The UX Genie Is In-House (and out of the Bottle)

Posted by Taylor Haney on Mon, Sep 30, 2013

Here is another insightful user experience and design post by Mark Badger, UX Director at Roundarch Isobar! Mark provides some tips about transitioning UX professionals in house and their importance in overall strategy. If you are interested in guest blogging e-mail taylor [at] mitx [dot] org.

mark badgerMark, a UX Director at Roundarch Isobar, has spent nearly 20 years honing his skills in conceptual design, digital strategy, and experience design. From his first website in 1996 to work with global corporations, Mark has delivered elegant and intuitive digital experiences for clients in retail, financial service, lifesciences, technology, and government. Studying traditional architecture as an undergrad has led him to design structures and environments built from code rather than concrete for brands such as Fidelity, The Hartford, Hilton Worldwide, Motorola, and Comedy Central. To read more posts by other marketing and design leaders at Roundarch Isobar, please visit their blog.

Some of my clients are now my peers, but it wasn’t always that way. Not that long ago, companies looked outside their own walls for UX expertise. As more people have recognized that good design can provide competitive differentiation, we’ve seen a rise in user experience practitioners being brought in-house. Overall, the inclusion of UX alongside product, marketing, and IT is a welcome development, but this shift is not without complications, both for clients and for those who provide UX design services to them.

When I first started designing transactional web sites over fifteen years ago, most of our clients outsourced their work through IT, with marketing providing input but not driving the process (in regards to companies whose products and services have not been traditionally Web-based). Looking back, this makes sense: at the time, businesses did not fully appreciate the potential of the web and of digital experiences to influence, let alone define, the relationship between them and their customers. At that time, the web was about technology first and marketing second, with product and brand strategy ringing in at a distant third (if considered at all).

As the profile and influence of our client projects moved increasingly to the forefront over the past five to ten years, marketing took over as our primary stakeholder. We found ourselves answering directly to CMOs, even for those projects requiring complex, technical implementations. While the UX work was now viewed as relevant to product and brand strategy, consulting firms and agencies tended to own the process. For a several years this was the norm; we enjoyed long-term collaborative relationships with our clients, helping them expand and deepen their customer relationships with mission-critical products and services.

And therein lay the challenge.roundarch blog

Once a digital product or service is perceived to be critical to a company's customer engagement strategy, those that have the wherewithal to bring product design (and sometimes development) in-house will do so. For that to work, you need UX talent, including related and sub-disciplines such as information architecture, content strategy, interaction design, and usability & accessibility. The same types of folks I work with at our agency are now often our key stakeholders, collaborating with us on the strategy, the process, and even the deliverables.

While it ultimately benefits some of our clients to own the product design process more fully, pulling UX in-house can complicate the relationship between UX vendors and their clients. Here are some key considerations to keep in mind, whether you are in-house or consulting, when collaborating to build usable and engaging customer experiences:

  • A traditional challenge with in-house design has been getting proper respect, with outside vendors seen as expert consultants more highly trusted than in-house staff. Does that apply to UX now as well, and how might vendors help mitigate that issue?

  • When looking to bring UX in-house, which part of "UX" should you emphasize? Usability? Interaction design? IA? Which challenges do you hope UX can help you overcome?

  • Once you have in-house UX practitioners, what's the right engagement model for vendors? Staff augmentation with in-house oversight? S.W.A.T teams for specific projects requiring deeper expertise?

  • For UX focused agencies and firms, how do we continue to demonstrate and provide value? Do we specialize? Do we move up the stack, offering UX strategy and service design routinely?

  • When disputes over aspects of the product strategy or the design process arise, whose opinion carries the most weight? What about for shared design deliverables, like design specifications?

Complications aside, letting the UX genie out of the bottle will ultimately be a good thing for both businesses and their customers. Simply bringing user experience designers in-house does not ensure that a company will generate alluring products and engaging services, but it is certainly more likely. With an advocate for user experience as a partner, UX agencies and firms can focus more on guiding strategy and leading design, and less time trying to explain the value of what we do.

So while all involved can benefit from the move to bring user experience design in-house, it’s worth noting that simply hiring a UX practitioner or two is no panacea. Companies seeking to leverage UX to enhance customer engagement must first embrace the underlying principles of customer and user empathy. Even a small UX discipline can flourish in that context and go on to deliver more meaningful and rewarding customer experiences.

Register Now for FutureM 2013

Join us at FutureM to further explore integrating user experience teams into overall strategies.