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What's It Like Working as a UX Designer at an Agency vs In-House?


Earlier this summer, American Marketing Association Portland (AMA PDX) hosted Moda Health's UX Strategy and Design Director, Ed Stojakovic, to give a summary talk covering the differences between working as a UX Designer at an agency vs an in-house corporate setting. Even though the term UX is tossed around a lot, and there are training programs that churn out UX designers, and there are even awards for UX (we've won some ourselves) ‚ User Experience is a craft in its infancy that's still maturing as a discipline. I work alongside our UX designers on the strategy team at GRAYBOX, and attended this event hoping to gain insight on how other companies were incorporating UX professionals into their larger teams.

It's a wild west out there in terms of how UX professionals are integrated into the work environment. Ed has noticed a trend towards companies building out larger internal UX teams (for example Adaptive Path, a UX company, was bought by Capital One and Hot Studio was bought by Facebook). Also, Amazon is building up a huge UX team and reducing the need for hiring an agency altogether ‚ another in-house tactic as opposed to acquisition. Boutique UX firms are popping up as well, to meet industry specific needs, like healthcare.

A newer term you may be hearing is CX ‚ "Customer Experience". Ed shared that studies show companies focusing on the full customer experience, not just on UX, tend to be more profitable. Customer Experience attempts to get at this full experience by covering all channel interactions, including all brand touch points from first discovery of a brand, to making a purchase, to lodging a complaint and receiving support. CX follows the customer's total experience, moving fluidly between the digital and physical environment.

So what are the key takeaways from Ed's talk on the differences between how UX fits into the agency vs. the corporate team?

  1. People & Processes
    UX thrives when processes are flexible, not rigid. Agency employees tend to be a person with a T-shaped skill set ‚ they know something really well (vertical part of T) but they know a little about a lot of things too (the horizontal stripe of the T). Agencies are more adaptive and responsive to situations and bring the right people in for the project, allowing them to provide better service. There's a trend for continual education in agencies - they support it and fund it ‚ which leads to employees that are better equipped to do their job and who keep their skills current. To back up this assertion, Ed pointed out that on average you'll see a lot more agency folks at industry educational events. He says agencies are more likely than corporate entities to have cutting edge tools, and the right tools specifically for designers ‚ for example you may notice that at corporations everyone gets a PC regardless of role, when designers should really have Apple computers. In-house UX can be more satisfying for those who like to see a project through to the end. In agency life you don't get to own something. You come in as a touch and go consultant a lot of the time, and especially as a freelancer you're often even less involved as it gets built. In the corporate world you can work with the project until it is released, and often continue to improve it even after launch.
  2. Context & Perspective
    Agencies give UX professionals the freedom to go out and get in the field, to observe things from the user's standpoint. This context strengthens the recommendations that UX designers make. On the corporate side, management tends to be certain they already know their users and unwilling to invest in research. This unfortunately prevents in-house teams from seeing their users in a new and creative light.The agency side is more interested in getting to know the user, asking probing questions, and going out to observe users in natural use cases. The agency approach of looking at users with fresh eyes and new, currently relevant questioning often leads to a better experience for the user. Agencies also benefit from cross-industry experience ‚ this perspective means they can see what UX looks like in a range of fields and apply past insights and ideas to the current situation. Corporate teams lack this cross-industry perspective which makes adoption of new approaches less easy to come by. In corporate you can get steeped in your own company's viewpoint, industry jargon, and can grow to be a poor judge of when things are confusing or too technical to the average customer. One way in which the agency perspective seems to be lacking however, is that agencies rarely understand that the customer who makes the purchase, and the user who navigates the digital environment on a regular basis are frequently very different people.
  3. Efficient and Effective
    Agencies are often hired because they can do something quickly and more efficiently than an in-house team can. He cites the African proverb, "To go somewhere fast ‚ go alone; to go far ‚ go as a group." In this case the "alone" is the agency ‚ a swift, specialized group that gets brought in to do UX. Agencies are held more accountable than in-house teams for UX success because the client gets a bill ‚ this puts pressure on the agency UX team to be more efficient and effective. Agencies are also relied upon to produce repeatable results ‚ they've done this before and they should know how to do it consistently. One of the perils of in-house UX is often the UX team will ask for research ‚ "I need to get to know the user deeply! I need more time to do research." Corporate execs often don't want delays or to pay for learning, so agencies get hired to quickly do something ‚ less research time is needed by agencies because either they've done this type of thing before, they hire a market research team, or they unleash a team of their people to quickly do research on their own. Other in-house challenges include red tape, approval by committee, and requesting more budget ‚ these are all a time consuming and painful necessity in corporate environments. Agencies are used to defending costs, giving business cases, and measuring and reporting KPI's ‚ all things that execs love.In terms of workflow and having steady work, the experiences of an agency vs. in-house team can be pretty different. UX needs are often front-loaded in a project. This makes it challenging for an agency who uses a waterfall approach to projects; how do you resource the UX team after that phase of the project is done? Ed sees a big need for freelancers in the agency world ‚ they enable agencies to flex up and down as needed. Whereas at an in-house corporate company, management might be more willing to iterate and continuously improve since the UX person doing the work is on staff as a salaried employee ‚ they've invested in hiring this employee and they need to keep the person busy.

It was interesting to hear about the constraints and benefits of how UX professionals fit into a larger team in in-house vs agency environments. I have very limited experience working in-house on the corporate side, but at GRAYBOX I interact with these people all the time. It was helpful to hear about what work life is like for these folks. Understanding the other person's viewpoint always gets you closer to a better connection with them, and improves communication. At GRAYBOX we're interested in not only strengthening our team, but spreading the love so our client partners and industry neighbors can assess their teams and improve as well. I hope that sharing my takeaways from this talk is helpful for others too!

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