I know, I knoooww: if you’re even halfway paying attention, your bias alarm is likely ringing loud and clear right now. Sure, as a UX design agency, we’ll admit to being, uh… somewhat inclined toward recommending the agency route.
With that said, we try to answer interesting and useful questions on this blog, and we’ve been in this business for a while now (man, 15 years go by real fast). During that time, we’ve definitely gone down the road of trying to “make it happen” with a project, or with clients that just weren’t the right fit before, and spoiler alert: most of the time, it didn’t happen.
While there’s no end of ink being spilled over how essential it is to focus on delighting your customers, I felt it was important to point out that hiring a UX agency isn’t some kind of silver bullet. On the contrary, shooting one at the wrong target will just result in lost time, money and increased frustration – possibly even leading you to mistakenly conclude that focusing on UX doesn’t produce ROI, and just isn’t worth your time (*facepalm* ~ Me)…
So in this post, I’m going to outline when you should take the time to roll your own in-house superstar UX team, and when it’s a wise move to get outside help. I’m going to walk you through all the major factors you need to consider, to ultimately arrive at the best decision for your biz/needs/team. Sound helpful? Alright, let’s step into the Chamber of Unbiased Objectivity together, then, and see which route may be best for you.
First: your dimensions of choice
Let’s face it, this isn’t a simple decision – there’s a lot at stake, and either way, you’ll likely be living with the consequences for a while, so it behooves you to consider whether to build your own UX team or hire an agency from several different angles. Here, I’ve listed the most critical ones for you below (skip to the one that’s important to you):
Oh, you’re a numbers person, huh? Ok sure, this seems like a good place to start – but don’t forget there are several other important factors you should consider to ensure you’re getting Bangus Maximus out of your hard-earned George Washingtons.*
* All prices quoted here are in USD, and are based on data from the US market – as the kids say these days, YMMV.
In-house design team costs
Of course, your actual costs are almost guaranteed to vary based on your team size, needs, etc., but according to an insightful and wide-ranging study by our friends over at Invision, on average you can expect to pay ~$85,000 for an in-house UX designer in the US; (maybe knock $5,000 off that number if you’re a startup with a bit of traction, and some equity to spare).
Now, take into account that this designer may or may not be able to act alone – if you need to add a senior UX strategist to guide the vision, you’re likely looking at a total salary cost of ~$200,000 per year to hire both.
UX agency costs
It’s a little tricky figuring out the annual cost of a UX agency to do an apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s actually due to one of the big advantages you’re getting: cost control and flexibility (more on this below). But I digress, back to the numbers: UX agencies’ rates can vary tremendously, but currently they charge about $175+ per hour on average.
Yeah, about that: if headaches aren’t your thing, it behooves you to consider the nature of your business, and factor it into the structure of your relationship to your UX team, whether they’re in-house, or an agency. For example, how likely are your UX needs and priorities to change? How frequently does this happen? More to the point, how often does it truly need to happen? Being honest with yourself upfront about these questions enables you to choose the best option for the way you work, saving you a bunch of hassle and lost time down the road.
In-house UX team flexibility
This is pretty simple – depending on the size of your in-house team and the scope of the things they’re working on, they should be able to pivot fairly quickly with the company’s strategy or circumstances, at fairly low cost besides any work that needs to be temporarily shelved (agh, that always sucks, but chin up: you never know when you can incorporate it elsewhere). The more aligned you are as a company, the more agile you’ll be, as you’ll have an easier time getting your team to follow you for whichever new vision you decide.
I just really like Mean Girls, ok?
<climbs on culture soapbox> Remember that hiring (if you’re doing it right) is a long-term commitment – although it can be tempting to simply fill key spots with warm bodies possessing the necessary skills, you’ll find that being picky about the people on your team will pay massive dividends in your team culture, adaptability and growth trajectory. </end soapbox>
UX agency flexibility
It’s here that the typical agency model can sometimes prove to be a mismatch — especially if you’re a startup in a competitive space, meaning the speed with which you’re able to react to shifts in the landscape can have a real impact on your growth trajectory. The standard agency practice of negotiating a fixed scope of UX deliverables, or requiring you to document all directives you provide them can make things feel grindingly slow. Who has time to be filling out change orders, or re-re-rewriting a scope of deliverables for the umpteenth time, when a competitor is snapping at your heels?
