Building the In-house Design Agency

Written by: Steve Turbek

The first article discussed the pros and cons of different UX team structures. For companies that depend on user experience for business success, a strong internal team is essential. But how do you get there from here? Having built one UX group from scratch and managed another 230+ person internal UX groups, I’ve learned a few tips, often the hard way, that can help.

Making the case

The hardest part of building an in-house design agency is answering the basic “Why?”

I’ve been asked “why” by senior executives, database admins, and the mailman. It took a long time to recognize this question in its many forms, each with its own answer. But fundamentally, they all ask why should UX be a part of the conversation and how can it help them.

In any large enterprise, user experience can still be a new concept. I’ve made the mistake many times of assuming too much–assuming that help was wanted, or even needed; assuming that people understood the terms I used, like ‘deliverable’; assuming that everyone bought into the value of design in general, or on this specific project.

Take the time to meet with people across the firm to explain the services you offer and how you can help them. It is just like starting a business. Discover their issues and the language they use to describe them. Don’t be a salesperson–only offer user experience if it solves a problem they actually have. Once I understood that a UX agency is there to help other people succeed, life got a lot easier.

It helps to understand what the people you are working with mean by success. I’ve had the pleasure to work with many entrepreneurial leaders at a number of firms. They can be fantastic partners who drive real change, but their needs are very different from a product team. Senior managers are typically more concerned with defining the overall vision before building the whole project. User research can validate the concept; concept designs can help communicate their vision. Hitting a fledgling project with the style guide is a great way to not help.

On the other hand, product managers and developers are more concerned with execution.  They have deadlines and launch windows. It’s helped me to remember that there is always a next release; a timely good design beats a wonderful design that never launches. Wireframes help the team agree on what they are building; usability testing often helps make difficult tradeoffs.

Once you have a shared vision, it is on to executing design. To become that trusted partner, there is no substitute for demonstrated competence. Until you earn the name as an expert, you are seen as just another person with an opinion. A sales pitch can open the door, but a UX group needs clear product successes.

Establishing a good reputation by helping other leaders succeed will lead to natural growth. The goal is not to increase the headcount of the UX department, but to serve the firm; growth is an effect of helping others solve their problems. Success will feed on itself, enabling you to manage user experience professionals across the organization.

Every UX leader has learned the hard way that one of the most critical skills is setting and managing client expectations. Be clear about what a UX professional will do, how long it will take, and what delays could happen mid-project. Assume that clients are not aware of the user centered design process. It helps to explain the standard procedures and deliverables, not unlike a menu. Show examples of previous work. Our team made a template for every deliverable with a few sentences explaining what, for example, a wireframe was. Back when I worked at an agency, we used to joke when a client looked at wireframes and asked why their website was all black. Now I know it was our responsibility to answer that question before it got asked.

The biggest barrier I’ve seen to using UX in a firm is often simple lack of knowledge of what UX can deliver.

Spread the word about user experience horizontally across the firm by offering free UX “favors.” Two hour heuristic review meetings or small design projects are cheap and demonstrate value. Clearly define how much time you or your team can devote to it, so no one expects a full project.

Clients may come with projects that are about to launch. Giving a little help now will encourage them to plan you into a future project. I was once literally asked if UX could “put lipstick on this pig.” No UX person wants to burn out trying to patch fundamentally broken products, but the relationship can be worth the investment. That product manager came back to our group earlier the next time, and we did it right.

Running the group

Running the in-house agency is like running a small design agency. You have to deliver value for your customers to succeed. Credibility is the most important quality of a successful designer. The team has to do good work, every time. There is often no requirement to use design (“Can’t a developer just do that?”), but a good designer makes people want to work with them, even if it costs more. External agencies can walk away from a client with little risk that anyone will hear about a failed project, but companies are very social. Good (and bad) work will be remembered and passed on.

Not every project is appropriate for the in-house agency, and a smart group should not overload themselves by taking on every project nor risk ruining their reputation by taking on projects poorly suited to their team, like trying to do marketing with a product design team. Big, temporary projects or isolated product areas in which the team has no experience are good cases for bringing in “the Hessians.” There are other ways to help, including sourcing and pre-qualifying external agencies and individual contractors.

