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In-house design team vs agency: Benefits and drawbacks of each

One of the common challenges design-capable businesses face is whether to build an in-house UX team or hire a UX agency to help build and design a product.

Perhaps, if you run a design agency or your startup is in need of some design service, then you might have come across a situation where you are forced to either hire more staff or outsource some of your tasks. Ideally, with the current level of competition and fast-paced technological advancements, you must be having that inner drive to place your business at a competitive edge. There are various alternatives to consider when it comes to design services and whether to start your own or outsource it.

Deciding between them can be a challenging choice: make sure you consider length, price, and the vision of the project before making your decision so that you can maximize the success. Each option has its own pros and cons and choosing the right one could have a significant benefit to your product’s success. We will be listing the positives and negatives of each approach, to make sure you choose the right one for your business.

Benefits of an In-House Team

Knows your business

Your in-house team lives your product and legacy every day and plays an active role in shaping the organization. This means a quicker onboarding process when complications arise as well as internalizing the company duties, goals and ambitions. ou should not assume that good internal communication is a natural product of a team. However, the common conversance of the team members, and the subsequent effective internal communication, help ensure that all members of the organisation are working collaboratively towards a common goal.

Knows the market

Members of the team share market knowledge and experience, giving the company specialised know-how on how to proceed and implement projects. It develops a cohesive culture and empowers employees to make the right decisions in line with the product’s goals and within the industry constraints. This in turn leads to greater efficiency, productivity and improves customer service as well.

Feel product ownership 

By participating in the conversation early on, designers are able to get a valuable insight that allows them to truly nurture product execution. When designers work on a specific product long term, they are able to witness its growth and development over time. It’s critical to make sure that there are people in the organization who care about the future of the business as much as the first person in the company does. Once one actualizes a concept, they feel overly responsible for it. The creative team’s sense of responsibility can play an invaluable role in ensuring the quality of the delivered experience: they feel a sense of confidence and ownership so they will put more effort into planning and executing a perfect output. Ultimately the outcome is a representation of their own ideas and the benefits will be more direct.

Industry expertise and experience

In-house designers are in a position to directly collaborate with people from various disciplines across a company and learn from the top professionals in other fields. A team that is experienced has learnt the industry in which they work in, and thus can provide more expert knowledge and insights around company projects. With agencies, there’s a longer on-boarding process because of the lack of a specific industry awareness which is costly and demanding.

Full-time focus

An in-house designer is responsible for dedicating all of their time and energy to you. They’re constantly there for everyone no matter what. When someone devotes that much time to one business or product, they gain deep sphere knowledge that they can use to teach others and help the company grow. With an internal creative team, you know that your team’s time is assigned to working on projects for your organization exclusively all the time.

Proximity / Close communication with stakeholders 

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. Face to face, daily contact with those people can develop a religious faith in your partners and vice versa. Outsourcing won’t provide that close intimacy that is sometimes needed between your partners and stakeholders for compelling and quick execution.

Drawbacks of an In-House Team

Limited range of experience / expertise 

Digital design is developing today at a rapid pace so the designers have to adjust their skillset to this standard which is quite hard to cover, especially in all fields of design. You need to be competitive in UI, user experience, research or information architecture planning. To stay relevant you need to be on point with all the listed topics which is nearly impossible for one individual. That’s why some will probably be an expert in one narrow area and will fully devote oneself to it.

This limited range of expertise certainly won’t cover all the necessities needed. The market trends change regularly, and this means your team members need to stay on the front lines to meet the dynamically changing customer demands. This can be very challenging when running an in-house design department as you have to train and expose your staff on a regular basis. Outsourcing enables you to find the latest techniques and trends while enjoying professional quality results at reduced costs. If you fail to train and expose your staff, the overall quality of service will be compromised.

Not faster, nor cheaper

It’s wrong to assume that having an in-house team allows you for faster production while saving costs. It can be true in some cases: if you’re willing to budget a lot for hiring but that is usually just out of scope for businesses that have limited resources. In almost all other cases, it’s more expensive and slower to rely on in-house teams if you’re looking for delivering a top-quality experience.

In-house vs Agency costs

UX designers and senior UX strategists can usually ask for premium salaries and it is usually far more convenient to have access to the same expertise through an agency instead of investing time and money into building an in-house team and keeping them up to date with their knowledge and the technologies, which is quite a big cost to any company.

