In-House UX Team vs UX Agency

Should You Build an In-House UX Team or Partner with a UX Agency?

As the Product Manager of a software company, one of the common challenges you’re faced with is whether to build an in-house UX team or hire a UX agency to help build your product. Each option has its own pros and cons, and choosing the right one could have a huge impact on your product’s success. How do you decide which one is right for you? Let’s explore both sides.

Top Advantages of Building an In-House UX Team

Whether you’re a startup with just a handful of employees or a growing enterprise, investing in an internal design team is a smart way to improve your product’s UX and take your company to the next level. Here are some of the primary benefits of building your own team.

Full-Time Focus on Your Product

An in-house designer is responsible for dedicating all of their time and energy to you. They’re always present at the desk right next to you or just a few IMs away. When someone devotes that much time to one business or product, they gain deep domain knowledge that they can use to teach others and help the company grow.

Proximity

In-house designers often work in close proximity to the stakeholders, subject matter experts, and decision makers needed to keep a product moving forward. External partners collaborate with these individuals as well, but working in the same location and having long-standing relationships can provide an edge in terms of trust and speed.

Cultural Impact

Nowadays, the best companies in the world infuse design in every layer of the organization. It’s not just one department or one initiative; it’s a philosophy and process that are embedded into everything they do. When a business not only builds up a solid design team, but also champions design throughout their organization, they unlock the ability to leapfrog the competition and become leaders in their industry.

Top Advantages of Partnering with a UX Agency

Some Product Managers engage an external partner from the very beginning to help build their MVP. Others wait until they feel the crunch of too much work, complex product challenges, or ambitious growth goals. No matter when it happens, there are several ways a UX agency provides value – especially if you work with the right one.

Speed

This one is simple: UX agencies help product teams get work done faster. With more minds and hands on deck, they can collaborate to divide and conquer on the march to a sprint deadline or an important milestone. Having additional, external design resources also provides continuity through significant internal changes (turnover, new leadership, etc.) so you can minimize interruptions and delays.

Innovation and Effectiveness

It’s not just about launching products faster. It’s about launching better products. UX partners haven’t been immersed in your product, so they offer a fresh pair of eyes to see some of the things your team may be missing. Their strategic mindset and comfort with pushing back (when appropriate) also help cut through the clutter and guide you to a more effective solution.

Breadth and Depth of Experience

In-house design teams gain deep product knowledge over time, but they often become generalists in design because they’re required to wear so many hats. On the other hand, UX agencies offer a more accessible and less expensive way to work with a team of specialists, who each have unique expertise in one or two disciplines (such as usability testing and content strategy) or platforms (such as mobile or e-commerce).

Although they’re specialists in their field, agency designers also work on a wide range of projects across industries, which provides them with broad experience that they can apply to each new project they take on. More ideas = better results.

(In-house teams can try to hire specialists, but since most of them are in high demand and enjoy working in a dynamic, nimble agency environment, they’re typically more expensive and difficult to recruit.)

Unbiased Advice

Ever feel like you’re surrounded by “yes people” or not getting the brutal honesty you need? That may be because many in-house employees feel uncomfortable saying what they really think, especially when the person receiving that message is a superior or the originator of a design idea. External UX partners are in a better position to provide honest guidance or say no because that’s why they were hired in the first place.

Whether it’s having an independent researcher leading usability studies and customer feedback interviews, or just knowing you have an outside team to bounce ideas off of, working with an unbiased partner saves time and can help your team avoid making critical, costly mistakes.

The Areas Where “It Depends”

In certain areas, there are clear advantages to building vs. buying. In others, it depends on a variety of factors, like the scope of work, designer expertise, company culture, budget structures, and more. These are two key areas where the answer to the in-house vs. UX agency question is, “It depends.”

Cost

It’s nearly impossible to say whether it’s more cost-effective to hire in-house designers or engage with a UX agency.

An in-house designer could cost $50,000-$150,000+ in salary and benefits, depending on their level of expertise and responsibilities. An external partner could charge $150-250/hour for consulting or production work, thousands of dollars each month to stay on retainer, or hundreds of thousands for an in-depth or ongoing engagement. It varies based on the type of agency and the arrangement you have with them.

Plus, budget structures differ from company to company. For some businesses, they may not have the budget to increase headcount, but they have a marketing or R&D budget that they can use to bring in a UX agency. For others, the opposite may be true.