Design contracts have details that are not understood by most procurement groups. It helps to know what is expected and standard in a design project, such as whether personas are required, or if the firm already has a set defined. An internal agency can assist with writing the contract, such as negotiating billing rates, or checking that the estimated hourly rate and the project length makes sense. Once contracted, the internal team can get the agency set up and be effective, faster.

Structuring the team as a consultancy can be a natural step as many UX professionals have agency experience; the difficult part is establishing the practice internally. Organizations that recognize the value of user experience typically have an easier time, but even if the company culture supports it, a team’s credibility needs to be built one project at a time.

A good balance is to establish an “agency of record” relationship, where you partner with (ideally two) good agencies. Agreeing on a defined level of resources each month for a year builds a relationship of trust, which gets the best talent and enables lower rates. Maintaining a 70:30 ratio of employees to contractors offers a good blend of lower costs and ability to vary staff in case of a downturn.

Some firms still worry that this whole UX thing will blow over, and they’ll be stuck with a bunch of latte-drinking oddballs on payroll. Being able to grow on demand and shrink if necessary calms this fear and shows organizational maturity in a way firms understand.

My biggest passion at work is helping each person achieve their goals and how this manifests in our team culture. This has helped guide my decisions from the large to the most mundane. You would be surprised at the impact getting a fancy coffee machine has over a plain corporate coffee pot. It is one small way to communicate respect. UX people are like many other craftspeople; they are 10 times more effective when inspired and engaged. Typically, UX groups work best physically sitting together while spending a lot of time with their clients, but the team should be organized to fit best with the business. Organizing UX people or teams to cover a business area in the firm enables them to develop expertise (relationships, processes, tools, and terminology) and carry it from project to project.

Managing multiple products avoids the tedium of working on solely one product, but enables the team to build a reputation and good working relationships, leading to greater influence. The longer-term engagement enables them to focus deeper on workflow and have a strategic point of view. It opens the potential to suggest that UX could deliver more value by doing more work on project X funded by project Y. Ideally, allocate “10% time,” where team members can work on fixing problems or developing new ideas.

Off-shoring

Inevitably, cost cutting concerns raise the question of off-shoring UX. Why pay North American wages when there are people willing to do the job for a third the cost? Many large outsourcing firms have a  design or user experience offering, why not use them when when the developers may already be off-shored?

I’ve been unable to hire at the same skill level with off shoring companies, but the real challenge is simple project management. Design resources are active during the formative phase of a project, when clear communication is most needed and requirements are in flux. Waiting 24-48 hours to learn if the request was understood is an order of magnitude slower (and thereby more expensive) than a head shake during a meeting.

When Diana Vreeland said “Pink is the navy blue of India,” she wasn’t thinking web design, but a user experience is often defined by shared cultural norms. Good design takes into account the intangible essentials. The best designers are plugged into the cultural currents and apply them to the job at hand. Amazon lets people tweet their product purchases. Is is appropriate for pharmacy orders? How much visual priority should news be given on a page? Many failed projects could have been fixed by asking basic questions such as “Do people really want that?”

Many firms understand that Agile development is difficult with a team in multiple physical locations, not to mention time zone and language or cultural challenges. Outsourcing works best in a waterfall process with tightly documented deliverables and less dependency on communication. Unfortunately, design operates in an agile mode at all times. In a knowledge worker field like design, it is not enough to have one senior “thinker” and 10 “doers.” The thinking IS the doing.

The best way to integrate off-shore talent is to supplement a team, with a local lead who can break design problems up across a team and coordinate efforts. A good example would be to extend a design idea across a defined workflow, or develop a set of icons. Most outsourcing firms recommend this structure for developers. There are many projects that are simply extensions of previous work. If you have tight standards and quality control, this model can work well.

Ultimately, though, the more important UX is to a new project, the less successful outsourcing is likely to be. One-third as expensive costs more if it takes three times as long.

Funding

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked, “We’d love to have UX, but how do you pay for it?” Funding an internal practice is inevitably the hardest problem, but it is how a UX manager earns their stripes.