A strong in-house team is not a team of one

Time to time you can meet founders who are looking for a UX unicorn or any other imaginative term. Everyone can wish for someone like that but this thought is just not realistic. Fact: no one can do it all alone. Nobody can cover skills like brand strategy, video animation, SEO and web development just to name a few besides being a designer and a project manager at the same time. Bear in mind, there is no such thing as a team of one. There could be people at times who are really outstanding and know a lot expansively about the listed positions but that is not an individual expert in multiple fields on his own. On the other hand, having multiple in-house experts in different fields will cost an arm and leg for the organization, so you need to be absolutely careful when deciding on such a big investment

Lacking fresh eyes

Generally, in-house teams are dedicated to working on a single product or project within a brand. For many creatives, this limited work variation opportunity represents a real challenge that may lead to creative stagnation and lack of creativity which is the warm bed of being unsuccessful in design.

Growth and knowledge limited by the company boundaries

Designing is a dynamic field that requires highly competent and creative minds. As employees settle into the culture and get comfortable with the stability that comes with the full-time commitment, their tendency shifts from constantly challenging assumptions and being innovative to conserving the legacy and taking fewer risks. This negative impact is multiplied exponentially if the company doesn’t know how to provide the right framework or support the team the right way to flourish and reach its full potential.

Learning Cap

After a good period of designing the same type of things for the same company, designers are destined to get a little bored. They will get a special project every so often and learn something new but there’s only so much you can learn before it all becomes monotonous.

In a company that does not diversify often, and that has settled to a streamlined, greatly simplified way of working on similar projects, the design team will most likely suffer the consequences. They will quickly lose motivation and they will ultimately reach their learning cap within the company – remaining stagnant and growing to be indifferent towards their projects.

Teams might get too comfortable 

Unless it is a company with a design thinking culture, the lack of variety in work can truly undermine motivation of some members of the designer team. No one wants to sit for hours and do the same work every day or to be on the same project for years. In the end, it gets exhausting and unchallenging. One of the ways to overcome this drawback is to adopt a continuous proactive attitude and search for the ways to improve products, processes and procedures they can be part of. Also, keeping real design talents is a challenge of its own because designers thrive on variety and tend to get bored when they spend most of their time and resources within one specialised field.

Risk of long bench time

As an in-house designer, the projects that one can work on depends on the lifecycle of the product and at what stage it is currently in. At a creative agency, new projects come and go, therefore they constantly produce revenue, where in-house there’s a possibility of longer benchtime where the employee can cost you just as much when not working on your product, thus it can be more pricey in the long run.

You still have to pay employees even while they are ‘sitting on the bench’ while they are not contributing to the firms’ revenue generation and profitability, there are overhead costs associated with keeping a bench. This can be expected to significantly reduce the company’s cash flow without a corresponding return and place significant financial risk on the company. Make sure your company size and budget are big enough to account for this factor when it happens.

Benefits of a Creative Agency

A set of new eyes

Whether you have an internal or creative team, hiring an agency will offer a fresh pair of eyes to your current problems. It is always hard for the company’s internal team to be objective as they are exposed to the company’s branding every day. They bring in a stance of innovation that the internal creative may disregard. 

Tap into pools of new knowledge and expertise

Agencies work on a great variety of projects that give confidence to them to solve any dilemma on a new project along the way. In comparison to one-product companies, agencies solve a variety of UX design challenges in various industries and they possess a professional experience that’s needed and that the whole team can benefit from and learn.

Most tasks require a strategic approach, a bigger picture and an outside perspective. The hired agency will survey and analyse the competitive landscape from an unbiased standpoint. This will bring your project to life in a dynamic fashion.

Fast, flawless delivery 

You can see many companies fail or lose their way into a blackhole merely because they didn’t have the right know-how or because they weren’t fast enough – both reflect upon the fact that they didn’t work with the right people. 

When you work with competent people highly specialized in the type of challenge you’re facing, then you put yourself in a situation where you can turn a challenge into an opportunity for growth. Design is an everyday task at an agency: while working with an agency, you can be confident that their knowledge is up-to-date as there are multiple brains working simultaneously to achieve the best results in the shortest time possible, being the recipe for a flawless delivery.

