of the business, this is life force of a project. Documentation can help, but mid-project most of the information is held in the heads of the team.
The centralized group provides services that no other model can. It can maintain design standards to give the customer a consistent experience and reduce duplicate work. This reduces costs and improves quality. Members share in-progress work to the group, so a client benefits from the experience of the whole group.
Each of these models has strengths and weaknesses. Assuming the same competency of the people, an in-house agency provides the best long term value to the enterprise from its ability to engage with complex problems and influence the organization widely. As firms recognize the competitive advantage of customer experience, the question becomes: how to make this vision a reality.
The next article will cover building and growing a UX practice that thrives in an enterprise and delivers business value.