There are two main ways to fund a design group–centrally, by some overarching part of the firm, or by the various projects that the team will support. Central funding has its benefits–you don’t have to worry about justifying the cost of design on a project or the headcount with many stakeholders. It is often easier to start a group with the support of senior executives who may be concerned about the customer experience across products.

I’ve come to prefer a hybrid model in order to build UX deeper into the company. Central funding creates a competition for the “free” resources and creates a perverse value on the service–that is, $0.00. This is important, because people value what they pay. Everyone knows development and QA are significant costs. If UX does not cost, there is no need to plan for it during yearly budgeting, which means no money for the team.

Additionally, it can be hard to justify hiring a person in the central group even if another group is willing to fund the person. Bureaucratic delays can make UX integration across the firm much harder. “Free” but unavailable is also hard to take seriously. Central funding is definitely needed for centralized tasks like creating style guides and exploring new design ideas that would not be supported by any one project.

The ideal is to have an understanding with finance that the group will be housed in one location but have the actual funding for the people distributed across projects around the firm. You are looking for something like insurance, not actual dollars, from the central funder. In time, they will see how in-demand UX people are. The 70:30 split we discussed earlier helps here as well.

Challenges

A good team who knows its company still faces the significant challenges. Team member burnout is a real problem. Working on the same problem area for years causes fatigue and sloppiness; one solution is to plan to rotate team members from area to area. Often, this needs to  happen before there is a glaring problem, like a project delayed or someone quits.

It is human nature to put off a team change when there is work to be done. Unfortunately, there is always work to be done. My experience has been that the key is that no client likes to replace a known resource with an unknown, even if they are stronger or more well suited. A solution is to plan ahead and let them get to know the replacement well in advance. Ideally, bring on the replacement to assist for a few months. My motto with clients is “No surprises.”

UX projects can have the reputation of being expensive, due to additional team members, and the additional thought put into them.  This can be a poor fit when the need is defining the basic problem and sketching a solution.  Offering an “innovation” UX , in contrast to regular projects can be a powerful tool to get UX in at the conception of an idea.

An “innovation” project starts off with a three to five week boot camp to develop the product vision from an elevator pitch to testable prototype or a presentation to request funding. These projects tend to be a lot of fun as well!

Keeping fresh and staying connected with UX, design, and technical developments outside the company can be a challenge. Many companies block access to social media tools and design websites. These rules have the (unpopular, but real) benefit of keeping people focused (it can be amusing to read mid-day tweets by consultants who are working “full time” on your project), but also blocks out many design-focused sites.

A team that shares links has a healthy culture that spreads good ideas and innovative design. Collecting these in an UX newsletter email makes it easier to share with design-interested colleagues, and keeps design in the conversation. Talk to the corporate security to get the top design sites unblocked. It can be surprisingly easy–often they are simply caught in a blanket block licensed from the firewall vendor. Little details like this can make a big impact to employee morale.

“Going native” is what happens when UX’ers understand and accept unchallenged why certain business rules are required and why new approaches are impossible. As representatives of the user, the team must refresh themselves. Good ways to do this are to listen in on customer service calls, visit company stores, and observe real customers. Bringing clients along can be a great team-building outing; many head office execs rarely get enough time with customers to talk about their products.

Development is an ongoing problem. UX’ers who aren’t growing feel like they are stagnating. The single best way is to support their development in ways that help others and build an ecosystem. Encourage white paper writing and presenting at conferences. Learning by teaching is a tried and true method. UX groups have the benefit of an audience with similar interests.

Go forth and conquer!

An integrated internal UX team is critical to organizational success, and the stakes are higher in larger enterprises. An internal practice that builds lasting relationships, provides thought leadership, and acts as trusted advisors provides long-lasting value to the firm. As the digital space becomes increasingly human-centric, and organizations evolve offerings around consumer need, the internal user experience agency plays a significant part in delivering both short term wins as well as long term success.

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 4

Written by: Sandy Greene

So far in this series I’ve discussed how to prepare your team or organization for successful expansion, how to plant the right elements into the mix, and then how to ensure sustainable growth by “watering.”

Adding fertilizer comes next. Think of this step as finding ways to spark excitement, provide motivational guidance, or even remedy a malady.