Some agencies have recognized the need for this flexibility, and instead offer hourly rates, which is a decent half-step forward. Speaking for ourselves, we hated writing the paperwork just as much as our clients hated reading it, so a few years back we ditched that whole system, and instead offer a monthly subscription model (and we’ve recently expanded on that approach with a couple new services). These kinds of subscriptions empower UX agencies to act much more like an in-house design team that you can throttle up and down as needed, so you get the benefits of not having to watch the clock, while retaining that cost control that all smart startups crave.
Even better, when you’re able to focus your agency team on a defined objective/metric, it unleashes them to proactively seek out opportunities to impact that objective, rather than you handing out a list of to-dos to mindlessly check off – sometimes the best way to move forward is simply to release a modicum of control to people you trust (that right there is the difference between a vendor and a partner).
Pro tip: if you’re considering the agency route, inquire as to what kinds of options they offer for a quick-turnaround/low-commitment engagement, to test the waters. As a completely shameless plug – slash – example: we’ve just launched our own UX auditing service for startups called Compass, intended to identify opportunities to improve your website/product’s UX and help you hit your objectives. Ok, yes, that was brazenly shameless, but it’s a fitting example, so ask around, see what’s out there!
This’ll be quick (see what I did there?).
In-house team speed
Are you seeking to hire your own UX team? Strap in for the long haul, if you want to do it right. Architecting a reliable hiring process takes a ton of effort, but it’s critical if you want to build a user-centered culture. And if you’re not looking to build one, consider it – the ROI and competitive advantages of doing so are pretty compelling.
Note also, that you can speed things up on the hiring side by empowering your UX team to grow – if you can afford it, offer generous stipends for conferences and design workshops, so the people you hire continue to grow in value.
On the flipside, a good agency team can leverage their established workflow and experience to begin producing impactful work for your objectives within the first 15 to 30 days of an engagement.
This is my “miscellaneous” bucket category for other things you should consider, but which don’t neatly fall into the others above.
Do you have it? If you’re forging a new industry/niche, you can actually afford to not have absolutely perfect UX (although it never hurts). But expect to feel the heat from competitors soon enough, potentially with better UX than you, which can quickly evaporate your head-start, if they’re solving critical friction that remains unaddressed for your users – just ask Myspace.
Take a good look at your competition: is there close attention being paid to UX among competitors? If not, you could build a quick strategic lead by bringing in an agency to buy yourself time to move this discipline in-house and continue innovating.
Also, has there been increased investment in your industry/market, with one or more well-funded competitors entering the space? If so, you need to move now – pretty soon, someone over there will get wise, and those investors’ dollars are going to be plowed into improved UX – possibly even right at the point where you’re weakest. Plus, investing in UX is a proven way to generate ROI in competitive industries, so they’re going to figure it out if you don’t beat them to it.
Experienced agencies can plug right in with your team – bringing with them (hopefully) a deep understanding of the metrics & types of situations your company is likely to face, plus familiarity with the typical solutions that have been tried in the past.
A less-experienced in-house team will likely come cheaper than an agency team, but may take a lot more investment to tackle more complex challenges. Worse, you may end up reinventing the wheel to solve problems that an experienced team has successfully navigated in the past.
Even the best UX agencies need regular care and feeding to keep producing the best results for you – while they may know UX inside-out, you’re the expert on your own business, providing them with critical insights into how it works, what’s happening in the industry and what opportunities might be headed your way.
If you neglect them, the potential value they bring to the table will wither and die – so make sure you, (or someone on your team), can spare the time to manage an agency as their main point of contact.
The amount of time needed will largely depend on the size and speed of your engagement with your agency. If you have big needs and a tight timeline, be prepared for one or more folks on your team to be hunkered down and working closely with them for at least 2 days per week. If your needs are much lighter, a weekly 30-60 minute check-in might be sufficient to keep things humming along.
Conclusion: When to hire a UX agency, and when to build your own UX team
“Do not wait; the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.” ~ George Herbert, poet
Alright, with the obligatory cred-enhancing old-world quote inserted, let’s summarize. If you need to get going now, are tackling a complex UX problem that requires strategic experience, and have time to devote to being point of contact: partnering with a good UX agency is a wise move.
Otherwise, if you have longer-term goals to build a user-centered culture, have the money, and have access to a high quality talent pool: hiring is probably the way to go for you.
Final thought: Why not both?
Why not, indeed? There’s nothing saying that you can’t hire an agency in the short term, while building out your own team. If anything, this is the best of both worlds: you’re gaining momentum almost immediately, while investing in the longer-term benefits & stability of an internal team now. Ideally, there’s knowledge transfer that can happen between your agency & in-house teams, plus you’re giving them a running start, instead of having to build out the strategy & research from scratch.