Symbiotic UX — An approach to improve your company’s UX competency

A short story. The C levels of a big company sit together to discuss the product lifecycle and the future of their products. Got stuck in a big number of ideas — the topic UX appears. It is currently in everybody’s mouth and people start to argue with the success of the iPhone. Finally the whole board of C levels agree that it is a must to do UX and to hire a UX designer or even to build a whole UX team. Suddenly the CFO points out the question: “What makes more sense? Outsourcing the topic or building up a whole team?” Finally the C levels go for the in-house solution as they simply want to keep all knowledge within their company.

This short story is a typical example pointing out today’s approach of how growing or big companies deal with the topic of UX. In order to avoid gut-based decisions we questioned the benefits and risks of building an in-house UX team vs. outsourcing UX activities.

So what are the relevant parameters for deciding whether to outsource UX or to hire an in-house UX designer?

1. Loss of knowledge?

When arguing for in-house UX companies usually want the knowledge and competency in-house. This logic, makes sense and is a good argument for hiring an in-house UX designer. Anyway knowledge and experiences are often bound to people. If employees rotate it is often hard to conserve the knowledge gained through their job. A possibility to adress this (no matter if in-house or external UX is done) is to establish a useful and easy to use documentation system that allows to keep track of relevant information created in-house and by external partners.

2. The Blackbox

If you hire a fresh UX designer he comes with a lot of fresh ideas. Soon (after some months) he or she feels captured in the company’s structures and processes. The result is the move into the “Blackbox”. The vision and view from outside the box gets lost. External UX consultants usually work on a number of projects that vary in the context and content. This helps being able to keep an unbiased perspective and adress problems in an objective way. Anyway the blackbox also has advantages. In-house UX designers have in-depth background information and contextual knowledge that is often useful and required when creating UX concepts and designs.

3. Hiring an in-house UX designer is cheaper!

Money is of course an important driver. Thinking about the rates of external UX consultants (usually between €90,- and €250,- per hour) the costs for outsourcing UX exceeds the costs of an in-house UX designer. Anyway if you think that you have to pay the in-house UX designer 365 days a year where the outsourced UX consultant is only hired when needed the situation changes. Further when adding social insurance, taxes and other costs the prices of outsourcing UX are seen different. Thus, especially for smaller companies external UX resources may be beneficiary.

4. Scaling the UX team

Many companies usually do not hire more than 1–2 in-house UX designers. As projects pop up the UX designers get involved in many projects and soon run out of time. Also, if this is not the case, the UX designers’ workload usually is higher at the beginning of a project and decreases afterwards. Only selective tasks like usability evaluations result in peaks at later phases. Often UX designers are then used to create graphic designs for the marketing department and take care of Powerpoint slides, which is not satisfactory.

External UX consultants on the other hand are only hired when needed, resulting in more calculable and less fixed costs.

5. The UX change

When hiring an in-house UX designer a company increases and changes the skill set of the company. This usually results in a need to change the processes within a company towards other methods and ways of creating products and developing products further during their life-cycle. The fresh in-house UX designer often does not have the power to establish his position in comparison to COO’s and CTO’s that require him to adopt to specific, established processes the whole company has to follow. Single source UX designers have a hard standing with and without backing of the C level positions. This often results in frustration and in the following situations where the in-house UX designers loose their ambition to be the UX evangelist, taking care about the position of the user, in a company.

6. An UXer’s expertise

Being a good UX designer does not come from some courses where you learn how to use a design tool like Sketch, Figma or Adobe XD. It requires a specific mindset, an empathic person, interest and curiosity and the ability to communicate and deal with different people.

Typical distribution of UX competencies between in-house UX and external UX

The area of user experience and the applied methods grow as UXers should be firm in a lot of disciplines and methods. Such are user research, UX strategy, user requirements engineering, UX conception and storyboarding, wireframing, sketching, designing digital artefacts, knowing technological capabilities of systems and frameworks up to performing usability evaluations and knowing a big number of evaluation methods. A huge task for a single designer if everything shall be done in-house!

Some of these services also require to step out of his own shoes!

It is hard or almost impossible to evaluate a design that you made yourself properly without biasing the result!

Using external UX services helps bringing the out-of the box perspective from external UX consultants into a company resulting in more complete and higher quality UX competencies of a company.

How to address these pros and cons?