 

Fertilizer

An example of fertilizing would be how we publicized annual company goals for the first time ever in 2013. When we had fewer employees, everyone instinctively knew where the company was trying to head and what we were striving to achieve. But with more than 25 people, the future vision of the company isn’t a given. We needed to clarify what we were working toward so that everyone felt ownership of the company’s goals. This year, Greg, Tim, and I came up with the goals and we’ve been holding quarterly company-wide assessments of how we’re performing against them. Next year we intend for everyone to be involved in the goal-creating process.

Another example of fertilizing is how we’ve begun asking certain employees to present their successful project work, brown-bag-style, to the rest of the staff. It might be the end product itself, or the way the work was prepared that we deem thought leading and beneficial for the rest of the company to hear about and learn from. It’s also a way to recognize particularly impressive efforts—to remind hard workers that we’re paying attention.

And finally, a garden sometimes needs fertilizer in order to head off a malady. In our case, we try to come up with ways to avoid roadblocks in our work. One example is how leaders in our design group took it upon themselves to set up biweekly design-review meetings. These sessions are only to solve issues—people stop in if they’re stumped by something or simply want to run ideas by their peers to ensure their work is the best it can be. We all respect and appreciate each other’s opinions and experience, so these meetings give everyone a chance to improve client deliverables by harnessing the power of the whole creative group.

Here are some ways you can “add fertilizer” to give your team an extra boost:

  • Take stock of the ways you could inject something motivational into employees’ weekly, monthly or yearly routines.
  • If you’re already discussing future goals, make sure those goals are tangible and realistic (even though they may be a stretch).
  • Ask yourself this: do employees honestly feel that they can contribute to the overall company’s success? If not, make sure they do.
  • Provide outlets for creative exchange and feedback to make sure no one’s working in a vacuum.

Next up: Tilling and experimenting!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 3

Written by: Sandy Greene

In my last two installments, I shared how Greg, Tim, and I prepared Intuitive Company for success by creating an open work environment and then “planting” the right people into our culture.

Watering is next—and it’s critical. After a team of senior professionals were in place and had formed a strong foundation for Intuitive Company, we had to set them up for success to ensure things kept running smoothly so that our culture and growth wouldn’t wither. One of the most obvious ways we “watered” this team was to give them support in the form of new hires. We brought on younger employees slowly and in lockstep with well-thought-out decisions to take on additional client work.

03_watering_small

When someone officially joins Intuitive Company, they usually don’t feel like a new hire. That’s because we typically engage people on a project basis for at least a few months before bringing them on full-time. What’s more, many of these candidates have been referred by someone within the firm.

We won’t extend an offer to anyone who isn’t a good fit. We look for people who are driven—driven to innovate, learn, deliver and succeed. Being a good listener and communicator is a must as well. I’ll never understand companies that leave all of their hiring decisions to HR, or to a few people who aren’t going to be the ones working day-in and day-out with the applicant in question. That’s just asking for it. I don’t know if there could be a higher return on investment than what can result from investing time in growing your team with the right people.

Another example of watering is how we do everything we can to retain our employees once they’re here. We compensate at the upper end of the industry range, provide performance bonuses, contribute to profit sharing, offer full healthcare for the employee or their family (at the time of hire), frequently host lunches and pick up the tab, and encourage employees to travel comfortably when they have to head out of town to see clients.

But most importantly, we just let people do their work. We’re trusting and flexible. We don’t monitor hours or vacation days. I remember how demeaning it was to have to log two hours of personal time for a child’s doctor’s appointment, or how demoralized I felt when a family vacation should’ve lasted one more vacation day than I had to spare.

Now that we’ve helped build an atmosphere of trust at Intuitive Company, I can assure you that when employees don’t feel like The Man is watching their every move, they really, truly appreciate it, and it shows in their work and in their attitude. And no one has ever abused our system.

We also recognize that some people are social and others prefer to keep to themselves. Some people are natural leaders, while others are doers. So we don’t try to force anyone to be something they’re not, especially because we started with a core of senior people who could do everything: deliver, motivate, innovate, communicate, lead, and produce. We let those qualities influence the people we’ve added (and continue to add) to the staff.