Flexibility

This is another area where the right option depends on your needs, company culture, the agency you’re working with, and the type of contract you have with them.

Smaller firms (both software companies and agencies) tend to be nimbler and able to pivot quickly when needed. However, this flexibility dwindles with greater bureaucracy, complex projects with extensive dependencies, and rigid contracts. No matter how flexible you are personally, these external factors play a big role in determining whether an in-house team or outside partner will provide a greater ability to adapt as your product and environment evolve.

The Best of Both Worlds

Like many things in life, the best answer isn’t always one or the other, but rather, a happy middle ground. UX teams are a perfect example.

Instead of focusing solely on building an in-house team or only enlisting outside help, the best results often come from a mix of both because the combination helps overcome some of the cons each option presents, while multiplying the pros.

Combined Expertise

The right UX agency complements your internal team and delivers “the power of many.” A single designer or freelancer will only get you so far. They’re simply spread too thin and don’t have the broad and deep expertise to handle every task or challenge they’re given. By working side by side, each team soaks up the other’s expertise and skills, allowing both sides to grow and apply their collective knowledge.

For example, our team at Drawbackwards worked with a customer service technology company to design their app, customer portal, website, marketing collateral, and more. They had a talented team of designers and developers, so we collaborated with them to lend our UX design expertise, conduct unbiased usability research, and lead mobile decision-making conversations where our talents were most needed.

It was a great partnership because the Drawbackwards team learned so much about the customer service practices of our client and had the chance to try new things with them. Likewise, they learned a lot from us about UX best practices around creative thinking exercises, strong documentation, usability test design and execution, research approaches, better design tools, effective UI design patterns, how to sell new ideas up stream in their organization, and more. These new skills and design thinking mindset provided immense value at the time and will continue to come in handy in the future.

Even Greater Speed

When you have too much work and not enough resources, it usually takes months to hire and fully onboard a new employee. With the right UX agency, you can start feeling the results of their contributions within weeks. That means more work gets done faster so you can meet your goals. Plus, having additional help and collaboration makes the process more enjoyable for the in-house team and can even reduce turnover.

Complementary Skill Sets and Personalities

Every designer has their own skill set and personality. One may be really good at the details of complex component and system design, while another may be more adept at innovation and big-picture thinking. One may be extroverted and great at interacting with other team members, while another may prefer to work independently. You aren’t going to get everything in one, two, or even three designers.

This is one of the areas where a UX agency can provide huge value fast – if you’re working with the right one. Unfortunately, many agencies are just as guilty as their clients of “just hiring for headcount.” They don’t pay enough attention to skill set, personality, and fit; they just hire to fill a seat and have another set of hands to help.

This is why you can’t just hire any UX agency. You need a partner who not only has talented team members, but also knows how to construct a project team that’s the perfect fit for the scope, process, and stakeholders involved.

Drawbackwards was built around this philosophy. We have introverts and extroverts. UX designers and visual designers. Animators and content strategists. Front-end developers and mobile app developers. Dedicated usability researchers. Detailed thinkers and big-picture thinkers.

Then, we pair up complementary team members and construct teams for each project that represent a perfect blend of skill sets, past experience, personalities, and strengths. Instead of one unicorn, you get access to a stable of thoroughbreds that are hand-picked for you and your project. There’s no better way to solve the toughest UX challenges and achieve the best results.

So, What Qualities Should You Look for in a UX Agency? Request our Checklist to Find Out.

While either in-house team development or agency partnership may work fine independently, in-house / agency collaboration usually leads to the best outcomes, especially because you can adjust the levers as your company and product evolve.

Like any other profession, there are specific characteristics that separate good UX agencies from the great. Which positive qualities and red flags should you look for when you’re researching and interviewing agencies? Request our checklist for a handy resource that will help you make a smart selection.

What Kind of UX Team is Right for You?
Get the checklist to find out.
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Ward Andrews

Ward Andrews is Founder at Drawbackwards, a UX Design Firm. He's worked for clients like Sony, Intel, IBM, Sophos, Insominac Games, and the NBA Phoenix Suns. Projects have appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Wall Street Journal, and other publications and broadcasts. He's a part of the Honors Faculty at Arizona State University teaching Design Entrepreneurship.

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