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Usability and User Experience Design – inhouse or external?

Author: Marvin Kolb

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Sep 2023

You are sure that you want to use usability and user experience design and don’t know yet whether you should turn to an external agency or a freelancer for this or fill an internal position? You don’t know the advantages or disadvantages of the options? Do you want to make an informed decision that is tailored to your exact needs? Then you’ve come to the right place.

All solutions have advantages and disadvantages. In this article, we provide you with the facts in a neutral way (although we are an agency, we have tried to be as neutral as possible), so that you can make an informed decision tailored to you in the end.

 

A question of your requirements

One thing up front: there is no one answer to the question of whether you should approach usability and user experience design with an external agency, a freelancer, or an internal UX position that is always accurate. What there is, however, is a solution that fits you perfectly.

Here, the weighting of your requirements will ultimately determine which solution you choose. Perhaps even a mixture of internal and external is conceivable. There are many options and combinations from which you can choose. Think of this article as an introductory guide and decision-making aid.

To also best use the following list of pros and cons of all solutions to make your decision, you should be aware of your own needs regarding usability and user experience design and the requirements you have for the executing internal entity, freelancer or external agency.

Your checklist of questions that should be clarified prior to comparison

  • What exactly do you need? “Only” user research or “only” UX design, or a mix of both?
  • In what quality should the results be delivered? In other words, do you need an outside view of your product? You should be clear about the quality characteristics you expect from a service provider. This can be an open error culture, but also something “presentable”, like awards or testimonials.
  • How quickly do you need the results?
  • What is your budget?

 

Now let’s look at the pros and cons of the approaches together so you can make a decision.

 

Advantages of in-house UX design and in-house user research.

Availability: With an in-house UX position, you have the advantage of continuous availability. Your department or your employees are at your free disposal and can be deployed according to your needs. You are free to decide at any time what training will advance your staff and your product.

A deep understanding of the product: In perspective, the in-house solution can bring important advantages. Through years of collaboration, your internal UX team can develop a deep understanding of your product.

More cost-effective: if an internal UX position already exists, you can obviously save budget here.

Flexibility: You decide what you need and how much you invest in it. Is it best to work with single roles in your case or do you have enough capacity and need for multiple UX positions in your company?

 

Disadvantages of in-house UX design and in-house user research

Lack of a neutral stance on the product: a major disadvantage of in-house is that internal user-researchers know the goals of a product, and so can tend to skew test results. This is an issue that has led many of our customers to set up the internal UX department differently or even disband it. Potential bias of UX test results by internal user-researchers:

  • Internal user-researchers may have an unconscious desire to make the product perform well.
  • They often have a preconceived attitude about the product because they already know it and know it comes from their company.
  • The desire to achieve an internal goal at all costs can also dilute test results.
  • Telling a supervisor that their product has flaws can be far more difficult than telling an external customer. In practice, this often results in abstruse avoidance strategies to avoid “having to” face reality.

 

Takes some time to start: An internal unit or even department for usability and user experience design has to be built up and put on track. This takes time and patience. If you need results quickly, this is not a solution for you.

Very high or very low utilization: If there is already an in-house UX position, it can often be fully booked for many months. The opposite is equally possible. An in-house, underutilized UX position can be a big cost. It’s hard to accurately estimate user research and user interface design needs up front. Also difficult to predict is the amount of time a user researcher or UX designer will need to complete various tasks. To properly estimate the need, you already need experience in managing UX designers and user researchers. You realize there could be a lot of work ahead of you, depending on the company structure.

A commitment for many years: the alternative to the already existing and well-utilized internal UX position is to create a dedicated position in your department or team. But is there enough work for internal UX employees in the long run? Creating a dedicated UX position is a commitment for many years. You need to be sure that there will be enough work for such a position consistently over years (and not just in a few “hot” phases). If not, you will be much cheaper with the external solution. So be prepared to invest here for the long term.

Costly recruiting: An entire department that needs to meet high quality standards needs experts from many different disciplines. If you can’t find capable people in each area, the quality of your usability and user experience design will suffer significantly. Hiring the right experts can be a major challenge. You need to know what each expert needs to do in his or her discipline to make a valuable contribution to the usability and user experience design department.

Work processes need to be generated and monitored: If you decide to go in-house, it may be your responsibility to create the right work processes. Again, this will require many of your resources. The necessary tools and software must also be provided by you.

Lack of scalability: If you unexpectedly need more staff, they will have to be recruited externally. Here, an internal position is far less flexible than an agency. For example, it is not possible to carry out various user tests at the same time.

 

Advantages of external UX design and user research with a freelancer

The important view from the outside: a freelancer can provide you with the important view of your product from the outside. He is not biased, nor does he have to justify himself to internal roles.

Speed: Ideally, a freelancer is available quickly and requires little preparation time. On many portals, freelancers can directly indicate whether and how long they are currently available.

Flexibility: A freelancer can be booked whenever you need him. This flexibility can be a great advantage. Especially if there are large breaks between periods when you need to purchase services.

Often requires less budget: If it stays with a freelancer, you can achieve the desired results with comparatively little budget here. You won’t be paying for a “total package” here if you only need a certain type of input.

Uncomplicated to switch: If the joint collaboration turns out to be unsatisfactory, you can easily and quickly switch to another freelancer. So you take a low risk with your choice. Even if circumstances change at short notice, you can switch quickly.

 

Disadvantages of external UX design and user research with a freelancer

No scalability: you unexpectedly need more staff because the project grows or several user tests at the same time to move forward quickly? Here a freelancer cannot provide more people.

One person: A freelancer cannot delegate his task in case of illness. This is where projects can come to a standstill. Be aware from the beginning that you are dealing with a one-person company here.

