Building the In-house Design Agency

Getting the best of both worlds

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.

Posted in Process and Methods, Workplace and Career | 5 Comments »

5 Comments

  • Ed Wakefield

    February 6, 2014 at 4:43 am

    Great article. Thanks so much!

  • C Forsman

    February 14, 2014 at 4:21 am

    This is extremely helpful. Thank you.

  • T S S Ganesan

    February 18, 2014 at 7:55 am

    A true and happening article…thanks:)

  • In huis ontwerp team | 2BFrank.nl

    February 21, 2014 at 8:47 pm

    […] heeft een geweldig tweeluik online staan over de verschillende UX Team structuren en specifieker hoe je een sterk ontwerp team neer kan zetten. Waardevolle […]

  • H Sigler

    March 16, 2014 at 12:19 am

    Excellent article!!! Thank you!

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