Symbiotic UX — Combining the external and in-house UX approach

Hiring an in-house UX designer is valuable and makes sense for the most companies. Changing the way towards a user/customer centric design approach helps advancing a product.

Anyway. If you go for the change please regard the following to profit from a UX designer the most:

  • Implement a UX strategy. Change the current way how the company works to integrate UX design in all process steps.
  • Back the UX designer. UX design is more than just drawing a new interface. It involves activities like user research, evaluation, sketching, workshops, etc. To make this happen the UX designer should be backed by the C level to being able to do more than just graphic design.
  • Measure UX. Measuring UX requires a long-term strategy. Without data the value of UX is not obvious. Remember: “the best UX is invisible”. You need to be prepared to measure the value of UX in order to calculate the ROI of UX activities.
  • Go for a UX team. The number of tasks in UX required to make more than just a nice screen design is usually too much for one person. Establish a structure (team) to being able to do UX in your company.

How can outsourcing UX help?

A symbiotic approach of in-house and external UX services

Implementing UX in your company will have an effect in many areas and decisions. This is often hard to implement and takes time.

To master these tasks some tips for mastering the UX competency in your company may help:

  • UX strategy. If you have a designer doing UX, he will often not be skilled in defining strategic decisions. External UX consultants provide support in implementing UX strategies in your company. Also they will bring a more objective perspective to your company which improves decision.
  • I cannot afford a UX team. Outsourcing UX activities allows small companies to benefit from UX activities, based on their goals. For companies who already have an in-house UX designer outsourcing will allow them to scale their UX needs. If an in-house UX person exists, he or she shall be involved in the outsourcing process. Outsourcing UX or only specific UX activities will help to enhance on one hand the quality of the UX designs and on the other hand helps to avoid mistakes earlier in the process … saving money and time.
  • Involvement. A UX designer (in-house or external) shall be part of the whole team. Have the UX designer working tight together with the rest of the project team. This results in better performance of the UX designer as well as the rest of the development team by reducing iterations throughout the process.
  • UX knowledge. By working together with external UX ressources, the in-house UX designers can learn from external UX people and improve their knowledge and methodology.
  • UX evaluation. Evaluations require, apart from the methodological knowledge, a skillset and experience to get valid data. Doing evaluations in-house, by the UX designer himself, will give you a biased view and wrong results that may lead to wrong decisions. Remember! It is hard to do critique on the things you create yourself.
  • Time — When to do UX? When you think about doing UX in-house or outsourcing UX totally or partly, plan in advance. UX activities return the most value when considered already early in a project.
  • UX Vision. If you hire an external company the results of the UX activities might lead to results that you did not expect. Be aware that UX activities are user resp. customer centric and they do not always go inline with the company’s expectations.
  • Whom to hire. If you do a google search for “User Experience Design Agency” you will find out that almost every digital agency is the “expert” in user experience. Whom to hire now? It of course depends on your needs. Focus on searching for the correct terms like “UX Consulting”, “UX strategy”, “User research”, “User Interface Design”, “UX Concept”, “Usability Evaluation”, etc.

Some recommendations: 1) If a UX designer also does the implementation himself or herself, he or she will usually not do a good UX design. 2) If a design agency is not interested in investigating real user requirements, from real users, they are usually doing design only, no UX. 3) The focus of a (UX) designer is creating products with a good user experience, the focus of a (UX) consultant is developing the strategy and implementing UX in your company.

To sum up

In our rapidly changing world there is not right or wrong decision. The way how you address the topic of UX will change over time and with the size and UX maturity of your company.

Nothing needs to be black and white.

Outsourcing UX activities can support an in-house UX designer or team. It helps to learn from experts and improve in-house UX knowledge.

It is crucial to involve an external UX team in the same way you should do with an in-house UX designer or team. A one-person UX design team usually cannot provide expertise in all required disciplines. Use outsourcing to supplement your UX designer’s capability with external excellence.

The symbiosis of in-house and external UX allows you to master the required and desired level of UX maturity for your company. Advanced UX consulting and UX design services can be included when needed and extend your company’s expertise. But don’t forget to measure the ROI of UX!

Further information & Resources

The question of outsourcing and in-house UX is burning at the moment. Anyway there are already a lot of UXers, companies, managers, etc. who thought about this topic. Some of them (mainly design acencies) argument for outsourcing. Current trends are to build your own in-house competencies. Both are right. Here are some links to books and articles:

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