One of the other mistakes we’d seen in our previous jobs was micro-management, so we knew when we started Intuitive Company that we must treat employees like the professionals they are. We vowed not to create organizational hierarchies just for the sake of doing so. We’ve found that if you simply trust people to get their jobs done and are confident that they’ll come to you if they have an issue, they’ll usually go above and beyond. People naturally group together by skill set and function, and leaders and doers will emerge on their own without having to be formally organized as such.

It was actually one of my experiences that led us to our anti-hierarchy stance. I was taking over a team of 60 people at a large corporation, and on my first day I was given this team’s organizational chart and instructed to “revise it so it works.” Management was confident that if they could just get the organizational structure right, all of their problems would be solved. I wasn’t told to observe what was working and what wasn’t or even allowed time get to know everyone. I was just supposed to rearrange boxes and rows and voila! The team’s processes and output would surely be flawless after that. Um . . . nope!

I’ve got a lot of advice for this step since it’s one of the most important parts of the process. Here are my suggestions:

  • Review your company’s hiring practices and see what can be improved.
  • Don’t wait too long before filling positions due to workload demands, and ensure that a candidate will be a good fit, both professionally and culturally. If other team members are already overloaded by the time relief arrives, you’re hiring too late. It’s a balance though, so hire carefully.
  • Observe how new employees assimilate into your culture and their roles and determine if anything can be improved with this process.
  • What’s morale like around the office? How intensely are people managed? You may discover that the two answers are related.
  • How many “layers” on the organization chart are there, and do they really have to be there? Make changes as necessary.
  • Does your team gel together, enjoy each other’s company, and know how to both work and play hard? If not, why not?
  • And most importantly, when people leave, do you know why? If you don’t, start asking the tough questions.

Stay tuned for Step 4: Adding fertilizer!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

Soldiers & Hessians, Ronin & Ninja

Written by: Steve Turbek

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.

UX_team_organization

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.

To conclude

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.

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 2

Written by: Sandy Greene

In my last installment, I shared how Greg, Tim, and I prepared Intuitive Company for success by focusing on creating an open work environment in every sense of the term.

Planting, or placing the right elements into the mix, was our next step. We wanted every aspect of our environment to be a positive influence and encourage great work. You can’t achieve that without first having the right people. Our employees are the “seeds,” if you will.

Planting

When Intuitive Company was founded, we decided to not only take our time bringing on new people, but to also focus on hiring senior level professionals first. This established a mature culture from which to further expand and minimized the growing pains that can sometimes result from bringing on several young employees all at once. Methodically hiring senior professionals in the early days also enabled us to realize our dream of having a “lead by example” culture once we started filling out our team. As such, we’ve never needed any official training or mentoring. It’s a true learn-by-watching (or doing) environment.

To expand upon this further, the openness we strive toward can only be achieved if we’ve picked people who are transparent about how they work and what they’re working on. Greg, Tim and I also need to be clear about what our expectations are. We’ve found the best way to encourage transparency is to show the rest of the team how heads-down hard work will lead to rewards (more on that in a future installment), and how egos or politicking will not be tolerated.

As such, the two other principals and I continue to complete hands-on project work—which serves the double purpose of keeping us fresh while also allowing our younger employees to learn firsthand. There’s a culture of respect and appreciation for the leaders who lead and the doers who do. Further, everyone can see and hear Greg, Tim, and I communicating with each other—making decisions, discussing client projects, and planning for the future. This helps reinforce a feeling of belonging among all employees.

Let me be clear: It’s not just the founding principals who are leading by example—everyone does. That’s because we’re picking the right people to join us. And when the right people are in an open, respectful environment such as ours, it gives even a young buck the opportunity to make an impression on the old dogs—to teach us new tricks, as the saying goes.

Up next: Watering. Until then, here’s a recap of what to concentrate on during the planting phase:

  • Reassess what type of culture you’re trying to build and figure out how to bring on people who will help grow that atmosphere.
  • Establish a strong foundation for your group to expand from by getting the right people in place and then letting them learn from each other, rather than work in a vacuum.
  • Make sure you’re setting the right example, too.

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.