Expertise not in all areas: A freelancer is often an expert in a particular area – even though they may not admit it. You need to plan accordingly. If you need expertise in multiple areas, you’ll need multiple freelancers, or have to cut corners.

Lack of quality info: Many freelancer placement portals allow you to get a first impression through collected reviews. Here you get a brief impression, but it may provide too little information about the quality of the freelancer. You cannot review past large projects, nor do you have enough information about the quality standards of the worker.

Lack of flexibility: If a freelancer is very good, then he is usually also “in hot demand”. Then it becomes difficult to get flexibility here.

Very good freelancers are often booked out: Very good freelancers can be booked out for a correspondingly long time. If you need results quickly, you will have to wait too long here.

Very good freelancers have a correspondingly high daily rate: This must be taken into account in your considerations.

Lack of recruiting: Freelancers do not have access to a user database. Accordingly, the necessary recruiting for user tests is missing here.

 

Advantages of external UX design and user research with an agency

High scalability: an agency can always provide as many people as you need. Especially for large projects this is very important.

Speed: You need a quick start in usability and user experience design? Then you are in the best position with an external UX agency. Normally, they can get started right away. This means that you will receive important results quickly.

Flexibility: A high degree of flexibility can be a great advantage for you. An agency can dynamically provide the right personnel depending on your needs.

Visible quality features: Awards, reviews, a certified quality management system and testimonials can give you a very clear picture of an agency’s quality standards. So you know pretty much in advance what to expect.

High quality standards: UX agencies earn their daily bread with usability and user experience design. So this is where most agencies draw on many years of experience. This experience results in high quality standards and a great deal of expertise that will benefit you.

Wide range of experience: An agency usually has a very wide range of experience because it has worked with many different clients and user types and has been able to learn a lot from the experience gained with these projects.

The important view from the outside: an internal UX unit can be too deeply involved in the processes and specifications of its own company. While the internal UX unit runs the risk of not seeing the forest for the trees, an agency can keep an eye on things and thus more easily point out sources of error in your product. The information about what is not yet working well with a product is essential for you to be able to improve the product effectively.

Neutral user recruiting: Certain companies trigger a pre-existing opinion in users recruited for user research.

If you do in-house user research, you cannot avoid disclosing which company is being tested for. Accordingly, more people will participate who have a positive or negative attitude towards the company. This strongly distorts the user tests.

In user tests, an external agency does not have to disclose for whom it is testing. This prevents distortions caused by a preconceived image of the company among users. An agency can therefore recruit neutrally.

Interdisciplinary setup: Good agencies combine personnel from many different disciplines. There are great advantages for your product here, because a broad wealth of knowledge can be incorporated into the project.

Uncomplicated to change: If you decide to work with an agency, you can choose it according to your own needs and preferences. You determine the criteria for agency selection and thus find the right partner for joint cooperation. If it turns out that an agency does not meet your expectations, you can switch to another agency relatively quickly and easily at any time.

 

Disadvantages of external UX design and user research with an agency

High quality comes at a price: agency prices can vary widely. At the same time, the less expensive agencies can mean compromised quality due to a lack of experience. If you need a service provider that has a proven track record of excellence and can draw on a wealth of experience and expertise, this is where you need to use an appropriate portion of your budget.

You will need to go on an agency search: Finding a suitable agency is likely to fall within your remit, while recruiting for an in-house UX department is more likely to fall to HR. In short, you have the search work.

Depending on the agency, your contacts may change: Of course, not every agency is the same, but you may have to be prepared to have contact with different contacts over the course of your project. In the worst case, this is where you lose valuable time because you have to communicate twice.

An agency needs time to learn to speak the company’s language: An internal unit already knows company-specific terms and processes or learns them very quickly through daily contact. An agency needs a bit more training time here until it speaks “your language”.

 

Usability and user experience design – in-house or external? What is the right solution for you?

You know best where your preferences lie and what demands you have on the usability and user experience design for your product. Accordingly, only you know where cutbacks should be made and where they should be avoided.

So let’s take another look at the three solutions in direct comparison.

External UX agencies deliver fast results, are flexible and offer high quality standards. With agencies, it is possible to quickly “scale up” the services you need, as an agency can quickly provide more staff. An outside view of your product can be especially valuable and important when it comes to identifying sources of error early and cheaply. You need to pay for speed and quality, and be aware that you need to put in the time for agency searches and arrangements. With agencies, you have many reference points, such as awards and testimonials, to get an upfront picture of the quality delivered.

The freelancer can be used flexibly and is ideally available quickly. However, he or she can only ever be an expert in one area. If you have the necessary budget, it may be worthwhile to buy a second freelancer who is a specialist in another UX field. In case of illness, freelancers may experience unplanned delays.

An in-house UX position offers the advantage of guaranteed long-term collaboration. However, an initially very costly and time-consuming setup of an in-house position can allow for a “grooved-in” and coordinated collaboration. The view from the outside on your product may not be relevant, because internal employees cannot offer this. To get the view from the outside after all, you can hire an internal UX project manager who, in addition to the internal tasks, also purchases the services of an external agency and coordinates these two positions accordingly. The quality assurance of the UX measures should also be handed over to this unit.

 

Conclusion

You now know the advantages and disadvantages of both in-house and external solutions for implementing usability and user experience design for expert interfaces. You can weigh them against each other and now know what is the best solution for your requirements and needs.

If you want to know how to find the perfect agency for your needs, you should read our article “10 criteria to compare UX agencies instantly“.

Were you able to gain any value from this article? What point in particular helped you? Let us know in the comments, or use our contact form to get in touch with us directly. We look forward to talking with you and, of course, to your feedback.

 

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