End-to-end 

Direct communication with clients is a great way to expand a professional network, build connections and develop relationships that eventually may lead to long-term engagement and multiple projects. As agencies tend to be end to end, they are hands-on with your projects from ideation to development, production and analysis. They can grow with the company to boost efficiency, optimize your way of work, and improve the return on investment.

No internal biases 

Nowadays it is not surprising that someone with a senior role in an organization overwrites the opinion of others and doesn’t allow the creative team to play and try new ideas without fear. Its outcome certainly won’t pay off: it results in an extended timeframe of meetings and sprints because someone’s voice is uneven in the team. Bringing in a creative agency allows breaking away from this issue. A completely unbiased opinion can create room for strategic opportunities at times that shouldn’t be overlooked if you want to succeed.

No need to manage them

Agencies can often complete projects quickly as they provide access to all the necessary skills from senior creative professionals that are experts in their areas, even if you only need those skills for a few hours a week or a month. Plus, their work will be more coordinated than if you were to just contract the work to freelancers. As well as the agency doing much of the project management and communication for you, which in fact, can be a condition of success at times, taking even more responsibility and tasks from the in-house team’ shoulders.

Drawbacks of a Creative Agency

Not necessarily experts of your industry 

This is one of the areas where a UX agency can provide huge value fast but only 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 their skill set, personality, and fit. They can just hire to fill a seat and have another set of hands to help but the lack of expertise in your specific industry won’t give you the hoped solution while it can cost you serious dollars.

May have their focus spread across multiple projects

With an internal creative team, you know that your team’s time is devoted to working on projects for your organization exclusively all the time. With an external agency, team members may be working with multiple clients at once which can divide their attention to details and might not be able to dive wholeheartedly into your project as their ultimate duty. This can be risky as the overall success of the project can arise or fail on this at times.

Alignment of interests / goals 

The depth of understanding that an internal team may have about your company, its products, services, history, and future strategy can not really be comparable to someone who just met your company and has mere assumptions about its structure and your way of work in general. Because your creative team will be immersed in the company all day, every day, they will likely know it better than any outside agency could. An agency needs some time to ”feel out” how things are going inside your company, which means a bit longer onboarding for them to get the real taste of your business and product. Understanding the corporate mindset and working around it is essential for success within the corporate environment.

Best of Both Worlds

Like many things in life, the best answer isn’t always one or the other, but rather, a happy golden mean. Design teams are an excellent example of that: 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 greatly.

In-house vs Agency vs Hybrid

Advice: Tap into knowledge when you can 

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. Hiring one or two in-house marketers and an agency that supports them can be a good middle ground if you haven’t decided yet on a final strategy.

Those fresh eyes on your product and the internal politics might be unwished but it usually turns out, it is often a whole lot needed as you, your product and the whole in-house team can tap into some fresh steam of knowledge. As a result, you will still have the possibility to focus on your team and you will still be able to book more agency services at each point in the future if needed.

Combined expertise/skills

If you’re growing, don’t spend time hiring creatives just yet. This is especially true if you haven’t had time to work on the organization culture yet. Start hiring when you’re done stabilizing your growth pattern. After you reach stability, then try a blended approach: have a potent in-house team and merge it with a competent creative agency. 

Faster development 

None says that you can’t hire an agency in the short term while building 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 and stability of an internal team. Ideally, there’s knowledge transfer that happens between your agency and in-house team naturally, plus you’re giving them a running start, instead of having to build out the strategy and research from scratch. This strategy can speed up your overall workflow and the pace of the whole process so ideally in the long run you’ll find yourself with the developed product a whole lot sooner.

Takeaway

If you closely consider those words, the wisdom of the combined approach becomes obvious. Great design, in UX or elsewhere, takes persistence as well as innovation. An internal department defines the organization’s creative culture, supports the long-term commitment, and learns the details of getting design implemented. An external team brings a fresh perspective, a broader range of expertise, and the credibility of the outside expert. When the two join together, allies and complements, magic happens.

Oszkar N.

Oszkar N.

Committed UX designer with an IT Business background. When leaving the cyber-world, I dedicate all my resources to my mountain bike and building my backyard as an MTB course.

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